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As that short film reminded us, there 65 million refugees and forcibly displaced persons in the world today.

That is roughly thirty-two times the number of people who live in Iowa.
In fact, if you added up the populations of the whole North Central Jurisdiction of the UMC – both Dakotas, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio – you’d only reach a population of 57 million. You’d have to also throw in Nebraska and Missouri.
65 million people across this planet have had to leave their homes in order to survive… and I thank God that the United Methodist Church is responding in love and compassion towards these people – providing support, health, welcome, opportunities, and hope.

But I must admit that I am challenged by our Advent texts for this morning that ask a very difficult question.
Welcoming the stranger, the migrant, the refugee is one thing…
How are you going to help clear the way for your neighbors to someday return home?

You see, when Isaiah proclaims his words of comfort to the people of Israel, he is not simply talking about making a way for God’s presence to be known…
No, a way, a literal path, is being made for the exiles in the land of Babylon to go back home.
After being forcibly removed from their homes and carted off to a land of strangers, Isaiah was proclaiming that the time had come to return.
And all obstacles were being removed… the mountains were being leveled, the valleys being filled… anything that might keep the people from finding their home once again would be swept away.
Perhaps one of the most visible group of refugees in the world today are Syrians. We are haunted by the images of those little ones on the beach and moved by the gratitude of those whose families make it to the shores of a distant land.
This weaving that usually sits outside of my office is made from life jackets and clothing that have been collected along the shore line in Greece. Refugee women put their entrepreneurial spirit to work in making these beautiful creations that are a powerful reminder of their journey.
In this season, as we think about how not only people, but the entire planet longs for Christ to come once again and usher in the Kingdom, I am reminded that the roots of the Syrian conflict that led these families to leave their homes started with a drought.

Syria is a region that was the birth of human civilization. It is known as the Fertile Crescent, a land of rivers and agriculture and the flourishing of life. But from 2006 – 2009, the region experienced an extreme drought… the worst seen in a millenia… the culmination of “a century-long trend toward warmer and drier conditions.”
This drought was a catalyst for the conflict, because as many as 1.5 million people fled from rural to urban areas after failed governmental policies to mitigate the damage and crop failures, adding to social stresses and anger at government leaders.

In fact, the United States military has now classified climate change as a “significant strategic threat” or a “threat multiplier” that leads to instability in various parts of the world.
We now are in the sixth year of a violent conflict that has left nearly half a million dead and has forced 11 million from their homes.

Climate scientists see two potentially permanent shifts in the climate of this region that contributed to the severe drought – “a weakening of winds that bring moisture-laden air from the Mediterranean and hotter temperatures that cause more evaporation.” Natural causes cannot account for such a drastic shift… only when you factor in the human impact on the environment can you make sense of the data.
When I hear John the Baptist standing on the banks of the River Jordan, crying out for us to prepare the way of the Lord… I also hear him calling for us to repent.
For too long, we have considered this planet as a resource to be plundered, instead of as a gift to be protected. We have allowed our desire for convenience to change our habits as consumers and we buy and throw away material goods at an alarming pace.
Instead of leveling mountains and raising valleys, places like Cedar Rapids are literally creating mountains out of our trash…

Someday, I pray to God, when peace comes to Syria and the conflict ends, the reality of a changed landscape and climate patters still has to be reckoned with.
So the question for us today, is how do we need to repent… how can we help clear the way and change our practices, so that these places might once again be fertile and sustain life?
How can our actions today help prepare the way for future generations to return home?

When I think about how the world has banded together through the Paris Climate Accords, our efforts to curb global warming are not an effort to bring about restoration, but merely to prevent the worst from happening. And even then, the goals are only aspirational.

What we truly need is to repent, change our ways, and work to restore creation.

In past years, I have listened to the wisdom of a group called Advent Conspiracy. They believe that Christmas can change the world if we focused on four simple things:
1) We need to worship fully. We need to dive into our scriptures and these texts from Isaiah and Luke in order to remember the one who has called us to live differently in this world.
2) We need to spend less. We need to let go of the endless need to consume and buy that is wreaking havoc on our planet. 99% of everything that we purchase will end up as waste products within 6 months. 99%!
3) So their third call is to give more… not of stuff, but of presence – relational presence. We need to spend more time with one another rather than money.
4) Lastly, we need to love all people – and remember the poor, the forgotten, and the marginalized

In all of these things, we can make a significant impact on creation around us. We can stop putting money in the pockets of the most wealthy and stand on the side of the oppressed. We can work for the restoration of relationships, rather than buying happiness. And we can answer the perennial call to live differently upon this world.

In many ways, this is what Mary is proclaiming in her song as well.
She glorifies the Lord who chose her… a young, poor, female servant.
She cries out God’s praises for pulling the powerful down from thrones and lifting up the lowly, filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich away empty handed.
She sees in the new life that is growing within her the possibility that all who fear, all who are oppressed, all who have not will be able to find a way to thrive in God’s kingdom.

This Advent and Christmas is an opportunity for you and me to repent and change our ways.
We can take stock of our endless consumerism and instead seek to live more faithfully and gently upon this earth.
We can advocate for policies and practices that help us to reduce our impact upon this world.
We can personally do our part to reverse environmental harm – whether it is in our own backyards or halfway across the world.
And someday, as a result of our actions, we will have helped make a way for all of God’s creation to return home…

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?

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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.”

A Different Kind of Proof

A man named Bob Ebeling thought he was a loser.

Mr. Ebeling was an engineer on the Challenger Space Shuttle and discovered that the O-ring seals in the rocket might not hold up in the cold temperatures of the 1986 launch.

He and fellow engineers pleaded with NASA to stop the launch, but they decided to go ahead anyways.

He went home, knowing the shuttle would explode. “And it did, 73 seconds after liftoff. Seven astronauts died.” (NPR 2/25/2016)

In an interview with National Public Radio, Mr. Ebeling shared that for thirty years has been carrying the guilt and the burden of the loss of life on that day.

Lots of people told him that it wasn’t his fault…

That he had done everything he could…

But he couldn’t forgive himself.

He believed one of the mistakes God made was picking him for the job.

And because NASA and the contractor in charge of the launch had never given him confirmation that he had done the right thing, he didn’t believe it.

 

What fascinates me about this story is that Mr. Ebeling did the right thing. He told the truth. He did everything he could to prevent the launch. And after his story first aired in January of this year, calls and letters poured in to his home. People who had been close to him. People who had worked with him. Complete strangers who had been moved to write and let him know that he wasn’t a loser, but a hero.

And yet, he wouldn’t believe… he couldn’t forgive himself…

Unless there was a specific act of proof – a call or a letter from NASA themselves.

 

I hear in his story the same kind of need to know and to find proof that I hear in our gospel lesson this morning.

Women trek to the tomb are the break of dawn. And they have no idea what to make of the stone rolled away. The body of their Lord is no longer there. What they are experiencing doesn’t make any sense until the angels appear and remind them what Jesus had told them: that on the third day, he would rise. And they remember.

Can you imagine their amazement?

They rush back to the disciples and tell everyone about what they have discovered. They tell them about the tomb. They tell the crowd: He Is Risen!!!!

And no one believes them.

They need proof.

They need something more concrete.

They need to see it to believe it.

 

And so Peter runs to the tomb himself, looks inside, and sees nothing but a cloth.

And the scripture says… he returned home, wondering at what had happened

But what I find amazing is that this account leaves out a key detail:  It never says he believes.

And I think if I had showed up there, I would have been surprised and amazed, but I’m not sure I would totally understand what had happened.

I think he was unsure.

Filled with doubt and questions.

He didn’t have enough proof to believe that what the ladies had told him was true.

Unless there was a specific act of proof…

 

Friends, it isn’t easy to believe the story that we share with you this morning.

Resurrection? Yeah, right.

We haven’t seen it or experienced it.

We can’t go back in time and run to the tomb ourselves.

Angels aren’t popping in to worship this morning to tell us how it is.

If even the disciples had a hard time believing, how are we supposed to understand this good news?

Where is the proof? Where is the concrete evidence?

 

Mr. Ebling wanted a word from specific people in order to forgive himself.

And he got it. He got a call on the phone from one of the vice presidents for the contractor, Thiokol who told Mr. Ebling – you did all that you could do. (NPR)

And George Hardy, a NASA official involved in the Challenger loss wrote to Mr. Ebeling – “You and your colleagues did everything that was expected of you.”

And it started to make a difference.

And then came a statement from NASA itself: “We honor [the Challenger astronauts] not through bearing the burden of their loss, but by constantly reminding each other to remain vigilant… and to listen to those like Mr. Ebeling who have the courage to speak up so that our astronauts can safely carry out their missions.”

That was it. That was the thing he wanted to see and hear. The proof he needed to let go of his burden of guilt.

 

The disciples wanted to see it with their own eyes… to touch their Rabbi with their own fingers.

And Jesus appeared to them.

He showed them his hands and feet. He ate a piece of fish with them. He personally reminded them of everything he had said – that he was supposed to suffer and rise from the dead on the third day.

They got the proof they wanted.

 

But there is something that those disciples didn’t quite understand…

something that Mr. Ebeling didn’t quite understand…

something that we don’t quite understand whenever we are looking for a specific piece of proof or evidence… something concrete to demonstrate truth.

 

Yes, Jesus gives them the proof they wanted – he shows them his physical resurrected self – but the proof they needed was still to come.

Jesus isn’t there to show them his body. He is there to send them forth to live out his message.

“A change of heart and life for the forgiveness of sins must be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. Look, I’m sending you to what my Father promised.”

 

What if we have it all wrong?

We always say, “seeing is believing.”

But what if DOING is believing?

 

What if in the very act of living out the resurrection and the good news of Jesus Christ we find the proof we are looking for?

What if we are looking for proof instead of living out the proof with our very selves?

 

You see, Jesus, didn’t ask us to intellectually understand the resurrection.

He didn’t ask us to be able to explain it scientifically.

He doesn’t want us to have a philosophical debate with people about it.

Jesus wants us to live it.

To change our hearts and our lives.

To go out in the world and turn it upside down.

He started a resurrection insurrection and Jesus rebelled against the powers of evil, sin and death… and now he calls us to follow him in turning the forces of destruction on their heads.

It is in the process of living it, that we discover just how true and real the power of the resurrection is.

 

Over the last few weeks here at church we have been reading this book, Renegade Gospel. And it hasn’t been an easy book. The author has challenged us time and time again to get out there and live our faith!!!

That has been a hard message to swallow, because so many of us feel like we aren’t doing as much as Mike Slaughter asks of us. We feel guilty because we don’t go as far as he asks us to go. We aren’t sure we are ready to give it our all.

But what Slaughter reminds us in the very last chapter is “that an abundance of faith is not necessary.” Jesus told the disciples that faith as small as a mustard seed could change the world. “It’s not about how much faith you have, but how much of what you have that you commit to action.”

You don’t have to believe every single word of the gospel to live out the power of resurrection.

You can have all kinds of doubts and questions and you can still live out the power of the resurrection.

 

I’m begging you… don’t sit back, waiting for definitive concrete proof before you decide to become a Christian.

I’m not sure it’s there.

But what I do know is that when I live out my teeny tiny little mustard seed faith and trust in the power of resurrection, I find intangible, mysterious, holy truth everywhere.

I find it in this room when I hear the stories of healing in this life and in the celebration of a life that will continue in the next.

I find in in a letter I received from one of you this very morning that describes how you have awakened to a new understanding of faith and discipleship.

I find it at the food pantry in the hope that comes to life on the face of a mom who was desperate.

I find it in the pile of goods and sleeping bags and food that are outside the sanctuary, waiting to be delivered to homeless people through Joppa.

I find it in the discovery on a child’s face when they learn a new word.

 

Mike Slaughter writes that “the resurrected Jesus revealed himself to his followers in a very personal and real way. But he made clear its impossible to know him apart from the commitment to become intimately involved in his life and mission. Intentional participation in his life and mission is part and parcel of faith. Faith is a verb!!!”

So friends, don’t wait for proof.

Don’t spend thirty years of your life waiting for some kind of external validation.

Just follow Jesus.

Go where he sends us.

Join the incredible movement to transform this world!

Live it out by showing forgiveness and grace to every person you meet.

Live it out by praying for the sick.

Live it out by loving the unloveable.

Live it out by holding the hand of someone who is dying.

And you will find the proof you are looking for…

Because Christ is risen!

See(k)ing Jesus

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I’m sometimes asked what the difference is between Christians who are out there serving people in the world and regular, ordinary people, who are out there serving.

So many of our businesses here in Des Moines are great proponents of volunteerism. Every time we go to a Meals from the Heartland event, or collect stuff for the food pantries or the schools I hear about Wells Fargo or Principal or Hy-Vee doing the same sort of thing.

Is there anything different about the character or the content of what we do as people of faith?

Most days, if we are honest, probably not.

Should there be?

Absolutely.

But what is it?

 

Mother Teresa was once showing a bishop the community she served. It is said that she asked the bishop, “Would you like to see Jesus?”   She then took him around a few corners to a man laying on a leather pallet who had clearly visible things crawling on his body. The bishop stood there in shock, but Mother Teresa knelt down and wrapped her arms around him, holding him like a baby in her arms.

“Here he is,” she said.   To which the bishop replied – “Who?”

“Jesus” was her answer. “Didn’t he say you’d find me in the least person on earth? Isn’t this Jesus challenging us to reach out and love?” (wright-house.com/religions/Christianity/mother-teresa.html)

 

Seek and you will find.

That is what our gospel reading says.

Or as Michael Slaughter reminds us in “Renegade Gospel” – the passage uses the present continuous tense… Ask and keep on asking… Seek and keep on seeking…

 

The bishop wasn’t looking for Jesus and couldn’t see him in the suffering of the man on the pallet. But Mother Teresa was. She was looking for him every day. She was seeking Jesus every day. She knew that in every moment she was serving, she was doing it to Jesus.

 

Seek and keep on seeking and you will find.

The problem is, we aren’t always paying attention to Jesus.

 

I think one of the fundamental differences between Judas Iscariot and Mary in our other gospel text this morning is that the first was focused on himself and the second was seeking Jesus.

As _________ shared with us this morning, Jesus and the disciples were with Mary, Martha and Lazarus in Bethany. And in the midst of the gathering, Mary takes this extravagantly expensive bottle of nard and anoints Jesus feet with the ointment.

This story itself appears in different ways in different texts.

In some cases the woman is unnamed, in another she is Mary Magdelene, and here she is identified as a different Mary.

In Matthew and Mark, the story comes earlier in the timeline and the woman anoints his head – a prophetic act that symbolizes his kingship.

But here, H. Stephen Shoemaker points out, that she anoints his feet, which would signal instead his imminent death. She, unlike the disciples, unlike Judas or Peter, had already accepted the true meaning of his teaching- that he was about to die. (Feasting on the Word)

There Jesus was, in the flesh, right in front of both of them.

 

Seek and keep on seeking and you will find.

 

But the gospel of John points out that Judas was so focused on that bag of money and his own selfish interests that he wasn’t even paying attention to Jesus.

Mary, on the other hand…

Mary sees Jesus in front of her, plain as day. She sees the suffering he is about to undergo. She sees his fear and pain. She sees his holiness.

Mary knew that this might be the last time she saw Jesus before he made the final trip to Jerusalem.

She knew their time together was short.

And she knew she could do this one thing for him. She anoints his feet in an act of worship showing her love and reverence for him. That was all that mattered.

 

When I heard that story about Mother Teresa, embracing the man who was suffering, I thought of Mary and Jesus. The tenderness of the physical touch. The dignity bestowed. The compassion and love that were offered through the embrace.

Love is costly.

Whether it is expensive perfume or the risk of embracing a diseased stranger, love is costly.

To use a word we shared last week – love is prodigal.

It is extravagant and sometimes appears wasteful. It is overwhelming and too much. And sometimes, by its very nature, it is immensely temporary.

In his reflection on this text, William Carter notes:

“Lots of extravagant gifts are put into the air, where they soon evaporate. A church choir labors to prepare and intricate anthem, and three minutes later it is gone. The teacher prepares the lesson, stands to deliver, and then the class is adjourned. Mourners provide large arrangements of flowers to honor those whom they grieve. Saints donate large sums of money for their congregations to spend. Why do they do this? Love has its reasons.” (Feasting on the Word)

 

Where Judas saw wastefulness and a hit on his personal pocketbook, Mary saw an opportunity to pour out extravagant love to her Lord and Savior.

Even his excuse – Hey! We could have spent this money on the poor – comes off as a limited perspective. For Jesus, in turn, quotes from Deuteronomy 15:

“Give generously to needy persons. Don’t resent giving to them because it is this very thing that will lead to the Lord your God’s blessing you in all you do and work at. Poor persons will never disappear from the earth. That’s why I’m giving you this command: you must open your hand generously to your fellow Israelites, to the needy among you, and to the poor who live with you in your land.”

 

And what I can’t help but hear in his response is the reminder that while Mary had the opportunity to pour out extravagant, generous love to Jesus in that moment, in just a few weeks, he would be gone.

And then, their responsibility, OUR responsibility, is to pour out that same extravagant love to the poor in our midst.

Give generously.

But you see, Jesus changes the dynamics of that exchange.

Because, now, it is not simply because it is a command from God on high.

Now, we do so, now we give and love and get down on our hands and knees to serve because whatever we do for the least of these, our brothers and sisters, we are doing it for Jesus.

 

That, friends, is the fundamental difference that we can offer the world.

We can love our neighbors as we would love Jesus, himself, present in front of us.

As we serve the homeless here in Des Moines – and a group is going out to do just that with Joppa this afternoon – you can serve them as you would serve Jesus.

As Slaughter writes in chapter four, “When Jesus walked Planet Earth, everyone could see him in the flesh – friends, followers, and foes. We no longer have that opportunity. Now that Jesus’ physical presence is removed, the world can no longer see him, but we can. Those who are born of the Spirit are able to experience and see him today. When we ask, seek, and knock in expectation, we find what we are looking for.” (p. 82)

 

Seek and keep on seeking and you will find Jesus right in front of you.

 

Too often, we miss out on the opportunity to truly love extravagantly because we are too focused on ourselves.

Or because we are going through the motions.

Or because we simply aren’t paying attention… because we don’t realize Jesus is right in front of us.

 

The world can no longer see him… so they do good deeds and they serve their neighbors and think nothing of it.

But friends, the essential character of HOW we serve is different, because when we look into the eyes of someone who is sick or dying or struggling, we don’t see an opportunity to do good… we can see Jesus.

 

When did you see Jesus?

When did YOU last see Jesus Christ?

When did you interact with him?

When did you hold his hand?

When did you share a meal with him?

When did you visit him?

When did you offer him a cup of water?

 

And when you saw him… how did you show your gratitude and love to him?

Singing for Peace

As we continue to wait for the one who has already come, the birth of Christ into our world and our lives, we are so close we can almost taste it!

Maybe your lights are up and the tree is decked out.

Maybe there are already Christmas cookies sitting on the countertop and presents under the tree.

We are ready for the heavenly choirs of angels mingling with the shepherds in the fields.

We are ready for the moment the wise ones, led by celestial signs, lay eyes on the infant in the manger.

We are waiting in holy anticipation – not for experiences beyond this world, but ones that are embodied in things we can touch and feel, live and breathe.

We are getting ready for God to take on human flesh in our midst!

And boy, do we need it.

Maybe one of the reasons those little lights twinkling on my tree bring me so much comfort is that they are signs of light and life, hope and peace, in a world that is really struggling.

 

Last week, I lifted up so many places where violence has disrupted lives and this week, more cities, more lives are added to that list. San Bernadino, California. Savannah, Georgia.

If you count up all of the tragedies where four or more individuals were injured or killed in this year, there have been more mass shootings than days.

If you look at our own community, Des Moines has seen its 20th homicide this year – the highest number in 19 years.

 

On this Sunday, we are called to lift up the promise of peace as we light the Advent candles.

And peace is my prayer on this morning.

Peace is the deep yearning of my heart.

 

And this morning, we hear from Luke’s gospel songs of longing for peace.

 

Yes, songs.

 

As Magrey deVega reminds us in our Advent Study, if Mark’s version of the gospel is a Reader’s Digest, Matthew is like a Steven King novel, and John is like a Shakespeare play, then Luke is like a Broadway musical.

 

When his son, John is born, Zechariahs heart sings out: The prophets spoke of mercy, of freedom and release; God shall fulfill the promise to bring our people peace! (UMH #209)

 

Elizabeth recognized that the child in her cousin’s womb was the longing of all Israel. She was absolutely overjoyed…. and in her joy and in Mary’s song they recognized deep in their hearts that the promise from Micah – the promise of the one of peace – was being fulfilled.

 

Our hearts in contrast… are jaded and worn and disappointed. And maybe that is because we are looking for peace in all the wrong places.

I remember quite clearly President Obama delivering a speech to the nation and an audience at West Point in 2009.

He had just been named the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and he was announcing a surge in military personnel in Afghanistan.

“I come here with an acute sense of the cost of armed conflict – filled with difficult questions about the relationship between war and peace, and our effort to replace on with the other.”

The prophet Micah describes the Prince of Peace in this way:

And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth; and he shall be the one of peace. (Micah 5:4-5)

Mary and Elizabeth and the child in Elizabeth’s womb cannot contain themselves as they encounter this promise of God – yet unborn. They have been longing and waiting and hoping for so long.

 

There was no triumphant singing after Obama’s West Point speech… and while there may have been music in Oslo at the Nobel ceremonies, Obama’s own speech tempered any bit of joy and celebration.

We keep looking to our national and world leaders to bring peace.

We keep waiting for the right legislation or diplomacy or defense policy to make us safe and quiet the world.

But they are not the ones we are waiting for.
We live in a world of cynicism and violence, a world of confusion and hatred. Whatever conflict we are experiencing… whether it is family trauma, violence in our neighborhoods, a civil war halfway across the world, it creates conflict internally.

In my own life, I am wrestling with the distractions of family conflict and must admit there are times it is all I think about.

I desire grace and healing to be experienced and yet I hold onto grudges and my own comfort with the status quo. These things are not compatible. They war within me.

And that internal conflict is magnified on the world stage.

Even as we seek peace, we send troops. Echoing out this week from Christian leaders were calls to sign the death warrants of our enemies and to seek out and destroy those who are against us. We demonize those who are different. We label those who have committed atrocities as outcasts and terrorists so we don’t have to recognize that they are human… just like us.

Yet, if we live in this way, will we ever experience healing or reconciliation? Will we ever know peace?

 

We come together as people of faith and we light the second candle on the advent wreath because we dare to believe that the Prince of Peace will reign.

We dare to hope that there will be day when nation will not rise up against nation.

We dare to hope that a day is coming when innocent lives are no longer taken by gun violence.

We dare to wait for the day when the powerful are brought down from their thrones and the lowly are lifted up.
And so we pray for peace.

The thing about prayer, though is that it is not a passive thing.

Prayer is an activity.

Prayer requires doing.

Richard Foster wrote:

“Prayer is the central avenue God uses to change us. If we are unwilling to change, we will abandon prayer as a noticeable characteristic of our lives.”

We believe that God is active in the world, bringing peace through us… just a Mary sang out that God was radically transforming the world through her.

As deVega writes in the third chapter:

The church can offer the very thing that would most remedy a world caught in an endless cycle of self-destructive behavior: a subversive, surprising song. A song whose lyrics speak of self-giving love rather than self-addicted agendas. A song whose sounds are counter waves to the thrum of war chants and the clanging of swords [or the sound of gunfire]. A song whose melody drives us upward towards holiness and purity, rather than into the darkest recesses of our sinful instincts. A sacred harmony that pulses with God’s unconditional love, calling us to forgiveness… the church has a song to perform, and we each have instruments to play.” (p. 60-61)

We each have instruments to play.

If we want to pray for peace, then we have to be peace in the world.

Robert Mann calls us to

“Be a reverse terrorist.

Plot. Plan. Scheme and launch random acts of love.

Incite it. Invite it. Ignite it.

Shake this world to its foundation.

And enjoy yourself in the process.”

That might be peace in the Middle East, or peace between you and your neighbors.

It might be peace among loved ones, or peace between you and your inner thoughts.

In this season of Advent, we stand in the face of war and suffering and distress and we not only look for the coming of peace, but we live it.

We stand like Elizabeth and Mary, pregnant with the hope that God’s promises are real.

The reality we long for this and every Advent…

The miracle that we wait for this and every Christmas…

Is that we might wake up one morning and run outside to discover that God is with us – Emmanuel – and that the Prince of Peace rules the earth.

Until then… we pray and we sing and we live for peace.

 

 

**side note** this summer, I attended a concert with Reba at the Iowa State Fair.  She talked about how she had been wrestling with so much going on in the world and asked God what she could do and the answer came back… pray for peace… ***

 

Near the Beginning… (NaBloPoMo)

This morning, let’s go back… to nearly the beginning of the story… and do some genealogy.

Pastor Todd and I are going to start us off this morning with Matthew chapter 1, verses 1-6… from the Voice translation:

This is the family history, the genealogy, of Jesus the Anointed, the coming King. You will see in this history that Jesus is descended from King David, and that He is also descended from Abraham.

It begins with Abraham, whom God called into a special, chosen, covenanted relationship, and who was the founding father of the nation of Israel.

Abraham was the father of Isaac; Isaac was the father of Jacob; Jacob was the father of Judah and of Judah’s 11 brothers; Judah was the father of Perez and Zerah (and Perez and Zerah’s mother was Tamar);

Tamar was Judah’s widowed daughter-in-law; she dressed up like a prostitute and seduced her father-in-law, all so she could keep this very family line alive.

Perez was the father of Hezron; Hezron was the father of Ram; Ram was the father of Amminadab; Amminadab was the father of Nahshon; Nahshon was the father of Salmon; Salmon was the father of Boaz (and Boaz’s mother was Rahab);

Rahab was a Canaanite prostitute who heroically hid Israelite spies from hostile authorities who wanted to kill them.

Boaz was the father of Obed (his mother was Ruth, a Moabite woman who converted to the Hebrew faith); Obed was the father of Jesse; and Jesse was the father of David, who was the king of the nation of Israel. David was the father of Solomon (his mother was Bathsheba, and she was married to a man named Uriah);

 

As Matthew prepares to tell us the story of Christ’s birth, he feels compelled to share with us this family tree.

An unexpected family tree.

It includes widows and adulteresses and prostitutes… and those are just the women!

So let us listen today, for how God moves through unexpected people and in unexpected ways to bring to us a redeemer…

 

****

 

Our scripture for this morning comes from the book of Ruth. It is the story of Naomi and her husband Elimelech had two sons and they lived in Bethlehem.

But a famine took over the land so they became refugees. They fled from hunger and made their way to Moab, which was enemy territory.

We might see their faces in the images of refugees from Syria and Iraq and northern Africa today… Camping in muddy fields, clothes wet from the journey, their only possessions what they could carry, completely unsure if they will be welcomed wherever they arrive.

When they finally get to a place of relative safety, Elimelech dies, leaving Naomi and her two boys, Mahlon and Kilion.

Years pass and they grow up and they each marry Moabite women… Ruth and Orpah.

But then one son after the other die.

Naomi has lost her homeland, her husband, and her two sons. There is no one left to carry on her family line or to bring her protection.

In this culture and time, when one son died and left the family childless, a brother or relative would provide security by marrying the daughter-in-law and preserving property and lineage. This kinsman redeemer would save the family by doing whatever it took to protect them.

But Naomi was far from home, no relatives to speak of, her situation was desperate and hopeless.

She plans to return to Bethlehem, to live as a widow… she is content to beg for the rest of her sad and bitter life.

And she tries to send her daughters-in-law away… to give them the opportunity for a fresh start, a new life.

But Ruth sticks with her.

Ruth refuses to leave Naomi’s side.

And Ruth makes the journey back to Bethlehem with her… not knowing what the future would hold, but determined to play a part in making sure both of them would be taken care of.

 

Think about a time when you felt like Naomi… when everything around you was falling apart.

Turn and share with your neighbor this morning:

What got… or is getting you through it?

Who do you turn to for help?

 

Naomi had reached rock bottom in her life.

Everything was gone, everything was lost.

As she and Ruth make the journey back to Bethlehem, she begs people to call her Mara – The Bitter One.

She is grieving, lonely, and depressed.

But Ruth is there to act.

Ruth takes the initiative to provide for them by gleaning grain from the fields.

And while she is out working, a man named Boaz sees her, treats her kindly, and seeds of hope are planted.

That is where our scripture picks up today.

 

Naomi realizes that Boaz was a relative, someone who could marry Ruth and redeem their family property and provide an heir.

She lays out a plan for Ruth to present herself to Boaz as a potential wife.

He is intrigued and after going through all the proper channels, Boaz is please to marry this Moabite woman to protect her family. They give birth to a child, Obed, and Naomi is redeemed.

 

None of us would be sitting here today if it were not for Ruth.

A fellow pastor, Jennifer Andrews-Weckerly, writes:

“Ruth is called a woman of hayil – a Hebrew word usually reserved for men – meaning strength, power, warrior-like capabilities. Though by our modern standards Ruth seems be subservient, in actuality, given the text and the time, she was an amazingly powerful woman. She refuses to take no for an answer (from Naomi or Boaz), she secures the livelihood of her family, she boldly takes on a new life in the face of seeming destruction, and she births the grandfather of David…”

 

Without Ruth, there would be no King David… no 23rd Psalm… no continuing lineage that will take us all the way to Joseph and Mary and Jesus in Bethlehem.

She is a foreigner in a strange land.

She lost her own husband and then gave up everything she knew to support Naomi and work to provide for her.

Ruth did whatever she needed to do without question or complaint.

 

In my bible, the heading for the final section of our reading for today says “Boaz redeems Ruth.”

And technically, according to the rituals and traditions of the time, by buying the family property and marrying her, he has fulfilled the role of the kinsman redeemer and has protected their family.

But even the women of the town see clearly that Ruth is the true redeemer.

“Blessed be God! He didn’t leave you without family to carry on your life…” The Message translation reads… “This daughter-in-law who has brought Obed into the world and loves you so much, why she’s worth more to you than seven sons!”

 

As we head into the Advent and Christmas season, we discover that this love of Ruth for Naomi is echoed in the story of Jesus.

It is sticking by someone even when we didn’t have to… like Joseph with his pregnant fiancée Mary.

It is taking a risk and traveling to a strange land… like Mary and Joseph did when they fled from the wrath of Herod.

It is giving hospitality to strangers and looking to see what gifts they might bring.

It is waiting patiently for God to move in our lives, as we continue to take steps forward in the direction we think we should be going.

Love is not passive. It is hard and risky and a scary thing.

Love takes work.

And today we give thanks to God for Ruth, who near the beginning of our Savior’s story, near the beginning of OUR story, chose to love and in doing so, played a part in redeeming us all.

Amen and amen.

Expectations and Realities

Sermon based on Luke 1:39-55 and Matthew 11:2-6

About a year ago, I began working with Imagine No Malaria here in the Iowa Conference, and I have to tell you… since then, I can’t look at a pregnant woman the same way again. 

In our scripture this morning, we actually have two pregnant women – Elizabeth and her cousin Mary… both unlikely mothers… both full of hopes and expectations about what that pregnancy will bring.

Treatment6WEBOne of the first things I learned about malaria, however, is that it is a disease that overwhelmingly affects pregnant women and their new born babies.  Women who are expecting produce more carbon dioxide than a typical person, which attracts mosquitos and makes them more likely to be bitten.  Add that to the fact that they have a compromised immune system trying to protect and care for the new life growing inside of them and it’s a deadly combination.

Malaria is one of the leading causes of death in pregnant woman globally.  In fact, 85% of the deaths from malaria are children under five and women who are expecting. A woman who has malaria while pregnant is likely to have a miscarriage or a child with low birth weight and other medical problems.  And even if a baby is born healthy, children under five are not strong enough to fight the parasite that causes malaria if it attacks them. Eevery sixty seconds, we lose a life to malaria. Over half a million deaths every single year…

The joy… the hope… that comes with the promise of new life …

And the devastation of loss when a precious life is lost.

Expectations and reality…

They aren’t always the same thing, are they?

In our two gospel readings for today, as we encounter these pregnant women, we also experience the hopes of John the Baptist in relation to our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Luke tells us that before they had even been born… while they were still in their mothers’ wombs… John was jumping for joy at the promise of what Jesus was bringing to the world.  His expectation poured out through the words of his mother, “God has blessed you and the babe in your womb… why am I so blessed that the mother of my Lord visits me?”

But by the time the two are grown up and have gone their separate ways, John the Baptist starts to question the reality of the promise.  In Matthew’s gospel, John finds himself in prison and sends word through his disciples… ‘ Are you the one to come?  Or should we look for another?”

This is not the little baby leaping for joy.  This is a man who is tired, who has worked long and hard for the Lord and right now is a little bit jaded.  He doesn’t want to waste the time he has left on unfulfilled hopes. And right now… what he has seen and heard about Jesus hasn’t lived up to the expectations.

Expectations and reality…

In 2006, the United Methodist Church launched an extraordinary effort to help end death and suffering from malaria in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Speaking of expectations… we expected Nothing but Nets to be a six month long project… but the reality is it has continued to this day.  In fact, this past NBA season, Stephen Curry with the Golden State Warriors promised to donate nets for every three point shot he made… and then proceeded to set the NBA record for the most 3-pointers in a season!

But as United Methodists, we heard God asking us to do more.  And in response, we expanded our work to include not only preventative efforts, but also a focus on treatment, education, and communications around malaria.  There were such expectations built up around the beginning of this work and our dream to raise $75 million dollars to put our faith into action.

Bill Gates, Sr. was there as we kicked off our work at General Conference in 2008 and he claimed: “You are 12 million people armed with the conviction that all the world is your parish. That makes you the most powerful weapon there is against malaria.”

Five years later we are still engaged in this work. But here in Iowa, we are far away from where the real work is taking place.  It is hard for us to see the reality on the ground in Africa.  Like John the Baptist, we might be tired from our own ministry and struggles.  We get a bit jaded sometimes.  We wonder if maybe we shouldn’t have focused our time and energy and efforts somewhere else.  Is this the program that is going to save lives and transform our church?  Or are we still waiting?

Maybe the problem is that we just haven’t done a good enough job telling the story about what is really going on.

That’s what Jesus realizes as those disciples from John arrive.  They just haven’t heard the stories yet.  So Jesus responds by simply telling them what is really happening:

Healing abounds. Lives are being changed. Faith is poured out in action. I am bringing salvation in all of its forms – release from captivity, healing, new life.  Go back and tell the good news.  That the blind see, the deaf hear, and the wretched of the earth are learning God is on their side.  The Kingdom of God is here!  Go back and tell John the good news.  Go and tell what you have seen and heard.

That is what my job is… to be a witness… to share with you the good news of what is happening through Imagine No Malaria.  Because friends, God is doing amazing things out there.  God is using the ordinary gifts of people like you and me to heal the sick and to transform lives.  Our actions are a beacon of hope to those who struggle, our words a life-line to those who despair.

In just the past three years, we have distributed over 1.5 million bed nets.  We are working to empower communities by training over 5,800 community health workers who are the hands and feet of Christ in this battle against malaria.  And we have worked to improve the infrastructure for health in general by establishing health boards in 15 countries that will help provide treatment and accountability for the work we do.

I could probably share with you for hours about the lives that have been affected by this work… about Juliette in Zimbabwe who literally jumped on her bed for joy when the bed net was installed… or John, who carried his sick baby 15 miles to the rural health clinic and found life-saving medication for his little one.  But frankly, we don’t have that much time today. So I’m going to tell you just one story about a woman named Muriel from Sierra Leone.

D1411Muriel was already struggling to maintain her home and put food on the table for her family.  I don’t know where her husband was… perhaps he died in the conflict a few years ago in Sierra Leone or from malaria… or maybe he had just taken off not to be heard from again.  But Muriel was doing the best she could.  Until her children all became sick with malaria at the same time.  She had seen the symptoms… she knew what it was, but without the resources to afford a single dose of medication for herself or her children, she felt completely without hope. In desperation, she tried negotiating with a government health worker to purchase drugs on credit, but to no avail.

Can you imagine her situation?  Can you imagine sitting there, trying to comfort your sick children and not being able to do anything to help them?  She knew that without the medication they so desperately needed, it was simply a matter of time before they began to die in her arms. Her expectations were bleak.

It was then that one of our Community Health Volunteers, trained by the Saving Lives Sierra Leone/ Imagine No Malaria team at the UMC health center found Muriel.

Tiaima reached out to Muriel and took the family to the United Methodist Clinic.  There, the staff welcomed them with open arms and before Muriel knew it, the children had been tested and were already receiving their first dose of medication.  Tiaima sat down with Muriel at taught her about how to prevent malaria in the future, gave her a net and instructed her how to use it, and made sure that she knew the correct dosages and timing for the medications that needed to be taken at home.

All of this happened in a heartbeat, and as the family was being sent on their way, Muriel turned back and offered to come back with one of her goats in exchange for the care.   A goat that might have been the only thing providing income for that little family… the promise of security in the future…  The nurse assured her that the services for malaria were free. It was then that Muriel broke down in tears and asked again and again if it was true or if she were dreaming. She had been praying for someone to help her family.

Muriel’s family is now healthy because of the work of United Methodists in Sierra Leone.

But even more than that.

Surprised by the grace she found through our work, Muriel went back home to her community to tell the women there about how they can work to reduce malaria and she has signed up to become a Community Health Volunteer herself.

She has become a witness, inviting others to experience the reality of the joy of salvation she herself experienced.

No matter what our expectations, we have a God who can surpass them beyond our wildest dreams.

The very name, Imagine No Malaria, comes from Ephesians 3:20:  “Glory to God, who is able to do far beyond all that we could ask or imagine by his power at work within us.”

Expectations… and reality.

John leaped for joy in Elizabeth’s womb because of the promises of God.

Mary was so overcome and filled with hope and praise that she couldn’t help but sing out the words we know as the Magnificat… words of longing for healing, for justice, for salvation.

Later, John’s disciples would rush back to tell him the good news that the Kingdom of God was becoming a reality.

Muriel did not hesitate to shout with joy as she experienced the healing power of God in her family’s life.

Friends… the Kingdom of God is breaking in all around us.  What do you hope for?  What do you expect?  And are you ready to be surprised when God does far more than you could ever imagine or guess or request in your wildest dreams?

In my work with Imagine No Malaria, I have been blown away by what I have experienced.  We are not simply handing out medicine and nets.  Through the grace of God, we are welcoming people as our brothers and sisters, treating them with love, and building relationships with them. In the process, we empower them to be agents of change in their communities and the world. That is salvation in action. That is the kingdom of God springing forth!

I have to tell you, I have HUGE expectations about what the United Methodists here in Iowa are going to do to help in the fight against malaria.  We have set a goal to raise at least $2 million dollars here in our state to help provide the vital resources needed as we live out our faith.  And I have been wonderfully surprised and blessed by the generosity of my brothers and sisters.  God is doing far beyond what I could ask or imagine.

You can be a part of this Kingdom work.

Just $10 is all it takes to put up a bed net in a home and save a child’s life.  Just $10 can provide a full course of medical treatment for a pregnant woman who is ill.  Just $10 can make a difference…

But think about what $100 could do.  Or $1000.  A gift to Imagine No Malaria means that you are putting resources into the hands of doctors and nurses, community health volunteers, and educators who are going to bring healing and hope to a whole continent.

I don’t have children myself.  I have never been pregnant like Muriel, or Mary, or Elizabeth… but I do know about the joy of children.

I am the proud aunt of four nephews and a neice and they bring light to my life every single day.  And so when I thought about how just $10 could be the difference between life and death for a precious child half a world away, I knew I had to help.  I knew I could be the answer to a prayer of a mom or a dad or an aunt or a grandpa in Africa.

So I am giving $1/day for each of my nephews and my neice to help save lives in Africa.  100 lives for each of them. A gift of $5000 over three years.  I know you hear these appeals from the pet associations and from the hunger organizations… but with Imagine No Malaria, a $1/a/day really does save lives.  And EVERY dollar you give goes directly to those who need it.

You can answer that call, too, and commit to helping us save lives… whether it is $10 or $10,000 you can make a difference.

Donate NOW! 

We have talked a lot today about our expectations and about how God realizes them… but I want you to talk for just a minute as we close about God’s expectations for us.

God has given us a song to sing and a story to tell.  He has given us strong faith to live out and has blessed us with many, many things.  Like Mary, we could declare that we are the most fortunate people on earth.

But God also expects us to take those gifts and those blessings and to share them with the world… to participate in the coming Kingdom of god.  To witness to the good news when we see it. To feed to poor. To heal the sick. To bring hope to the hopeless.

Will we go and tell what we have seen today?  And will we actively join God’s kingdom work with our hands and our hearts and our whole selves?

Let’s pray:

God of justice and joy, hope and healing,

we give thanks for all the ways you work for wholeness and right relationship in our own lives and throughout the world.

When suffering arises, let our hearts find joy in you, and fill us with courage to bear witness to what we have seen and heard.

May our lives always testify to the good news of your love, and may we lift up those who are bowed down so that your joy may spread throughout the earth.

We pray in the name of Jesus, who opened the eyes of the blind and proclaimed good news to the poor. Amen.

Making Room

Funeral Meditation based on Luke 2:1-7

As Christmas approaches, we are reminded that a very pregnant young woman and her patient fiancé were once left out in the cold. They made their way to the town ofBethlehemhoping and praying that someone would have a place for them to stay… but there was no room.

As Luke tells us:

Joseph went to be enrolled together with Mary, who was promised to him in marriage and who was pregnant. While they were there, the time came for Mary to have her baby. She gave birth to her firstborn son, wrapped him snugly, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the guestroom.

There was no place for them in the guestroom.

Notice… it doesn’t say that they were full. It doesn’t say that there wasn’t room. It says that there was no place for them.

Your mother and grandmother was someone who always had a place in her heart for others.  She took great care to make sure that everything was just right for people and that they knew how loved they were.

Wilma was born in 1925 here in Marengo to John and Carrie Ehrman, she graduated from the Marengo High School.  She worked in the office of Byron Goldthwaite and also as a Deputy Clergy for the county… but you know best that her true love and her true vocation was to be a homemaker.  She greatly enjoyed cooking for her family and you enjoyed eating her fried chicken and other wonderful meals.  She made many of her own clothes with her skills as a seamstress… and some for you too, although Jean, you would have preferred to wear the store bought clothes =)  She kept an exceptionally clean house and cared about the details.  And she did it all for you.

She made a place for each of you in her lives and made sure that you were taken care of and that you were loved.  She made a place for you.

Luke reminds us as we approach Christmas that the Lord of Lords crept into this world on a quiet evening and that there was no place for him. There was no place for his unmarried mother. There was no place for the man who would be his earthly father. There was no place.

I hear in that statement that there was no welcome for them.

Who wants to take in a pregnant girl in the middle of the night?

Who wants to deal with these strangers who didn’t have enough sense to plan ahead?

Who wants to give up their spot?

In some Mexican and Latin American communities, the tradition of Las Posadas reminds folks of the absence of hospitality Mary and Joseph recieved.  In the days before Christmas, processions go from house to house and request lodging.  The host for each evening turns the people away… until the final night, Christmas Eve, when Mary and Joseph are finally allowed to enter and the people gather around the nativity to pray.

So many times in our actions, we too, can tell other people: There is no place for you here.

But I imagine your mother and your grandmother would have loved being the host for the last night of LasPosadas… That she would have opened up her home and said – yes, there is a place for you.  I will make room.

The God that your mother and grandmother believed in, crept into this world to make sure that we all had a place. He came as a child to make us children of God. He came and was rejected so that we might never be rejected again. He died so that we might live.

Before he died, Christ reminded his disciples and reminded us:

Don’t be troubled. Trust in God. Trust also in me. My Father’s house has room to spare. If that weren’t the case, would I have told you that I’m going to prepare a place for you? When I go to prepare a place for you, I will return and take you to be with me so that where I am you will be too.

There is a place for you. That is what Christ tells us. That is what Christ shows us. That is what Christ gives us.

Wilma knew that her job was to make a place for you in this world.  May you let her life and her memory live on by carrying in your hearts the desire to serve others… to love others… more than yourself.

Amen. And Amen.