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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

J&MES: Faith & Action

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This month in worship, we are going to be focusing on the book of James in the New Testament.

It is all the way in the back of our bibles… just after Hebrews and right before a couple of shorter letters that lead into Revelation.

This book is actually a letter written by James to many churches.

And while I encourage you to read the whole letter… it’s only five chapters… we are going to be focusing on a just a few of James’s main points.

Sometimes, we are asked to embrace the both/ands of life… like faith & action.

Sometimes, James will show us how the &’s in our life… like blessing & cursing… are keeping us from being faithful.

 

Will you pray with me:

Gracious God, may the words of my mouth and the meditation of all our hearts and minds be holy and pleasing to you, O God, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

 

You must be doers of the word and not only hearers.

You must study the word and then put it into practice in your life.

 

Sometimes, James gets a bad rap. In fact, Martin Luther… the same guy that nailed up his demands on the door of the church and started the reformation… wanted to leave this letter out of his bible precisely because of this theme of faith & action.

We talk a lot about faith. We talk about how the only thing we have to do to receive God’s love is to believe. To trust. That faith alone matters. There is nothing we can DO to earn salvation.

The problem is not that James disagrees.

It is that James defines faith a little bit differently.

He doesn’t see it as an either/or. It’s not that we choose between faith and action to get to salvation.

It’s not even that it’s a two-step process. First, faith…. Then, works.

No, in James’s understanding they are the same thing. You simply can’t have one without the other.

Faith, when it is alive, can be seen in the works we do and in the ways we treat one another.

Put another way… actions are the fruit that grow on a healthy and living tree of faith.

 

I had a whole sermon in the works that basically took that point and ran with it…

But I realized yesterday that it was just me, saying a whole lot more than I needed to say on the topic.

 

James is pretty clear (and this is the Message translation):

Does merely talking about faith indicate that a person really has it? For instance, you come upon an old friend dressed in rags and half-starved and say, “Good morning, friend! Be clothed in Christ! Be filled with the Holy Spirit!” and walk off without providing so much as a coat or a cup of soup—where does that get you? Isn’t it obvious that God-talk without God-acts is outrageous nonsense?

 

I was going to stand up here today and give you a whole lot of God-talk.

But we need some God-acts today.

We need to see where we have simply been looking on and praying and wishing people well without living out our faith.

 

And I’m thinking specifically about those who are naked and hungry and hurting today.

I’m thinking about the images of children being washed up on shore we saw this week.

I’m thinking about the millions of families who are fleeing from the violence in Syria.

According to Mercy Corps, more than 11 million people are displaced.

More than half of those who have been forced to flee their homes are under the age of 18.

4 million Syrians have registered or are awaiting registration with the United Nations High Commission of Refugees.

(Read more from Mercy Corps here)

And hundreds of thousands of them are risking a dangerous and costly trip across the Mediterranean Sea to get to Europe. One man, Abu Jana, told the Guardian, “Right now Syrians consider themselves dead. Maybe not physically, but psychologically and socially [a Syrian] is a destroyed human being, he’s reached the point of death. So I don’t think that even if they decided to bomb migrant boats it would change people’s decision to go.”

 

We have seen how our own ancestors in faith, like Abraham, Lot, Jacob, Moses, and Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were refugees themselves… fleeing from persecution, famine, violence, and war.

And because of their experiences, we have been told over and over again in our scriptures about our call to care for immigrants and refugees.

Exodus 22: You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien; for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”

Leviticus 19: You shall not strip your vineyards bare… leave them for the poor and the alien.

Leviticus 24: The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.

Psalm 146: The Lord watches over the strangers…

Isaiah 16: Be a refuge to the outcasts of Moab.

Malachi 3: The messenger will bear witness against those who thrust aside the alien.

Each of these passages uses the Hebrew word nokri (nok-ree’), which can be foreigner, alien, or stranger…

And when we get to the New testament, we hear over and over again the call to reach out to the strangers among us.

Matthew 25: I was a stranger and you welcomed me

Romans 12: The Mark of the true Christian…. Extend hospitality to strangers…

 

Will we simply hear the words? Or will we live out our faith?

 

Yesterday, I read a blog post from a woman named Ann Voskamp and I decided to rewrite most of this sermon.

Because she reminded me that this is not a new problem… and that I have been sitting back and not doing much for a while now.

And I felt after reading her words like the person James was talking about in his letter… who hears the word of God but doesn’t do it. Who listens and then forgets.

And what I love about her post is I felt like I have something I could do.

Like there are things WE can do.

Ways for the church to be the church and live out our faith.

 

The first thing we can do is simply understand the problem and let it move you. Maybe some of the facts I have shared today, or the stories you have seen and heard this week are part of that for you.

 

Second, while we may not be able to physically make a journey to Syria or the Mediterranean to make a difference, we can advocate for our government to open the doors to more refugees who are seeking a life for themselves and their families.

You can write a letter to one of our congressional leaders.

You can sign a petition at whitehouse.gov for our country to resettle Syrian refugees here.

And after worship today, you can take a picture of yourself with this sign (#refugeeswelcome), post it on social media, and encourage others to share the word with our government as well. In fact, I encourage everyone who wants to do so, to come back up to the front after worship so we can take some pictures together.

 

Third, you can support the organizations that are on the front lines making a difference.

Doctors without Borders.

The Migrant Offshore Aid Station, which is a family foundation that has launched a private ship to rescue people at sea.

World Vision.

Our very own United Methodist Committee on Relief.

The list goes on and on and a number of different organizations are included in Ann’s blog. If you are so moved, choose one that inspires you and give financially to support their efforts.

 

The last thing that we can think about doing…. is to consider sponsoring a refugee family yourself.

I was amazed last winter as we celebrated the life of Evie Surface to learn about her efforts to help settle refugees from Vietnam here in the United States.

She was just one person, but she believed that Jesus meant it when he said that we were to love the widow and orphan and stranger among us.

Here in Des Moines, the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants helps to resettle refugees and they have a wide range of opportunities for you to give of your time and energy to help folks who have sought home here in our community.

 

Hearing and Doing.

Faith and Action.

 

“It is the seamless unity of believing and doing” the Message translation of James tells us. (2:25-26)

 

We have heard the word this morning. A word of calling to reach out in love to the last and the lost and the least in this world.

And as that seed is planted in our hearts, may it bear fruit in the world.

Amen.