In the Desert

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In these weeks before our season of Advent starts, we’ve been exploring the Psalms of our scriptures.
Rev. Andrea Severson joined us at the end of October to talk a bit about times of transition and journeying and the songs the Israelites wrote to accompany them on the way.
Last week, as we remembered our saints, Pastor Todd reminded us of how God walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death.
Today, we turn our attention to one of the Psalms of Lament. These songs of lament, frustration, and longing make up over half of the psalms within our Bible!
They are the words that we cry out when we are troubled, persecuted, frustrated, and hopeless.
“There’s got to be more than this,” we say. “There’s got to be more than this.”

This particular psalm is one written by David and the note in the scripture itself indicates it was during a time when he had fled to the wilderness. Likely, it was written after he had become the King of Israel. His very own son, Absalom, led an insurrection and David was forced to run for his life.
And there, in the desert, he cries out…
Not just for water…
But for the very presence of God.
Robin Gallaher Branch writes that “although his body wastes from dehydration, his spiritual longing for God takes precedence. Hunted and afraid for his life, the psalmist remembers God’s protection and loving-kindness… his soul longs for God.”

In the midst of our trials and tribulations, in the midst of the pain in this world, do we, too, cry out with the psalmist?
Do we believe “there’s got to be more than this?”
Do our souls hunger and thirst for God?
And can we hang on to the vision of God’s enduring love in the midst of our longing?

Last week, brothers and sisters in Christ gathered in a sanctuary in Sutherland Springs, Texas for worship. They were there to pray and to sing and to worship God… and twenty-six of them lost their lives.
Yet another mass shooting in America.
Yet another tragic loss of life.
And I feel like we are lost, wandering the desert, parched with our longing for the violence to end. Parched with exhaustion from debating types of weapons. Parched with weariness from trying to understand the motivations for such acts.
There has got to be something more than this.

And so, we are gathered here, today, seeking God… thirsting for God… turning our hands and our lips towards the divine…. Clinging to the one who has upheld us before.

What comes next?

Do we turn inward and lock the doors?
Do we get lost in debate about causes and solutions?
Do we stop loving and trusting our fellow human beings?
Or is there something else?

In some ways, I wonder if the lessons of Veteran’s Day are precisely the ones we need in the midst of a desert like this.
After the Treaty of Versailles was signed, the “Great War” finally saw peace on the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month. It was believed to have been “the end of ‘the war to end all wars.’”
The next year, President Wilson proclaimed November 11 as Armistice Day… a day commemorated “by paying tribute to the heroes of that tragic struggle and by rededicating ourselves to the cause of peace.”

You see, in the midst of all of that loss and pain and grief … in the midst of the desert of destructions and sacrifice… as they looked out upon that broken world and believed that there had to be something more than this… they named what they were longing for – peace – and they set it before them as a vision for what they would pursue.

In 1926, Congress officially recognized the date as a legal holiday – a “recurring anniversary of this day, commemorated with thanksgiving and prayer and exercises designed to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations.”

And yet, even with that vision of peace before us, it was not the war to end all wars.
There was a second world war, and then the Korean conflict, and we know that since those days countless of our brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, friends and neighbors have served our country around this world.
In 1954, aware of this reality, President Eisenhower proclaimed that we would expand this day to honor the veterans of all wars and to “reconsecrate ourselves to the task of promoting an enduring peace so that their efforts shall not have been in vain.”

In the midst of our own desert of perpetual war and violence, we believe there has got to be something more than this.
And so we cry out every year, longing and thirsting for God’s peace to prevail across this world.

Maybe the question is… have we truly reconsecrated ourselves to the task of peace?
Simply marking a holiday is not enough…
How are we called to live differently in order to help God’s peace to be known all across this world? How do we lift up our hands and call upon God’s name and allow the divine power and glory to shape our world?

This past week, a colleague wrote a reflection about the kind of preparation she plans to do in the wake of more violence. Instead of preparing her church for someone who might burst in with a weapon, she wants to prepare her church to work against violence in this world.
And friends, there are lots of ways we can do that.

We can mentor students in our schools who are at risk for joining gangs.
We can work to provide better mental health care for our neighbors.
We can respond to domestic violence and take seriously the stories of women who are assaulted and work to not only keep them and their families safe, but provide help for those who are perpetrators.
We can get to know our neighbors and become a part of creating a community where people have one another’s backs and look out for what is happening.
We can talk about the gospel stories that teach us how to respond to oppression and injustice and hatred – often by heaping on extra doses of love and compassion and working for justice.
We can be a church that helps our children, especially our boys, learn healthy ways to express their emotions and to play so that they don’t grow up to believe that anger has to be expressed through violence.

If in the midst of this desert of violence, we turned our eyes to God and allowed that vision of peace to quench our thirst…
if that was the deep well from which we as a church and as a community chose to drink from…
if in the midst of this barren and hopeless struggle we chose to turn our eyes to the Lord and to bless God’s holy name and to cling to the one who has been our help…
then like David, we might find our souls satisfied.

May it be so. Amen.

The Spirit of Peace

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This is a vuvuzula. It is a long, narrow horn that really caught on in World Cup soccer matches a few years back.

These simple horns can produce up to 120 decibels of sound when you are standing just three feet in front of them. That is as loud as a rock concert or a jet engine. It’s kind of hard to believe that such a little piece of plastic can make all that noise!

At that level of sound, there can be permanent hearing loss, damage, and actual pain from the noise that is involved.

So, if we imagine 300 men, surrounding the Midianite army in the middle of the night, blowing horns and smashing pots and creating the noise of 300 rock concerts going off in the middle of the night – maybe, just maybe, we can understand why the Midianite army turned around and fled before a rag tag bunch of soldiers under the command of a man named Gideon.

As children, when we hear the stories of God’s victory in the Old Testament, we might be reminded of how Joshua fit the battle of Jericho and made the walls come tumbling down with marching and shouting.

We might think of the shepherd boy David and how he took down the giant of a man Goliath and thus saved the day.

Or we might think of the story we heard this morning about Gideon’s defeat of the enemies with a bunch of horns and smashed pots.

As children, we hear these tales of God’s victory… but rarely do we go into the harsh realities of battle and war. We conveniently skip over the parts of the story where men, women, children, and animals are destroyed in the name of God.

As adults, when we reread these familiar and inspiring stories I know I start to wonder what kind of a God the Old Testament describes… how could this be the same Prince of Peace that we find in the gospels? Where is the God of mercy and love?

I know that more than one of you has come up to me after some of these difficult bible passages and you have asked what we should make of these stories of war and destruction. We don’t understand the genocide that we read on these pages that accompany God’s victory. We can’t comprehend the loss of life.

Or maybe we can.

Maybe these battles seem so real to us because of the wars that we engage in.
We, as a nation, have been fighting in Afghanistan for fifteen years.
In your lifetimes, we have been a part of war on five continents.

And in a week like this, when we have celebrated our nation’s independence, we know that so many of our battles were entered to preserve and defend the truths for which we stand.

At the same time, we are tired of all the fighting.

We took my niece and nephews to a parade recently and as the procession turned the corner and we caught a glimpse of the color guard, the kids began to sing – “you’re a grand old flag.”

We have lots of patriotic songs, but their school had spent some time in the past year with that particular one. At ages 5 and 8 they knew every single word and shouted them out proudly. You’re a grand old flag. You’re a high flying flag and forever in peace may you wave…..

And forever in peace may you wave…

those words jumped out as me as these children sang them.

Forever in peace…

I once believed that the opposite of peace was war.

I believed that we would finally have peace in our lives when men and women… but mostly men… laid down their weapons.

I believed that peace would come when all of our brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers and sons and daughters returned home.

But I’m not sure that is true anymore.

Anyone you ask will tell you that we have a lack of peace in our world, but we also lack peace in our nation, in our state, and in our families.

Even if all the swords and guns in the world were destroyed does not mean that peace will come.

Peace, you see, must be bigger than a lack of war.

Peace must encompass more than the fights we find ourselves in.
The peace that we seek is like the peace of Isaiah in chapter 65….

I will rejoice over Jerusalem
and take delight in my people;
the sound of weeping and of crying
will be heard in it no more.
20 “Never again will there be in it
an infant who lives but a few days,
or an old man who does not live out his years;

21 They will build houses and dwell in them;
they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
23 They will not toil in vain
or bear children doomed to misfortune;

25 The wolf and the lamb will feed together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox…

In the Hebrew Scriptures THIS VISION, lifted up by the prophets, is Shalom.

Shalom is a Hebrew word that means peace, not only in terms of fighting and conflict – but it describes the wholeness of life. As one commentator put it, “everything fits together, the relationships work like they were designed to, and things just work right.” (http://listeningtoscripture.com/Textual_Studies/Isaiah/12isaiahspeace.html)

Paul Hanson says that shalom is “the realm where chaos is not allowed to enter, and where life can be fostered free from the fear of all which diminishes and destroys.”

Doesn’t that sound amazing?
A life free from the fear of all that could destroy us?

That is the peace that we seek.

For those of us who are farmers or gardeners… when the usual flow of the seasons and the weather doesn’t cooperate… we fear that drought or too much water could destroy our crops and our livelihood.

When we work with machines, like in a factory, there are constant safety protocols to keep the terrible from happening… we are constantly regulating the chaos and trying to prevent spills, injuries, and death.

When we are a part of families, we try to manage our time and our schedules, fearing we won’t have enough time with one another and that our relationships will suffer because of it.

The opposite of peace isn’t war… but chaos.

And chaos is a life where there is no freedom from fear. A life where any and everything takes away from our ability to live and live abundantly.

How many of you know chaos in your lives today?

In Ancient Israel, chaos was the norm. Nation states were constantly fighting for land and power and dominance. There were no programs for social security. A single drought could wipe a family out. That was if they had anything left after the rulers took away their goods.

In the time of Gideon, the people were afraid. Their crops were being confiscated, their lands were being consumed by the Midianites and they cried out for help.

And God responded… NOT by sending them into war… but by reminding them that God was and always has been on their side.

My favorite part of this story is when God whittles away the army of 32,000 able men to 300.
Three hundred individuals take nothing but jars and torches and trumpets and scare away a whole army.

And God does this to remind them that while human warriors can’t defeat the forces that destroy shalom and bring chaos… God can.

The Israelites have no need to raise a standing army and to set a king over them… they have one God who reigns over them.

And God will fight for them.

They don’t need to be afraid of those things that might destroy them. They only need to trust.

But you know what, that trust in God doesn’t last long amongst the Israelites.

They keep demanding a king. They keep crying out to be like the other nations and to be able to demonstrate their strength through armies.

Finally, God relents and allows them to set a king over themselves.

But as Bruce Birch reminds us, “Israel, in the belief that it could create its own security, was in reality flirting with chaos.”

If you read through the books of Chronicles and Kings and the prophets you see how time and time again, the kings went to war – with God on their side or not – for power and territory.

They brought chaos upon themselves, because they were trusting in their ways and not God’s ways.

It would be tempting to say that if we simply trusted in God more, chaos would disappear.

The rains would come more regularly.
Our paychecks wouldn’t be so sporadic.
Fights between parent and children would diminish.

I’m not sure that God promises us that… at least in this lifetime.

The peace offered to us by Christ is a peace that is different from the one the world offers.

It is the peace that comes from relationships returned to their rightful balance through forgiveness and mercy.

It is the peace that comes when we learn to trust in God more than our pocketbooks.

It is the peace that comes when our priorities are realigned and family comes before our jobs.

It is the peace that comes when we remember that while this moment or this present struggle might be difficult, in the end, God is in control and those forces of chaos will not have the final say.

Jesus calls us to be peacemakers and to be a shining city on a hill, an example to all.
And I think the core of how we do that is to trust in him.

To allow the Spirit of God to enter our lives and transform them.

To set us right inside.
To set us right with one another.
To set us right as a people.

And when the chaos of fear leaves our family… or our church… or our city, then people will look at us with wonder and say – what is it that they have figured out?

And when they do, we can point to the One who brought peace… shalom… into our lives and we can tell them all about it.

Amen and Amen.

Practice These Things…

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Last week, we broke bread in spite of our differences.

We shared at the table of the Lord with people who would vote differently than us and with some who would not or could not vote at all.

And we touched [will touch] the waters of baptism and remember our baptism in Christ and that we are all children of God.

And we did so because our heritage… our inheritance as a church… our tradition as people of God… is to overcome any division among us.

Paul exemplified this in the way he gave thanks for the Gentiles in Ephesus… in spite of the vast sea of differences between them.

 

In today’s scripture reading, Paul is writing to a different community… to the people of Philippi in Greece.

This, too, was a diverse community, and one of the interesting features is that there were many descendants of Roman army veterans living there.

 

Later on this morning, we will share together in a potluck meal and celebrate and honor our veterans… all of those who have faithfully served our country, who sacrificed in countless ways for us.  Every step of the way, they put the rights, the lives, the needs of other people above their own.

 

I believe that self-giving spirit… that spirit of love that would cause someone to lay down their life for another person… is part of what has made our country great.  We don’t sit back when people are in need, but we show up.  We have showed up to fight back tyrants and dictators, oppression and evil… and not always because it was on our doorstep, but because it was on the doorsteps of others.

 

All throughout the letter to the Philippians, you can see that kind of self-giving spirit we honor in our veterans.  Practice these things… practice that holy, radical, sacrificial love… Paul writes.

And yet, the context of Philippi was very different.  This was the site, if you appreciate history, where Brutus and Cassius were finally defeated by the armies of Marc Antony.  And much of the land was taken away from the original inhabitants and given to the soldiers and their families as a reward.

 

This was a place of division, dislocation, and disparity and the gospel of Jesus Christ took root in the people who were the most vulnerable in this community.

For some, everything had been taken away from them:  their citizenship, their land… everything that made them who they were.

Until they found their identity in Christ.

And as Paul writes this letter of encouragement to these displaced people, that identity, that love, that faith is what he reminds them of over and over again.

 

In chapter 3 he writes:  “All these things were my assets, but I wrote them off as a loss for the sake of Christ.  But even beyond that, I consider everything a loss in comparison with the superior value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.  I have lost everything for him, but what I lost I think of as sewer trash, so that I might gain Christ and be found in him.”

 

These are not empty words of someone who had privilege… as Paul was.  As a Roman citizen, he had rights that many of them had just recently lost and this might have felt like salt thrown onto open wounds…

Except, Paul really did let go of all of his power and privilege for the sake of the gospel.

This letter is being written from a jail cell – because Paul is awaiting trial for preaching the good news of Jesus Christ.

He is living out with his very life every word he writes on the page… including the call to “adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus: though he was in the form of God, he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit. But he emptied himself by taking the form of a slave and by becoming like human beings.  When he found himself in the form of a human, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (2:5-8)

Practice these things…

In every part of this letter, Paul reminds the church at Philippi to put others ahead of themselves.  To love fiercely, in spite of what might happen.  To overcome conflict and difference, anger and fear.

 

And friends, that’s not easy.

When there are deep divisions in a community it is easy to hunker down with people who are like-minded, to grumble and argue, to weep and be overcome with discouragement or to hold our victories over one another.

But Paul tells us to be grateful.

Paul tells us to rejoice.

Paul tells us to let love reign in our hearts.

The key to unity we heard last week… the key to overcoming division… is gratitude for the people who are different than us.

It is echoed all throughout this letter, too.

Don’t do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves.  Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others.”  (2:2-4)

And in our scripture this morning, from the Message translation:

Celebrate God all day, every day. I mean, revel in him! Make it as clear as you can to all you meet that you’re on their side, working with them and not against them. (4:4-5)

 

Friends, I need you to know that there is real pain and fear across this nation right now.

There have been acts of hate and violence and aggression in our communities and neighborhoods.  And in this neighborhood, there are families who fear they will be separated and there are people who have been targeted because of their gender, or sexual orientation, religion or ethnicity, or even because of the clothes they are wearing.  I cannot and will not utter the hateful and horrendous words that have been used to diminish the value of our neighbors.

There have also been acts of violence as a part of generally peaceful protests and marches.

 

So I need you to know that I am not calling for a unity that blissfully ignores conflict.

Paul is not calling for a unity that ignores the trials and tribulations of our brothers and sisters and siblings OR neglects truth-telling and accountability.

Paul is in prison because he refused to be silent… because he challenged the powers-that-be with the radical love and gospel of Jesus Christ.

 

No, the type of unity Paul speaks of is a unity of resistance against the forces of this world that seek death, division, oppression, and hatred.

Paul calls us to “be blameless and pure, innocent children of God surrounded by people who are crooked and corrupt.  Among these people you shine like stars in the world because you hold on to the word of life.”   (2:15-16)

Stand firm in your faith, in spite of your enemies.

Be united in love and compassion.

Be united against injustice.

Be united against hateful rhetoric.

Be united in protection of the most vulnerable.

Put into practice all that we have learned from Paul – and won’t worry about it, don’t be paralyzed by fear, but lift up petitions and supplications and praises to God.

As Paul writes to the people of Phillipi:

Summing it all up, friends, I’d say you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse… (4:8)

So let me close by telling you a story… a first-hand account from a Muslim woman:

Yesterday my husband and I attended a football game, it was Duhur time and we needed to pray.

Finding a place to pray at a football stadium is tough, but we managed to find an empty corner.

I was a bit nervous to pray because it wasn’t private at all, particularly in front of everyone, maybe i’m silly but i’m always paranoid i will get attacked while focused in prayer. My husband started praying and i get approached by stadium security.

I thought in my head, here comes this guy, he’s gonna escort me out and tell us we can’t do this here.

I was wrong…

he came up to me and said “i am going to stand here and guard you guys to make sure nobody gives you any problems, go ahead and pray.”

He allowed us to pray and stood in front guarding us to make sure we are safe. When i finished he came up to us shook our hands and told us to enjoy the game.

The key to unity… the key to overcoming division… is gratitude for the people who are different than us.

The key to unity is to listen with grateful ears the stories of another person… even if it is a story of hurt and fear and pain… it is holding open spaces for people when they are scared… standing by their side when they are in pain.

The key to unity is to seek out someone who is different from you and to tell your story – even if it causes conflict BECAUSE we are grateful they are part of our community and because we want to continue to be in relationship with them.

The key to unity is to practice what is good and true and holy… putting others before yourself and giving thanks to God that they are in your life…

May it be so.

 

 

Singing for Peace

As we continue to wait for the one who has already come, the birth of Christ into our world and our lives, we are so close we can almost taste it!

Maybe your lights are up and the tree is decked out.

Maybe there are already Christmas cookies sitting on the countertop and presents under the tree.

We are ready for the heavenly choirs of angels mingling with the shepherds in the fields.

We are ready for the moment the wise ones, led by celestial signs, lay eyes on the infant in the manger.

We are waiting in holy anticipation – not for experiences beyond this world, but ones that are embodied in things we can touch and feel, live and breathe.

We are getting ready for God to take on human flesh in our midst!

And boy, do we need it.

Maybe one of the reasons those little lights twinkling on my tree bring me so much comfort is that they are signs of light and life, hope and peace, in a world that is really struggling.

 

Last week, I lifted up so many places where violence has disrupted lives and this week, more cities, more lives are added to that list. San Bernadino, California. Savannah, Georgia.

If you count up all of the tragedies where four or more individuals were injured or killed in this year, there have been more mass shootings than days.

If you look at our own community, Des Moines has seen its 20th homicide this year – the highest number in 19 years.

 

On this Sunday, we are called to lift up the promise of peace as we light the Advent candles.

And peace is my prayer on this morning.

Peace is the deep yearning of my heart.

 

And this morning, we hear from Luke’s gospel songs of longing for peace.

 

Yes, songs.

 

As Magrey deVega reminds us in our Advent Study, if Mark’s version of the gospel is a Reader’s Digest, Matthew is like a Steven King novel, and John is like a Shakespeare play, then Luke is like a Broadway musical.

 

When his son, John is born, Zechariahs heart sings out: The prophets spoke of mercy, of freedom and release; God shall fulfill the promise to bring our people peace! (UMH #209)

 

Elizabeth recognized that the child in her cousin’s womb was the longing of all Israel. She was absolutely overjoyed…. and in her joy and in Mary’s song they recognized deep in their hearts that the promise from Micah – the promise of the one of peace – was being fulfilled.

 

Our hearts in contrast… are jaded and worn and disappointed. And maybe that is because we are looking for peace in all the wrong places.

I remember quite clearly President Obama delivering a speech to the nation and an audience at West Point in 2009.

He had just been named the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and he was announcing a surge in military personnel in Afghanistan.

“I come here with an acute sense of the cost of armed conflict – filled with difficult questions about the relationship between war and peace, and our effort to replace on with the other.”

The prophet Micah describes the Prince of Peace in this way:

And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth; and he shall be the one of peace. (Micah 5:4-5)

Mary and Elizabeth and the child in Elizabeth’s womb cannot contain themselves as they encounter this promise of God – yet unborn. They have been longing and waiting and hoping for so long.

 

There was no triumphant singing after Obama’s West Point speech… and while there may have been music in Oslo at the Nobel ceremonies, Obama’s own speech tempered any bit of joy and celebration.

We keep looking to our national and world leaders to bring peace.

We keep waiting for the right legislation or diplomacy or defense policy to make us safe and quiet the world.

But they are not the ones we are waiting for.
We live in a world of cynicism and violence, a world of confusion and hatred. Whatever conflict we are experiencing… whether it is family trauma, violence in our neighborhoods, a civil war halfway across the world, it creates conflict internally.

In my own life, I am wrestling with the distractions of family conflict and must admit there are times it is all I think about.

I desire grace and healing to be experienced and yet I hold onto grudges and my own comfort with the status quo. These things are not compatible. They war within me.

And that internal conflict is magnified on the world stage.

Even as we seek peace, we send troops. Echoing out this week from Christian leaders were calls to sign the death warrants of our enemies and to seek out and destroy those who are against us. We demonize those who are different. We label those who have committed atrocities as outcasts and terrorists so we don’t have to recognize that they are human… just like us.

Yet, if we live in this way, will we ever experience healing or reconciliation? Will we ever know peace?

 

We come together as people of faith and we light the second candle on the advent wreath because we dare to believe that the Prince of Peace will reign.

We dare to hope that there will be day when nation will not rise up against nation.

We dare to hope that a day is coming when innocent lives are no longer taken by gun violence.

We dare to wait for the day when the powerful are brought down from their thrones and the lowly are lifted up.
And so we pray for peace.

The thing about prayer, though is that it is not a passive thing.

Prayer is an activity.

Prayer requires doing.

Richard Foster wrote:

“Prayer is the central avenue God uses to change us. If we are unwilling to change, we will abandon prayer as a noticeable characteristic of our lives.”

We believe that God is active in the world, bringing peace through us… just a Mary sang out that God was radically transforming the world through her.

As deVega writes in the third chapter:

The church can offer the very thing that would most remedy a world caught in an endless cycle of self-destructive behavior: a subversive, surprising song. A song whose lyrics speak of self-giving love rather than self-addicted agendas. A song whose sounds are counter waves to the thrum of war chants and the clanging of swords [or the sound of gunfire]. A song whose melody drives us upward towards holiness and purity, rather than into the darkest recesses of our sinful instincts. A sacred harmony that pulses with God’s unconditional love, calling us to forgiveness… the church has a song to perform, and we each have instruments to play.” (p. 60-61)

We each have instruments to play.

If we want to pray for peace, then we have to be peace in the world.

Robert Mann calls us to

“Be a reverse terrorist.

Plot. Plan. Scheme and launch random acts of love.

Incite it. Invite it. Ignite it.

Shake this world to its foundation.

And enjoy yourself in the process.”

That might be peace in the Middle East, or peace between you and your neighbors.

It might be peace among loved ones, or peace between you and your inner thoughts.

In this season of Advent, we stand in the face of war and suffering and distress and we not only look for the coming of peace, but we live it.

We stand like Elizabeth and Mary, pregnant with the hope that God’s promises are real.

The reality we long for this and every Advent…

The miracle that we wait for this and every Christmas…

Is that we might wake up one morning and run outside to discover that God is with us – Emmanuel – and that the Prince of Peace rules the earth.

Until then… we pray and we sing and we live for peace.

 

 

**side note** this summer, I attended a concert with Reba at the Iowa State Fair.  She talked about how she had been wrestling with so much going on in the world and asked God what she could do and the answer came back… pray for peace… ***

 

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!”

Willing to Yield

I want to start out this morning with a testimony… and I think it is very important that you understand this is not me preaching about what you should go out tomorrow and do… I am simply sharing what my experience of God was this past year.

That is an important qualification, because I’m going to be talking about money.  And talking about money makes a whole lot of us uncomfortable… but it is a part of our daily lives and it is an important part our words from James this morning.

And my testimony is this: For the first time in my life, this year I tithed to the church.

Now, I have always given to the church.  But for a long time, I made excuses about how much I should give.

When I was a teenager and had only part time jobs, I might have stuck a dollar or two in the offering plate – whatever pocket change I might have had that day.  It was the last of my money… not the best.

When I was in college, I did not attend a church regularly on Sundays, but worshipped on campus Wednesday nights – and no one asked for a financial contribution.  No one asked me to give, much less give sacrificially.

As a seminary student and an intern at a church, I was spending more money on school and travel than I was making and piling up debt.  I gave my time to the church and occasionally a few bucks as well.

And then I came here.  I came to be a pastor and I knew that I could not ask you, in good faith, to give faithfully to the church and to God,  if I was not also giving.  Having a steady paycheck for the first time in my life, I should have immediately started tithing.  But I didn’t.  I held back.  I looked at my student loans and a bit of debt from college… I looked at how much our cable bill was going to be… I thought about how we wanted to travel a bit… I knew that taxes would take a chunk of my wages… And so I started out small.  I gave to the church – but only a small portion.

And then, I became comfortable with that level of financial giving.  I knew I was doing God’s ministry in other ways and so I didn’t worry about it.

But one day a year or two ago, I was having a conversation with a friend, a fellow pastor, about the things that we cling to… the things we hold close and refuse to give to God.

I realized in the midst of that conversation that I had never willingly yielded my money to God.  There had been times when I had given out of guilt.  I have given because it was what I was supposed to do.  I have given out of habit as the offering place went around and each person in the pew pulled out a buck and dropped it in.  Sound familiar?

But never had I prayerfully thought about what God wanted me to give.  Never had I searched my heart to ask what I was willing to yield, what I was willing to joyfully give up in my life for the sake of our Lord and our church.

I started out last year by giving a much larger percentage on a regular basis… and this year, my heart led me to give a full 10% of my income to the church.

I joyfully give that money to God… and I have to tell you – I haven’t missed one cent.  I now give to the church first… the money comes out of my paycheck before it ever comes home with me.  I give God my first and my best, instead of the change in my pocket – instead of the leftovers from my own spending and desires.

I have been blessed through my giving.  No, I don’t have more money in the bank than when I started… but now I am reminded that the things that money buys – cable t.v. and new clothes and name-brand cereal don’t last.  What lasts is the kingdom of God.  What lasts is the word of God.  What lasts is the joy that I have found through letting go… through being willing to yield.

 

Now… I’m going to put my preacher hat back on.

Because we all have different places in our life where we have been unwilling to yield.  It might be money, like me, but it might be an addiction. For others the thing they grasp is their pride.  Some of us are unwilling to let go of our schedules or our desires.

Throughout the book of James, we get some harsh truths about what it means to live in Christian community.  On Labor Day weekend, we heard about the source of our conflict – pride and a lack of humility.  The next week we were reminded that rich and poor are all the same and we need to stop judging and stop loving.  Last week, we were dished up some truth about wisdom and speech… and our tendency to ignorance and cynicism.

In each message – we have been asked to let something go.  Our pride and the need to “be important”, our status and the desire to “be better”, our knowledge and the need to “be right”,  and today we are asked to let go of the material things we cling to and the stuff we seek out.  We need to let go of our desire to “be the joneses.”

As we read James… even though I have experienced the joy of willingly yielding and letting God have control of my money – I have to admit that each one of these admonitions still hits close to home for me also.   Each of these realities is something that I continue to struggle with, even as I know I am being faithful in some ways.

1)    Keeping up with the Joneses kills our souls

James is quite clear in chapter four that our desire to keep up with the ways of the world means that our heart has gone astray from God.  Familiar verse from the gospels reminds us– you cannot serve both God and money.  And so every time that we choose the things we want over the things of God, we have cheated on our Lord and Savior – we have been unfaithful.

It is hard to accept sometimes, but God cares about what you do and what you have.  If our gracious Lord and Savior makes sure that the birds of the air and the flowers of the field are taken care of… then he’s also working to make sure that you have enough – that you have abundant life.  But so often, we turn our backs on the life God has given us and want to be someone else and have other things.  Verse 5 reads: Doesn’t God long for our faithfulness in the life he has given us?

This life might not be perfect.  We might not have everything.  But Mother Theresa once said, “grow where you are planted.”  Don’t look over the fence at your neighbors and want what they have… gratefully give thanks every day for the gift of life and the wonderful things that are a part of yours.  When we humble ourselves before the Lord and give thanks for who we were created to be, God is right there, ready to lift us up.

2)    Keeping up with the Joneses is killing other people

James chapter 4 starts with the hard truth that war and conflict comes from our desire to have what we don’t have and our desire to keep what is already ours.  As he says in verse two:  “You long for something you don’t have, so you commit murder.  You are jealous for something you can’t get, so you struggle and fight.”

That reality is lived out on our newspapers and television programs every single day.  Bank robberies and drug related shootings.  Civil wars in far off countries about the precious resources of those places.  Jealous acts of violence enacted towards someone for cheating or stealing a person you loved from your life.

But there is a quiet hidden reality to these verses that we are not always ready to admit to – a truth that needs to be confessed about ourselves.  The things that we have in this world – everyday, ordinary things that we buy and use and dispose of… our desire to have those things is killing people, too.

Take my cell phone, for example.  This summer, I dropped my phone and cracked the screen.  So I upgraded to something new.  My husband upgraded at the same time, even though his old phone was just fine. But within these simple devices are resources and minerals that you can’t find everywhere.  In fact, the tin inside of these devices that are used to solder the metal parts together is mined mostly in Indonesia and China.  I read recently about one province in Indonesia, two little islands where nearly half of the tin for cell phones comes from.

The tin mining industry has devastated these two little islands.  The mining is done in shallow pits and these pits cover the island – thousands and thousands of pits dotting the ground.  Most of this mining is done by hand, rather than machine and it is not a regulated industry.  Small groups of men, often boys, work in these pits and scrape the walls by hand.

The reporter who visited the sites had this to say:  “these dangerous pits – the walls literally just collapse and bury people alive.  In one week, while I was on BangkaIsland, there were six men and actually a boy, a 15-year-old, who were buried alive in these pit collapses…”

My heart broke when I heard that story… how our demand for smart-phones and tablets has caused an industry to explode without regulation or safety and that people are dying so that I can have 3G. Our relationship with God and our command to love our neighbor means that we need to think carefully about the purchases we make in this world.  We need to pray before we buy something.  And we need to be informed about the far reaching impact of the things we want.

3)    Keeping up with the Joneses doesn’t get us anything but fat and dead

We are often so focused on the things that we want today, that we do not stop to think about the far reaching implications of the stuff we accumulate.

As Brandon and I start to pack up our house, we have tons of things that we do not need and will never use.  We are busting at the seams with cheap trinkets and clothes that no longer fit and craft supplies we don’t have time to use. It has been a reminder that we have abundantly blessed… and so we are taking this opportunity to share and donate and repurpose some of what we have been given.

The reality is that the stuff we have will not last forever.  And we won’t be alive to enjoy it forever.

As James continues in chapter five, the wealthy get one final harsh warning.  In this translation from The Message, I want to invite you to hear these words… remembering that we are each wealthier than 75% of this world:

Your money is corrupt and your fine clothes stink. Your greedy luxuries are a cancer in your gut, destroying your life from within. You thought you were piling up wealth. What you’ve piled up is judgment.

4-6 All the workers you’ve exploited and cheated cry out for judgment. The groans of the workers you used and abused are a roar in the ears of the Master Avenger. You’ve looted the earth and lived it up. But all you’ll have to show for it is a fatter than usual corpse

All you’ll to show for it is a fatter than usual corpse.

The old adage says, you can’t take it with you… and its true.  Our time here on earth is short and piling on pleasures and wants and desires doesn’t get us anything but a house full of stuff that someone else is going to have to sort through.

James’s advice for us: remember that you are nothing but a mist that vanishes with the sunlight.  Remember that you are nothing but grass that withers and a flower that fades.  What good is all of the wealth in the world when tomorrow you are gone?

 

Let’s take a deep breath.  Because we can hear these harsh words and they cut straight to our core. We might want to give everything away when we go home because we feel so guilty.

But I need you to hear this.

God does not want your money, if he doesn’t have your heart.

God doesn’t have any use for your stuff, if he can’t have your soul.

God doesn’t care about the things that you own… even if they could be used to help other people… unless you are willing to give him your life.

 

Let us prayerfully ask about what God wants us to yield.  Let us joyfully and freely give – not because we have to, but because we want to.  And let us join with Christ in the world along paths “the Joneses” don’t often travel

conflict is a reality

I have now been a part of my church community for three whole years.  It is amazing how fast time has gone by and how much we have accomplished with one another.
As I reflect upon my time in ministry, I feel very blessed. We have been a family. We have worked together. We worship and study and minister. And through it all, there has been almost no conflict!

I have to admit… that last statement makes me a little uncomfortable.  In part, I feel like we have been “playing nice” with one another for some time.  I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop.  I wonder sometimes if I have done too much comforting of the afflicted and not enough afflicting of the comfortable.

During this season of Epiphany we have been exploring Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians and it provided an excellent opportunity to talk about conflict.  While Paul urges the people to be united and not divided in heart, I wanted to make sure that my church heard that conflict, in and of itself, is not bad. It is a reality. We will have differences of opinion. We will have varying perspectives. That is a good thing. How we deal with conflict is what gets us into trouble. Paul’s problem is not with the differences, but the fact that their differences have pitted them against one another; he urges them to seek a common unity in the cross of Christ.

As Christians, we have to be able to speak what we know. We have to be able to listen to what other people have to say. We have to dive into the Bible and let it be our foundation. We need to let the Holy Spirit guide us. All of these are good ways of handling conflict.

But we haven’t always let those things be our guide. And past conflicts have in many ways left this congregation tired and worn out. And so we choose not to engage anymore. We choose to be quiet. We choose to not participate.

I was reminded by a friend this week that what will destroy the church is not opposition from without, but indifference within. When we are content to sit back and let others make decisions… when we are afraid to speak the truth… when we don’t feel like we have anything to contribute… that is when the church should be worried.

While I am grateful for not having huge problems to deal with, I also want my congregation to know it is okay to speak up.

Speak up if we are going too slow or too fast. Speak up if you don’t understand. Speak up if you have a question. Speak up if you disagree. Speak up if you agree. Just participate. Be engaged. And know that every single one of you – from the quietest to the most outspoken – is a part of this Body of Christ… each of you are important and vital. Each of you has something to offer. Don’t be afraid.

I wrote those words a few days ago. And this morning, I have been glued to my computer as I watch the protests in Egypt.

Egyptians protest in central Cairo today.
Photograph: Khaled El Fiqi/EPA
(from guardian.co.uk)
A commentator on the live Al Jazeera English broadcast said that these protests are so unprecedented because for so long, the Egyptians sat back and were not involved.  They had become complacent and indifferent.
And then, they found their voice. A number of people have said that the Egyptians are no longer afraid. They are welcoming the tanks on the streets… it is a dare to continue protesting and they are taking up the challenge.

People from many different walks of life have come together today to protest the regime that has been in control in Egypt. Young and old, religious and non-religious, men and women have taken to the streets all across the country. There are men in suits and in jeans and t-shirts. Conflict is rampant…

Some are peacefully present.  Some stop in prayer. Some hurl rocks. Some shout. Even in the face of lines of communication being shut down, they are not afraid to speak and to continue to find ways to get their message out. What has troubled me today is how violent these protests have turned.  Years of pent up anger and frustration are being spilled out through fires and projectiles being thrown. Violence from the police and army and violence from protestors feed on one another.

Today, the conflict that has erupted is good.  The greviances of the people should be heard. But let us pray that both people and government might find peaceful ways of resolving this conflict, of talking and communcating, of finding a way forward.