Rise Up!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

disappointing numbers

The numbers game is something that we play a lot in the church.  We want to know how many baptisms and members and monies and ministries were at play in a given year.  We want to see upward trending statistics.  We believe success lies in digits… which supposedly translate into actual lives being transformed… although I am not always convinced that it is the case.

I resist the numbers game.  I don’t let low numbers phase me if actual good solid God work is happening.  Our weekly communion service at the church averages about 7… it is faithful, transformative, worship… and if one week we have only three people there, it doesn’t upset me.  God is going to work through the conversation and interaction those three people have.  God is being worshipped in our music whether there are a few or a few hundred.

At the same time, when the numbers disappoint us and the people don’t show up, sometimes your will to keep going starts to waver a bit.

At our recent graduate breakfast at the church we planned a celebration for the four high school graduates and two college graduates we knew about who were connected to our congregation.  We sent out the invites, we purchased gifts, we decorated the hall and prepared to celebrate.  And only the two college graduates showed up.  1/3 of our guests of honor were in attendance.  And I think that smarted a little bit for the folks who had put in the hard work to make arrangements and honor those students.
I wondered how much that was simply an issue with our church.  Did we not explain it well enough?  Did we get out the information in a timely manner?  Do we smell bad?
But then only a few days later, we had our community baccalaureate service.  Of all of the students who were invited… of all the faculty and staff who recieved invitations… of all the school board members and adnimistrators… we had a grand total of five students participate and a handful of parents, community members and of course, the six pastors of our community.

To have more pastors than students was a little frustrating.  To say we were disappointed is an understatement.

What do you do with those numbers that are so low?

Do you focus your attention on the people that were touched? Yes.

Do you fret about what you cannot change? Of course not.

But what is the next step?  Do you redouble your efforts for the future?  Ignore the numbers and keep forging ahead as usual?  Consider it an anomaly in the statistics? Decide not to do it again?  Cancel it for now until another class, another set of parents, another group of people steps up and tells you it is important?

That is what I don’t know.

It would be a shame to lose this opportunity for community worship and celebration.  It would also be a shame to not mark this moment in our students lives for those who find faith important in their journey.

But if there is not energy and passion behind something, isn’t it okay to let it go for a time?

We’ll see what happens as our community ministerial alliance gets together for future conversations… but at this time, I’m not sure what I would recommend. All I know is that I’m a little disappointed.