Rise Up!

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As we gather this morning to worship, we are looking backwards towards these strange individuals who saw a star in a sky and who let it take them to a manger in Bethlehem.
They heard God speaking through that heavenly vision… maybe not in so many words, but in a language and a message that they could understand.
They were stargazers, astronomers, people who identified with the light.
And when God spoke to them, they arose.

“Arise, shine, the light has come” we hear in Isaiah, chapter 60.
Arise! Shine!

These are not words spoken only in far off lands to far off people.
No, God is still speaking.
The message of old is still being heard throughout this world.
Even in the midst of times that seem dark and troubling, painful and chaotic… there is a still small voice that is whispering:
“Arise… shine…”
In his reflection on these texts, Rev. Dr. B. Kevin Smalls notes (https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/worship/season-after-epiphany-2018-worship-planning-series/january-7-2018-god-is-speaking/epiphany-baptism-of-the-lord-2018-preaching-notes) that sometimes the darkness in our lives is so thick that we don’t trust the things that resemble the light:
“Might be a trick… and tricks don’t always
Lead to a treat, so I retreat in the darkness,
Hoping, slightly, ever so lightly that
My deepest fears will submit to the changing
Of dark gears leading to light years of praise
And adoration.”

We like to believe that we are the people of the light, like the Magi, but there certainly are times that we refuse the light.
We hesitate to take a risk, a step of faith.
We are comfortable in the darkness, in what we know, in what is familiar.
As Smalls writes,
“Darkness is for lying down, laying down, hanging around, pretending to be asleep.”
And wow, it feels good to pretend to be asleep. Or to actually be asleep.
To close our eyes and ignore what is happening outside of our lives, our homes, our neighborhoods, our country.
And so we get complacent in the midst of a changing climate and culture.
Statistics that should make us quake with their injustice barely faze us.
• Black women in the United States are 243% more likely to experience maternal death than white women. (https://www.thecut.com/2017/12/black-women-are-3-times-more-likely-to-die-from-childbirth.html)
• Every day, 46 children and teens are shot in murders, assaults, suicides & suicide attempts, unintentional shootings, and police intervention (https://www.bradycampaign.org/key-gun-violence-statistics)
• 1 in 5 adults in the United States or 43.8 million people experience mental illness in a given year (https://www.nami.org/Learn-More/Mental-Health-By-the-Numbers)

But usually, we are too nice and kind to want to have real conversations about racism or gun violence or mental health.
We hesitate to talk about these things in church or to ask how God might be speaking, calling, pushing, begging us (the people of God) to respond.
Maybe we are like the people of whom Isaiah was speaking…
You see if we turn just one chapter ahead in that prophetic text, these people felt like:
“justice is far from us and righteousness does not reach us; we wait for light, and lo! There is darkness… we stumble at noon as in the twilight, among the vigorous as though we were dead.”
They were sitting back, retreating into the darkness, waiting for someone else to do something about it.
“Hoping, slightly, ever so lightly that
My deepest fears will submit to the changing
Of dark gears leading to light years of praise
And adoration.”

But then Isaiah comes along with the reminder that we can’t just sit back and wait for our fears to go away.
“Arise, shine, the light has come”
Maybe those old words aren’t quite seeping deep enough under our skin to be heard and felt.
Let me try it again from the Message translation:
“Get out of bed, Jerusalem! Wake Up! Put your face in the sunlight. God’s bright glory has risen for you!”
God’s glory has risen for you… So what on earth are YOU going to do about it?

The Magi in our scripture rose up… they got out of bed and they followed where God was leading them.
Over field and fountain, moor and mountain, that star in the sky was their guiding light until it took them to the place where the child was.
And when they arrived, they could barely contain themselves.
They felt an overwhelming kind of joy, the Gospel of Matthew tells us, that was born out of the sense that they were in the right place at the right time.
So they fell on their knees and worshiped that little child.

You and I… we are called to get out of bed, to shake off the sleep, to open our eyes and put our faces into the light and to hear where God is calling us to go.
As we start a new year, of ministry together, I have such a fire and energy in my heart.
I can see all sorts of amazing things that God has in store for us if we would simply put our face in the sunlight and head out into this world.
This church is so generous, so powerful, so filled with talent and compassion and love.
And as we have risen up and followed God’s leading – I know that many of you have experienced that immense joy that comes from being in the right place at the right time… from finding that place where your gifts have met some great need in this world.
We experienced that kind of joy in our gigantic Joppa garage sale.
We experience it as we laugh and serve together at CFUM.
We experience it when we dress up in ridiculous costumes to help our young people understand something in confirmation.
Or when our children teach us the nativity story on Christmas Eve.
And in all of these places, we are also discovering the joy of realizing that we are not alone!
There are all sorts of other people on this journey with us. People who have the same kinds of yearning and hopes and fears… and who are ready, with us, to rise up and to truly make a difference in this world for the sake of Jesus Christ!
They are sitting right here in the pews with you.
But they are also outside of these walls – our neighbors here in the community – who might have the same kinds of passion and see the same needs, but might not use the same faith words to describe it.

Maybe they are the Magi – the strangers, the Gentiles, the ones who we didn’t know, but who have been on this journey as well, to bring light and hope into the world.

God is speaking and leading all around us…. Giving us opportunities to bring hope and joy and light and love to all we meet. Together, let us rise up to seek them.

Follow the Star

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Today, we come to the end of our journey through Narnia and the Christmas season with the celebration of Epiphany. 

The word Epiphany means “an appearance or manifestation” and on the twelfth day after Christmas, it is a celebration of the manifestation of God’s love in human form… and of all of those people to whom the good news was first revealed:   the shepherds at Christmas, Anna and Simeon in the temple, and the wise men who followed the star and journeyed from afar to worship the Christ Child.

As Matthew tells the story, these magi followed a star in the sky – a light in the midst of the darkness – in order to find this Messiah.  And that glimmer of light and hope reminded Matthew of another time of darkness and the promise of God that Isaiah shared with the Israelites. 

Arise! Shine! For your light has come… though darkness covers the earth and gloom the nations, the Lord will shine upon you… Nations will come to your light and kings to your dawning radiance. (60:1-3)

In Matthew’s eyes, it wasn’t a star in the sky at all, but the light of Christ himself, revealed to the entire world, that pulled those magi over mountains and deserts and seas to the countryside surrounding Jerusalem. He may have been a tiny infant in his mother’s arms, but in the words of John’s gospel – the light shone in the darkness and the darkness could not overcome it.

 

To appreciate why this was good news, we can’t pass too quickly over the darkness in these stories. We like to focus on the beautiful image of wise and powerful men bowed down before a humble and poor baby. But in our scripture today, forces of death and violence, power and pride and lurking around every corner. 

You see, in between the appearance of the star in the sky and their encounter with the Jesus, the magi found themselves on the doorsteps of power. 

King Herod was an appointed ruler who had been chosen from among his fellow Jews because he was willing to betray them and serve the Romans.  His had been named a leader by the Roman Mark Antony to support the governor of Galilee, but through political maneuvering and not a little bit of money, scheming and treachery, he had climbed as high as he could – and now happily sat in Jerusalem as the “king of the mountain.”

Relationships for him were always about what the connection could get for him.  He banished his first wife and child in order to marry the granddaughter of an elite in Rome.  And he grew to be jealous of his second wife Mariamne, eventually executing her for adultery; he eventually married five different times. He killed his brother-in-law on charges of conspiracy, and then later his sons by Mariamne because he no longer trusted them.

In the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the White Witch reminds me of that cold, insecure figure Herod.

As Heidi Haverkamp reminds in the devotional for this season, the Witch’s castle was cold and full of statues of people the witch had turned to stone.  The only living creature besides the White Witch who resided there was her Wolf Captain Maugrim.  She couldn’t trust anyone and so her castle was empty and lonely. 

And she, too, feared a threat to her power and hold over the land. 

There had been prophecies in Narnia, after all about the Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve and how one day they would sit on the throne of Cair Paravel.  When she came upon Edmund, all alone in the woods one day, she very nearly turned him into stone on the spot… until she realized she could use him for more information and to tempt the rest of his siblings to her castle and kill them all at once. 

She arrested and tried the faun, Mr.  for “fraternizing with Humans,” just as she did any who sought to oppose her reign. 

The White Witch responded to the news of these children who would be Kings and Queens in the same way that Herod did… with intrigue, lies, and a heart bent on destruction. 

 

What is the danger of a baby?  Or of four little children to a powerful king or queen? 

The danger is in what they represent and the threat to the future. 

And the danger is that there are people in this world who are willing to resist their oppression and power… people who are willing to follow a star and choose another way. 

The magi from the East arrive in Jerusalem… and instead of bowing down before King Herod, they want to worship, to bow down, to pay homage to someone else.   

And this season invites us to honor God and not the powers of this world.  To honor love and not fear.  Mercy not judgment.  This season invites us to let go of our power and offer of ourselves, rather than taking what we think belongs to us.

 

Isaiah’s prophecy calls out:  Arise!  Shine! Lift up your Eyes! 

That is a whole lot of exclamation points. 

And Isaiah isn’t just inviting the people living in exile to hear the words… he is commanding them to live differently.  

As Rev. Marci Glass writes:

“Isaiah’s audience knew all about the darkness of the world.  They knew the despair of exile.  They knew what it was like to look around and say, ‘ the problems are so big. What can one person do?’

The Christmas season is a time of joy and hope and peace, and I truly pray that each and every one of you were able to glimpse that spirit of Christmas in these last few weeks. 

But just as the Christmas decorations begin to be put away, the cold harsh reality of the world hits us. We find ourselves right back where we were before this season of consumer frenzy, perhaps with emptier pockets and fuller bellies, but back in reality nonetheless.

And maybe we start to ask that question:  what can one person do?

In the wake of yet another mass shooting in our country this week in Fort Lauterdale, what can we do to stop it?

In the face of loved ones battling illness and injury, how can we make the pain go away?

Perhaps we are left wondering what all of it was really for.  Are we just rehearsing the Spirit of Christmas, much like we get out the decorations and put them away again when the time has passed? Is our hope in the pomp and circumstance? the beautifully wrapped presents?  the music? or is our hope in something else?  Something that will sustain us long after the wreaths have come off the door?

 

Arise!  Shine!  Lift Up Your Eyes!

 

The magi in the East recognized that this star was leading them on a journey into the unknown.  And they willingly chose to follow that star.

This epiphany, I want to invite you to follow the star. 

I want to invite you to seek out light in the midst of darkness, hope in the midst of despair.

And I want to invite you to share the light of that star with others.

And just like the magi, I want to invite you to not only be willing to offer your gifts with God… but I want to invite you to be open to what God might be giving to you in this journey. 

 

As we come forward in just a few minutes for our time of response and offering, I want to invite you to come to this basket and select a star.  Don’t over think it… just reach in and take one.

Every star has a word on it.  And I want to invite you to think about how that word, that star, might speak to your life this year.

Stick the star to your refrigerator or bathroom mirror.  Put it in your devotional for when you do daily prayers.  Place that star somewhere you might see it each and every day so that you can remember, whenever you lift up your eyes, that God is guiding you.

I want to invite you to remember that what you do with the light that has shined in your life does matter.

The creatures of Narnia embraced the small role they could play and they stood up to the power of the White Witch and she was defeated.

Even Edmund, who had turned his back on those he loved, found that one simple action could dramatically alter the course of events.  

The magi from the east refused to bow to the demands of Herod and chose another way home.

God is calling you to Arise! Shine!  And Lift up your eyes to see can do through you. 

Ever-patient God, Help us be people of the light, shining your light of righteousness, peace, and joy into all the dark places of our lives and world.

Turn our aimless wanderings into a journey of purpose guided by your star.
Let the light break into our lives and our world, and transform us into people of the light.

Arise!

Shine!
Follow the star!

Winter is Over!

Before our Christmas traditions took hold, there were other festivals in the northern hemisphere among folks who were tucked in for winter.  The crops had been harvested and stored, the work was done, and they celebrated…  But in one of the pieces I read this advent from a writer named Gayle Boss,  I was a reminded about a truth in those celebrations: “No matter how glad the party, they couldn’t keep from glancing at the sky… Each day throughout the fall they watched the light dwindle, felt the warmth weaken.  It made them anxious, edgy… When they had eaten up the crop they were fasting on, how would another crop grow?  Throughout December, as the sun sank and sank to its lowest point on their horizon, they felt the shadow of primal fear – fear for survival – crouching over them.”

I don’t know if there are any Game of Thrones fans here this morning, but one of the mottos of one of these houses is “Winter is Coming.” 

It is a reminder that dark and difficult times are ahead.  It is an echo of that primal fear of a long winter.  It is the sentiment that says nothing good happens after midnight.

It is the dread that overcame the people of Narnia as the White Witch took over power.  Her cold power overwhelmed the land and even her touch would turn people to ice and stone. 

The land of Narnia came to be known as the place where it was always winter, but never Christmas. 

And in that place, hope can be hard to find.  Anxiety grows.  Fears are plenty. 

 

The people of Narnia thought that winter might last forever.  Many thought they would never see Christmas. 

And yet some clung to the promises, the hopes, the prophecies to sustain them through the long, dark, cold nights. 

Folks like Mr. and Mrs. Beaver waited, they longed, they believed that Aslan would return to Narnia and that four children would sit on the throne and bring a reign of peace.

 

What I love about the “Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” is that there are glimpses of the end of the witches power… the end of winter… long before Aslan ever appears in the story.

 The hospitality of even enemies like Mr. Tumnus.

The snow begins to thaw. 

Flowers start to bloom.

Father Christmas shows up to equip the children with the tools they will need in the upcoming battle.  

Aslan is near and winter is already disappearing.

 

A few days ago, the season of winter technically began in our part of the world.  The winter solstice marks the turning of the seasons and on that longest night, that darkest day, winter began.

And you know,  it was in the dark… At about midnight last night… or this morning… whichever you want to call it, that our Christmas Eve service wrapped up. 

And in the darkness, in the quiet stillness, in the bleak midwinter, something amazing happened. 

We welcomed Jesus into our lives. 

We proclaimed Hallelujah and celebrated the good news of Jesus birth. 

In that hour and season that represents the height of our fears, where nothing good is supposed to happen.  

 

My colleague Melissa Meyers wrote last night about that phrase, but then she went on to list all sorts of blessings of midnight: 

“Midnight is pregnant with possibilities… just waiting to be birthed…

Midnight gives you a chance to start over …

Midnight gives you an opportunity to forgive that person who has wronged you…

Midnight gives you the opportunity to ask for forgiveness…

Midnight gives you the possibility of something new…

Midnight is not the darkness, but a reminder that the dark doesn’t last forever”

 

Midnight is not the darkness, but a reminder that the dark doesn’t last forever. 

 

And it’s not only midnight… it is right now, in this cold, dark, time when everything else is stripped away and seems lost and full of fear that we actual glimpse the most profound sign of hope .

That longest night of the year… this season of cold and reflection and barren earth… it is not the darkness either, but a reminder that the dark will not last forever.

It is in that amazing moment when all seems the darkest, the coldest, the loneliest, that God creeps into our lives, our world, our hearts. 

The beginning of the winter season is actually the moment when the light begins to return to the sky.

It is the moment the days grow longer.

 

Gayle Boss reflects upon this, she notes that “to their and our abiding fear of a dark ending, the Church spoke of an advents: a coming.  Faith proclaimed, When life as we know it goes, this year and at the end of all years, One comes, and comes bringing a new beginning.”

Every midnight is a new beginning.

Every year end is a new beginning.

Every time winter begins with the solstice and the longest night, the reality is that the days are already growing longer. 

Winter is not coming. 

Winter is already over.

The power of cold and death and barrenness cannot remain. 

The White Witch is defeated before the battle has even begun in the land of Narnia.

 

Heidi Haverkamp writes in the reflections we have been reading this Advent and Christmas season that the power of the White Witch was “foiled by the faith and perseverance of a group of otherwise small and humble creatures who have been surviving under her tyranny… Their watching and waiting have prepared the way for Aslan’s coming.”

 

Today, we proclaim that God has come near. 

We celebrate that the Christ Child has entered our human lives to wipe away the despair and fear, the hatred and sin. 

But like those people of Narnia… although we know that winter is already over… although we know that in God’s time the powers of this world have already been defeated… still the final battle has yet to be fought.

We wait… still.

We hope… still.

We long… still.

Waiting for the final victory of Jesus.  Waiting for the second coming of our Lord. 

And living every single day as if the powers of this world cannot hold our hearts. 

 

As Melissa Meyers wrote in the wee hours of the night:

“Midnight is not the end of the story, but only the beginning…

Midnight invites you into the story of resistance, subversion, radical inclusion, and peace…

Midnight brings us a thrill of hope as the weary world rejoices…

Midnight births a King of Kings that changes the world in ways that we continue to discover…

Midnight brings to us the King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Prince of Peace, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Emmanuel… “

 

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

 

Livin’ on the Edge

This morning, we are hanging out in liminal space…

That’s a funny word isn’t it… liminal….

Say it with me… liminal.

 

It comes from Latin and means “threshold.”  It is the space in between.  It is transitional.

Our country is in that liminal space between an election and the swearing in of a new president.

The United Methodist Church is in a liminal space – knowing that we can’t be what we were and aren’t yet sure what we might become.

Many of us are in personal liminal spaces… a time of discomfort, of waiting, of transformation.  We are experiencing transitions in relationship statuses, or maturing from childhood to adulthood.  We are waiting for test results that might forever change our world or experiencing losses that already have.

The theologian Richard Rohr describes liminality this way:

It is when you have left the tried and true, but have not yet been able to replace it with anything else.  It is when you are between your old comfort zone and any possible new answer.

Or, if you’d prefer the theologians Aerosmith:

There’s something wrong with the world today

I don’t know what it is Something’s wrong with our eyes

We’re seeing things in a different way

And god knows it ain’t his

It sure ain’t no surprise

Livin’ on the edge

Every single one of us is dealing with something in our personal lives that looms large on the edges.  Job insecurity.  Financial woes.  Racism.  Personal loss.  Illness.  Depression.  Sexism. Addiction.  Work or School stress.  Bullying.

Whatever it might be for you… It’s there on the edges.

We don’t talk about it… but it’s there.

 

And it was there for Edmund, Peter, Lucy, and Susan in the Chronicles of Narnia.

As we enter this Advent and then Christmas season and beyond, we are going to be following these four children in this magical land and hear what  the author C.S. Lewis has to teach us about what it means to be people of faith in tough times.

And the story starts with this magical threshold… this doorway between two worlds that the littlest girl Lucy discovers.

 

We focus on the magic of that doorway… but what we sometimes overlook is the difficulty that brought all of the characters to this place in this time.

These children are in a liminal space.

The story is set during the middle of the London Blitz of World War II.  Their home in the city was no longer safe.  Like children in Aleppo, in Syria, today, every day they lived in terror that a bomb would drop on top of their home or school or the hospitals.

Yet these children were able to make it out of the city.  They were sent away to the countryside, sent away from their parents, into a big lonely house.

Everything they knew was in turmoil… and they didn’t yet know what might happen on the other side of the war.

 

This summer, as we preached through the prophets, we heard the passage we shared this morning from Isaiah.  About the people who lived in the land of deep darkness.

Those who lived in the lands of Zebulun and Naphtali knew what it meant to live through wars and conflict.  Their tribal home had been ravaged for so long that they didn’t know what hope was anymore.

There’s something wrong with the world today

The lightbulb’s gettin’ dimmed

There’s meltdown in the sky

If you can judge a wise man

By the color of his skin

Then mister, you’re a better man than I

Livin’ on the edge

Right there… on the edge… where hope had ceased and the shadows seemed longer and longer, light was promised.

Those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined.

 

And so in the midst of this liminal season of her life, Lucy hides in a closet and discovers a magical doorway between worlds.

She finds herself in a forest, surrounded by snow, and she sees a light shining in the distance.

It is a lamppost.

A light shining on the edge.

“It is a beacon in the face of the dark, cold spell that lies on the land,” writes the author of our devotion Advent in Narnia.

Both lands.  All lands.

London and Narnia. Syria and Israel.  The United States. The World.

The lamppost, which stands there at the boundary between Narnia and the “wild woods of the west” remains shining in the darkness.  The power of the white witch who has taken over Narnia… the darkness of despair, sin, and death which threatens to overtake our lives… it cannot put that light out.  It shines.  Always has… always will.

 

As we will hear read on Christmas Eve, the gospel of John reminds us that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness could not overcome it.

And we hear… that the people loved the darkness more than the light.

As the Message puts it… the light entered the world “and yet the world didn’t even notice.  He came to his own people and they didn’t want him.”

In the midst of our story of light, we are reminded that that we are human.

It is so often our sin that is the cause of the world’s darkness.

Hatred and greed.  Nationalism and pride.  Consumer impulses that fail to recognize the cost to others and this planet.

That is why we are reminded in the gospel of Luke that the door is narrow and few will enter it.

Mr. Tumnus is the perfect example of this reality.  He is working for the witch, even though he knows it is wrong because he is too afraid to do otherwise.

We are too struck by the darkness.

We are too consumed with ourselves.

Something right with the world today

And everybody knows it’s wrong

But we can tell ’em no

Or we could let it go

But I would rather be a hanging on

Livin’ on the edge

My colleague Dan Dick has some challenging words for people of faith right now.  He writes as Advent begins:

Do we need a Savior?  Do we need a Messiah?  Yes, oh yes, but we really don’t want one – not if he/she is going to expect us to live up to our confession of faith.  If we have to honor the promises made for us at baptism and the promises we have made ourselves since then, well…,  we will take a pass on the Messiah, thank you very much… we really can’t afford/tolerate the Son of God coming to mess things up. (https://doroteos2.com/2016/11/26/wanted-savior-some-experience-required/)

We have a chance to say goodbye to the darkness and let go of our own sin and anger, disappointment and loss, frustration and hatred and focus on the light, the hope, the love, the promises of God.

There is light and right and good in this world… if only we would open our eyes to see it, open our hearts to experience it… open our hands to live it.

There is something so right in this world today and we are too scared, fearful, consumed to believe it!

But as Jesus instructs the people in chapter 13 of Luke’s gospel – unless you change your hearts and lives… unless you repent… unless you turn away from the darkness you will never enter that narrow door.

 

Mr. Tumnus was out there in the liminal space… hanging out by the lamppost.

We don’t know what brought him to that moment, but what we do know is that in the story, he finds a child.

A child that offers him hope and light, love and forgiveness.

A child that gives him the courage to turn away from the shadows.

 

This Advent season, we have a chance to enter that narrow door.

We have a chance to enter that liminal space of transformation.

Friends, all I ask is that you open yourself to the possibility.

I ask that you step outside of your comfort zone.

I pray that you will enter and journey in Narnia with me this season.

Come live on the edge.  Come experience the light. Come and wait for the coming of our savior.

It just might change your life.

Salt and Light

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Last week, I talked briefly about the root of the word, politics… how it refers to the city or the citizen… and how at its core, politics are the relations between people who live in a society.  As Christians who live in this society, we have unique sympathies that guide our engagement in this society.

But there is another reason why Christians shouldn’t shy away from politics.
It is because our very faith is political.
We serve a leader who will never be in the White House.
We claim citizenship in a Kingdom that includes this country… but is far bigger than this world.
We pledge our allegiance… as we affirm in the vows of baptism … to Jesus Christ, our Savior and promise to serve him as our Lord.
Those are political statements.
Men and women through the ages have died for believing those things… and yet, we believe them anyways.
When we become disciples, we choose to serve the Kingdom of God.
As disciples, we serve… we follow… the risen Lord.

So, what does it mean to be a disciple in today’s world?
It doesn’t matter if they are man-made problems like Aleppo, or natural disasters like Hurricane Matthew… the chaos of our climate today is overwhelming and part of us wants to run inside the safety of our homes and ignore it. But as disciples, we are called to love and serve this world.
How can we, the church, serve the Kingdom today?

This morning, we find our answer in Matthew’s version of the Sermon on the Mount.
In “The Message” translation, Eugene Peterson, starts off these verses with these words:
“Let me tell you why you are here…”
You see, this whole sermon is full of instructions for the people of God. It reminds us of the attitudes we are supposed to carry with us into the world. And it tells us what we are supposed to do – how we are supposed to live. These words of Jesus are so important we are going to take the first part of next year, in January and February and dive in deep to this message.
Today, we focus on a few verses that describe our witness to the world.

Whenever we see the word “serve” or “service” we often think about the good works we perform or the ways we give and distribute goods. We think of projects like Ingathering and school kits, Joppa, CFUM, all of those ways we use our hands and feet to make a difference.
But “to serve” also means “to be of use” and points to a specific purpose for being and belonging.
“Let me tell you why you are here…” Jesus says.
Let me tell you how you can serve me, how you can serve my Kingdom…
“You’re here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth.”
We are the salt of the earth.

I know that some of us here can’t always have salt, because of dietary restrictions, and perhaps you know better than all the rest of us about how useful salt is!
When you sprinkle salt on watermelon or on tomatoes – the flavor of those fruits become brighter and more crisp! When salt is added to soup, it becomes rich and deep. When we sprinkle salt onto roasted vegetables, or French fries…. Mmmm…
Salt takes what is already there and it brings out the flavors. It helps us to taste what was hidden.
That is our job as disciples. We point to the hidden work of God in this world and bring it out. We are supposed to help the world see and taste and experience God – even though they can’t always see him.
And one of the ways that we can be the salt of the earth is by pointing to the good news and movement of God in the world… by lifting up stories of hope and life. Remembering those stories, pointing to those stories, telling those stories to our friends and our neighbors help us to remember that there is hope even in desperate situations. And they allows us to share the source of our hope – Jesus Christ.

On our “next step discipleship” handout for today… you’ll notice that the very first step, our exploring step… is that we simply notice, we are aware of, the salty people in the world. We start to see that God is moving through in our midst and we, too, want to join in.

And once we become aware… once our eyes are opened, then we can go out and serve.

The thing about salt is that it does no good sitting on the shelf. You have to use it! Just as salt has to make contact with food to be effective, so as people of faith, we need to be out in the world, helping folks, praying with them, listening to their stories.

And the next step you can take as a disciple is to go out there and try it out. Hear that call to serve and try seasoning something!

This church has so many different ways that you can dip your toes in to a world of service. You can prepare casseroles for Under-The-Bridge. You can go to CFUM and dish out supper one night. You can join with others and package meals. You can bring in canned food items for DMARC. Next week, you can give towards the Ingathering kits which will be sent across this world to help those in need…
But your salty life isn’t confined to the church… It also happens in your own backyard.

Every time you attend a youth sporting event or concert…
Every time you mow your neighbor’s lawn…
Every time you sit down and have coffee with someone, you can be, bringing out the God-flavor in this community.

You can let people know they are important, that they matter, and that you – and God – are there.

Jesus continues by putting this message another way – you are here in this world to be light – to help the world see God.
This faith of ours is not a secret to be kept locked up – it’s meant to be made public – it’s meant to shine out wide and far.
And friends, we all shine in different ways.
Some of us are a strand of Christmas lights twinkling in the cold darkness.
Some of us are campfires that provide warmth and light and food.
Some of us are flashlights – portable, willing to go anywhere to be of service at any time.
And as we think about the next steps in our discipleship, part of what we need to do as we serve God is figure out what kind of servant we are called to be. What are the unique gifts that God has placed in my life? What are the things I can offer to this world?
Do you have a passion for food? Or art? Are you able to teach? Or called to lead? Are you an encourager? Or do you have a knack for understanding technology?
Our Lord and Savior does not want or need people who all fit the same mold. We are each here, called into community, because it is our unique gifts, fitting together, that create a light that shines far beyond what any one of us could do.

And that light is meant not for the church… but for the world.
We can’t keep the good news hidden away. We can’t keep the transforming power of God under a basket. We have to let it shine.
As disciples, we are ambassadors for God everywhere we go. The clothes you wear, the place you choose to visit and live in, the work you do, the protests you join, the types of people you eat with in public… all of these things can tell the world something about you… AND the God who you claim to follow.

The question is… what message is your light sending to the world?

“Let me tell you why you are here…”
Every day you are a living witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ… whether you want to be or not!
So, disciples… citizens of the Kingdom of God… choose today to serve Jesus.
Choose this week to go into the world loving, praying, and serving.
Choose this week to be the salt and light that will open the eyes and the heart of someone to God for the first time.
Be that salty, light-filled person that will cause someone else to say, “wow… I want to know more about why they do that.”
May we be salt. May we be light.
Amen.

Light of the World

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The prophet Isaiah is a difficult person to pinpoint.

Unlike some of the other prophets we have covered so far, where we understood who they were and when they were speaking, there has been great debate about whether the entire “Book of Isaiah” was in fact written by one person.

Whether the book is all written by one person, who wrote before and after the Babylonian exile… or if it was written by different prophets all within the school of Isaiah, may not entirely matter.

What is important is that we can divide the book of Isaiah into distinct sections that have some distinct messages.

 

Go ahead and open that pew Bible that is in front of you… or open it in the app on your smart phone.

 

First Isaiah, or the “Isaiah of Jerusalem” was a prophet about 700 years before the birth of Christ.  He was called to be a prophet in the Southern kingdom of Judah.

The message of First Isaiah can be found in chapters 1-39… although there are a few chapters that include material by the other “Isaiahs”.

Second Isaiah’s work focuses on chapters 34 & 35 and 40-55 and take place after the destruction of Judah and Jerusalem around 540 years before the birth of Christ.  The prophecies come near the end of the time of exile and captivity and these chapters are full of words of comfort and reassurance that they will soon return home.

Third Isaiah’s work focuses on chapters 24-27 and 56-66 and take place when the exile ends.  They remind the people that returning home will not be easy or simple.

 

For today, we are going to focus on First Isaiah, chapters 1-39.  First Isaiah understood that God’s home, God’s favor, God’s delight was Jerusalem.  And as such, the kings of the Davidic line that ruled from the capital of Judah, Jerusalem, were also divinely favored.

If you remember from last week, the Northern Kingdom, Israel, had rejected the heirs of David and Solomon and had set up their own capital at Samaria and temple at Bethel.

But the Southern Kingdom, Judah, remained true to the line of David and the temple and capital at Jerusalem.

One of First Isaiah’s central beliefs was that, “while Jerusalem and its king may suffer punishment for sin, God’s chosen city will never be utterly destroyed, nor will King David’s dynasty fall.” (The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, 955)

 

And punishment abounded.

As First Isaiah was called to proclaim:

“How the faithful city has become a whore!  She that was full of justice, righteousness lodged in her – but now murderers!  Your silver has become dross, your wine is mixed with water. Your princes are rebels and companions of thieves. Everyone loves a bribe and runs after gifts.  They do not defend the orphan, and the widow’s cause doesn’t come before them. “

“Therefore says the Sovereign, the Lord of hosts, the Mighty One of Israel: Ah, I will pour out my wrath on my enemies, and avenge myself on my foes!” (1:21-24)

First Isaiah finds himself called by God to remind the Kings Uzziah, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, to return to the Lord, to repent of their ways and turn to God.  If not, the wrath of God would be felt in the land.

The Lord was their only source of protection and only by trusting in God would they be saved from attacks from outside their borders.

But time and time again, the Kings chose to find security in weapons and alliances instead of in the Lord. They sought protections from Assyrian against Aram and Israel, and eventually found themselves as a vassal state instead of their own nation.  The land was ravaged. Jerusalem was preserved only by God’s grace… but barely… and only because it is the delight of the Lord.

 

It is in this context that First Isaiah speaks the prophecy we find in chapter 9:

But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish.  In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.  The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined.

This small corner of the land – the tribal lands of Zebulun and Naphtali – were some of those ravaged by the wars of Aram and Israel.  There wasn’t much there, and one scholar notes it was a place where they “fought their wars so ‘nothing important’ was disturbed. (http://www.umcdiscipleship.org/worship/lectionary-calendar/third-sunday-after-the-epiphany4)

As later conquerors came in, the culture of this place was so diluted and transformed by the influx of peoples and languages so that there was no unity.  As Rev. Dawn Chesser writes: “Keep the mix of languages and cultures there mixed enough, and oppressed enough, and no one of them will have the strength or the urge to resist the new overlords.”

This is why it is “the land of deep darkness.”

It is a place that was hopeless.

It was a place that desperately needed good news.

 

First Isaiah firmly believed that in spite of the cycle of sin and punishment, wrath and forgiveness, God would never forsake Jerusalem.  Even if this was a time of struggle and conflict, God’s ultimate plan was that the line of King David would reign.

And that promise, that hope, was a light shining in the darkness.

 

John Wesley, a founder of the United Methodist Church, said that the scripture is twice inspired… once when written and again when it is read.

And I think that is a good reminder to think of when we read these prophecies from the Old Testament.

The prophets were by and large speaking to the people and context, the situations of their day.

In this beautiful hymn about light in the darkness, about a son being given for us, about the endless peace for the throne of David… First Isaiah was probably not thinking about the birth of Jesus.

This was likely a hymn written for the coronation of King Hezekiah, who First Isaiah believed would return the land to God.

First Isaiah, if you remember, had this really high view of the monarchy. He believed the kings were divinely called and eternally chosen by God.  And these words were full of hope and promise that the forsaken lands of Galilee, indeed ALL the lands, would be reunited under Hezekiah’s royal leadership.

 

But if we take seriously the idea that God can inspire the people as we read the scriptures, too, then it is understandable how early Christians, notably Luke and Matthew, remembered these words, remembered this prophecy, and saw it being lived out once again in the birth of Jesus Christ.

And so we find in the gospel of Matthew that this text is quoted and Jesus symbolically begins his ministry in that once and again occupied land of Zebulon and Napthali… before by the Assyrians and in the time of the gospels by the Romans.

And we find in Luke the promise this light in the darkness, this child that is born for us will deliver us from bondange and will uphold the Kingdom of David forever.

 

Even today, whenever we open these pages of scripture, God speaks.

You can read the same passage twenty different times in your life and every time you might have a new insight or learn something new about yourself or about God.

And that is because these words are alive.

These promises were true yesterday and they are just as true today and they will be tomorrow.

 

We are tempted to leave these old prophecies on the shelves, to forget about their harsh words and judgements, to leave the wrath of God with the prophets and to instead focus on the gospel.

But these words, though spoken to a particular context, still have meaning for our context today.

As we watch political ads on our televisions, I am reminded that we live in a time of political unrest and deception.

As I heard news that Iowa is now ranked last in our care for the mentally ill, I am reminded that we live in a land that has forgotten the most vulnerable.

As we watch the fallout from Brexit, some might say that we, as people of this earth pursue our own self-interest ahead of the needs of others.

Whenever we fill out houses with things we don’t need instead of generously letting go, we are putting greed ahead of compassion.

Our weapons, our security systems, our locks are reminders that we rely upon our own strength instead of relying upon God.

First Isaiah’s words need to be spoken into our midst today just as much as they did 2700 years ago.

And the call to be God’s people from Isaiah chapter 2 is a call that still echoes across this land today…

Come, let’s go up to the Lord’s mountain,     to the house of Jacob’s God         so that we may be taught God’s ways         and we may walk in God’s paths.” Instruction will come from Zion;     the Lord’s word from Jerusalem. God will judge between the nations,     and settle disputes of mighty nations. Then they will beat their swords into iron plows     and their spears into pruning tools. Nation will not take up sword against nation;     they will no longer learn how to make war.

Come, house of Jacob,     let’s walk by the Lord’s light.

In the Night

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When I was in college, our chaplain encouraged us to go to this event called, “Exploration.”

It was a conference for young people who felt like they were hearing a call to ministry – a place to explore what that meant for their lives.

I don’t remember a single thing about the conference, except for one worship service.

Bishop Minerva Carcaño was preaching and before her message she read aloud for us the call of this young man we hear about today.

But even though Bishop Carcaño is from Texas, she doesn’t have a Texas drawl.  She is Latina.  So what sticks in my mind is her calling out, over and over again through the scripture and her message:

“Samuel! Samuel!” (heard phonetically as Sam-well!)

Hearing her say that name in such a different dialect helped me to hear the entire passage in a new way. It snuck into every corner of my mind.

The entire drive home, I thought about all of the people throughout my life who had been calling me to ministry: my pastor, a youth leader, teachers and fellow students. I realized that like Samuel, I thought I was simply hearing the voice of my pastor or my teacher.  I had never stopped to consider before that weekend that perhaps it wasn’t just a human voice after all…. Perhaps God was speaking to me!

So I love this call story. It helped me to hear my own calling into ministry in a difficult time of my life.

 

Today, as we continue our exploration of The Light in the Darkness, I notice as I read again this passage how God calls to us in the night, in our darkness, in our times of difficulty and asks us to serve, to lead, to go.

Samuel has been serving in the temple with Eli and that night is charged with the duty of keeping the lamps burning through the night in the part of the temple where the ark of the covenant was kept.

As we learned with the peace light from Bethlehem came through, it is not easy to keep a lamp burning over night. You worry the oil will go out or the wick will burn through.

So Samuel is sleeping there on his mat in the temple so that he can get up periodically and check on the lamp.

And there in the night… in the dark… God speaks to him.

We don’t know how old Samuel might be in this part of the story, a boy is all the scriptures say, but he has spent his entire life in the temple.  His mother Hannah was barren and prayed with all her might for a child.

“Lord of heavenly forces, just look at your servant’s pain and remember me! Don’t forget your servant! Give her a boy! Then I’ll give him to the Lord for his entire life. No razor will ever touch his head.” (1:11)

Her prayer was answered. So Hannah and her husband brought the child before God and left him in the care of Eli, the priest.

Out of her struggle and despair, God blessed them with not only Samuel, but five other children.

So Samuel grew up in the temple, under Eli’s care.

 

But I think too often we focus on how Samuel heard his call and forget to pay attention to what he was called TO.

 

In that time, Eli had two sons: Hophni and Phinehas, and they were the worst pastor’s kids you have ever met.

When people came to the temple to offer sacrifices, some of the meat was always given to the priests for their service. But the boys wouldn’t wait until the sacrifice was nearly over and then take their share, as was custom… but they would  grab a chunk of the choicest meat right off the fire. Today, it would be like if the pastor’s child stopped the offering plates as they were being passed, took out the largest bills they could find so they could go spend it as they pleased, and then allowed everything to proceed. And they did it with threat of violence.

Not only that, but they also sexually harassed the women who served at the temple.

And Eli didn’t stop them.

Oh, he said once or twice, “you probably shouldn’t do that,” but he never actually stopped them from doing so.

And God promised that this injustice would end. God promised to establish a new, trustworthy priest and that the sign of this prophecy would be the death of Hophni and Phineas on the same day.

So God waited until Samuel, who had dedicated his life to God’s service, was nearly ready.  And God called him in the night with the vision that the injustice and outrage of Eli’s household would end.

 

Can you imagine that?

 

Can you imagine growing up in a place with a vision of what was good and right and true, and yet every day having those in power and in leadership stomp all over those ideals?

 

That was life for Samuel. He knew the struggle of his mother. He knew he was meant to serve the Lord. And every day, he watched as Hophni and Phineas drove people away from the temple, and took advantage of them. He watched as Eli did nothing to stop it.

Yet somehow, he didn’t allow the example of his mentor and peers to turn him away from his path.

 

Can you imagine what it would be like to find yourself called to do something?

To proclaim a different future?

To speak light out of the darkness?

 

I have been inspired by the stories of young people around the world who are doing just that.

Julia Bluhm is a 16 year old dancer who saw young women around struggling with their image based on photoshopped and unrealistic images of what it meant to be a woman.  So she stood up to Seventeen magazine and asked them to commit to unaltered photographs and a diverse range of girls in their magazine. In 2012, the magazine committed to never change the size of a girl’s face or body and to show real girls n the magazine.

Malala Yousafzai  was just 11 when she started promoting education for girls in the Swat Valley. She was targeted for assassination and survived and continues to work to ensure all children have access to education and rights for children and young people. When asked by Jon Stewart about what gives her courage to keep going, she talks about how she decided early on to speak the truth, even in the face of someone who wants to hurt her:

If he [the Talib] comes, what would you do Malala? …If you hit a Talib with your shoe, then there will be no difference between you and the Talib. You must not treat others…with cruelty…you must fight others but through peace, through dialogue and through education…then I’ll tell him [the Talib] how important education is and that I even want education for your children as well… that’s what I want to tell you, now do what you want.

 

Can you imagine proclaiming a different future? Speaking light out of darkness?

 

Today is Human Relations Day and we celebrate this Sunday in connection with Martin Luther King Jr. Day

To quote Dr. King: Every [one] must decide whether [they] will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness.

So with Samuel, we choose to seek the light of service and sacrifice, rather than to simply stand by and do nothing when we witness wrongs.

The United Methodist Church is committed to standing with those who are on the margins and who are struggling.

Rev. I Maliik Safir, whose church works with those gripped by addiction in Little Rock, sums up the work of Human Relations Day by recalling Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan: “to meet the poor, the disadvantaged and the underserved at the places where others have robbed them and help them to recover from the wounds of social inequality.”

 

But I think this Sunday needs to be about more than putting a few dollars in the special offering envelope to support these important ministries.  You should do that, by the way… take out that envelope and give whatever you can to help us continue to serve in these places.

But God demands more of us than simply our financial resources.

I think this is also a day when we are called to look at the world around us and ask what is happening in our midst and how are we called to proclaim a different future.

In the dark of the night, where do you hear God calling you?

Has something kept you up at night, calling you to do something?

Have you felt the tug of your heartstrings around something you are reading in the news… issues affecting Des Moines and Iowa?

Is it around issues of incarceration?  Racial disparity?  Poverty? Mental health?

Are you called to advocate for others?

Speak truth to power?

Is there something at work or school that just doesn’t feel right?  Can you do something about it?

Sit beside someone who is struggling?

If you are… take it to the Lord. Cry out that you are ready to hear. You are listening. Ask what God wants you to do.

And feel free to come and talk with me or Pastor Todd if there is a place you think we, as the church, should be responding. Because together, we can work to let the light of Christ shine in the darkest parts of this world.

As Dr. King said:

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.
Let us be people who are not afraid of the darkness.

Who go to the darkness.

Who listen in the darkness.

And who work to let the light shine.

 

 

 

Light Still Shines…

In the last two weeks, I have been talking with a lot of folks across Iowa.  I spent some time with clergy in Des Moines and then in Hampton at Laity Day.  I preached in DeWitt and organized folks in Mount Pleasant.  I worked with folks in Tama.  And I’ve made phone calls to at least four different area codes.

Three times, I’ve heard stories of students who came to Iowa from Tanzania to study while in high school.  A heart-breaking story of a student who returned only to contract malaria and die.  The passed-along word to be in prayer for a current student who’s father had just died of malaria.  And the joyful exclamation of a student who rushed to a clergywoman at a Chrysalis retreat when she heard that she was a United Methodist pastor: “Thank you for saving our lives!”

I’ve heard the stories of two veterans who served overseas and contracted malaria.  They battled “Annie” the anophales mosquito and came out on the other side to tell their story.  Both are helping to spread the word among their churches.

I’ve heard from moms who have sent children away on mission trips and pray for their safety.  I’ve heard stories of hospital visits here in the U.S. where no one could tell them what was wrong because malaria is so rare here.  I’ve listened to accounts of baptisms of children who we hope are still living.

I have not been to Africa.  I have never had malaria.  I have not experienced the terror of watching a loved one grow feverish and get sick with an illness you knew you could stop if only you had enough money or resources.

But I know people who have.  And their stories are heart-breaking and beautiful and it is an honor to be able to hear them and to work with them and on their behalf to help save lives.

1,440 children died from malaria today. That is 1,440 too many.

But today, hundreds, if not thousands of people, were also seeking for a way to be light in the darkness after tragedies like the explosions in Boston and the earthquake in Iran.

We posted quotes from Mr. Rogers and prophets and preachers on twitter.  We changed our profile pictures to something quintessentially Bostonian.  We lifted up prayers that we would remember and that things would be different and told ourselves that we wouldn’t be afraid, that we weren’t going to let the darkness win. But then the next day comes… and life takes back over… and we let the thoughts fade and the pictures get changed and we start complaining about the scores on Dancing with the Stars.

Today, 1,440 children died from malaria.

Josefina Cassava stands with her son Jomacio in the doorway of their home in the Cacilhas village near Huambo, Angola, after they were provided a long lasting insecticide-treated mosquito net by the MENTOR Initiative. Photo by Mike DuBose, United Methodist News Service.
Josefina Cassava stands with her son Jomacio in the doorway of their home in the Cacilhas village near Huambo, Angola, after they were provided a long lasting insecticide-treated mosquito net by the MENTOR Initiative. Photo by Mike DuBose, United Methodist News Service.

So tonight, I changed my facebook cover picture to the beautiful faces of two members of our human family from Angola. Because I’m not going to just let those prayers and those thoughts of today fade into memory tomorrow.  I want to be different tomorrow.  I want to hang on to that light.  I want to be one of those helpers who runs into the fray.My new prayer is that we might join our broken hearts together to actually work for good in the world.  There are lots of fantastic places to start, but in my life that place is this battle against malaria.  And so I want to invite you to join me in being light, in making a difference, in helping to save lives.

I’m going to tell you stories… like all of those ones that I mentioned above.  I’m going to share pictures and help put a face to the work we are doing.  But above all, I want to invite you to imagine with me the possibilities.  This effort to stop deaths from malaria… it’s not just wishful thinking.  It is doable, it is real, it is happening all around us and you have got to be part of this.

One way to start… check out our website for this project in Iowa:  www.inmiowa.org

If you live here in the state, especially check out the “Statewide Pancake Breakfast” link and find a place near you where you can eat some pancakes and help raise funds to save lives.

Our goal here in Iowa is to help save 200,000 lives from malaria… by covering those children with a bednet as they sleep and helping to provide the funds for diagnosis and treatment.

The best part… it only costs ten bucks.

Ten dollars can save a life.  Ten dollars can prevent malaria.  Ten dollars can diagnose and treat a disease that kills.

Ten bucks.

Let’s be light. Let’s shine in the darkness.  Let’s never give up.