Listen!

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About nine years ago, we were in the midst of one of those bitterly cold Januarys… not unlike the one we have experienced here!
The snow was falling and the temperature was below zero, but I bundled up that afternoon and went to the local nursing home where I held a monthly worship service.
I really enjoyed this time of worship there. While I rotated with other community pastors for this afternoon time of singing and preaching, I was one of the only pastors who also celebrated communion with these folks. Other denominations were more exclusive about who is welcome at the table. So it was always a joy to walk around the room and share the bread of life and cup of salvation with those dear folk.
On this particular cold day, we shared the same text that we are focusing on this morning. As we heard about how Jesus entered those waters of the Jordan, we remembered our own baptisms.
I carried around the circle a basin of water and invited each one to dip their fingers in and remember that God has loved them and called them each by name.
As I came to one woman, she had fallen asleep, as often happens with that group, and she was gently nudged awake by her neighbor.
Hopefully, you won’t have to nudge your neighbor awake this morning!
I kept working my way around the room and came to another woman who proclaimed with joy, “I was baptized in the Iowa River!”

There was another woman whose name was Grace and all throughout the service, she would interrupt to ask who was going to take her home.
At the end of worship, I had the chance to sit with her and chat and with the bitter cold outside, she kept asking who was going to come and get her and take her home.
She openly began to weep because she had been forgotten and no one was coming to take her home.
I reminded her gently that this was her home now…
this was where she belonged…
But more importantly… I reminded her that she was not alone.
In fact, she was loved.
She was a child of God, blessed by the Lord, and touching those waters a voice from heaven was pouring out upon her, reminding her that she was beloved.

As I listened to Grace’s insistence that she go home, I knew that dementia was speaking loud and clear… but there was something of all of us in her words, too.
Don’t we all want to go home?
Don’t we all want to experience the kind of belonging where we are called beloved?

I said earlier that I really enjoyed worshipping there at Rose Haven in Marengo… but there is another part of me that found those times and moments extraordinarily sad.
Some of the residents were vibrant and full of life, but others were barely functional in mind, body or spirit.
Many had been forgotten by their families.
This was not the highest quality facility in the county… and there were many things that made me pause when I thought about the care that I would desire for my own loved ones.

In that moment of worship, I had a chance to name each and every single one of those residents as beloved…
but I also found wondering how my own community of faith was living out our baptisms…
How did the call of God that poured out in our baptisms invite us to be present in the lives of these people in a different way?

You see, on the one hand, our baptism is an echo of the one Jesus experienced… so we proclaim that each and every single one of us is also called beloved by our God.
You are beloved.
You are beloved.
You are beloved.

But so often, we hear those words falling upon our own heads in our baptism and then we stop listening.
I am a beloved child of God, we hear in our hearts. Period. End of story.

But that is not how Mark tells this story.
No, his version of this tale is urgent and messy.
He starts with John the Baptist at the Jordan River, inviting people to come and be baptized as a sign that they were changing their lives.
Rev. Mindi Welton-Mitchell reminds us that, “the Jordan river was where people went to wash their dishes and their laundry. It’s where they went to bathe. In other words, the river flowed with [the] filth and muck of human life… this wasn’t water that washed clean, but rather water that acknowledges the muckiness of our communal lives.”
John knew that his baptisms were not the end of the story, but that someone was coming to baptize with the Holy Spirit.
And then Jesus shows up.
This guy from the dump of a town, Nazareth…
A nobody from nowhere…
And yet, the very presence of God in the world.
And as God-with-us, Immanuel, Jesus Christ, waded into those filthy waters of the Jordan River, the very heavens split open.
And in that moment, the ministry of Jesus begins.
The Spirit flows upon him like a dove, names him beloved, and then forces him into the wilderness.

“What are our baptisms for?” Ted Smith asks in his lectionary reflection (Feasting on the Word).
Baptism is not simply something that makes us feel warm and fuzzy inside.
It is also the reminder that God’s power, God’s spirit, God’s life has poured out upon us… the very heavens were torn open and now YOU are sent out, like Jesus, into the wilderness of this life.
Because not only are you beloved… but so is every other child of creation.
No matter where they have come from or what their life has been, they, too, are beloved by God.
Whether they are from a place that is beloved or a place that has been condemned by others, they, too, are beloved by God.
Whether they are surrounded by love or whether they are forgotten and alone, they, too, are beloved by God.
And in our baptisms, the power of heaven itself pours out on us and calls us into the world to act on the behalf of our brothers and sisters.
To create opportunities.
To open doors.
To work for justice.
To call one another to reconciliation and repentance.
To make God’s love real in this world through our worship, through our work, through our play.
It is the call that drove Martin Luther King, Jr. to proclaim the dream that one day the children of slaves and slave holders would be able to sit down and share a meal together.
The dream that children would not be judged by color of their skin or where they were born, but by the content of their character.
That little children of different races and abilities and backgrounds would be able to join hands with one another.
That we can work together, pray together, struggle together, stand up for freedom together.

Our baptism is the foundation of every single thing we do as a church. Because this is not my place of ministry, but ours.
You are a beloved child of God.
The heavens were tore open as you were baptized and the Holy Spirit sends you out into the world to share the life you have found here with others.
On this day, let us shout with joy for the presence of God is in this place, leading us, calling us, shoving us out into world and reminding us with gentle words that every person we meet is a beloved child of God.
Amen.

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.

God Moves In

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Peaceable Kingdom

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Since the end of September, we have had a guest at the Dawson house… a young female cat named Twiggy.
Twiggy belongs to my brother and sister-in-law who are just finishing up ten weeks in Germany getting to know the new company they work for. They also have a black lab, Rachel, but she was staying with a family that better understands how to take care of dogs.
Now, Twiggy is adorable and playful… but she is also ferocious and territorial and quickly became the alpha in our house. My husband has nick names for both of our kitties… Black Cat and Fat Cat… he affectionately refers to her as Satan cat. This is an evidence-based conclusion… She is known to hiss and growl, strike and chase the other cats, block their way to the food, and overall, causes a lot of racket.
The other day, though, I walked into the bedroom. All three kitties were curled up sleeping on the bed together.
For that moment, there was peace again in the Dawson house.

In our candle-lighting text for this morning, we hold before us a vision of that kind of peace for all creatures. The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard with the young goat, the calf and the lion will feed together, and a little child shall lead them. (Isaiah 11)
When we look around us today, this is not the reality we experience.
We read about violence in Jerusalem, we lament the five-year anniversary of Sandy Hook, and just this morning, there are reports of a suicide bomb and gun attack on a Methodist church in Pakistan…

Our relationships with one another and with the animal life of this world was intended to be very different. As the days of creation unfold in Genesis, God commands the waters and sky and land to be filled with a diversity of creatures. And unlike the plants, each of these new creations require relationship in order to reproduce. God then shifts attention towards humanity, creating us “in God’s own image,” so that we might care for and have dominion over all the living things that breathe.
And then verse 30 tells us – God gives to all creatures all the green grasses for food. What is laid out in this chapter is not a science-based description of the violent food chain we experience… but of peace and sustenance.
The vision of the peaceable kingdom we long for in the new creation is simply a restoration of how God created us to live.
But as the next chapters of Genesis tell us, and as we explored in the first week of this series, humanity quickly rebels against God’s plan.
We were cut off from the abundant life of the garden. All of creation was impacted – from the soil to the air to the creatures that were to be our companions and helpers.
John Wesley, on of the founders of our United Methodist tradition wrote about how our sin shook the foundations of creation and changed our relationship with what he calls the “brute creatures” of this world. Although they were formed to be our helpers, no longer do the creatures love and obey humanity – they flee from us or would seek to destroy us. Just as our hearts are caught up in violence and destruction, so too, do they turn and destroy one another. Nearly every creature on earth “can no otherwise preserve their own lives,” Wesley writes, “than by destroying their fellow creatures!” (“The General Deliverance”)

As John Wesley notes, it isn’t just the large creatures of prey that are violent; even the “innocent songsters of the grove” eat forms of life that are lower on the food chain than themselves.
In 2015, when I took the Organic Ministry class, I spent an entire day each month on my friend Tim Diebel’s farm, Taproot Garden. One of my favorite things to do during our afternoon sabbath was to sit by the chickens and watch them interact and strut around the yard. They appear so gentle and beautiful, but they are part of the violent circle of life. When you watch them there in the yard, they peck and scratch and will rip apart any worm or bug that crosses their path.
“The girls,” as Tim calls them, are well cared for. He lets them out of the coop every morning, pampers them with choice feed and treats from the garden, gathers their eggs, and safely tucks them in every night. Occasionally the chickens get territorial, and sometimes bigger ones would pick on the smaller ones, so multiple coops and a process for integrating new birds into the flock helped to manage that process. But you can’t guard against every danger and you can’t change the fact that chickens are also prey.
My heart broke one afternoon as I saw a post from Tim on his blog about “nature’s harder edge.”
Just as he was heading out to put the girls to bed for the night there was a commotion in the yard. The chickens were in chaos and making a ruckus and Tim caught out of the corner of his eye something larger that had been scared away by his presence. When he finally had a chance to take in the scene, three dead hens were found. It had been foxes, who had watching for just the right moment to grab dinner.
In the midst of his grief, Tim’s words capture the tension of what it means to live in this time of longing for the new creation:
“Here in the rawness of God’s order are pests and diseases in the garden and thieving birds and squirrels in the orchard. There are moles tunneling through the yard, and there are predators above and around the chicken yard attentively watching for and eventually seizing their hungry opportunity. It’s beautiful out here, and serene, but it’s also torn feathers and blood, rot and thorn.”
The reality of torn feathers and blood, and the pain and the violence, death and destruction, amplify the longing of all living beings for the peaceable kingdom.

Wesley reflected upon the violence of creation, but also had harsh words for how the brute creation is treated with cruelty by “their common enemy, man…” and… listen to these words, to what Wesley calls us, “the human shark, [who] without any such necessity, torments them of his free choice.”
From inhumane confinement operations, to dog or cock fighting rings… from the neglect experienced by so many pets to the ways some beasts of burden are abused. Not only did Wesley believe that in the new creation these creatures would be restored to full and abundant life… that all dogs and cats and lions and bears WOULD go to heaven… but that God’s creatures would “receive an ample amends for all their present sufferings.”
He encouraged people to reject our sense of entitlement and to remember God’s care for every inferior creature… in the hope it would soften our hearts towards them here and now. And he was not alone.
Charles Spurgeon wrote, “cruelty hardens the heart, deadens the conscience, and destroys the finer sensibilities of the soul … For the man who truly loves his Maker becomes tender towards all the creatures his Lord has made.”
And so we cannot divorce Isaiah’s vision of the peaceable kingdom in our focus text for this week from the verses that precede it.
In verses 1-5, we hear good news of hope for all who are needy and oppressed. The promised one will come to transform all relationships, human or otherwise.
And as Gene Tucker notes, “the rule of justice in human society is followed or paralleled by a transformation in the relationship among animals and between animals and human beings.” When our hearts are right, peace will prevail for all creatures.
And God calls us to account.
In these days of Advent, we are comforted by the image of peaceful animals around the manger and we hear the good news shared with the shepherds and sheep in the fields of Bethlehem.
But the expectation of Advent is not only about preparing our hearts for the birth of Jesus, but for Christ to come once again.
We are waiting for God’s kingdom to burst forth and set us free from the endless cycle of violence and death, revenge and pain.
We are waiting for that day of endless peace, justice and righteousness.

How shall we wait?
Well, first, we need to remember that when the Prince of Peace comes, there will be a great reckoning… Our Great Shepherd will gather the flock together and as much as we want to identify with the sheep and not the goats, we have to remember our obedience to God is shown in how we care for the most vulnerable of this world – the least and the last and the lost.
So, this season of Advent is a great time to remember the creatures around us…
You could donate items to local animal shelters and veterinary offices like old towels, pet food, and cleaning supplies. We also collect pet food and take it out with Joppa when we visit the homeless in our community.
Or you could give the gift of animals through Heifer International and help empower small-scale farmers across the world…
or maybe, you could foster or rescue an animal yourself.
God has never stopped calling us to practice care and dominion for the creatures of this world.
And when we do so, when we take up our responsibility, we are ushering in the peaceable kingdom in our little corner of the world and stewarding it until that day comes the little child shall lead us into the promises of the new creation.

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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…

Eve Meets Mary

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Lately, as I’ve made my way home from work here at the church, I can see the stars in the sky. And it’s not because I’m here until 10pm.

No, the days are growing shorter… the air colder…
This is the time of year when we are preparing ourselves for the longest night, the winter solstice, and while the daylight wanes, we are clinging to reminders that better days are ahead.

Right here, in the midst of this season of darkness, we remember that it is in the darkness that new life comes.
The bulb has to be planted within the cold, dark earth to bring forth its buds.
Babies grow and are formed in the dark warmth of the womb.
And in this “bleak midwinter” we set out our evergreens and yule logs to remember that resurrection and eternal life are ours.
We are waiting, you see, during this time of Advent for the birth of the child spoken of by prophets… the Savior, Messiah, Prince of Peace, Light of the World.
And… as people born on this side of his birth, life, death, and resurrection… we are still waiting.
Advent you see, is not only a season of remembrance. It is also a time to look forward. The fullness of that kin-dom that Christ came to bring has not yet fully been realized.
All we have to do is open the newspaper to know that God’s will has not been done on earth.
We are still waiting.

Earlier this week, I heard news reports that the Island of Puerto Rico still only has power for 46% of its residents. The devastation of Hurricane Maria was so severe that months after the winds and rain poured down, rural areas still do not have any access to resources.
But not only Maria… the impacts of Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Louisiana are still being felt.
While it is not as present in the news, the continual onslaught of storms in Louisiana has had a doubled impact because of the simultaneous destruction of wetlands. The dead zone in the Gulf created by run-off farther up the Mississippi and the altering of the flow of the Mississippi for human habitation has devastated the area. The US Geological Survey now reports that nearly 1,900 square miles of land have disappeared in the last seventy years.
Sometimes, the sin and destruction and pain of this world is almost too much to bear.
Sometimes, it feels like we have been waiting too long.
Sometimes, it is hard to have any hope when we look out at reality.

Maybe that is why I find so much comfort in the words of The Archbishop of Denver, Charles J. Chaput. He defines hope as a choice, “a self-imposed discipline to trust in God while judging ourselves and the world with unblinkered, unsentimental clarity.”
Those words remind me that hope is not a naïve sentiment or wishful thinking.
We can look out unfiltered at the world that surrounds us… and we find hope at the intersection of what we see and our faithful trust in God
Hope doesn’t shirk away from problems or difficulties, but enters into them, confident that God will be there and will bring order, life, and joy out of the chaos.
That hope is not only for you and me. It is for all of creation. This whole world is waiting with us.

In Paul’s letter to the Romans, we are reminded that “the whole creation waits breathless with anticipation for the revelation of God’s sons and daughters. Creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice – it was the choice of the one who subjected it – but in the hope that the creation itself will be set free from slavery and brought into the glorious freedom of God’s children. We know that the whole creation is groaning together and suffering labor pains up until now.”

Whatever was intended for creation, with the tree of life and fertile land and those first humans holding dominion over it all, is not what we experience today.  When we read through those first chapters of Genesis, there is no mention of rainfall or storms, no death, no decay, only life, and life abundant.

Our faith explains the brokenness of creation – the cycles of destruction, natural disasters, violence, and death by pointing to a single moment: When Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit in the Garden (Genesis 3:6-7).
At that moment, everything changed.
That first sin, that first rejection of God’s intentions, had an impact on the entire world! God confronts Adam and Eve and there is not only punishment for the snake and the two humans, but as Genesis tells us, “cursed is the fertile ground because of you; in pain you will eat from it every day of your life. Weeds and thistles will grow for you, even as you eat the field’s plants; by the sweat of your face you will eat bread – until you return to the fertile land.” (Genesis 3:17-19)
We acknowledge this pain of creation even in the songs we sing this time of year. We proclaim how “fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains repeat the sounding joy”…. But we also sing about the groaning of the earth itself and its longing for redemption… “no more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground.” (Isaac Watts, Joy to the World, UMH #246)

And as our Advent candle reading from Isaiah lifts up, it was not only the first sin of Adam and Eve that impacted creation, but as we continue to sin, the earth dries up and withers. (Isaiah 24:4-5)
Theologically, we are called to remember that our selfishness, our disobedience, our breaking of the covenant impacts the physical world around us. Because of our continued sin, the whole of creation is trapped in a cycle of death, enslaved by decay, and waiting to be set free.

So where is the hope that Paul writes of in Romans? Where do we turn for hope as we look out at the groaning of creation today?

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One afternoon I stumbled upon an image that took my breath away.

It was drawn by Sister Grace Remington who is a member of the Cistercian Sisters of the Mississippi Abbey here in Iowa. It depicts Eve, clad only in the flowing locks of her hair and clutching that forbidden piece of fruit. Her leg is entwined in the grip of a snake; her head hung in shame. Evil, sin, and death are her legacy. It is our legacy.
But with one arm, she reaches out and places her hand on Mary’s womb.

Mary stands there full of grace and mercy.
She gently touches the face of Eve as if to tell her it is okay. She holds her other hand over Eve’s and together they feel and experience the life of the one who was coming to redeem and restore all the creation.
There is hope.
When Paul writes about the groaning of creation and all of God’s children, he describes that pain as nothing compared with the “coming glory that is going to be revealed to us.” (Romans 8:18)
And then in verse 22, he uses the Greek word synōdinō to portray this reality; a word used only once in scripture to describe the agony of childbirth.
Creation is suffering labor pains.
Something new is about to be born.

In this season of Advent, this image of Eve and Mary fills my heart with possibility and invites me to hear the words of Romans 8 in a different light.
So often, I hear the frustration and groaning of the text, instead of diving in to see the good news.
Yes, the world around us is groaning, but they are labor pains. Creation itself is about to be delivered, to be release, to be set free to become what God fully intends for it.
In his letter to the Romans, Paul keeps pointing back towards Adam, because in those first human beings, we see God’s ultimate intention for the human race.
Paul believes that in Christ, in that child that would be born of Mary, the human project finds it’s completion (Jospeh Sittler).
In the beginning, there was a part for humanity to play – tending the garden, carrying the image of God, helping all of creation to thrive.
And now, as Christ is born into our lives and we claim the Spirit of God that sets us free, it is our job to take up that role once again.
As this image conveys, in Christ, we find release from our temptations… that snake of sin that would bind us is being stomped on by Mary.
In Christ, we find forgiveness for past transgressions… the head hung in shame and guilt is gently touched, the hand is embraced.
The way we have lived on this world – using and abusing God’s gifts for our own intentions – doesn’t have to be the way that we move forward.

In fact, Paul tells the Romans that those who have been set free by the Spirit of Christ have an obligation to live as God’s sons and daughters right here and now.
Not for our sake.
Not for selfish reasons.
But because the whole earth is waiting for us to do so.
The love and mercy of Christ reaches out to us as the descendents of Adam and Eve and yes, we are offered forgiveness, but more than than, we are empowered by God’s Spirit to live differently.

Paul believed that God linked the restoration of creation with you and me, and so I find hope in this season of Advent in the possibility that people of faith can help to change the tides of decay.

All throughout this season, we will highlight some of those stories and ways we can make an impact, but these Christmas Trees here at the front of the church remind me of one…

 

In the midst of that loss of habitat and wetlands in the Louisiana delta, people are working to restore the wetlands and help mitigate the impact of storms by collecting used Christmas trees.
As they deposit them into threatened bayous, they become the basis for new marsh vegetation and they help to reverse erosion.

We have a choice of how to live on this earth and whether or not we will obey the call of God to care for all of creation.
Just like this image of Eve, may we be transformed by the birth of Christ into our lives, so that we might be the hope for the world.

 

NOTE:  This sermon is an adaptation from chapter one of my book, “All Earth Is Waiting.”

Dear Church, Love God

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Dear Church,

I’m not often in the habit of writing letters. My apostle, Paul, loved to write letters and you have quite a few of those contained in the scriptures. I guess I did write seven letters some time ago – to seven different churches… but I digress…. This isn’t something I do a whole lot of.
Let me properly introduce myself. I am God.
The Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.
The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer.
One in Three and Three in One.

I know that sometimes that gets confusing. I know its down right difficult to understand. I designed those brains of yours. I know it is not easy.
So, here is a simple word of advice… you can’t. I am not a puzzle to be solved or a question to be answered. I Am Who I Am. Sometimes that might feel to you like a mystery. And that is okay.

Here is what you do need to understand however:
The basic truth about me is love.
I love you and I want you to love me and I want you to love one another.

That’s it.

Seems simple enough, doesn’t it?
One of your modern day pastors put it well (Rev. Dr. James B. Lemler)… although I’m going to put it into my own words:
I love you enough to be the Creator who created the whole universe and every creature, I am the one who created you and gave you the very breath of life.
I love you enough to be the Redeemer who has saved and redeemed the world from sin, sorrow, and separation so that you might be joined to my love forever…
And… I love you enough to be the Spirit/Guiding God who is at work in you inspiring, strengthening, guiding, advocating, and illuminating you in your being.

Everything that you know of me… everything that you have experienced of me…. Is love.
Think about it.
The very act of creation was the love within me as the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit bubbling over and outward.
Your very life is an expression of my love.
From the very beginning I have been calling your brothers and sisters, and now you, by name… beckoning you into a relationship with me.
From the beginning I created you to be in relationship with other people – loving them, caring for them. And I know this because I created you to be just like me… capable of loving and uniting yourself with others.

And through it all… no matter how many times you turned away and your love faltered and puttered out and got angry… I stayed there.
With the love of a father and a mother, I sometimes used harsh words. I sometimes used thorough punishment.
But just like you know that the time out or soap in the mouth or being grounded was meant out of love… so too, my actions have always been out of love for you.
I want you to hear this very plainly: I love you.
I know that you are messed up and make mistakes and that there are a thousand reasons I shouldn’t.
But guess what.
I. Love. You.
Just as you are. With all of your issues and flaws.
I created you. I breathed into you my life. And no matter how many nicks and scratches you have – You Are Mine. And I love you.

But there is something else you need to know.
Because I am the King of Kings and Lord of Lords…
The Alpha and the Omega…
The beginning and the end…
There is immense power to be found by following me.
It is the power that filled the skies with light and that split the Red Sea right in half
My power has smashed huge kingdoms and struck down famous kings (Ps 136, MSG)
And I have done these things because it is only the rule of my love in your lives that will truly bring life to you and to the world.

Not the rule of presidents.
Not the number of social media followers.
Not your ranking as a sports team.
Not the number of zeros in your bank account.
No, only when you let me be the ultimate authority in your life will you find joy and strength.
Only when you kneel before me will you truly be set free.

For I am the one who remembered you when you were humiliated.
I am the one who rescued you from your enemies.
I am the one who provided for your every need. (Ps 136 CEB)
I am the one who gave my very self to bring you life.

Don’t you remember what my apostle John told you?
I’m sure that you can even say it by heart…
“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” NKJV

It’s true!
I loved you all so much that my very life was outpoured and given out and broken for you.
I didn’t go through all of that just to point a finger and tell you how awful you were… I did it to show my deep, abiding, steadfast, forever love for you.
I did it to put you back on the right paths, to give you a chance to start fresh. I did it because I loved you.
Because even though you are awesome just the way you are… I also love you too much to let you stay that way. (Anne Lamott)

The life I poured into your life… it wasn’t a one-time offer. Every day, every hour, every minute you can come to me… pray with me… talk with me… and my Spirit will encourage you and enfold you in my love and grace and help you to find peace in this world.
My love transforms. It changes lives. It is powerful.

And you know what, church?
I put that overwhelming power of love inside of you, because I want you to help me to spread it.
This great and awesome mystery of my love is not something reserved for the pastors… it is meant to be shared. This mystery is YOURS.
I want you to baptize others into this love.
I want you to welcome others into this love.
I want you to let this love to guide your life… every single day.

Do you remember my faithful friend, Paul, and all of those letters he wrote?
Well, he wrote and encouraged the Ephesians to tap into the great power of my love.
We were destined by the plan of God… called to be an honor to God’s glory… Since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all God’s people, this is the reason that I don’t stop giving thanks to God for you… (Ephesians 1:11, 12, 15 – CEB, ) But I do more than thank. I ask – ask the God of our Master, Jesus Christ, the God of glory – to make you intelligent and discerning in knowing him personally…. So you can see exactly what it is he is calling you to do, grasp the immensity of this glorious way of life he has for his followers, oh the utter extravagance of his work in us who trust him – endless energy, boundless strength! (Ephesians 1 – MSG)

Church!
You are my body in this world!
With your lips I speak!
With your hands I serve!
With your feet I move!
All I want to do is pour out my love upon the whole world and to gather it all up in that love.
And I created you to do that also.
I created you to share my life with others.
To love them when they don’t deserve it.
To set free the oppressed.
To bring food to the hungry.
To clothe the naked.
To love the world the way that I love you.

You are my answer to the brokenness and pain and violence and hatred of this world.
YOU!
I created you to share my steadfast love with all of creation.

Church – can you do that?
Let me rephrase the question… because I know you CAN do it… I gave you the power to do it.
Church – will you do that?

With love that will last forever, God.

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.