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.

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.

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.

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.

The Karma Question

On the season six finale of House, a woman is trapped in a building and Dr. House is right there beside her while they try to get her out.
The situation is desperate.  We learn a little bit about who she is, her husband waiting back home, her hopes and dreams. But there she is. Stuck. And unable to get out.
At one point, she turns to Dr. House and asks him to pray with her.
Now, anyone who is familiar with the show knows that Dr. House is not a man of faith.  He thinks religion is superstitious nonsense that his patients should be rid of. He frequently butts heads with colleagues and those he is supposed to care for.  God is the farthest thing from his mind.
So when House is asked to pray, his first response is a resolute, “no.”  He follows up with the thought that he doesn’t believe in God.  Which leads our stuck woman, Hanna, to reply back – “neither do I.”  The two sit for a few moments in silence, presumably joining together in a moment of silent prayer to a God that neither is sure exists.
When the moment has finished, Hanna says that she used to think that if she was a good person, if she tried to do the right thing, that everything would be okay.  But here she is, stuck underneath a building.  How do these things happen?
It’s a question we all struggle with. Why do bad things happen to good people?  Is there anything that we can do to avoid the perils of this world?  And if God is so good, why is there so much pain in the world?  Well, maybe those are three different questions.  But at the root, it’s a question of theodicy. It’s a question about the power of God.
My simple answer to this question is that this is not yet the new creation.  This world is fallen.  And that is not only a statement about human sin, but about the totality of creation.  Natural disasters, accidents, illness – all of these things are signs that the world is not as it should be.
The answer to this fallenness is that God has put into motion a plan to make it all new again.  God has already begun to act in the saving work of the creation.  Already, signs of the inbreaking of the Reign of God can be seen.  The earth quakes in birth pangs… God is redeeming it all.
But it’s not done yet.  It’s not whole yet.  We are still living in a fallen, broken, messed up creation.  And so in this world, even when we do everything right – that doesn’t mean we get a happy ending.

Hebrews Part 5: The Cloud of Witnesses

We have spent the last few weeks wading through some pretty heavy stuff in the Letter to the Hebrews. Like the author makes clear – this isn’t easy material… we dove into the meat, the heart of the substance.

For those of you who have missed our explorations, in the last four weeks we have discovered that even though we at times feel unworthy – God chooses to make us worthy. And that happens through Jesus…

How it happens is another story. We looked at three ways that people understand what Jesus did on the cross: he set us free from sin and death; he paid the debt for our sins; he showed us a better way.

Usually, the church focuses just on the second one – that Jesus pays for our sins on the cross – but the book of the Hebrews talks about them all… Jesus paid our debt because he is the new high priest. But Jesus also shows us another way because he is a prophet of the most high, and Jesus can declare victory over sin and death because he is King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

Now, what we briefly mentioned at the end of last week is that unlike the way we understand grace, the writer of the Hebrews seems to believe that you can only accept Jesus into your life once. After that – if you sin you lose the benefits of what Christ has done. Really – this goes back to the thought that sin is like an addiction and a prison and what we are being asked to do here is to quit cold turkey and be set free. No turning back. No nicotine patches.

And in reality – why should we turn back? We’ve got a clean slate, the grace of God and the power of the holy spirit on our side! Hear how the Message translation puts chapter 10… Let’s do it – let’s keep a firm grip on the promises that keep us going. Let’s see how inventive we can be in encouraging love and helping out, not avoiding worshipping together as some do but spurring each other on… but you need to stick it out, staying with God’s plan so you’ll be there for the promised completion.

The only way we can do it – the only way that we can quit our former lives cold turkey and urge one another on is by trusting in the promises of God and together reminding each other of those promises. That’s what faith is all about.

Marilyn read for us today from chapters 11 and 12. And it sounds different than all of those chapters before about priests and prophets and blood and sacrifices. Here, Hebrews reminds us that countless people before us have been on this road before. Countless people before us have struggled to trust in God. Countless people before us have been called to have faith.

What you are missing in your inserts today are the names of those people – the pioneers of our faith listed in Chapter 11. People like Noah and Abraham who trusted in God’s promises so much that they took risks. People like Sarah who came to believe in the impossible. People like Isaac and Jacob and Jospeh, Moses and Rahab the prostitute, and David and Samuel… all of these people and countless others lived by faith in the promises of God – and with their own eyes never saw their hopes realized.

As the final verses of chapter 11 share with us – they haven’t received what was promised… yet… because God has a plan that makes sure they won’t be made perfect without us.

Basically – all of us – from the beginning of time to the end of time are all running the same race. We are all going on to the same goal and we are all called to trust that at the finish line glorious things await us. But unlike a race in this world where there are winners and losers, people who cross first and people who cross much later – this glory that awaits us is something we will all get to experience together.

When I traveled to Chicago a few months ago to learn at the feet of a theological giant – Jurgen Moltmann, I was struck by something that he said about death. He said, “I trust that those who died are not dead, they are with us, they are watching over us and we live in their presence. They also… are growing until they reach the destiny for which they were created.”

They are not dead – they are with us… like the cloud of witnesses in Hebrews, they are running with us and are urging us to set aside every weight and sin and to just run free this race together.

Today is a special day in the life of the church when we take a moment to acknowledge that there are others who continue to run this race with us. We acknowledge that the dead are still with us – still waiting just like we are to experience the glory of God.

I am only 27 years old and I have very little knowledge about the mystery of death. No amount of book learning can prepare us for what awaits. What I can say with certainty are some promises that we have in the scriptures.

One of those promises comes to us from the Wisdom of Solomon – the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God and no torment will every touch them… they seem to have died, but they are at peace… their hope is full of immortality.

One of those promises comes to the thief crucified beside our Lord – he is promised that today he will be with Jesus in paradise.

In the book of Revelation we have the promise of the day of resurrection – when we will all be raised and clothed in our recreated bodies and there will be weeping and crying and pain no more.

And then we have our gospel reading from John. After their brother has died, the sisters Mary and Martha are besides themselves with grief… each one pleads with Jesus – if you had been here, my brother would not have died!”

Martha knows in her heart – she trusts in the promise that on the last day her brother will be raised again. She knows that he and she and all of us are pressing onward toward that goal and that Christ is the Messiah – the Son of God who will bring us to the other side.

And surely her sister Mary understands this also. But that doesn’t take away their pain and grief at the loss of their brother in this life. No longer can they reach out and touch him or hear his laughter or look into his eyes. While they trust in the promises, it doesn’t take away their sorrow.

It doesn’t take away the grief that Jesus himself feels as he weeps before the tomb of his friend Lazarus.

What Jesus then does for us is that he gives us a glimpse of the resurrection. As Lazarus – who had been dead for four days – is called out of the tomb, we are reminded of what awaits us all.
We are reminded of the glory of God to come.
We are reminded to have faith and to trust in the promises.

This year, we have said goodbye to five people who were a part of this church family. In a few minutes we will light a candle in honor of each one of them as we remember that they are now a part of that cloud of witnesses who wait with us for the day of resurrection.

They join the countless other faithful who surround us with love and encouragement. They join the company of saints that we praise God with and that we feast with at every communion table. They join with those who have throughout history woven the fabric of our story – of our relationship with God.

I want each one of us to take those ribbons that we were handed this morning. These ribbons represent those saints in our lives who have and who continue to encourage us on in the faith. They are names that should be added to that list in Hebrews 11 – the names of people who took risks and showed us what trust was, people who taught us the faith, people who lived through tough times and survived, people who refused to give in, people who were kind to us when no one else was, people who believed in miracles.

Their stories are our stories. As we remember them, as we remember the promises that they trusted in, we find the strength to carry on.

Our table this morning is empty. The bread and the cup are here and are ready to be placed – but something else is missing. The stories of those who are also with us. The communion of the saints.

I want to invite you to come forward and to place your ribbon on the table. We are going to weave these names together into an altar cloth that will remind us every time we gather around the table that we do not gather alone.

Christ-Colored Glasses

Parker Palmer is someone who often writes about life changes and how to navigate them with faith. In college, his book, “Let your Life Speak” became required reading for all students as they thought about what vocation was calling their name. And in his book, The Active Life, he writes about a moment of insight and transformation in his own life:

I took the course in my early fourties, and in the middle of that course I was asked to confront the thing I had fears about since I had first heard about Outward Bound: a gossamer strand was hooked to a harness around my body, I was backed up to the top of a 110-foot cliff, and I was told to lean out over God’s own emptiness and walk down the face of that cliff to the ground eleven stories below.

I remember the cliff all too well. It started wit ha five-foot drop onto a small ledge, then a ten-foot drop to another ledge, then a third and final drop all the way down. I tried to negotiate the first drop; but my feet instantly went out from under me, and I fell heavily to the first ledge. “I don’t think you have it quite yet,” the instructor observed astutely. “You are leaning too close to the rock face. You need to lean much farther back so your feet with grip the wall.” That advice went against my every instinct. Surely one should hug the wall, not lean out over the void! But on the second drop I tried to lean back; better, but not far enough, and I hit the second ledge with a thud not unlike the first. “You still don’t have it,” said the ever-observant instructor. “Try again.”

Since my next try would be the last one, her counsel was not especially comforting. But try I did, and much to my amazement I found myself moving slowly down the rock wall. Step-by-step I made my way with growing confidence until, about halfway down, I suddenly realized that I was heading toward a very large hole in the rock, and- not knowing anything better to do – I froze. The instructor waited a small eternity for me to thaw out, and when she realized I was showing no signs of life she yelled up, “Is anything wrong, Parker?” as if she needed to ask. To this day I do not know the source of my childlike voice that came up from within me, but my response is a matter of public record. I said, “I don’t want to talk about it.”

The instructor yelled back, “Then I think it’s time you learned the Outward Bound Motto.” Wonderful, I thought. I am about to die, and she is feeding me a pithy saying. But then she spoke words I have never forgotten, words so true that they empowered me to negotiate the rest of that cliff without incident: “If you can’t get out of it, get into it.” Bone-deep I knew that there was no way out of this situation except to go deeper into it, and with that knowledge my feet began to move.

No matter how old we are, or experienced we are, or how familiar with the world we may be, there is a moment in each of our lives when something shifts – when we begin to see things in a whole new and transformed way. A moment where we let go of our fears and our old way of seeing things and suddenly the whole world opens up.

In many ways I had one of those moments at Annual Conference this year. For the most part, it was your regular old, run of the mill conference. We debated issues and voted on little keypads, we worshipped together and got to spend time with colleagues. But there were a few moments – here and there – where my world got turned upside down by the turn of a phrase or by a challenge issued forth from the pulpit or lectern, or a passage in the book that I took along with me.

After worship today, if you are able to stick around for our Administrative Board meeting, I’m going to be sharing a few of those challenges with the congregation. But for this morning – in light of our scripture readings I want to focus on just one… something that Bishop Trimble said from the pulpit…

“I don’t want you to tell me what’s impossible.”

Bishop Trimble was asking all of us to take a leap of faith, to take a risk and to step out on behalf of the God that we worship and to stop saying the word can’t. Things like…. We can’t start a ministry with the local Hispanic community because none of us know Spanish… He doesn’t want to hear it. We can’t grow our church because we live in a dying and aging county… He doesn’t want to hear it. We can’t be renewed and revitalized and transformed because we are a church that is already here and doing what we are supposed to be doing… He doesn’t want to hear it.

That last one is actually my own take on our Nicodemus story from this morning. In John’s gospel, this religious leader seeks Jesus out in the middle of the night to ask him some questions. He’s curious. He probably believes in many ways that Jesus – the young upstart that he is – has something to teach him. He’s willing to listen. But when Jesus starts talking metaphorically about being born again, suddenly this inquisitive Pharisee puts on his jaded glasses of disbelief and doubt.

What on earth are you talking about? You can’t be born again after you have grown old already? What, am I going to crawl back into my mother’s womb?

And Jesus looks him square in the eye – Don’t tell me what’s impossible.. Yes, you HAVE to be born of water and the Spirit to enter the Kingdom of God. You have to be reborn, replenished, revived by God’s grace… you have to accept the gift of life that I am offering you. All you have to do is say yes… and it’s yours. Don’t tell me what’s impossible.

Judith McDaniel suggests that this passage in John is as much about our ruts of disbelief and doubt as they are about those of Nicodemus. “we collect pennies from heaven when what is being offered is unimagined wealth… the very kingdom of God,” she writes. “Jesus is telling Nicodemus, and us, that God’s kingdom is here. The kingdom of God is not some far-off goal to be attained, for there is nothing we can do to attain it. The kingdom is present now, as a gift from God. Only God can gift us, can beget us as a totally new being in a new world.”

In other words, just take off those jaded glasses of disbelief and doubt and try these ones on for size. These Christ-colored glasses of truth and reality will open you up to the radical transforming power of God’s Spirit and I promise you… everything will be seen in a new light.

“In fact,” Emmanuel Larety writes, “to be in tune with God’s reign and presence we all need a transformative overhaul of our traditional ways of seeing and being… knowing and experiencing the world… [and] when this happens, it is as if we have begun life all over again.” (46, B-4)

As I think about what is happening in this congregation, I absolutely see signs of rebirth and awakening. And you know what the first clue was for me… Not once has someone said to me… We can’t. Not once has any committee or group or person said that we couldn’t do something – that it was impossible.

But I think that transformed way of seeing started long before I ever got here. I think that the summer before I arrived, when you were seriously contemplating with one another what the future of this church would be, you found yourselves on the side of the cliff with Parker Palmer. You were stuck dangling there by a thread, not being able to go back to the way things were before… perhaps not even wanting to, but also not quite knowing the steps to take next. And that motto from Upward Bound comes to my mind… “If you can’t get out of it, get into it.”

And so you dug your heels into it and took the leap of faith and were willing to find some way to move around on that cliff. That step of trust happened long before I got here, and in many ways, it is that transformation in the way you see and experience the world that has allowed me to do what I need to do.

So we definitely are on track for the first part of the Bishop’s challenge… and for responding to Jesus plea with us and Nicodemus from our gospel reading today. We are open to the possibility of transformation, of being made into something different. We are ready to say – Yes, Lord… Melt us, Mold us, Fill us, Use us… just send your Spirit upon us!

I think we are ready to see ourselves in a new light… but this morning, I want to extend that call just one step farther… I want to challenge us to look at the world and its people in this new light too.

That’s the challenge presented to us in our letter to the Corinthians this morning. Paul is begging his brothers and sisters not just to see themselves as transformed, but to see everything in a whole new way… For the love of Christ, Paul writes, urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them… From now one, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view… if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see everything has become new!

What Paul is saying is that if you are in Christ, if you are wearing your Christ-colored glasses, the whole world and everyone who is in it is transformed before your eyes. As John Stendahl puts it, if we see in the imagination of our hearts, ourselves, our foes, and this old world all thus transfigured by the death of Christ, will we not deal differently with each? (138, B-4)

If we are going to be transformed… if we are going to be the living Body of Christ in this community… then we have to see everything differently. We need to see that cliff we are on not as a challenge, but as an opportunity. We need to dig in our heels and dive in deep to this part of the world that we find ourselves.

This past week, we had a horrible tragedy in our community. In fact, as we were driving home from Annual Conference late on Sunday afternoon, we drove right by the house on L Avenue where the unspeakable happened. And I got to thinking about the theme of our whole conference – radical hospitality – and what it means to invite and welcome people into our midst.

As your pastor, I knew that there were people hurting in this community following this tragedy. I knew that there were people feeling forsaken who needed to be surrounded in prayer. I knew that we were lost in how to respond. And so I set up a space for prayer here in the building. And I contacted a few of the people I knew who had been personally affected and let them know about it.

I had no idea if anyone would show up. I had no idea what I could possibly say or offer – except I knew that Christ was here.

I’m not sure that anyone physically showed up. But I know people were affected by the fact that such a place even existed – that there was a place – whether they decided to come or not – where they could go. A place where people who were lost and hurting would be welcomed with open arms.

That is after all, how we started this worship service… with a cry to gather us in.

Here in this place, new light is streaming
now is the darkness vanished away,
see, in this space, our fears and our dreamings,
brought here to you in the light of this day.
Gather us in the lost and forsaken
gather us in the blind and the lame;
call to us now, and we shall awaken
we shall arise at the sound of our name.