Tag: Advent

Do Not Fear

DSC_237012 Samuel 7:1-11, 16
Luke 1:26-38

Do not be afraid.

This is a strange greeting, isn’t it? Yet this is how Gabriel, in the Gospel of Luke, says hello to Mary and Zechariah both.

Do not be afraid – this is the greeting the Angels give the shepherds.

“Each word of assurance offered by the angel is not without cause. Indeed, each instance is accompanied by an awe-inspiring, even unusual moment that reasonably sparks wonder and even fear. Indeed, the practice of offering a word of assurance at moments of supernatural wonder and disruption to the norms of daily life is something Jesus takes up in his ministry later in the gospel.” ((Shivey Smith))

Jesus will tell Simon – do not be afraid, from now on, you wish fish for people. To Jarius – do not be afraid! Just believe, and your daughter will be healed. And to the disciples, and to us, Jesus will say, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom”

Do not be afraid.

It’s a strange greeting, but maybe one we should use.

Do not be afraid, it is Christmas Eve and the very God who crafted your bones from atoms, and the cosmos from chaos, who has numbered your head hair and set breath in the lungs of dinosaurs and humans alike – has come to us as a helpless baby who can’t even find his fingers to put in his mouth let alone walk, talk, or rule as our prince of peace.

Do not be afraid – God’s got this.

Do not be afraid – Mary – you are favored with a child conceived out of wedlock, to be born in a barn, raised as a refugee, condemned as a criminal, and murdered before your eyes.

But God’s got this.

Do not be afraid, Saint Michael’s – we have God’s favor, too. And it isn’t good times, and wealth. God’s favor isn’t an easy life and endless happiness. God’s favor is messier.

Like – new born diaper messy.

Like – 3-days dead Lazarus messy.

Like – empty tombs and locked doors and miracles and crucifixions and martyrs and loving that person you’d love to hate messy.

God’s favor is an invite to be part of the very re-creation of the world.

Do not be afraid – God’s got this – and God wants you to be a part of it.

Do not be afraid “functions as an invitation for Mary to do the unusual and the bold for the sake of the entire world because “nothing will be impossible with God”” ((shivey smith))

Do not be afraid is our invitation to step out and do the unusual and the bold too – because the house and kin-dom of God are now forever sure.

The unusual – that which isn’t to be mentioned in polite company – we’re to bring up those topics and causes, and live out that unusual way of reaching out to the outcasts, the marginalized, the vulnerable, the hated. Do not be afraid – you’re going to get filthy on the outside, but inside, you’ll be whiter than snow. Do not be afraid – God is with you.

We’re invited to be bold. To speak the words people do not want to hear. To preach love when everyone is throwing stones. To be God’s advocate when that is anything but popular. But do not be afraid – God is with you.

Anything is possible for God… God does miracles in the Bible, and is doing miracles now. So why does God bother with the messiness of involving us? Rev. Kathryn Matthews of the UCC writes, “we suppose that God could have chosen to save the world, to fulfill God’s promises of old all on God’s own; after all, nothing is impossible with God.

However, this humble but earth-shaking conversation [between Mary and Gabriel] tells us that God wants humanity to be part of the effort, even if it makes things much more complicated and even difficult (which it does): As Brian K. Peterson writes, “God apparently is not willing to do this behind our backs or without our own participation” (New Proclamation Year B 2008).”

Think about it – if you’re not invested into the world, will you care for it?

If you don’t have ownership, will you protect it?

I hear this time of year many people complain that kids have too many belongings, that everything is handed to them, and they don’t appreciate what they have then.

I hear all the time that said about my own generation.

There’s some truth to this, and it has nothing to do with age or generation. It has to do with investment.

I care more about those things I have spent time on, loved, prayed over, hoped for, and fought for. I care more about what I have tangibly put my hands on than what I have only a dim understanding of.

I care more about people I know, then those I don’t know.

You’re likely the same.

Maybe, God comes with this strange greeting of ‘do not be afraid’ and then leaps into humanity on humanity’s terms as a messy baby to get us more invested, more involved, with the cares of God – with the cares of re-creating the world into a place of love, hope, peace and joy.

Maybe we have a hard time loving the hard to fathom God of the universe… but we know how to love a baby, a child, a person. And so, God in the flesh, invites us to start loving others here.

And, maybe you can’t really care about a billion people you’ve never met… but you can care very dearly for your neighbor. And God says – yes! Do it. Love them deeply. Do not be afraid – I got this – But I want you to be a part of it, doing your own small part.
Here we are – our last Sunday of Advent, on Christmas Eve it’sself – what charity am I going to speak about?

Our own. Where we are doing our small part.

I’m talking about the moms and dads, grandparents, and aunts and uncles and friends and cousins in Baltimore and around the city who are sitting down today to eat a meal you donated.

I’m talking about the kids who don’t have to worry about if there will be breakfast tomorrow on Christmas morning because of you.

The Baltimore Thurston Food Pantry is our charity for today. It is messy. It is chaotic. It is God’s work in our community. It is an unusual and bold way God invites us to work alongside God.

Yes, there are food stamps. These takes weeks to apply and receive. People tend to like to eat every day and not once every few weeks.

Yes, there is emergency assistance. What if your emergency lasts a month – or two – before you’re able to find another job?

Yes, there are people ‘cheating the system.’ What does Tabitha do to earn a resurrection? What does Lazarus do? What have you done to earn God’s love?

Nothing. Nada. Zip.

God just loves you. And we’re called to just love others.

No qualifications asked.

Do not be afraid – God’s got this – and wants us to get involved too.

Needing a gift for that hard-to-buy-for-person who has everything? Now? In the final hours? Consider donating in their name.

From manger to temple, and from senate and house to our local food pantry – from the lowly to high and high to lowly – God is working, and inviting us, to make the vertical world horizontal, to be bold, to be unusual, to love justice and walk humbly and let our lives be our message of God’s radical love.



Testify to the Light

Isaiah 61:1-4; 8-11
John 1:6-8, 19-28
Rachael Djaba and Ben grin and show off a couple of the family’s hens. (by Heifer International)

Isaiah sounds as if he is writing a song of joy… saying things like “Good news to the oppressed!” and “I will greatly rejoice!” but Isaiah is actually writing a lament. A song of sorrow.

You see, returning is not restoration.

The exiles from Babylon have returned to Jerusalem and found the holy temple of God destroyed. The city and its surrounding cities destroyed. Ruins. And at first, they were so happy to leap into action. The returning Jewish population told the local population who were not exiled just what was what. The returning population were those priests and scribes and educated folk. The population who stayed were average people, and poor people. Over time, strife grew among them.

“Let’s build back the temple of God!” said those returning.

So the locals did… but the new temple was not as marvelous as Solomon’s. And the returned Jews grumbled, ‘You just can’t get good help! This thing looks awful!’

And the remaining Jews grumbled, ‘This is the best we could do. Who are these soft people to tell US what to do? WE who had to stay and try to survive in ruin?”

And the two groups bicker.

Isaiah brings the Good News to both: the oppressed locals and the brokenhearted returned exiles. He says God will gift them joy, garland, instead of sorrow and ashes. They, together, are a planting of the Lord and will be great trees to display God’s glory. Together they will rebuild cities and the devastations of many generations.

Indeed – returning is not restoration.

Going back to a place is not the same as restoring a place.

Being in a place is not the same as flourishing in a place.

Consider the families in California, Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico (among many other places). When they return home from evacuating from fires and hurricanes, they don’t find a HOME. They find a place, where once their home was. Houses are gone. Familiar trees and landmarks reduced to rubble. There is a long process of rebuilding the houses.

And even when the rebuilding is done, over months, there is still not restoration. Some people never come back and choose to live where they evacuated. Your neighbor of twenty years now lives 2000 miles away. Some buildings are not rebuilt. If, God forbid, we were to lose this church we’re in… you cannot build a new church and have it be 175 year old lovingly restored brick and slate. It is a new building, with a new history.

And our lives- their lives- are forever changed. All that time without work, all that money invested into rebuilding, all that effort.

The American Civil War was 152 years ago and yet STILL you can see its effects in our politics, in our buildings, in our church denominations even and so forth.

Returning to a place, or even liberating a people, does not mean there is restoration.

Restoration is a hard job that takes more than just being present.

Each Sunday I have been speaking about an alternative gift idea for your loved ones for Christmas. On the first Sunday of Advent, I spoke about reusing, regifting, and also passing on your photos and stories as ways to live into hope and future-thinking.

Last Sunday, I spoke about ANERA, the American Near-East Refugee Aid, as a way to gift peace monetarily into the Middle East. I also spoke about working locally living peace by learning about and welcoming the stranger.

Today, I speak about Heifer International – who are bringing joy around the world and not just being in an area, but restoring an area. Today I ask you to consider giving a flock of chickens, or a pair of goats, to a family somewhere in the world in the name of a loved one for Christmas. Just as our Baltimore – Millersport kids gifted sheep with our Barn Yard Round Up VBS.

Now, if you don’t know the story yet, let me tell you a bit about the non-profit.

“Dan West, a farmer and youth leader, was a relief worker during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. While passing out powdered milk to children on both sides of the conflict, he grieved when the supply of milk ran out with children still waiting in line. He reasoned that these people needed “not a cup, but a cow.” He challenged his farmer friends at home to send heifers. Because he believed that everyone who receives should also experience the dignity of giving, West came up with the idea of Passing on the Gift. Every family who receives a Heifer animal, he insisted, should pass on one of their animal’s offspring to someone else in need.”

Heifer only enter communities upon invitation. They train project participants extensively on a host of topics that range from animal husbandry to gender equity. Even down to what kinds of grass produce the best milk. But the education and generosity doesn’t end there.

Each family who is given all this know-how AND the flock of chickens, milking cows, goats, or llamas or sheep are asked to pass this same knowledge and animals to another family when their own animals have offspring. This turns people who received, into givers, and empowers everyone. Also, “the impact of the original gift is doubled, at minimum, proving that small actions lead to big results” – lasting, transformative change occurs not just for one family, but for the whole community.

For instance, hear the story of Rachael Djaba, of Ghana, She and her husband and seven biological kids, live in “a rural area, populated mostly by subsistence farmers and fiishermen. For many of them, their income rarely stretches to cover much more than banku and fufu, traditional fare made of plantains, cassava or corn. These foods offer plenty of carbohydrates, but little else.” Many people in this area are stunted, anemic, and very ill. One day the family found a week old baby abandoned by his mentally ill mother. So they took him in as their eight child because, as Rachel says, “Even though we think we are poor, there are people more poor than us.”

This little baby, named Ben, seven months later, qualified the family to participate in a research project on nutrition with a university teamed up with Heifer international. The requirement was a family who had a child under the age of 1. And, because the Djaba’s chose to help out others even in their poverty, they, blessedly, now would be the recipients of aid.

All the families “who joined the project received 40 chickens and training on how to raise, care for and sell any excess eggs and poultry that were left after providing children in the family with at least one egg a day. Families also got seeds for home gardens. Because vegetables had been considered a rare luxury before, project participants had to learn how to cook with them and incorporate them regularly into their diets. By introducing eggs and leafy greens to the families’ diets and helping them set up businesses that produce a regular stream of income, Heifer and their partners hoped to curb malnutrition and give children a better start.”

In the Djaba’s case, baby Ben is THRIVING! And so are the 40 birds. They have turned into 170 birds on the little farm with another 80 birds already given or sold away. 20 crates of eggs are sold locally now. At one time, Rachel had to take out loans to buy medication for her constantly ill kids and they rarely went to school. Now, they haven’t been ill in two years and are in regular schooling.

And it’s because of generosity. People generously give to Heifer International, the Djaba family were generous to the little week old baby, and now everyone in their rural area has access to eggs and vegetables and are much healthier.

This is what restoration is. This is what the kin-dom of God looks like. This is fortunes reversed, the earth springing forth new life, and liberty from debt, release from poverty, comfort to mourners, and joy.

The joy of God.

The joy that loves justice and builds up others.

Going back to a place is not the same as restoring a place.

Being in a place is not the same as flourishing in a place.

John comes baptizing and calling people back to God. As you know, believers and doubters and the plain curious go out to meet him in the desert. They go out to the place. Most he calls vipers and snakes. Some realize the truth he is preaching and return to God.

To all, John says you’re here – at the PLACE – returning back to God, but that’s not the same as restored. “I baptize with water; but there is one who is coming after me, and I am not worthy to untie his shoes.” As you know, other Gospels continue, “He will baptize you with fire, and the Holy Spirit.”

John says, I give you a cup of milk — but the cow is coming.

I give you a band aid, but the great physician is on his way.

I am not the light – but I testify to the light.

WE are called to do the same. WE are called to live into this light, to testify to it, and to ‘make straight the way of the Lord.’

We are called to restore each other and lead one another to the ever-restoring waters of Christ. We are called to not just go to a place – not just go to church – but be the church that is restored, and restoring, others.

We are not the light, but we testify to the light.

And for this light, for this invitation to not just return, but to be RESTORED – we can rejoice!

The Lord has anointed you with water, and fire, and the Holy Spirit to bring good news, and proclaim the favor of the lord. Go and do so!



All quoted text that isn’t Biblical is from Heifer International’s website, December, 2017, and their children’s Christian education flyer

Peace on Earth

Isaiah 40: 1-11 bln5.jpg
Mark 1:1-8

A country is invaded by people who have skin a different color than us. They speak a different language. They worship in a different religion. And they declare our land now belongs to a minority living among us. We revolt – we protest – we fight. And they keep sending in more troops. More immigrants. They tell us that the land now belongs to them, and to whomever they choose. We say we have been here for countless generations. They say our holy city is also is holy to them, and take it as a new capital of a land they are carving out of us. They tell us we’re not welcome in our holy city anymore.

This is Palestine. The British took it over, and declared the Muslim land now belonged to Jews—people whose ancestors are Jewish, and whose religion may or may not be Judaism. As the rest of the world fought World War I and II, Arabs—who may or may not be Muslim– fought to keep the land they had grown up on, farmed, and lived on for hundreds if not thousands of years. After the wars were over, massive amounts of Jew-descendants from all over the world poured into the area. The world pressured for the land to be divided up into two states: an Arab-descendants state called Palestine and a Jewish-descendants state called Israel. The sacred city of Jerusalem would be an international city – owned by no one faith or people – because it is holy to Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike.

The Palestinians said no! No – look – this is our land! We didn’t kill the Jews. We didn’t kick them out. You all did that. We didn’t ask the British to take us over. We’re a mix of people already – Jewish and Christian and Muslim and more – the world just can’t decide this arbitrary line and say all Jews belong on one side and everyone else on the other. They began to try to round up their illegal immigrants and kick them out. These were largely European Jews.

But the world replied, we can, and we are dividing your land. We were inflamed with the idea of Zionism. The idea that if Jews returned in number to the holy land, then Christ would return too. In our zeal, we did to the Palestinians — genocide, shuttering into ghettos, starving and murder and theft — just as we had done to the Jews in Europe. And, just as Jews (and gays and Roma and more) were murdered in Europe in the name of Christ… so we murdered Muslims (and Arabic Christians) in the name of Christ.

In 1948, Israel declared itself a Jewish state. The following day, four different Arabic countries marched into the area being assigned as the new State of Israel and the first of many, many wars broke out between the State of Israel and Arabic countries.

Eventually, a truce was called. It is referenced as the Green Line because green ink was used on a map to mark the edges of the truce line. This truce line went right through the middle of the holy city. The country of Jordan annexed the West Bank, including its half of Jerusalem. Egypt took the Gaza Strip. Israel took way more land and cities than what the UN had given them, and Palestine was now a tiny dot surrounded on all sides.

Palestinians call this the Nakba. Jews have the Holocaust. Palestinians have Nakba — the Catastrophe. 700,000 Palestinians were driven out of their homes and made refugees due to this war. They were not permitted to return home and began their generations of living in concentration camps… known as refugee camps. But this was just the first war.

For twenty years there is skirmishes between Palestinian citizens and Israeli soldiers. This reaches a head in 1967 as the State of Israel and Arab countries fight over who gets to control the Jordan River. Egypt massed its army near the border with Israel, expelled UN peacekeepers, stationed in the Sinai Peninsula since 1957, and blocked Israel’s access to the Red Sea. Israel launched a pre-preemptive strike against Egypt. Jordan, Syria and Iraq responded and attacked Israel. Israel defeated Jordan and captured the West Bank, defeated Egypt and captured the Gaza Strip and Sinai Peninsula, and defeated Syria and captured the Golan Heights, and took over all of Jerusalem. Eventually, Sinai was given back to Egypt. The rest of the land is ‘occupied.’

The United Nations said this was wrong, and illegal, and to give the land back – but the State of Israel never has. Instead, more and more houses are built as ‘settlements’ that establish the land as belonging to Israel. More and more Palestinian homes are razed, and the people sent into camps.

Just as our ancestors claimed land here, in the Americas, with pioneers — settlers — and drove off the Natives… so too the same is happening in Palestine.

The Palestinians are, naturally, furious. And as years turn into decades and turn into generations, their fury becomes desperate hate. Decades, getting close to a hundred years now, of terrorist attacks happen from Palestinians against those in the land they once held.

You see, in the camps there is not enough shelter, or food, or work. You must go out to get these. To go out, you must be a second class citizen and at risk of being shot, stoned, or having the same done to your family because you are not Israeli. Each time your people up rise and demand access to water, electricity, food, medicine — greater torture happens. Families go missing. It is joked about that you’re not a man until you’ve done time in prison and been tortured by an Israeli. But if you protest – bulldozers come in and level you and your family and neighbor’s homes.

Some Palestinians throw stones at Israelis. In return, many Palestinians are shot with weapons.

Yes, some Palestinians knife Israelis. Many, many more Palestinians are killed daily by Israelis… but it is never reported in the news.

Until now. This week. When the violence has intensified.

I wrote this sermon for this Sunday on Monday. I usually let this sermon sit as I think about it, and then I revise it again during the week.

This week, the Spirit had moved me. I wrote about Palestine on Monday. And during the week, our President moved the USA embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Now, daily, violence in Jerusalem and among Palestinians and Israelis intensifies. Each time I went to revise my sermon, I found the situation had changed.

Moving the embassy signifies that we Americans are siding with the Israelis and against a two-state solution that respects both Palestinians and Israelis… because it ‘awards’ the holy city to Israel – who is occupying half the city and does not own it – and says we’re no longer interested in negotiating a peace where the city is shared.

This is why the Palestinians are rioting. This is the latest theft of many from them.

And here we are. How can there be peace in the Middle East?



Ancient Israelites lived in Jerusalem. And Palestinian ancestors lived in Jerusalem. The city is holy to billions of people. And for nearly a hundred years this current conflict has been going on – and before then, we had the Crusades where we caused the conflict in the area. And before then, there was Rome. And Babylon. And hundreds and hundreds of years of humans fighting over the city.

And by now – no one is innocent in this conflict. Every religion and every people have murdered innocents on the other side, and done wrongs. Tit-for-tat has led to a snowball effect where no Palestinian trusts Israelis, and no Israelis trust Palestinians, and we Westerners distrust all Middle Easterners and Middle Easterners distrust Westerners.

What’s going on this very moment – with rockets and suicide attacks – with soldiers shooting families and families throwing stones – with systemic genocide and terrorist attacks – this is the result of hundreds and thousands of wrongs done to each other.

Peace in the Middle East, peace in Jerusalem, seems hopelessly out of reach.

But people still dream.

Muslims, Christians, and Jews alike – we know we are supposed to be living into the reign of God. And there are people working towards this.

What can we, here, do for world peace?

Love your neighbor. Learn about Judaism and Islam. Know how we have far more in common compared to what we have in difference. Know that God, Adonai, and Allah are all words, titles, for the deity we share whose name is not spoken.

What can we do for world peace? Love your neighbor. Welcome the stranger. Walk humbly. Give and do peace.

During this Christmas, you can give peace through ANERA.

The American Near East Refugee Aid non-profit is trying to help in this dire situation. They’re trying to spread PEACE and understanding. In Jordan, and in Gaza, and in Palestine, ANERA asks the locals what they need, and helps them help themselves. Frequently, war and strife is all people have known. It is hard to have hope. Hard to dream of peace.

Behind all the people on the news are moms still struggling to feed kids. Dads still struggling to find work. Kids still struggling to find joy. Grandparents praying for the security of their families. Friends still sharing embraces. People still falling into love.

Behind all the war are humans being human.

And ANERA works with Israelis and Palestinians both to promote peace in people’s daily lives.

“In Gaza, for instance, over 60 percent of young people are unemployed—the highest rate of youth unemployment in the world. Syrian refugees in Lebanon have grown up amid war and displacement, and for many that has meant dropping out of school to support their families… youth in the Middle East have borne the brunt of conflict and economic stagnation.”

To promote peace, ANERA works with these youth. They offer “basic literacy to job skills and even sports and handicrafts [courses]. These educational and recreational pursuits also help strengthen bonds to their host communities, soothe psychological trauma, and shape them into active members of society.

Young Palestinian and Syrian refugees attend an accounting courses in Al Sharq. The class is one of the many job skills training courses ANERA is offering to refugee youth throughout Lebanon. With marketable skills like accounting and computer science, these youths will have greater chances at finding jobs.

Sports not only give youth a recreational outlet, but provide psychosocial support and build community bonds. “In Syria it’s kind of impossible for a girl to play football,” says 20-year-old Rawan. “This is the first time I have ever played in my life. At first I didn’t tell my mom.” Not only do sports promote physical health, they also form friendships and ties among youth. Personal relationships are the key to peace.

Meanwhile, Adnan, 18, has lived in El Buss camp near Tyre since his family fled Syria. Adnan’s family are of Palestinian origin and had lived in Syria for generations as refugees. Now they join the thousands of “twice-refugees”—Palestinian-Syrians living in Lebanon. ANERA helps families like Adnan’s who find they are suffering generations of psychological trauma. ANERA brings in counselors, doctors, dentists, and raise up mentors out of the community.

Syrian and Palestinian refugee girls attend hairdressing classes in Sidon. Hair and makeup courses are some of a wide variety of vocational skills youth are learning across Lebanon.

In Bar Elias, chess class draws steady concentration from boys and girls. ANERA’s programs include education as well as athletic and other recreational pursuits, which aim to improve the quality of life of disadvantaged youth.

Refugee girls take part in a handicrafts courses in Baalbek, Lebanon. Many, like 14-year-old Hanine from Homs, Syria, go on to sell their work to earn extra cash, while others find plenty of personal household use for their crafts.

As a Palestinian refugee, Omar has limited job opportunities in Lebanon. Now he’s teaching young people how to do dabke, a traditional Palestinian dance style, in Ein El Hilweh camp. “[Our] uncle would complain that he couldn’t sleep because Omar was dancing all night,” laughs his sister Israa.

Yara, 14, takes literacy and math classes in Bar Elias, Bekaa. Many refugee youth like Yara have missed out on school for over six years, since the Syrian war began. Some cannot read or write at all, and had never used computers.

These teens and young adults are the next generation of men and women in the Middle East. They are who are deciding now, or will be deciding soon, whether to continue the cycles of violence against others or to live into peace.

This Christmas, you can give peace by donating in the name of a loved one to ANERA. You can invest in the lives of these children. You can pray for peace and act for peace locally, and internationally.

We’re not going to solve the wars in the Middle East without God’s intervention. And God’s intervention comes through the Spirit, through us, wherever we love our neighbors and welcome the stranger.


Humble Clay

Isaiah 64:1-9 maple_tree_bud
Mark 13:24-37


The Prophet Isaiah pleads with God – come, God, come – show the world how amazing you are. We’re dry leaves in the wind, blown to and fro about petty concerns, and chase after things which aren’t you. We’re lost in our sins.

But, God, we’re clay and you’re the potter.

God, we are the work of your hand.

God – come and remold us, rework us, repair us.

This hope is kept alive for generations upon generations. This hope keeps the people seeking and watching for the messiah – the one God will sent to gather us back from wherever we’ve blown, wash away the dirty sins, and remake us anew.

This hope brings us to the Gospel — the Good News — of the testament, the words, of Mark.

Mark remembers Jesus saying that when everything is darkest, and we’re shaken to our core — when it seems like all hope is lost…

There still is a light. THE Light. THE Word of God which will never pass away. THE God, who will not give up on us.

We don’t know when this will happen. We don’t know how or where. We don’t know when the first maple or fig bud appears – but we know it happens. We know when we see those signs of life after a long winter, that summer is near.

We don’t know what is the first sign of Christ’s full reign – but it is budding everywhere. And this long time of waiting in winter will be over, and full summer will be here.

A budding of that glorious time is happening today – with church, and with the foretaste of heaven in our communion.

A budding of that glorious time is happening all the time — all the time there is another little sign, another little bud — soon all the trees will have leaves. Soon, all people will live in harmony.

While we wait for that time, we keep the faith – keep our hope.

Hope with joy. Hope with peace. Hope in love.

For you do not hope in vain. What the potter has begun, the potter will continue to work into perfection.


Where is the joy?

Philippians 4:4-7
Luke 3:7-18

Joy to the world!
Joyful joyful we adore thee!
How great our joy!
O tidings of comfort and joy!
Joyful all ye nations rise!
Bringing joy to every boy and girl!

… Do you ever get tired of being told this is the season of joy?

What if I don’t feel jolly at all?

I spent some time this week sitting and waiting in Walmart waiting on my car battery to be replaced. Across from me was a thirty-foot-long display of “Christmas Joy.” Trinkets imported from China, sharp cinnamon candles, glittery baubles for decorating a tree, and everywhere smiling snowmen and reindeer. The people who walked past this, perused it, and picked things up looked like zombies. Their eyes were glazed over, they looked like this was a chore they felt obligated to do, but it sure wasn’t enjoyable.

I like to make up dialogue for people whenever I’m people watching. So I heard one woman think, “Another season. Another day I’m supposed to smile and be happy and rejoice to see my mother.”

Her mother, walking with her, was thinking, “It’s Christmas already? I seems like it was just Easter. I’m not ready. Well, I mean, I still have the lights up from last year – I never got to taking them down – will last year’s candy do for the grandkids too?”

I saw a man standing in traditional zombie stance with his mouth hanging open and his eyes unfocused as he stood before the “Ready for Wrapping!” makeup case. I pictured him having no thoughts — so overwhelmed — maybe a bit of miserable sorrow since whatever he picked wouldn’t be the right kind of make up… yet the real makeup aisle is ever more overwhelming… Why did his teen daughter have to ask for makeup?

Maybe cash. I think he thinks as he walks away empty handed. Cash is easier. Is it too… crass? He stops at the end of the aisle, grabs the first pre-wrapped makeup case his hand falls on, and hurries away. This makeup is cheaper than cash.

When I went to pay for my battery, there was a line of unhappy people frowning at one another and upset that it was taking ten or more minutes for the line to move. The unhappy workers were upset with the crowds, and yet everyone is here… stuck.

The crowds don’t want to be here, and yet they are forced to by social pressure. But this is the season of joy, so shut up and be happy, smile and spend!

The workers don’t want to be here, and yet they are forced to to pay the bills. But this is the season of joy! So wear red to work and smile to the angry customers!

Maybe some of those workers would be in the crowd later, unhappily spending their money to purchase things their relatives don’t really want or need… but they don’t want to give their relatives nothing for the holiday. Who wants to be a scrooge? Who wants to say bah-humbug?

Can you be Christian and not feel the feeling of Christmas?

Can you be Christian and think this isn’t the season of joy?

Can you be Christian and just want Christmas to come and be over with already?

“Christmas joy.”

Maybe that’s the feeling you get when you finally have the Christmas decorations put away.

It’s kinda weird, but the first Christmas wasn’t all joyful either.

Some people say Mary gave birth as miraculously as she conceived – a sparkle of light and surprise! There’s a baby. Most people say no, she had a labor. I mean, she was riding a donkey for a reason – it hurts to walk when you’re in labor. There’s a lot of pain in giving birth. Joy, too, but also pain. Fear. Worry. Anxiety.

The shepherds didn’t have joy until after they saw the babe. Until then, they were scared, curious.

Herold sure didn’t greet the news of a new king with joy.

Just like life, the first Christmas was a mixed bag of emotions. Sometimes joyful, sometimes sorrowful.

The Bible, and its stories, lead more insight into our true meaning of the season than the aisle of “JOY!” at Wal-mart too.

You see, the crowds who came to John in the wilderness were far more unhappy and joyless than the folks waiting in line. But these ancient crowds, too, were stuck. You see, as Rev. Kathryn Matthews of the Amistad UCC Chaple writes, “in [John’s] day, the powers-that-be had arranged a world based on empire, with those at the top grabbing – through force and greed – the lion’s share of power and material wealth for themselves. It wasn’t just the Roman Empire and their puppets that experienced John’s anger and sharp words, but also the religious institutions as well felt the sting of John’s rebuke…

John’s message about the forgiveness of sins and being baptized in a river made the Temple and its elaborate systems run by powerful priests sound rather unnecessary. The priests, including the ones listed when John first appears, couldn’t have greeted his preaching with enthusiasm, because the people on top, whether religious or political leaders, ‘abused their position to increase the debt load on the people of the land. Rather than forgiving debt, they were increasing debt’ (William Herzog, New Proclamation Year C 2006). The abuse of position and power for profit is nothing that we have invented ourselves.”

And the crowds are desperate. Things are near a breaking point. People have had enough and can’t stand anymore. None of their leaders seem trustworthy. None of their religious institutions — their very priests!– seem trustworthy. Even the old, old story of the Exodus, and God’s promised covenant to be with the people no longer seems trustworthy since everything is going so, so wrong. The people want a Messiah. They want revolt. They need things to change.

So why did people come to John? He wasn’t winning any Public Relations contests. He was dressed in nasty camel’s hair, looked and spoke like a wild man, and he welcomed people by yelling at them, “YOU BROOD OF VIPERS! WHO WARNED YOU OF THE COMING WRATH?!”

Maybe some came in desperation. Maybe others in curiosity. Maybe some liked that he was fiery. Others liked he wasn’t going along with Rome and the temple. Maybe, for some, he was stirring that dim, jaded, barely remembered childhood wonder and hope hidden in the people’s hearts.

That hope and wonder we remember as kids looking up at the ceiling at the glittering Christmas lights reflected off the white paint.

That excitement, and joy, we remember ourselves having as we crawled into our cold sheets Christmas Eve dreaming of tomorrow’s Christmas Day gifts.

Maybe, John awoke the message of the Exodus, of God’s promise to abide with us, in a way that spoke to hearts heavily weighed by taxes, bills, occupation, corruption, and being stuck in a system where you’re unhappy but nothing changes.

You see, John came preaching the advent, the coming, of the kindom of God. He told us to prepare the way for the Lord. This sounds like a humongous, gigantic task. As gigantic and as seemingly impossible as achieving world joy or world peace.

But John breaks down the work into things we can actually tackle: little deeds, little actions, we can actually accomplish…. but which make a huge impact.

“He doesn’t tell the people to get back to church, to overthrow the [government], to transform the world in some sudden, drastic revolution. No, he tells them the same things that [their and our parents have always told us:] ‘Share with one another. Be kind to one another. Don’t fight. Be fair. Don’t hoard, or lord it over one another.’

I don’t mean to reduce John’s message in any way, but at the heart of it, it seems to me John” is teaching that basic justice and goodness “will knock the supports out from under every out-of-whack, awry, misaligned, upside-down, oppressive structure and system that we’ve built.” (Rev. Kathryn Matthews) He’s saying God’s way is a way built of daily deeds of justice and goodness, and these daily deeds “take the air, the power, out of every process and habit that we humans have practiced and perfected and with which we have hurt one another, and one another’s children.” (Rev. Kathryn Matthews)

The people coming to John were desperate. The people I saw in Wal-Mart were getting desperate. The crowds ask, “What should we do?” What should we do if Christmas comes and we feel no joy? What should we do if the world is large and scary and we are tiny and scared? What should we do if everything seems out of control and we are powerless even to change a tiny bit? What should we do when it seems we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t?

John’s message is this: be generous. Be just. Be repentant. These prepare the way for the Lord.

The beginning of joy to the world is the beginning of simply offering hospitality to someone who needs a place to stay.

It is welcoming a baby into the world.

It is repenting — saying you are sorry to others and to God when you mess up.

The beginning of the Christmas spirit, Christmas joy, is a Christian life.

A Christian life is one that produces good fruits.

Good fruits… like joy, love, peace, and hope.

Good fruits, like forgiveness, patience, kindness, and generosity.

John’s examples of good fruits is so simple: don’t use your power to hurt others. If you own more than you need, give it to someone who is needy. Don’t sell it to them. Give it.

If you collect money on a bill, take what is fair. Don’t jack the price up. Don’t overcharge. Don’t cheat people.

If you are a soldier, protect people. Don’t intimidate and threaten. Don’t be a bully.

In today’s children’s chat, we read about many ways to prepare the way for the lord. Little deeds, random acts of kindness, are like rain drops. This rain like grace becomes rivers of life-giving water. Rivers for redemption, for repentance, for making people whole.

Not feeling the Christmas joy? It’s okay. Christmas is full of many emotions. You don’t HAVE TO do Christmas. You don’t HAVE TO purchase presents, visit people, and fake a smile. These are heavy burdens, and we can repent and lay them down. Instead of carrying these HAVE TOs, we can carry divine love. Divine love might feel joyful, or it might be peaceful and still. Divine love might be sorrowful, or lonely. Divine love is our gift at Christmas and just like the stories of old, divine love comes in many forms and many expressions.

Sometimes we “rejoice in the Lord” with celebrations and loud music. And sometimes we rejoice in the Lord by being grateful God is with us when we’re feeling alone, and sad.

Our God is with us. Emmanuel. Amen.

Given to Saint Michael’s UCC, Baltimore Ohio, 12-13-15

Peaceful Feet

Philippians 1:3-11
Luke 1:68-79

Elderly Elizabeth and elderly Zechariah had no children. Elizabeth prayed for a child; and Zechariah received a vision of the future child that struck him deaf and mute.

This elderly couple have been waiting, and waiting, nine long months. For the last few months, Elizabeth’s young, young relative Mary has been pregnant. Mary has said the child is the Son of God, and the baby inside Elizabeth jumped with joy.

Now at last the time has come for that happy jumping baby to be born – and for more miracles happen!

It was a miracle that this elderly couple who’d never been able to have children suddenly became pregnant.

It was a miracle that took Zechariah’s speech and hearing: but he hasn’t been able to communicate what occurred yet.

It is a miracle that in a time when great numbers of healthy, young teen women die in childbirth, this elderly frail woman gives birth without complications to a healthy little boy.

But the miracles aren’t done yet.

Usually, people ask the father in ancient Jewish societies: What will be the name of the child? By naming the child, the father affirms the child is his own and part of his household.

But Elizabeth breaks custom. She declares, “This child is named John.” Which means, God is Gracious— God is generous and good.

The people around Elizabeth cry out, “John?! There are no ‘Johns’ in your family! Shouldn’t he be Zechariah Junior? Or named after your father, or your brother? Someone, go try to ask Zechariah!”

So they go to elderly Zachariah, and “make signs at him.” Zechariah motions for a writing tablet, and writes, “His name is John.”

Now the whole town is in an uproar! Zachariah chose the same name – had he been able to talk with Elizabeth before hand – or did he miraculously choose the same name?!

Everyone begins to ask: Who is this boy? What will he become?

We normally ask the same questions of all children – who is this child? What will this child become as an adult? But the town’s people are asking this in fear. They are scared. What do these signs mean and just who is this kid?

And to their even greater astonishment and fear: Zechariah’s lips and ears open and he can talk and hear again. And he says today’s prophecy in Luke:

“you, child, will be called
the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord
to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation
to his people by the forgiveness
of their sins.
By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high
will break upon us,
to give light to those
who sit in darkness and
in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

And Zechariah recounts how God has always been faithful, always done as God has promised, and always remembered the holy covenant between people and God — this mutual promise of love and support between people and God.

Zechariah speaks of God’s salvation, forgiveness, tender mercy… and calls his son God is Gracious. Zachariah speaks of peace to the people’s fear. He foretells the salvation of God’s people through a revelation that will teach them to walk in the way of peace.

For the first of many times in Luke’s gospel, salvation and peace, God’s kindom and peace, are tied together. As we spoke in our call to worship: If there is to be peace in the world… there must be peace in the heart.

And peace of heart, for peace for the home, neighbors, city, nation and world is what John is to announce is coming. A peace that transcends all understanding. A peace from God God’s self.

John, little baby John, being raised by people old enough to be his grandparents, shall be the one who announces the coming of the Lord.

And we know John grows up and does just this – through John, God prepares the way for God’s own self becoming incarnate in John’s relative Jesus. The two don’t seem to grow up together — John is raised in the wilderness, and doesn’t know who Jesus is when Jesus comes to be baptized — but these two surely are walking with God and the great work God begins in them before they are even born continues even to this very moment.

This great work is preparing the world for the Day of Christ; the kin-dom of God on Earth as it is in Heaven; preparing the world for peace.

Before we begin singing ‘Give Peace A Chance’ or ‘Kumbaya’ … You may remind me that Jesus said in Matthew “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”

… And an pretty angry Jesus literally chased people with a whip.

… And Jesus told his disciples in Luke to sell their cloaks for swords.

Perhaps the way of peace is divisive. Perhaps the way of peace is like a sword, and it cuts — divides – sharpens.

We often think peace is the same as stillness. A peaceful Christmas night is a night of quiet snow, twinkling bright stars, and a holy hush broken only by the sound of our breath.

But the way of peace, the road of God, is rarely still and motionless. The way of peace challenges the way things are. Think of these “peaceful” moments of the Bible:

The angels who announce the birth of Christ SING “Peace on Earth and Goodwill to all.” The sky is full of their song and delight. This peace is active, lively, bright – and scares the shepherds. But their song of peace prepares the way for the shepherds to greet the born Messiah and share the good news.

The peace Jesus gives others causes great unrest. Remember when the sinful woman with the expensive perfume busts into the dinner banquet to weep on Jesus’ feet and anoint them with the perfume and her kisses. What a stir she caused! What a lack of peace! How could someone so dirty, so foul, touch a prophet?! And Jesus, instead of being angry with her, praises her deeds, tells her that her sins are forgiven, and says, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

And the woman dragged into court before all the men, dragged before Jesus and accused of adultery – the crowd stated: we must stone her to death, right Jesus? But Jesus was peaceful, and quietly replied, “Let the one without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” And bit by bit, beginning with the eldest of the men, the crowd left until just she was left in the center of the court. And Jesus said he did not condemn her, and let her go in peace.

Peace, Jesus tells the men on the way to Damascus.

Peace, Jesus insists when Judas betrays him and Jesus’ disciples try to raise swords to defend Jesus.

Peace, Jesus shows in the courts.

Peace, for Jesus, is actively doing justice, actively forgiving, actively bringing not stillness – but peace to our souls.

A peaceful soul is a soul that has listened to the little small voice of the Holy Spirit which ever whispers inside us.

The peaceful soul is a soul with a clear conscious.

And that peaceful soul is likely NOT living a passive life. A peaceful soul is a soul that is living an active and engaging life actively bringing about peace, justice, truth and clearing the way for God’s salvation, God’s grace, to shine ever brighter on the world.

A peaceful soul is a soul that is walking on peaceful feet, doing peaceful deeds, and always on the move spreading God’s shalom.

What is shalom?

It is more than what peace means in English. And shalom is what we’re translating as peace in our Bible.

Shalom is completion. Wholeness. Full health. It is having every dish clean and matching. It is a perfect sunset on a perfect day. It is a engine that always starts on the first try. It is a completed card or DVD collection. It is to be restored. To be washed clean of sins. It is to fall into the loving embrace of someone who you’ve made amends with and KNOW all is well.

This peace, this shalom, is, as Dr. Plantgina writes, “universal flourishing, wholeness and delight – a rich state of affairs in which natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed, a state of affairs that inspires joyful wonder as its Creator and Savior opens doors and welcomes [all]… it is the way things ought to be.”

This active, moving, lavish peace John came announcing, Jesus made possible, and we are invited to share.

So get up and use your peaceful feet this week! Share shalom. Amen.

Take Heart – Help is on the way!

Jeremiah 33:14-16
Luke 21:25-36

Jesus has been talking with his disciples on the Mount of Olives. They asked him, when and what will the end times be like? Jesus has told him that nations will fight each other – but that is not the end. There will be famines, and earthquakes – but again, this is not the end. Today we hear Jesus describe an end… but it’s not the end at all that the disciples asked about.

Eugene Peterson’s “The Message Bible” sometimes says our familiar story in such a wonderful new paraphrase. I think Peterson captures it well when he puts Jesus’ words as:

“It will seem like all hell has broken loose —sun, moon, stars, earth, sea, in an uproar and everyone all over the world in a panic, the wind knocked out of them by the threat of doom, the powers-that-be quaking.”

When these unmistakable, not reoccurring signs happen, when it seems like all hell as broken loose — then we will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud.

Jesus tells his disciples to then, “stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

When all hell is breaking loose, take heart – help is on the way.

When it seems like heaven and earth are passing away, take heart – God’s words never fail, never wear out, never pass away. When God says help is on the way: help is on the way.

Our translation says Jesus warns us against having hearts weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness, and the worries of life. If you’re not a walking dictionary, dissipation means disintegrated or over-indulgent. The word in the original language usually is used referring to the feeling after a major drunken party – a hangover, feeling out of sorts, dizzy and out of it.

But Jesus warns about not just getting drunk, and being over-indulgent or hung over, but also about being worried. Jesus says – don’t be one of those people fainting with fear, stressing out about what tomorrow will bring, and freaked out. Nor be one of those people who is out of it, focused on themselves, focused only on finding inner peace – naval gazing.

Peterson updates Jesus’ words as, “be on your guard. Don’t let the sharp edge of your expectation get dulled by parties and drinking and shopping. Otherwise, that Day is going to take you by complete surprise,”

So what are we to do if we are to neither freak out, panic, and worry — nor turn to drugs, alcohol, shopping, TV, or music to ignore what scares us?

“be alert” and “pray.”

We’re told to be alert, to pray. To not stress or plug our ears. But be peaceful and present. Awake and attentive.

And how can we be this way? Because we know: help is on the way. And this help isn’t bringing an end – no, he is bringing a new beginning! A new era of peace and the presence of God!

You all know I am a fan of science fiction and fantasy. I cannot help but see the “Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers” when I read these passages. I picture the battle at Helms Deep. It seems all hell has broken loose. The humans are losing the battle – but then the elves come! Then the humans AND the elves are losing the battle. The evil orc and uruk hai are set to kill every last man, woman, and child. But the hero Aragon refuses to hide in fear, and he refuses to ignore the plight and focus only on saving himself. He stays calm and stays involved. He encourages the king to ride out into battle and give the humans and elves hope – ride out with their heads held high – for Aragon knows: help is on the way if they can just hold fast until the new dawn.

And sure enough – because they ride out strong and bold in spite of their fear, the warriors are encouraged, and fight until dawn – when with the rising of the sun Gandalf and the king’s horsemen arrive to save the day.

J. R. R. Tolkien was heavily inspired by the Bible. He once said his books were simply a retelling of the Greatest Story Ever Told.

And the Greatest Story Ever Told is the story of God’s love. Of reassurance that help is on the way. Of the promise of a new heaven and a new earth. Of the hope that we cherish – the hope and the promise that there is a new beginning in each ending, a new life after one has died, and a God who loves us so much to always be present through it all.

This Advent day of Hope, we reaffirm that we know Help is on the Way. The king who was, is the king now, and shall be the king again in the future.

We sang today asking our king, our God-with-Us, our Emmanuel to come and ransom we who are captive. Captive to worries, captive to stress, captive to shopping or lists or fears or sensationalist news broadcasts, captive in bodies and minds that don’t work as they ought, captive in bad relationships and bad habits, captives… our Emmanuel, our help, is on the way.

So come, Emmanuel! Take heart, God is here and yet still more awesome help from God is coming. Amen.