Love Is All You Need

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As Coptic Christians gathered in Egypt this morning to celebrate Palm Sunday, bombs rocked their sanctuaries.  Thirty-six people were killed in the blasts.

This week has seen horrific chemical attacks upon the Syrian people, but what is more horrific is that these kinds of atrocities are happening all the time, but only occasionally make it to our headlines.

In the Des Moines area, this week has seen a slew of gun violence, with five people shot last Sunday morning and three deaths in Bondurant this week.

 

When we gather in this sanctuary and wave our palms in the air, we cry out Hosanna!

 

And that very word has a double meaning that is meaningful in our world context.

We typically think of the Hosanna as a call of praise and glory, welcoming the coming King.

 

But Hosanna also is a cry for salvation. “Save us!” the people call out.

“Save us” we cry out.

Save us from our striving for power.

Save us from unending violence.

Save us from the walls that threaten to divide.

Save us from social forces that stomp on the sick, the poor, and the outcast.

Save us.

 

In the Jewish tradition, the laws were given to the people as a guide for how to live as a saved people.  The Israelites had been rescued from the Pharoah’s grip and in the wilderness they were formed as a people.  And the laws were given as a means to help them live in community and to prevent the kinds of personal and social evils that could destroy them.
613 different commandments are given in the Torah to try to accomplish this purpose.

And when Jesus was asked about which was the most important, he referred to only two.

 

The Shema from Deuteronomy 6: Love the Lord

And

Leviticis 19 – love others.

 

When Jesus summarized all of the law and the prophets, he basically took the ten commandments and boiled them down to five words:

Love God. Love your neighbor.

That’s it.

These laws are all about the relationships we have been talking about these past few weeks.

Love is the fence that guards us from harmful activity. Love is the standard for how we are to behave. Love defines who we are.

 

Throughout this series, we have been touching on the surface of some of the conflict that threatens to divide us as a church.  We are not all the same.  Across this great wide world we worship in different languages and sing different types of songs. We live in various political and social and economic realities.

And I believe that is a good and a holy thing.  But it is also a really difficult reality to live in the midst of.

All of our differences, all of our separate gifts and hopes and desires, all of the nonessentials that can tear us apart, they can only be put into perspective if we take the time to truly be in relationship with one another.

This body only works if at the core of who we are and how we live is love.

When the Apostle Paul hears about the mess that the Corinthians have made of their church by squabbling over non-essentials, he writes to them.  He wants to encourage them to be their best selves.   And if you remember from last week, he tells them that they are the body of Christ and that each of them has an important role to play in the church. He tells them that each of them is gifted and that they should pay attention to and rely upon the gifts of others. He tells them they need to give and accept help and to treat all members with respect.

And then he launches into a beautiful part of his letter that is very familiar to us.

 If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.

And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.

If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing

All of this stuff that you think is so important – Paul writes – all of this stuff that you are arguing about, it means absolutely diddly squat if there isn’t love in the midst of your community.

You could have the most money or be the most talented or live in the most beautiful house, or even have the most elegant prayers or know the scripture backwards and forwards…. But all of it is for nothing if there is not love in your life.

Paul’s not just talking about the romantic love between two people. He’s talking about deep, sustaining love. He’s talking about the love that knits people and communities together. He’s talking about the love that only comes from God.

Love that is patient and kind.

That that is not envious or boastful.

Love that doesn’t seek its own advantage and doesn’t keep a record of complaints.

Love that isn’t satisfied with injustice.

Love that endures all things.

 

As the people of God and followers of Jesus Christ, and as the people called United Methodist, we are all have the same calling: to love.

The primary thing that unites us is the love of Jesus Christ.

The love of Christ reminds us we are all sinners in need of God’s grace.

The love of Christ shows us what grace and mercy are all about.

The love of Christ is sacrificial and bends down in service to others.

The love of Christ gives life to others.

Love seeks the good of others, no matter who they are, even if it is at our own expense.
Love is not a feeling… love is a verb.

It is a daily decision to choose to love and be in relationship with others.

 

In our prayer of confession this morning, we asked that God might turn us, cleanse us, and forgive us our transgressions.

We asked that God might set us again into the procession of love that makes all things new.

 

When we leave this place today, we are going into a world that praises all of the wrong things and that desperately needs to experience the saving power of God.

We are going into a world where children are hungry and parents are frustrated.  Where the mentally ill don’t have access to care and where innocent people are trapped in the midst of countries at war.  If we took the time to list all of the problems and concerns of our nation and world we might never leave this sanctuary.

And yet, God has called us to be his hands and feet in the world.

God has called us to be the Body of Christ.

And that means that God wants us to be the answer to the world’s cries for salvation and healing.  God wants us to carry these palms into the world as a procession, a parade of love and healing and salvation.

God wants us to bind up the brokenhearted and feed the hungry.

God wants us to welcome the refugees and the strangers.

God wants us to seek peace and pursue it.

God wants us to visit the sick and imprisoned.

And through it all, God wants us to love.

 

You know, we are ending this series with the call to love, but in reality, this is only the beginning of the life that we are called to.  As Bishop Bickerton writes, love is “the source of our being, the fuel for the journey, and the goal for which we live.”

Love God.

Love your neighbors.

Amen.

Sermon on the Mount: The Golden Rule

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My sister-in-law has been staying with us all week while she completed a training here in Des Moines for her work place.  It was really nice to come home in the evenings and to be with not only my husband, but both of his siblings every evening.  We relaxed, had nice meals together, caught up on what was going on in each other’s lives and played a lot of cards.

One of our go-to games is pinochle.  You play the game with a deck made up of only 9’s through Aces, but we play with four of every single card.   There is a bid phase, a meld phase, and then a playing phase.  It’s kind of a complicated game, but once you get the hang of it, it goes fairly quickly.

Like any card game, there are endless variations on the rules.  And the thing about pinochle is that whenever we play at my sister-in-law’s house, we play with a different set of rules than when we play at their dad’s house.  In one case, a four of a kind can earn you anywhere from 40-100 points, and in the other, it’s worth absolutely nothing.  When I looked down at my hand about halfway through the game and saw four Kings of Hearts, I suddenly wished that we were playing at her house instead.

But, the house rules prevail.

A couple of weeks ago as we gathered here to explore the Sermon on the Mount, we talked about the laws of the Hebrew Scriptures, as explained by Jesus.  He took some of those well-known laws from the Ten Commandments and actually made them harder… in the end, reminding us that our aim is to be perfect, to be complete in our love.  Jesus puts his own spin or variation on them.

Now, the difference between a rule and a law is hard to distinguish.  Laws are official, because they are created and enforced by the political structure of the time – whether it is a democracy, like the United States today, or a theocracy, like the early Jewish monarchy and they have official consequences.    But rules, are standards of behavior that guide our actions and tend to be dictated by the community or environment or home that you are in.  There are consequences for rules, too, but they tend to be less severe – like a loss of privilege or opportunity.

In the case of a card game, you could think about the law being the standard way a game is played. In the game we were play, for example, a Queen of Spades and a Jack of Diamonds is a what is known as a pinochle and that is same everywhere you play the game.   But the variations, the house rules, vary and tell you a little bit about what that particular community values about the game itself.

Much of the Sermon on the Mount is made up of these “house rules.”  Jesus describes for us how it is that we play this game of life as people who are part of the Kingdom of God.  He lays out the variations that are going to guide our life and our relationships if we want to be part of this community.  These aren’t formal laws with defined consequences, but rather describe the standards that we should aspire to embody if we are going to be part of God’s Kingdom.

And the section of the sermon that we focus on this morning is no different.  When it comes to relationships, when it comes to how we live together in community, Jesus lifts up this idea of reciprocal relationship… that you should give what you want to get.

He talks about this in terms of judgment:  Don’t judge so you won’t be judged.

He talks about it in terms of seeking:  That just as you expect to get the things you need from your earthly parent, so your heavenly parent will give you good things.

And he talks about this in how we treat one another in general: Do unto others what you would have them do unto you.

 

Now, Christianity isn’t the only community to have ever expressed this rule.

In the Hindu faith we hear: This is the sum of duty:  do naught to others which if done to thee would cause thee pain. (The Mahabharata)

In Buddhism: Hurt not others with that which pains yourself. (Udana-Varga)

Islam teaches: No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself. (Hadith)

Confucius says: What you do not want others to do to you, do not do to others.

And as a contemporary of Jesus, Seneca taught: Treat your inferiors as you would be treated by your betters.

What is interesting is that in many of these other cultural and religious expressions of this idea, the rule is usually expressed in the negative.  Don’t treat others how you wouldn’t want to be treated.  It is about refraining and restraint.   And the section on judgment certainly fits that kind of characteristic when it encourages us to not point out the specks in our neighbors eye – to refrain from judging.  But Jesus also expresses this rule in the positive light – Treat others the way you want to be treated.  As MacDonald and Farstad write in their commentary on this passage, Jesus “goes beyond passive restraint to active benevolence.  Christianity is not simply a matter of abstinence from sin; it is positive goodness.” (Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments).

The Golden Rules that Jesus give us are proactive.  They invite us to take a situation and to pour God’s mercy, love, and grace into every aspect.  We should look upon every encounter with others and ask in every circumstance – how would I want to be treated in the midst of this.  And then, we are supposed to do it.  Not just think about it, but do it!  William Barclay notes that this law invites us to go out of our way to help others, and it is something that “only love can compel us to do.  The attitude which says, ‘I must do no harm to people,’ is quite different from the attitude which says, ‘I must do my best to help people.’” (The Gospel of Matthew: Volume 1)

And Jesus calls us to do our best to love all people, whether or not they deserve it.

Think about even the “law of retaliation” that comes earlier in chapter 5 of Matthew’s gospel.  Jesus reminds us that the reciprocal nature of our relationships in the past has been about an eye for an eye.  We give back what we have been given.  But Jesus challenges us to be proactive in our love… that if we are slapped on one cheek, to turn the other to them as well.  If we are sued for our shirt, we should give them our coat also.  In many ways, we are being asked to love first and ask questions later!

The world that we live in today is starkly divided.   There is a lot of pain and disagreement and conflict that is not only reflected in national politics, but it often takes its root in our homes and families and churches, too.  When I was in Chicago a few weeks ago, one of my colleagues shared that their family has cancelled their annual reunion because they have such differing political views they can’t be in the same room together any longer.    Our larger United Methodist Church is so divided about whether and how we will welcome people of varying sexual orientations that we are in a season of deep discernment about if we can even remain a united church and what it might look like if we did.   I experience this in my own family, too.

And maybe that is why a commentary piece from foxnews.com really hit home with me.  The author describes how she and her husband find a way to live together in the midst of their disagreements and I’ll share the article to our church facebook page if you are interested in reading it.  What struck me about the piece, and why I share it today, is that it lifts up that you have to start with love.  You have to start with the Golden Rule.  You have to start in a place of generosity and mercy and kindness, treating those who radically disagree with you with the same respect and graciousness that you would hope to receive back.

Jennifer Dukes Lee calls us to resist trying to be right and to not judge others by putting them in boxes.  She calls us to think before we speak and to ask if what we say is True, Helpful, Inspiring, Necessary, and Kind.  And she tells us that when we truly live in these ways, when we let love define what we do, that we can show the world that it is possible to live in the midst of diversity, if we put others first.  (http://www.foxnews.com/opinion/2017/02/16/trump-or-never-trump-what-to-do-when-cant-agree-with-people-love.html)

In this season of our national and state and home life, we need to  remember the house rules that define who we are as people of faith.  The rule of love and compassion.  The rule that invites us to put others first.  The rule that leads us to treat any person we meet the way we would want to be treated… whether they deserve it or not.

Sermon on the Mount: Jesus’ Version of the Law

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When we head back home to Cedar Rapids, one of the things that I like to do, as long as the weather is warm, is play disc golf at Jones Park.

We always start at tee 15 – in part because the parking is better there on the hilltop pavilion, and there are bathrooms handy if you need them.  And looking out from that hill, you can see the entire park.  The pond, the golf course, the playground and the pool, and just over the tree tops, you can see Mount Trashmore.

Mount Trashmore is the unofficial name of the city’s beloved landfill.  It is 208 feet tall and takes up 65 acres of land.  That is as much space as 50 football fields!

Now, I mention this, because that heap of garbage reminds me of another dump, which Jesus refers to multiple times in the Sermon on the Mount. 

As we heard our gospel reading this morning we caught just a snippet of this section on the law and if we continue for another 28 verses, we hear about how Jesus believes we should treat one another.  He talks about anger, adultery, divorce, promises, revenge and how we should treat our enemies.  And we’ll get there, but first, I think we need to spend a minute with a little four letter world. 

Hell.

This is how we translate a word that shows up three times in Matthew chapter 5 – Ghenna.

Ghenna is actually a place, the Valley of Hinnom, and it was literally a trash dump… it is a valley of garbage… it is a place for filth and waste… a place to burn and destroy the refuse of our lives. This smelly, disgusting, ugly, awful place is what Jesus is pointing to in our passage today.

Let’s forget, for just a moment, that we have typically read the word “hell” here.   Instead, put ourselves in the shoes of the first century Jews who might have been sitting on the hillside listening to Jesus teach. Imagine you can see that valley of garbage, gehenna, somewhere off in the distance… much like I could see Mount Trashmore from the hill top in Jones Park. Maybe it is just the faint smell of burning garbage that lingers on the air. Maybe it is just the rising smoke from the fires. Maybe you can actually see the heaps of trash, even from far off, just outside the gate of Jerusalem.

And as you look out at gehenna, Jesus tells you what it means to be part of the Kingdom of God. 

It takes love.

That, after all, is the summary of the law we find in Deuteronomy and echoed here in Matthew… love God with everything that you are and love your neighbor as yourself.

And we know, somewhere deep inside of us that this is what we should strive for.

We know, that this is how we were made.

And, we know, that this is where we are headed…

This is the Kingdom of God. Love. Trust. Forgiveness. Honesty. Faithfulness.

And from the beginning, there have been some rules, some laws that God has invited the people to follow to embody that Kingdom.  Jesus tells all of those people, that he is not here to do away with those laws, but to show us what it means to live them fully. 

It is all about the Kingdom of Heaven. Kingdom attitudes, Kingdom witness, Kingdom behavior.

And in this sermon, Jesus wants to talk about the trash that gets in the way of us truly living like Kingdom people. He’s talking about the garbage that has to be cleared out of our lives in order for us to be a part of this community of God.

Jesus is inviting us to let go of the things that hold us back from God’s transformative grace and love. Cut it off, throw it out, put it where it belongs… on the trash heap, out with the garbage, never to be seen again.

He is not talking about eternal punishment in some fiery place… but about what cannot, will not, be a part of the kingdom of Heaven.

If we are not honest about our failings and our missteps, if we are unwilling to clean house and transform our lives, then we are throwing ourselves out with the trash.  By refusing to examine our lives, we live out there in the dump all of our own free choosing.

 

You know, we have this image in our minds of what the Kingdom of Heaven should be, and we look around us and we see a lot of signs of brokenness, pain, and waste in our lives.

There is death and murder. There is violence and anger. There is lust and revenge and envy everywhere.

All of those things that can turn our daily lives into a garbage dump.

And right here, in this sermon to the people, Jesus tackles some of the toughest situations we face in our relationships and in the scriptures: murder, adultery, divorce, oaths and promises, revenge…

In each and every single one of these verses, Jesus challenges us to live like Kingdom people.

Not once does he give us an easy out.

Not once does he allow us to justify our actions.

Not once does he say we can ignore the wisdom of earlier days.

No. In every single one of these verses, Jesus takes a simple law and makes it harder.

Don’t just restrain yourself from killing that person… Jesus says – don’t even be mad at them

You’ve been told not to commit adultery, but I say to you – don’t even look at someone who isn’t your spouse with lust.

Divorce has become as simple as writing a letter when the spark has gone – but I say to you unless your spouse has broken the fundamentals of the covenant, and committed adultery, don’t give up on your relationship… and even then give it another try.

Don’t make promises you can’t keep. Don’t make oaths that are more than just yes and no.

Don’t seek your own revenge but love your enemies, pray for those who seek to destroy you. Turn the other cheek.

And he ends this whole section by saying what I think are the hardest two words in all of scripture: Be perfect.

What?! Be perfect? How do we do that? How can we get there?

There are two main theories about what Jesus is trying to do here.

The first, is that Jesus takes the old testament law and turns it into SUPER law… that to be Christian really requires more morality, more legalism, more demands.

The second, is that Jesus makes the law so hard we can’t live up to it. We can’t do it. We are utterly helpless when it comes to the law and therefore, we need Jesus to save us from our own downfall. So, the law convicts us… and then the law ceases to matter because Jesus is here to save us.

I’ve never been a black and white girl. I’m not a fan of either/or choices. So, I want to share with you today a third option… a both/and.

In the sermon on the mount, Jesus pointing to this future Kingdom reality and he’s inviting us to live in that reality now. He knows we are helpless to do it on our own, but he wants us to try anyways.

Be perfect, he says.

My friend Jack works with addicts and one of the things he reminds me often is that the goal of recovery groups is to help you become clean and sober. It is a community of folks who are all seeking the same end goal. Life and life abundant. Perfection. Love.

At the start of the journey, a life of sobriety is almost unimaginable. It isn’t who they are. But they know where they are going. They know who they are seeking to be. And so they try. They hold one another accountable.  They talk about when they get it wrong and they keep going.

Maybe the church needs to be a little bit more like a recovery group. We need to be a group of people, banded together, helping one another get over our addiction to sin and death, and trying to live into the kingdom of God.

And in order to do so, we have to start letting go of some of the garbage in our lives. We have to throw it out… because in the end, it just won’t do in the Kingdom of God.

Jesus calls us in each of these situations to love. Not mushy gushy love – but real, genuine, difficult, honest love. Love that forgives wrongs. Love that seeks peace. Love that refuses to fight back with violence and hatred. Love that is strong enough to overcome.

Is it easy? No.

Will we get it right on the first try? No.

Are we supposed to try anyways? Yes.

Again, and again and again.

We are supposed to try to live our lives here in the Kingdom… and not out on the garbage dump.

Live into the Kingdom of heaven… where love is our first and not our second impulse.

At Conspire worship today, we are going to sing a song during communion called, If We’re Honest.  

And the song reminds us that I’m a mess and so are you… but If we’re honest, it would change our lives.  If we’re honest, it would set us free. If we lay our secrets, our shame, our mistakes, down at the cross then we find mercy waiting for us. 

Today, friends,  I invite you to throw your past and your mistakes and the failings of yesterday on the trash heap.  Let go of them. 

And let the people who surround you in this place, this morning, help you live into the Kingdom of God we all seek.

Sermon on the Mount: Blessed

This morning, friends, you and I find ourselves in a season called “Ordinary Time”

That is the actual liturgical name for this time in the church year: Ordinary Time.

And so, last fall,  we decided to spend this Ordinary Time – this season between Christmas and Epiphany on the one side and Lent on the other to explore a sermon about ordinary things given to ordinary people.

Last week, we talked briefly about the calling of a few of the disciples – ordinary people, fishermen – and how they brought others along to follow Jesus. And they followed Jesus all throughout Galilee, where he taught in synagogues and proclaimed the Kingdom of God and healed people along the way.

And the crowds kept growing and people kept talking and inviting and bringing their friends and neighbors and siblings.

And Jesus looks around at all of those ordinary people who were following him that day – at the crowds of ordinary people – and goes up the mountain just like Moses and sits down to teach them.

 

In what we have come to know as the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus talks about the faith of ordinary people.  In the gospel of Matthew, chapters 5, 6, and 7, we find Jesus using everyday, ordinary language to talk about how we should live out the laws of the Hebrew Scriptures, about how we should treat each other, about how we should share this good news we are finding.  Over the course of these next few weeks, we might not always look at the sermon in the exact order Jesus did, but today we are going to start at the beginning.  

 

And Jesus starts with what we have come to know as the Beatitudes.  

A beatitude, a blessing, declares that certain people – based on their current circumstances, either are or will be blessed.   Eugene Boring writes in his commentary on Matthew that “they do not merely describe something that already is, but bring into being the reality they declare.” (NIB, Vol 8, p 177)  And these words are true not because of anything we have done to be in these circumstances, but because God is acting in the world, because Jesus has said it to be true.  In fact, these are not even virtues or characteristics, like the fruits of the spirit, that we are supposed to strive towards or embody, they simply name the reality of real people.

Today, I want to lead you into a bit of reflection.  I want to invite you, ordinary people, to find yourselves at the feet of Jesus hearing these words.  I want to invite you to close your eyes and imagine yourself hearing that sermon for the first time.  I want to invite you to ask where you are in this story.  (NLT translation + “Blessed are”)

 

Blessed are those who are poor and realize their need for him, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs.

Blessed are those who mourn,  for they will be comforted.

Blessed are those who are humble, for they will inherit the whole earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice,  for they will be satisfied.

Blessed are those who are merciful,  for they will be shown mercy.

Blessed are those whose hearts are pure, for they will see God.

Blessed are those who work for peace, for they will be called the children of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for doing right, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs.

Blessed are you when people mock you and persecute you and lie about you and say all sorts of evil things against you because you are my followers. 12 Be happy about it! Be very glad! For a great reward awaits you in heaven. And remember, the ancient prophets were persecuted in the same way.

Where are you in these blessings?  

Are you the poor?  Are you mouring?   

Are you the humble who are not only content with everything that you have but who are grateful for your abundance?

Are you someone who is hungering and thirsting for justice? Or the person who is showing mercy towards people who don’t deserve it?

Is your heart pure?  Are you working for peace?

Are you someone who is living out your faith in such a way that people in this world turn against you because of that faith?

Then blessed are you.  Blessed by God. 

 

The question is, how are those blessings conveyed?  How do we receive them?  

 

Eugene Boring writes that these are both future promises, but they are also the lived realities of those who participate in the community of Christ.  The mourning are comforted.  Justice is realized.  Those who seek peace find their place in the family of God.

 

And so we are invited not only to see ourselves as the ones who are poor or hungry for justice or mourning or merciful… as the people of God, as the Body of Christ, as the church that anticipates the Kingdom of God… we are also invited to see ourselves as ones who God uses to brings these blessings to others.  This is what discipleship looks like… this is what the Kingdom looks like.

 

And this is why as we near the end of Matthew’s gospel we find Jesus, seated on the heavenly throne, ushering in the Kingdom of God.  And he looks around at those crowds of people, those nations who are gathered once again at his feet.  He looks around for the people who have done ordinary acts of faith and love and care.  He looks around for the ones who have helped to usher in the Kingdom right here on earth.

Come, you that are blessed… for I was hungry and you fed me.  I was thirsty and you gave me a drink.  I was a stranger and you welcomed me.  I was naked and you clothed me.  I was sick and you cared for me, imprisoned and you visited me.

Church, this is our job.  Our job is to be people who share God’s blessing with the world.  Our job is to seek out those who are struggling and mourning, who are in pain and longing for justice.  And we are to remind them they are not alone.  We are to walk with them.  We are to stand with them.  We are to be the living embodiment of God’s will, a walking answer to the prayer that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.  You and I, that is our job. 

 

This morning, are you yearning for a blessing? Are you stuck and struggling and seeking God?

Then the good news is you are surrounded by people of faith, who are called by God to help bring about the kingdom.   Thanks be to God.  Amen. 

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!

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In today’s parable, Jesus is in the middle of teaching his disciples one last time.  He is only days away from his crucifixion in Jerusalem, days away from leaving them, days away from his death.  Jesus wants to make sure they are prepared for life after he is gone.

He is asking these people to live out their discipleship – to follow him, to become like him, to take care of each other and to carry on his ministry in the world

Much like the master in this parable who is going on a long trip, Jesus is trying to put his affairs in order so that his ministry is taken care of while he is gone.

The master, like Jesus, is entrusting an extravagant gift in the hands of his servants.

One single talent was a gigantic weight of money. It equaled 6,000 denarii. One denarii was roughly equal to a day’s wages… so if you do the math, each one of these talents was about twenty YEARS worth of pay.

In today’s terms a talent might be thought of as nearly a million dollars.

Now… this is the kind of money that most people never saw. Especially not at once.

But the Lord and master in this story has eight times this much to divvy up among his servants. One hundred and sixty years’ worth of pay… and he is leaving it in their hands.

This is a lifetime’s worth of money. It is costly. And being given all at once, you wonder what the Lord and master could possibly have left. This could very well be everything that he has.

And we know that in reality, the gift of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection was costly.

And this talent, this incredible gift, is placed into your hands.

The gift of discipleship… the gift of a lifetime of following Jesus has been given to you…

What are YOU going to do with it?

 

One of the fascinating features of this story is that not everyone is given the same amount of talents.  The master in this story looks over the skills and abilities of those who are standing in front of them and recognizes they are not the same.

As William Herzog notes, the word used here for ability could also be translated as power.  They are given these gifts because of their power, their position, because of what they have already demonstrated they could handle.

In other words, this is not a test.

No master would be foolish enough to use this much money as an experiment.

No, this ruler knows the servants, honestly assesses them, and puts in their hands exactly what they can realistically handle.

One of these servants receives a single talent.  Another two.  Another five whole talents.

What we discover in this parable is that it is not important what your power or abilities or talents are today.  It doesn’t matter how much you are given.  It is what you decide to do with your discipleship that really counts.

 

This past spring, many of you helped our church to honestly assess our ministry and our life together through a really long survey:   the Congregational Assessment Tool.

We have learned a lot of things through this tool and the leadership of our church is starting to wrestle with how to respond to various pieces.

In worship over the next couple of months, we are going to be exploring a few areas that reflect our discipleship as a church.

Now, in these scores, we were compared to 500 other churches our size around the entire country.  So these scores are not the percentage of you that said these things… but how our church as a whole compares with others

  • I work to connect my faith to all other aspects of my life (32%)
  • I experience the presence of God in my life (36%)
  • We do a good job supporting people in ministry by reminding them they make a difference (48%)
  • We prepare our members for ministry by helping them discern gifts (51%)
  • We understanding that we have a spiritual responsibility for life-long learning and formation (47%)
  • We welcome and are enriched by persons from many different walks of life (39%)

 

If I were to name a common thread that I see in these items, it would be that we as a church have abundant, extravagant gifts in our midst… and we don’t know what to do with them.

These results tell me that when it comes to living out our faith, when it comes to our discipleship, we act a whole lot like the third servant in our scripture today…. Both personally, and as a church.

And I think there are two factors at play here.

1)    As a church, we have not taken the time and energy, like the master of the story did, to help one another figure out what our abilities and position and gifts really are.   You need to know where you are starting in order to know what you have to work with.

2)    Even if we DO know what our abilities, skills, and gifts are… even if we have this talent in our hands… we aren’t sure what we are supposed to do with it.  We don’t have a clear sense of how to help it to grow

 

Here at Immanuel, we define discipleship with a phrase we use every single week:  In Christ, live a life of love, service, and prayer. 

It’s a great, easy to remember phrase… but…

What do we mean by love?  How are we supposed to pray?  Who are we serving?

How do I know if I’m doing it?

And above all… How can I do it better and more fully next week that I did last week.

That’s what today’s parable is all about, after all… taking what you have and helping it to grow.

 

So, starting today, and over the next eight weeks, we are going to break down that vision of discipleship at Immanuel into bite sized pieces.

We are going to explore what this looks like in worship and hospitality, service and generosity, formation and practice.

We’ll start next week with this whole pie and what each area of discipleship looks like at Immanuel, then over next six weeks, we’ll explore how we can take the talent placed in our hands and help it grow.

 

Figuring out where you start is the key to taking the next step.

You may have noticed a bulletin board in the foyer that includes four words:

Exploring.

Beginning.

Growing.

Maturing.

These words are going to help us to claim where we are in this journey of discipleship.

Are you someone who is brand new to this and has no idea what the possibilities are?

Are you someone who is just beginning your faith journey and you are starting to try some things out?

Are you someone who has been working on your discipleship for a while, but you still know you have room to grow?

Are you someone who understands what discipleship is all about and you have been there, done that, bought the t-shirt, and now you aren’t sure what comes next?

The truth is, it doesn’t matter where you start on this journey today.

It doesn’t matter if you are the servant in our story who was given one talent or five talents… or the servant that didn’t even get talked about who wasn’t entrusted with a talent at all.

What matters is what you do with what you have.

 

The truth of this parable is that any one of these servants could have been the ones who chose to let fear or ignorance or laziness creep in.  It could have just as easily have been the one who had been given the most who chose to do nothing with his gift.

Here at Immanuel, we are going to try to help one another not only figure out what we have, but what we can do with it.

We are going to help each other take the next step in our discipleship.

You don’t have to start with a lot in order to be faithful.  You just have to choose to do something with it.  Together… we’ll figure out how.

Amen.

Practicing Our Religion in Public

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By some accounts, yesterday morning I did exactly the opposite of what Jesus tells us in Matthew.

Some of us gathered at a local coffee shop, a public place, to pray and impose ashes and remember we are merely human.

We were out there, practicing our religion in public.

I always find this passage from the gospel of Matthew such a very strange text to be assigned for Ash Wednesday, but there it is. Every year, on this day, these are the words that are proclaimed.

When you pray, shut the door and pray in secret.

When you give, don’t look for praise.

When you fast, don’t let it show.

 

All of these seem to speak against exactly the kind of public activity of gathering in a coffee shop to impose ashes.

Or the rather public display of walking outside of the church after worship with a big black cross on your forehead.

We are starting a series in worship here at church called, Renegade Gospel, and are reminded that Jesus didn’t come to start a religion. Jesus didn’t come to hand out new rituals for us to follow.

 

But you know what, Jesus did come to start a revolution.

Jesus did come to re-instigate a relationship.

Jesus came because of the simple fact we remember today. We are nothing but dust and to dust we shall return.

 

When we look deeper and contextually at our gospel reading in Matthew today, we come to understand that Jesus isn’t warning against being religious people in public.

No, he is asking us to stop pretending to be religious just because we are in public.

Jesus is calling us back into relationship… with God, with ourselves, with one another.

He is calling us back to the reality of our sin, our failures, our outward trappings of religion that demonstrate little or no faith on the inside.

As the Message translation sums up this passage: When you come before God, don’t turn that into a theatrical production… Do you think God sits in a box seat? Here’s what I want you to do: Find a quiet, secluded place so you won’t be tempted to role-play before God. Just be there as simply and honestly as you can manage. The focus will shift from you to God, and you will begin to sense his grace. (Matthew 6:5-6)

 

That sentiment is echoed in the words of Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:13. He is reaching out to them and asking that they listen, that they heed his words, because of what they have seen and heard about his faith.

He hasn’t hidden it. He has lived it. Fully. And living his faith has gotten him into lots of trouble.

The kindness and holiness of spirit, the genuine love and truthful speech… all of it has brought dishonor, ill repute, punishment… and yet he and the other disciples persist. They are not afraid to live out their faith publically for all to see and directly in the face of the religion of the day.

 

We might think of religion as the rituals and rules, the culture and conditions of faith. It is the box we put our faith in.

But Jesus comes to break the box apart and pull us out into the world.

Jesus comes to help us understand that our relationship with him is about far more than prayerful words and pious actions.

The gospel is yearning for us to be so caught up in its mercy, love and goodness that we can’t help but live into its revolutionary reality.

We are called to stop pretending to be religious and start living faithfully.

 

Whether this morning, gathered in a public space, or right here, tonight, in this community of worship, we are proclaiming the revolutionary message of the gospel.

We are dust.

We are nothing.

We are sinful.

We need help.

And those words are anathema to our culture. In a world where we try to show how strong and powerful and successful they are – they are tantamount to treason.

But we stand on the street corner and say them anyways… because they are true.

And because Jesus has come.

The one who created us out of dust will re-create us from the dust of death.

There is mercy and forgiveness in this place.

There is life, even in the midst of death.

And that, we should proclaim from every place we find ourselves.

We should invite every friend and stranger alike into that revolutionary truth.

Hopes and Fears

Awaiting the Already.

As church, we are exploring this book, written by a pastor who served here in Iowa. And he invites us to look at the Christmas story through new lenses.

Over four weeks, we pull apart each gospel: Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John, and explore what they have to tell us about how our story begins.

Last week, we covered Mark in worship… with that strange fellow, John the Baptist, preparing the way for Jesus… calling for mountains and valleys to be leveled out as we make a straight path for God and us to connect once again.

This week, we find ourselves in one of the more traditional Advent and Christmas stories. Matthew’s version that focuses on Joseph, Herod, and the magi.

Except, this isn’t a story full of good cheer, either.

This week’s gospel story and our reading from the prophets remind us that the world is a tough, scary, dangerous place… but the good news is, God is with us. Emmanuel, God with us, has come and is coming into the midst of the struggles of our day.

***

In our Advent candle reading this morning, we hear a story from the prophets about how God is with us, even in the worst moments of our lives.

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are being persecuted for their faith, sent to burn in a firey furnace, and yet our God, Immanuel, God with us, is with them.

Their story echoes the reminder of DeVega in the second chapter of the book, “no matter what you are going through, God is in it.” (p.42)

[11:00 candle reading here]

***

God was with Shardrach, Mesach, and Abednego in the furnace.

God was with Joseph when he got the news that his fiancée was pregnant and the baby wasn’t his.

God was with the Magi, guiding them along the way.

God was and is and will be with us no matter what it is we are facing in the world today.

 

And the world today is not as merry and bright as the Christmas decorations in the store fronts would have us believe.

As DeVega writes: “wars, brokenness, violence, oppression, heartache, grief, and betrayal do not magically disappear [this time of year]. There is too much darkness in this world simply to gloss over it and pretend it is not there, all for the sake of secularized merriment and plastic good cheer.” (p. 32)

 

And friends, there has been far too much darkness in these past few weeks.

The Paris terrorist attacks.

Suicide bombings in Beiruit.

Lives lost in Baghdad during a funeral.

Marketplace shootings in Nigeria.

Continued conflict between Palestine and Israel.

A shooting rampage that ends with two police officers and a civilian killed in Colorado Springs.

And these are just the disasters on the world stage that garner media attention.

They do not speak to the personal tragedies we have experienced in the loss of loved ones, new diagnoses, or broken relationships.

 

There is so much darkness, so many reasons to fear and cower and hide.

 

We are not the first to have experienced pain and loss, threats to our lives and reigns of terror.

As DeVega writes: “there is nothing about our allegiance to God that makes us immune to heartache and disappointment.” (p.33) I would add that our faith sometimes puts us directly in the path of danger when we step out and take risks out of love or compassion or others seek to destroy our faith.

In our gospel reading, Joseph was faced with such a trial. When he found out Mary was pregnant, he could quietly break off the engagement and excuse himself from any shame or blame… OR he could himself be subject to ridicule by staying with her.

Shadrach, Mesach, and Abednego could have renounced their faith when it was challenged and they were threatened with death… OR they could continue to proclaim boldly the name of the Lord and be thrown into the furnace.

And then, the holy family: Mary, Joseph, and Jesus found themselves directly in the line of fire when Herod realized there was a threat to his reign and sought to kill all who might stand in his way. They were forced to leave everything they knew and flee in the middle of the night and seek refuge in a strange land.

 

We are called to be people of hope.

Yet, where is the hope in these stories?

Where is our hope today?

 

Hope is not naïve.

Hope is more than wishful thinking.

Hope is paying attention to Immanuel, God with us, and remembering that we are not alone.

Hope is recommitting ourselves every moment to be God’s people… even in the midst of darkness, disappointment, tragedy, and fiery trials.

 

Hope means that when fear rears its ugly head, we hold fast to the promise that God is with us.

And in these times of trial, Immanuel, God-with-us, whispers in our ear: Do Not Be Afraid.

 

So Joseph stays with Mary.

Shadrach, Mesach, and Abednego go willingly into the furnace.

Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus pack up all of their belongings and without fear leave everything they knew to risk a dangerous journey to Egypt.

 

Yes, sometimes hope means seeking refuge somewhere else, because we have faith that God is with us even far from home and that someday God will bring us back to where we belong.

 

I have to be honest… that part of the story is the one that gives my heart the biggest pause.

I find it so hard to see the hope in a story where innocent children are being massacred.

It is so hard to see the hope when hundreds of people lose their lives to terror.

And I guess that is the “already but not yet” part of this story.

Because hope is the reminder that in this difficult passage about the slaughter of the infants in Bethlehem, God set in motion a plan to protect the one who would save us all.

We are still waiting for the world to be saved.

We are still waiting for the taking of innocent lives to end.

We are still grieving and mourning and weeping with the mothers of Ramah and the mothers of Paris and Bagdad and Beirut and Yolo and Colorado Springs.

 

The only reason we have to hope is because we know the end of the story lies in the hands of our God.

God doesn’t promise to snap fingers and fix the problem.

God doesn’t promise it will immediately get better.

God doesn’t offer platitudes.

Our God tells us to stop being afraid.

It is a challenge for our faith.

As DeVega writes, God recognizes “that fear is an understandable response.”

And, friends, I have seen a lot of responses of fear in these past few weeks.

Fear that causes people lash out at those who look different from them.

Fear that causes us to shut our borders to refugees, turning our backs on those who need the most help.

Fear that labels and divides us from our neighbors.

Yet those very words, “Do Not Be Afraid,” are “a call to resistance, and a refusal to let the trauma of external circumstances consume [us] with fear and disillusionment.” (p. 34)

 

I’ve been pretty passionate and outspoken in the last couple of weeks about our response as a nation to Syrian refugees.

And that is because I firmly believe that hope is refusing to live in fear.

And what troubles me the most about the way we as a state and as a country have responded is that we are purely acting out of an emotional reaction of fear.

We have one of the most stringent processes for accepting refugees in the world… a process that was strengthened after our own country was attacked on 9/11.

It is simply a false choice to have to choose between safety and security and doing the compassionate thing.

 

As DeVega writes in his book, “the imminent arrival of Jesus” is not an excuse to turn our backs “from the miseries of this world, but to confront them squarely in the face. In fact, Matthew would not only discourage us from finding Jesus apart from our world, or apart from our time; he would invite us to find the presence of Jesus right in the midst of this world, right now.” (p. 37)

And the most vulnerable, the least of these in our day and age are those who have fled from a reign of terror in their own land and are now seeking compassion and welcome in far away places.

Hope is recommitting ourselves every moment to be God’s people… even in the midst of darkness, disappointment, tragedy, and fiery trials.

DeVega believes that the core of Matthew’s entire gospel is this: “If you are waiting for Jesus to come back some day, then stop waiting. You can find him right here on earth, right now, at this very moment. All you have to do is look in the eyes of the marginalized and the oppressed.” (p.38) Today, all we have to do is look in the eyes of a refugee from South Sudan or Syria or Bhutan.

 

Hope is refusing to be afraid.

Hope is answering the call and recommitting ourselves to being God’s people even when we are afraid.

Hope is reaching out to the least of these in the world… because it is in them, that we find our savior and our salvation.

 

Amen.