God Moves In

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“Before the creation of the world,” Ephesians tells us, God had a plan.

Before you made plans to join us here in worship at Immanuel.
Before the star in the sky led the Magi to Bethlehem.
Before the prophets first heard the voice of God.
Before the moon and the stars were set in the sky.
Before everything!
While “the earth was without shape or form” as the first words of the Bible tell us…
And while “the Word was with God and the Word was God” as John proclaims…
There. Was. A. Plan.

What kind of a plan was this?
If we look to the root of the word used here in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, oikonomia, we find that it describes the administration of a household or an estate.
It’s the same word we find at the root of ecology and economy.
It describes how something is held together… the rules that govern how it functions, what sustains it, how it thrives.
So Paul is telling us that from the very beginning, God had a plan for how all of creation, God’s household, was going to work.
God wanted to bring everything – from the highest heights of heaven to the deepest crevices of the earth – together and to make a home among us.
And God’s plan was made known to us in Jesus Christ.
Immanuel.
God-with-us.

In these weeks leading up to Christmas here at Immanuel, we have been exploring God’s love for all of creation.
When we open up our bibles to the very first chapters, we discover this plan of God’s was already set in motion.
For six days, God was building, creating, and giving life to all things in the heavens and on earth.
And God looked around and saw that it was all very good.
And then God rested.

Now, I have to admit to you. Typically, when I think about God resting, I imagine that God goes back to wherever God has come from… leaving earth to go and take a day off.
After all, that is how we treat Sabbath, isn’t it?
The day we get away from everything?
Turn off the work email… veg out in front of the television and watch Netflix… get away from everyone and go fishing or golfing?

But, what if we have it all wrong?
What if the Sabbath is part of God’s plan?
What if in that moment of rest, God is with us?

The theologian Jurgen Moltmann describes Sabbath as a time when God “begins to ‘experience’ the beings he has created… He adopts the community of creation… He allows them to exist in his presence. And he is present in their existence.” (God In Creation, page 279)
God-with-us. Immanuel.
God creates us and on the Sabbath day of rest and presence, heaven and earth are one.
That’s why we are called to honor the Sabbath and make it holy.
Because whenever we truly stop to rest and worship and simply be in God’s presence, we are participating in that amazing plan set in motion before the stars were put in the sky.
We remember that God has already moved into the neighborhood.

If we are honest with ourselves, however, we know that is not how we usually keep the Sabbath.
In fact, throughout human history, the people of God have often forgotten the presence of God in their midst.
We turn our backs on God.
We seek our own will.
We make mistakes and fail in our humble striving.
But God is not content to be driven out of our lives.
God refuses to be turned away.
God has a plan, remember, and so God acts over, and over again, in ways that bring heaven and earth together.
After all, as John’s gospel tells us, “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light.” (John 1:5)
And so God heard the cries of the oppressed and rescued them and brought them into the land of milk and honey.
And so God called the people of faith over and over again through the words and actions of the prophets.
And then God acts by coming in really close… diving in deep to all of the mess and the struggle, the pain and sorrow of our human worldly lives.
As we moved away from God, God moves towards us.
The Word became flesh.
Immanuel.
God-with-us.

And it happened in a particular life, in a particular time, in a particular place.

Now… I don’t want to ruin the Christmas story for you… but I’ve come to realize that we’ve been telling it wrong.
And I think when we hear this story again, put back into its context and place, in many ways the story of Christmas becomes all the sweeter and more meaningful.

You see, as we read in Luke’s gospel, Jesus was born in the city of Bethlehem to parents who really weren’t anyone important. And Mary “wrapped him snugly, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the guestroom.”
When you look back to the original koine Greek, it says katalyma. This was a place where travelers spent a night… and while it could have referred to an inn, it was used to describe “the sleeping area in a single-room Palestinian peasant home” or a guest space in such a house.
The homes in Bethlehem would have had one large living space and if they were lucky, they might have had a smaller private room set aside for guests.
There would have been an area by the entrance where animals were brought in at night to keep them safe and warm.
And that large multi-purpose room would have not only had places to sit and eat and cook… but also mangers, built out of wood or hollowed out of the ground, where straw for those animals were kept.

The scene reminds me a lot of Christmas celebrations among either sets of my grandparents. You see, my dad was one of five kids and my mom was one of seven kids and the holidays were always a big deal. Everyone would come back home and the grown-ups would get the bedrooms that they slept in as children, but the grandkids would all pile together in the living room with sleeping bags and pillows. If you had to get up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, you had to take care not to step on one of your relatives!

If we peered back into Bethlehem on that night long ago, instead of a cold and lonely couple huddled in a shed, we probably would have discovered Mary and Jospeh surrounded by family… in fact, maybe a bit too crowded by family – remember, Luke says there wasn’t room in the guest room. Everyone had come to town to be registered in the census so aunties and uncles and cousins galore would have been packed into the room together.
And right there in the midst of it all – in a normal home, in an everyday life, in the midst of community and the animals, Christ was born.
God moved into the neighborhood.
Immanuel.
God-with-us.

I think the most powerful statement of the incarnation is the reminder that right here… on this earth, among all of creation, surrounded by our community, is where we are redeemed.
God’s plan is not that this earth will waste away and we will be whisked away to some far off heaven.
No… in Jesus Christ all things in heaven and on earth will be brought together.
Right here is where salvations shows up.

As we have been leading up to this day, this time of worship, when we remember the birth of Christ, we have also been looking ahead to a moment that is yet to come.
For, we are still waiting.
This morning, I prayed for two colleagues who lost their mothers yesterday.
This world is still filled with disease and struggle and this might be the last Christmas we celebrate with certain loved ones.
We even remember that places like Bethlehem are today places of conflict and strife.
God’s plan isn’t complete yet.

So as people of faith, we are also looking ahead to that day of new creation when the kingdom of God is made known.
John tells us that the light shines in the darkness and has not been overcome by it… and when we keep reading to the Revelation, we find hope in the words that “death will be no more. There will be no mourning, crying or pain anymore… There will no longer be any curse… Night will be no more. They won’t need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will shine on them.” (21:4, 22:3,5)
At the climax of all times, when the plan is fully complete, the heavens and earth will be brought together and God will make a home among us.

The Letter to the Ephesians may seem like a strange text to share together on Christmas Eve, but for me it is a reminder that the promises we hope for can already be experienced right now. Paul’s words here remind us that while the plan isn’t quite yet complete… it has already become a reality within the church.
You see, from the moment the heavens opened and the angels began to proclaim the birth of our Messiah, we have been invited to participate and respond to the kingdom of Glory.
Shepherds left their flocks to search out the baby in the manger.
Magi traveled great distances to greet the newborn King.
Fishermen would leave their boats to follow the Messiah.
Rich men like Zacchaeus gave away their wealth.
Scholars like Paul set aside everything they thought they knew about God to discover the message all over again and then carried it across the world.
The ripples from the birth of that one moment built the church, the Body of Christ alive in this world today.
Friends, you and I are that body of Christ right here and right now.
And as Ephesians 2 tells us, “we are God’s accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to do good things. God planned for these good things to be the way that we live our lives.”
We have been adopted into God’s household, filled up with the Spirit of God, and called to imitate Christ wherever we go.
So fall on your knees in this time of worship.
Remember that God set the stars in the sky and the ground beneath our feet.
Imagine the birth of that child in Bethlehem.
And ask how God is inviting you today to love one another and to bring peace and joy to all who struggle.
Because it is through you… and you… and you… that the presence of God can be known in this neighborhood today, and tomorrow, and the day after that.
YOU are also God’s plan for this world.

Enough…

“Enough” by John van de Laar

Worry and stress are not hard for us, God,
We do them without thinking:

There is always the potential of threat
To our security,
Our comfort,
Our health,
Our relationships,
Our lives.
And we foolishly think that we could silence the fear
If we just had enough money,
Enough insurance,
Enough toys,
Enough stored away for a rainy day.
It’s never enough, though;
The voice of our fear will not be dismissed so easily.

But in the small, silent places within us is another voice;
One that beckons us into the foolishness of faith,
That points our gaze to the birds and the flowers,
That in unguarded moments, lets our muscles relax.
And our hearts lean into loved ones.;
In unexpected whispers we hear it,
Calling us to remember your promises,
Your grace,
Your faithfulness;
And, suddenly, we discover,
That it is enough.
Amen.

A week or two ago as some of us came into church on Sunday morning, you might have noticed a police car here at Immanuel.
Overnight, the garage in our yard was broken into and a snow blower and set of tools had been stolen. They weren’t fancy or terribly expensive, but they were ours. The garage door was damaged in the process and our amazing and excellent Trustees have been working since then to secure the garage, increase a bit of our security, and help keep us all safe.

The neighborhoods around our church are changing.
We have had quite a few shootings recently and we are not the only ones who have experienced break-ins. Whether it is cars, or garages, or houses, there has been an increase in crime.
Our neighborhood is also becoming more diverse. Economic inequality is growing. We see more people of color and more languages are spoken in our midst.
I hesitate to correlate these things, but they are all part of the fabric of what is changing around us.

I think about this reality as we start our new worship and stewardship series: Moving Out of Scare City.
Des Moines is a fantastic place to live and work and grow. It was named the #1 city for young professionals a few years ago.
Yet, we were also in the top 10 list of worst cities for African-Americans in the nation.
We have had a higher murder rate this year than we have in a long time.
More of the students in our schools are on free and reduced lunches.
One in five children in Polk County are hungry.
There are some things about our neighborhood and city that feel less safe and more scary.

I think about the poem by John van de Laar that I shared with you and our temptation to silence that fear through money, insurance, security, gadgets… by clinging ever more tightly to what we have.
When it feels like death, hunger, and the overwhelming struggles of the world loom all around us some of us think about moving out. We want to separate and wall ourselves off from the problems and focus on taking care of our own.
Some churches around us have done that.
They moved out to the suburbs.
Or their church no longer looks like the neighborhood it is situated in.
Their beautiful sanctuaries and people in fancy clothes who walk into them on Sunday mornings stand in stark contrast to the needs of the people that surround them.

In many ways, I think that was the impulse of the people we follow in Genesis this morning.
In chapter 10, we find a listing of all of the descendants of Noah as they developed into the nations of the earth. One of his great-grandsons, Nimrod, began his kingdom with Babel.
While we don’t know of the threats or dangers that surrounded them, the scripture tells us in verse 4 that they wanted to make a name for themselves.
The promise of God that came to Noah was that he and his sons would “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth.” They were meant to spread the knowledge and blessings of God across the planet.
But this group of descendants feared being scattered over the face of the earth. They feared falling apart.
The potential threat of losing their identity, their status, their place in the world caused them to foolishly throw themselves into building a tower.
They believed that if only the tower were strong enough…
Rich and famous enough…
High enough…
Nothing would threaten them.

But this is not God’s desire or intention for our lives.
God doesn’t want us to worry about getting more and more or protecting only ourselves.
In fact, God knows that if we live our lives that way it will never BE enough.
We will always be unsatisfied and fearful.

Instead, God calls them… and us… to turn our attention away from ourselves.
God tells them they don’t need a tower – they are already enough.

And then God confuses them, scatters them, diversifies them.
Like the bloom of a dandelion becomes a thousand seeds that drift away to far flung places on the wind, God caused the people of Babel to be scattered to the winds – speaking different languages, practicing different customs, becoming different people.
In whatever place they found themselves, they began to look like the ones they were surrounded with.
They allowed the blessings of that new place to transform them.

When we look out on our neighborhood, it is tempting to see the diversity as a threat that might cause us to lock the doors of our building even tighter.
We might turn inward and stop reaching out, stop making connections, stop inviting others to join us.
OR
We could listen to that still small voice that beckons us out into the neighborhood.
We could open our doors to those who are yearning to find a relationship with God.
We could reach out in love and grace to even those who would rob us.
We could find ways to allow ourselves to be transformed and blessed by people who don’t look like us.

When I think about the legacy that Immanuel is building, I don’t see us building up a monument to ourselves, but I think about the ways we have opened our doors to welcome others in.
Not only do we gather and collect food for our neighbors through DMARC, but our front lawn is an invitation for our neighbors to come and take a book or what they might need for an evening meal.
Our building is available for other groups like Bikers Against Child Abuse to gather and plan so they can do the important work of ministry they feel called to.
We realized we had more than enough space to allow a small group of African refugees to come in and worship with one another. Under Pastor Joshua’s leadership, they became a congregation that now has a building of their own!
Our space was empty for just over a year, when this summer, a new friend called the church, looking for a place to worship.
Her name is Mu and she is one of many folks from southeast Asia, Myanmar in particular, who have built a community here. They were looking for a place where they could worship in their own native tongues… but also where they could build relationships with others.
Over the last few months, we have gradually been exploring what this new relationship might look like. Our Fireside Room was sitting fairly empty and on Sunday mornings their group has been gathering in that space to worship and pray.
They don’t have a pastor, but a volunteer from another church has been teaching in Burmese. Mu then translates into another language, Karenni. Their children are joining our children in Wednesday night activities and children’s church and we are navigating multiple languages at once!
On this day when we celebrate World Communion Sunday, I remember that while the people of Babel sought to make a name for themselves, God calls us to share the divine love with all people and to celebrate and delight in the diversity and abundance of all we share this neighborhood with.
Young and old. Rich or poor. Black, Hispanic, Asian, White.
This is what church looks like.
This is what blessing looks like.
And as we join and share and break bread, we remember that we don’t have to fear that we will not have enough.
With God’s help, there is always enough.

Them, Too!

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When I was looking at seminaries, two of my top schools were in Chicago right across the street from one another in the Hyde Park neighborhood. My mom and I went to visit and we started to imagine what life would be like if I was there. My brother, Tony, was also attending school in Chicago at the Illinois Institute of Technology – right near the White Sox stadium. I started envisioning hopping on the L and going to visit him and all of the possibilities.

But I remember as my eyes lit up, my mom looked back at me with a tiny bit of fear in her eyes. “Katie Marie” she said. “I don’t want you traveling alone in that part of town.”

It was hard enough to send her son to the big city… but her daughter?

We ALL have some definition of what “that part of town” is like. But it is different for each of us.

For some of us, “that part of town” is the street where all the shops are boarded up and folks loiter on the corner.

For some of us, “that part of town” is full of expensive houses and we might get pulled over because of the color of our skin.

For some of us, “that part of town” is where we read about shootings and crime.

For some of us, “that part of town” is where we were a parent or relative was spit on or discriminated against.

It is the place where people aren’t like me. Where we are afraid of what might happen to us if we went there. It is the place where we just can’t wrap our minds around what life must be like there.

And the truth is, we all live in somebody else’s “that part of town.” Or “that part of the country.” Or “that part of the world.”

Each of you were handed this morning a slip of paper.

I want to invite you to take it out right now and hold it in your hand.

This morning, I want to invite us to think about those places where we refuse to go. The people we aren’t sure we want to talk to. The situations we would rather keep our distance from. Maybe it is because you have been hurt. Maybe it is because you are afraid.

This is just for you… not for anyone else to see or read… and what I’m going to ask is not going to be easy.

I want to invite you to write on that paper a place that you stay away from. I want you to think about someone you have intentionally not tried to build a relationship with and write their name. I want us all to spend a minute or two in silence as we reflect and are honest with ourselves and with God.   What people or places come to your mind…

[ pause ]

That might have been the longest minute some of us have ever spent in worship.  I know that wasn’t an easy exercise and I thank you for giving us that time.

Now, fold up that paper and hold it in your hand.

I want you to know that you are not alone.

We all are afraid at times.

We all hesitate to go to certain places.

We all have baggage and prejudice and facts and excuses and our reasons for staying away.

You are not alone.

In fact, Jonah, is just like each of us.

If he was with us this morning, Ninevah would be written on that sheet of paper.

The city of Ninevah was full of horrible, terrible people.

In the book of Nahum the prophet, chapter 2 and 3, we read about their misdeeds:

“Doom, city of bloodshed – all deceit, full of plunder: prey cannot get away. Cracking whip and rumbling wheel, galloping horse and careening chariot! Charging calvary, flashing sword, and glittering spear; countless slain, masses of corpses, endless dead bodies – they stumble over their dead bodies!”

That’s not a pretty picture!

It’s not surprising that Jonah doesn’t want to go.

How would you feel if God asked you to go to this violent, wretched city and tell them all they were about to be destroyed by God’s wrath?

Jonah bought a ticket and headed as fast as he could in the opposite direction.

Well, if you remember the story of Jonah, that didn’t work out so well. He got kicked off the ship, swallowed by a whale, and spit up on the shoreline.

And finally, reluctantly, with fear and trepidation in his heart, he goes.

He goes to “that part” of the world. To “those people.”

He goes to the city and preaches a one sentence sermon:

“Just forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown!”

He repeats it over and over again as he walks across the city.

Think about “that place” you have written down.

Could you do that?

Not just go to that place you fear, but actually proclaim their destruction?

I think the core of this one sentence sermon was the message that all was lost.

The people were too far gone.

They were just too terrible and God was ready to wipe the slate clean.

And Jonah thought so, too.

He thought the world would be better off without them in it.

What a terrible thing to say.

And yet, if we thought long and hard about the people and the places we have written on our little scraps of paper, I wonder if that phrase maybe had crossed our mind the past.

Anytime we write off someone as hopeless… or treat a community as if it didn’t exist… or think “wow the government would be a whole lot better off if (insert political party here) weren’t around”… we are doing the same thing.

We have done it throughout history… and we have had it done to us.

Whenever the line has been drawn of us/them, good/bad, right/wrong, folks of all sorts of different faith traditions have felt divine calls to pronounce judgment.

The good news is, it isn’t up to us.

Because even when we have declared something hopeless, God isn’t ready to be done yet.

God could have just sent a plague or rained down fire from above upon Ninevah.

But God didn’t.

God called Jonah.

God warned the people.

God gave them a chance.

And even though Jonah didn’t even offer up the possibility of hope in his one sentence sermon of destruction, the people changed their ways.

They repented.

They turned to God.

The entire kingdom, from the king to the lowest in their midst put on sackcloth and ashes.

As Rev. Bill Cotton pointed out in his reflection this week, some translations say even the cattle repented!

Over this season of Epiphany, we have been exploring the light and the dark. We have been wandering back and forth between the two, and one of the things I hope we are discovering is that the dark isn’t a terrible awful place.

There is possibility in the dark.

There are the seeds of creation and re-creation.

And even a place like Ninevah… Even a place or a person like (hold up your piece of paper)… isn’t lost. It isn’t hopeless.

The question is, are we willing to look for the possibility of change?

Will we open our eyes to see the good in a neighborhood or another person?

Will we lay aside our fears and prejudice and assumptions and go to build relationships?

Will we celebrate when we witness transformations?

Will we ourselves be transformed?

Yes, you, too.

Because God is working on your life also. All those pieces of you that are bent out of shape and bruised and dented. You aren’t hopeless either.

So in the words of Christ, “Now is the time! Here come’s God’s Kingdom! Change your hearts and lives and trust in the good news!”