Tag: Christmas

Make Way! Make Way!

bonhoefferMalachi 3:1-4
Luke 3:1-6

In 1937, a German theologian and pastor named Dietrich Bonhoeffer was watching the rise of the Nazi regime in his country. He saw how faith in Christ was becoming muddled with faith in country. It was anti-German to be welcoming outsiders. It is anti-German to not be Christian. Therefore, not welcoming outsiders and being Christian go hand-in-hand — since they’re both pro-Germany.

This very same kind of fuzzy logic happens in our own country right now. When a person says they are Christian, immediately some assume that means they must also be pro-life, love America, vote Republican, and be against immigration.
But that’s not true… that’s fuzzy logic. Logic that makes grand assumptions. There are pro-choice Christians, and there are pro-life atheists. Polarizing language that breaks us up into two camps — the enemy and the good guys — (always, we find ourselves in the good guy camp no matter which side we pick) makes this fuzzy logic grow.

Soon there is no middle ground. Soon there is no real self-reflection. Soon, churches begin to offer only cheap grace.

Bonhoeffer coined this term in the book The Cost of Discipleship. Hear his words:

“Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting today for costly grace.

Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjack’s wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace is represented as the Church’s inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost! …

Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the Cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”

Cheap grace, to Bonheoffer, is when the church bows to society and silences those who question the way things are. It is cheap grace when we tell ourselves we’re good people because we’re Christians… but don’t actually follow Christ. It is cheap grace when scripture and faith don’t challenge us, and God looks and thinks and acts just as we do.

“You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” ((Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies.)) It’s a mirror. It’s yourself. An idol.

Our church gives cheap grace when it says “Things are fine for me, so stop your complaining.” “I’ve never been gay, so nor should you be.” “I’ve never needed to flee my country’s violence: so go home and leave me be.” Cheap grace is grace not from God — but from ourselves. It is patting ourselves on our backs and saying “What good Christians we are!”

Cheap grace is the love we give ourselves at the expense of following Jesus.

Opposite of this, says Bonhoeffer, is costly grace. He writes,

“Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods…

Costly grace is the Gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock.

Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner.

Above all, it is costly because it costs God the life of His Son: “ye were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon His Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered Him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.”

Bonhoeffer’s words mean Christianity is costly. It doesn’t let us follow society. It makes us follow a different law – the law of love. Christianity demands repentance – repentance means to radically change your life. It isn’t just “I’m sorry,” when you do something… it is “I’m sorry and I will never do that again.” Repentance is the idea that we are walking the wrong direction and must completely turn around, back towards God The baptism of repentance that John calls for is having a water baptism as a sign of washing away the old life and beginning a new. The baptism in the name of Christ, the Father, and Holy Spirit we do is a sign of what happens invisibly of the new life a person has. And when we take communion, we confess our sins and pledge to begin anew our life with God and one another.

New as in… not repeating those wrongs.

And that is costly.

But grace is defined as a free gift. Confusing? Let me explain…

Cheap free gifts, cheap grace, are like… the really cheap chocolate you can get for Christmas. It’s mostly wax. The sugar tastes good. For a moment. Then it is awful.

The cheap free gift of a faith that doesn’t challenge us a faith that won’t stand up to pressure. When we face truly awful things – the death of a child, the betrayal of a friend, the injustice of law, the sexual abuse of clergy on children – and our faith hasn’t grown beyond the basic step… that faith crumbles. How could God permit such evil? How could I ever forgive such a friend? How can I have faith in any laws or any clergy? When our faith is given to us cheaply without challenge… it just wilts and has nothing to say to these situations.

Costly grace is a gift that cost a lost to give. It’s like the expensive chocolate. Just a little bit goes a long way because it is mostly cocoa. It tastes good, and leaves a good taste. But it cost way more.

The costly gift of faith that does challenge us is faith that stands up under the pressure of the evils of life. It reminds us that God is a parent grieving the loss of their child. God-in-Christ knew the betrayal of Judas… then each disciple… all the way to Peter, his best friend, who denied ever even knowing Jesus. It reminds us that wherever there are humans, there is sin… this includes our most sacred institutions and worship spaces. Costly grace is messy. It can’t be summed up on a coffee cup. It says there are real sins, real evils, but also real forgiveness, real repentance, really changed lives.

Malachi writes at a time the cheap grace of the Jewish faith is failing people. He prophesizes that God will refine the priests and make them strong – strong enough to lead the people back into costly grace. But costly grace – faith that can move mountains – costs.

So Malachi warns us this cost is like a fire that burns away impurities to leave behind the gold and silver. It is like bleach, that will turn dull and dirty cloth into dazzling white as snow cloth. Who can withstand this, wonders Malachi. Who can handle the cost of discipleship?

Bonhoeffer wrote about this in his own Advent sermons a few years before writing The Cost of Discipleship. He wrote,

“It is very remarkable that we face the thought that God is coming, so calmly, whereas previously peoples trembled at the day of God . . . . We have become so accustomed to the idea of divine love and of God’s coming at Christmas that we no longer feel the shiver of fear that God’s coming should arouse in us. We are indifferent to the message, taking only the pleasant and agreeable out of it and forgetting the serious aspect, that the God of the world draws near to the people of our little earth and lays claim to us. The coming of God is truly not only glad tidings, but first of all frightening news for every one who has a conscience.

Only when we have felt the terror of the matter, can we recognize the incomparable kindness. God comes into the very midst of evil and of death, and judges the evil in us and in the world. And by judging us, God cleanses and sanctifies us, comes to us with grace and love.”

Fear and wonder. Terror. Like the shepherds seeing the angels. Like those who came to hear John preach. Like those who found Jesus’ tomb empty.

But also grace. Love. Forgiveness. Acceptance.

God’s question to us again and again is who shall I send? Who will go? Who will prepare the way? Who will keep awake? Who will walk the narrow way, the costly way, instead of the wide way, the way that offers no challenges… but no rewards? Who will be silver and gold? Who will withstand the bleach to be washed whiter than snow? Who will tackle their own sins?

I wonder, sometimes, if the paths Isaiah speaks about are us. “Prepare the way of the Lord, make God’s people ready. Everyone who is low should be encouraged and lifted up. Everyone who is high and powerful should be humbled and lowered. The crooked and sinful shall be made straight and true; the rough made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

It’s what John was doing. He was offering repentance. A way to turn our crooked path around and walk right back to God. And what Malachi foretold.

It is easy to love upon a cute baby cuddled in his mama’s arms.

But Christmas means so much more.

Are you preparing yourself for the more?

Amen.

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A Blue Christmas

Isaiah 9:2 (NRSV)1-candle.jpg
The people who walked in darkness
    have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
    on them light has shined.
Nat King Cole gave us the lyrics of “chestnuts roasting on an open fire” and “tiny tots with their eyes aglow.” From that same 1940s era is song after song about the “most wonderful time of the year” but, I’ll admit, it’s a “blue Christmas” for me. The pressure to feel happy and joyful makes me a Grinch. I’m sad there are people who are not here who ought to be, and the ghost of Christmases past haunt empty chairs and old photographs. I don’t want celebration songs; give me a few funeral dirges. The hymns “O Come Emmanuel” and “O Holy Night” feel more appropriate than joyful music during this season. These hymns deal with the reality of chains, sin, error, and this “weary world” mourning “in lonely exile.” For me, they invoke the spirit of Christmas that looks for the “thrill of hope.” They bring to mind the words of the Prophet Isaiah: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” I feel that darkness. The Great Light of the hope of new life, reunion in heaven, and peace on earth is like a guiding star, like light at the end of a tunnel, like the joy others feel that I may someday feel again in this season. Until then, I live it “if only in my dreams” and watch for the light, like our ancestors did of yore.
— Published in the Towne Crier, December 2018

Peer Pressure

Mark 13:1-8 rumor
Hebrews 10:11-25

In Actalan Mexico this year, a rumor began to spread in a rural town similar to Baltimore. “Child abductors!” “Kidnappers!” “Be warned!” It began on social media — WhatsApp and Facebook and forwarded emails. Then it began to spread by word of mouth.

An uncle and his nephew left their farm to go into town for supplies. Someone didn’t recognize them – they weren’t from the town. They were outsiders. This person whispered, “Do you think those two strangers are the kidnappers everyone is talking about?”

“Did you hear in the neighboring town they didn’t find their abducted kids until their organs had been cut out?”

“We can’t let that happen here!”

Angry, people went to the police and demanded they do something about the kidnappers in their midst. The police asked who the horrible murdering abductors were – and several citizens pointed to the uncle and nephew.

So the police arrested them for disturbing the peace and began to look into it. The uncle has a wife and several daughters out on his farm. His nephew is a young man engaged to be married. They have no idea what the rumors are about.

Meanwhile, outside the Police station, a crowd has grown. They began to bang on the doors, “Give us the pedophiles!” “Give us the murderers!” The shops around the police station start closing their doors and closing down. A larger crowd comes as they hear from facebook to email to phone call to text message to gossip at the gas station — the police are protecting child abductors who eat the organs of children. There is no justice! We must have justice for the children!

A man climbed up on the church in the town square and began to ring the bell. This summoned more people. He yelled, “The police are ready to let these evil men go without charging them of a thing!” The crowd broke down the police station doors and yanked the two men out.

Phones came out and people began to record this. In the USA, the mother of the nephew was alerted to get online and look at a live feed. Isn’t that her son? She tried posting ‘do not harm my son, he is not a child abductor’ and she tried to get help – but in a very short time a man stood on the step and chanted, “Petro! Petro!” He promised money to whomever got gasoline.

The mother watched her brother and son beat by a crowd screaming that her loved ones consumed the organs of boys they abducted and assaulted. Then the crowd poured gasoline on them and burned them alive. The thick black oily smoke was recorded from hundreds of cheering phones.

All because of a rumor.

The widows. The police. The children with no father. The citizens all testify: the crowds were provoked by lies into mob action, into murder. No one will look the widows in the eyes. Shame settles in the city.

No children were ever abducted.

Let alone assaulted with their organs cut out and consumed by two local farmers who had come to town for supplies.

((https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-46145986))

… But this is not the first time this has happened. It happened in another Mexican city on the same day based on the same rumor. It’s so common in India that there are calls for companies to not permit forwards on their platforms. Sri Lanka, Mynamar… and us, the United States. We’ve all fell victim. Do you remember “Pizza-gate” here?

Two years ago a man heard across social media, and television, and word of mouth that Hillary Clinton was hiding abducted children as part of a sex slave trade in a mom and pop pizza joint. He heard it repeated enough times and there were enough calls for justice that he took two guns into the shop determined to rescue the children himself. Praise God he killed no one! And of course, there were no children there.

((https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/pizzagate-from-rumor-to-hashtag-to-gunfire-in-dc/2016/12/06/4c7def50-bbd4-11e6-94ac-3d324840106c_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.13973dcf060e))

We provoke one another. When we hear one person saying something we think little of it. But when several are saying it – or it seems everyone is saying it – we believe it. Even if what is being say is a pure lie we’d never believe on our own.

In a crowd, in an echo chamber, humans lose their minds. This “mob mentality” is a well studied phenomenon. It’s why concerts are so exciting – why pep rallies work – and how some modern churches run themselves. Inside a mob, or crowd, or online, we lose our individual identities and become part of something larger and more powerful than ourselves. We gain energy from everyone around us and what was unthinkable now is possible.

Such as burning two men to death based on a rumor.

Or such as throwing a convoy birthday party for a mentally challenged young man.

((https://www.channel3000.com/news/18-wheels-for-bubba-how-a-team-of-truck-drivers-worked-to-make-a-boy-s-wish-come-true/783303571))

In Wisconsin, a young man sits by a highway in his backyard. He hasn’t many friends, and is mentally challenged. But he LOVES semis and watches them every day. Drivers began to notice, and across their CBs and social media began to talk about him. This led to the idea that the truckers would throw a birthday party for the boy. On the boy’s 16th birthday, trucks began to pull into a local park. The organizer and the boy’s parents thought maybe one or two semis would show up and let their son finally touch and see up close the trucks he loves… but instead dozens pulled in… then a hundred! The story had spread and spread and a huge convoy overwhelmed the little place all for this boy to have a most marvelous birthday. His parents were in tears and he laughed and smiled and was not alone.

When we’re in groups, we’re provoked to be so much more. The author of the letter to the Hebrew church urges us to provoke one another to love and good deeds. When everyone around us is living in loving kindness, we are peer pressured to do the same.

We are entering the holiday season which is full of loving kindness and random acts of charity. Our television shows, and plays, and books, and stories all peer pressure one another to join the mob of… gift giving. Of selflessness. Of generosity . Of forgiveness and love. From “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” to “A Christmas Carol” to even Santa Claus – We enforce a message of loving kindness and a judgment against those who don’t have the “Christmas Spirit.” The… mob spirit… of good deeds and love.

In Minnesota, a grandmother was driving home and saw a young woman step over the fence over a bridge, ready to commit suicide by throwing herself down into the freeway traffic below. The grandmother prayed to God, called the cops, and ran to the young girl.

She pleaded, “Please, honey, you don’t want to do this. You have so much life to live.”

The suicidal young woman said, “No, my mom doesn’t love me.”

The grandmother swore, “I love you!” and reached through the fence and grabbed the young woman. The young woman struggled, but the old woman hung on proclaiming how much she loved her, and would give her all the support and help.

The grandmother yelled to another woman to get the traffic to stop. That woman kicked off her heels, hefted a construction cone, and rolled it out to stop the traffic.

Other people began to run to the grandmother, or pick up more cones, or call the cops for more details.

When a cop arrived he saw a “mass” of people holding onto a woman hanging from a fence over the stopped traffic. He got the tools to cut the fence and pull the woman through to safety.

At that time the grandmother yelled, “AMEN!” Ending the prayer she’d been living the entire time.

This crowd of strangers – of white police and black citizens in a city charged with violence between such – saved a Native American young woman – because of love.

((http://www.startribune.com/shoulder-to-shoulder-strangers-came-to-the-rescue-of-a-suicidal-woman-in-st-paul/389017491/ and https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/inspired-life/wp/2016/08/04/how-a-crowd-of-diverse-strangers-saved-a-suicidal-woman-from-jumping-off-a-bridge/?utm_term=.2fc6ffd16498 ))

“Jonathan Haidt has dubbed the feeling we get from seeing loving kindness as “elevation,” a condition he defines as “a warm, uplifting feeling that people experience when they see unexpected acts of human good­ness, kindness, courage, or compassion. It makes a person want to help others and to become a better person himself or herself.”

In an essay on the subject, he once wrote: “Most people don’t want to rape, steal, and kill. What they really want is to live in a moral community where people treat each other well, and in which they can satisfy their needs for love, productive work, and a sense of belonging to groups of which they are proud.

“We get a visceral sense that we do not live in such a moral world when we see people behave in petty, cruel, or selfish ways. But when we see a stranger perform a simple act of kindness for another stranger, it gives us a thrilling sense that maybe we do live in such a world.”

((https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/columnists/schmich/ct-met-schmich-good-deed-20181018-story.html ))

Humans are so interesting! People influencing people. People repeating what they see – evil or kindness. We can be moved to great evil or great good. Someone starts the movement, but soon it is a power greater than we are – and sweeps up others.

What force will you be in the world?

Jesus warned his disciples of the power of peer pressure and mobs. He said some will come saying “I am the messiah” or pointing to other mortals and saying “That is the Word made Flesh.” But the person being pointed to will not do good things, will be hypocritical, and inspire groups to evil.

So don’t fall for it. Don’t get wrapped up in the rumors. Think for yourself. Take a moment. Step aside. God gifted you a mind, so use it!

It is an unthinking mob that kills Jesus. A mob wrapped up in the rumors Jesus is claiming he is the King of the Jews… but he only calls himself a servant and slave and the son of man… It is an unthinking mob that will destroy the temple and rob it thinking this will give them immortality from Cesar.

But crowds can do great good, too.

What crowd will you be part of? Who will you follow? The rumors of war and famine and child abductors… or the rumors of faith, hope and love?

Amen.

In the Name

Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29 salt
Mark 9:38-50

Every fall, I begin to get petitions from charities to donate money in the name of others for Christmas gifts, or to bring these charities to you all to take a church collection in the name of St. Michael’s. How does the UCC, or our church consistory, or I, ever pick which groups to speak about and which ones to ignore? Likely the same way you do: you look at the work they are doing. Well, most charities are doing good. So how to you further delve in? Maybe you look at how much of your donated money goes to the causes being served. Or maybe you look at all the stances of the organization and see if you agree with each one of them.

Whenever I do the last one, I begin to get upset. Some of the best international aid groups helping communities overseas also have stances against women being preachers. Or they believe in Bible to be literal in all things. Or they teach exclusion to divorcees, gays and lesbians, or another group they consider too sinful. Some only use the King James Version of the Bible and utterly ignore the scholarship of the Dead Sea Scrolls on our scripture. And some just flat out aren’t Christian. Can I support Muslim charity? A Buddhist charity? Where some of my funds help bring water to rural women, but some also provide non-Christian educational materials?

I see lots of cries to reject this or that charity from my fellow Christians. Don’t support the Salvation Army – they have a policy against gays. Don’t support the American Cancer Society because they provide funding to IVF (In-vitro-fertilization), abortion, and other fertility clinics. Don’t support the Humane Society of the United States because it doesn’t actually help humane societies, but is a lobbyist group formed to fight the Farm Bureau. I get overwhelmed. I just want someone doing good.

So I turn to churches. But this church over here with the great youth program teaches a theology that focuses on humanity as hopelessly fallen, filled with sin, and worms before God. And this church over there does wonderful work with elderly but believes baptism is only for believing adults and not infants. Here at Saint Michael’s, we donate to our association and its work, but not to the national church because some ten or fifteen years ago we disagreed with their national stance. What will we do when we no longer have associations but have all become one?

I know I can’t find a church that is working in the name of Christ in just the way I would work… anywhere.

What about Christians? Individuals? Can I find one person who is doing good in the name of Christ in just the perfect way? Who believes just as I do; who acts as I think a Christian ought; who has the time and energy and knowledge to do all the good they can, for all the right people, at all the ideal times?

Not even in the mirror can I find this Christian.

There is no charity, no church, no person I wholly agree with on all things – including myself.

How can we all be one when even a single person disagrees with themselves? How can we do any good in the world when every good is tainted with something we disagree with?

Jesus’ disciples want to know the same thing. Jesus is standing with them with a toddler in his arms and has been explaining that the toddler, out of all the disciples with their unique miraculous healing powers from Christ, is the most important.

The disciple John interrupts to tattle, “Jesus – someone is outside healing in your name. We tried to get him to shut up. He’s not one of us.”

The Greek pacing of Jesus’ tone is one of frustration and being interrupted. He explains to John, “Don’t stop him! For no one who does or receives good in my name is able to curse me. For whoever is not against us is with us. For whoever does good for my name – even if it is a cup of water – is rewarded.”

Jesus then slows his pace down and returns to his conversation regarding the toddler, but now adding in this non-disciple doing good. “Whomever puts a road block, a stumbling block, in the way of these little ones – these little children, these people new to the faith, these non-disciples who may yet become disciples – whoever harms their budding faith should be cut out of the Body of Christ.” I picture Jesus pointing to the disciples – these members of the body of Christ – and naming them. You are the foot of the Body of Christ. You are the eye. You are the ear. You are the hand. And as he goes down the line he tells each person, each body part, that you think you are essential. And yes, hands and eyes and feet and ears are essential… but none of you are the body. The body can survive without you. Oh but we want you! But the body is better off without you if you’re going around harming others in the name of the body.

If you’re going around in the name of Jesus preaching hate – you’re not needed. We’re better off without you.

If you’re going around excluding in the name of Jesus – it’s better if you were cut off.

If you’re going around harming, killing, in the name of Jesus – the body will survive by removing you.

But if you’re going around preaching love – the body welcomes you even if you’re not Christian.

If you’re going around including in the name of Jesus – we may not agree with your methods, or theology, or all your stances… but we include you.

If you go around healing, enlivening, bringing wholeness – doing something even as simple as giving a glass of water to someone – doing ANY kindness – then we’re of the same cloth. We’re of God’s Love. God’s body – because we are not against one another.

How can we all be one? Jesus says it’s by being united in love for God and one another. United. Not the same. Not all doing the same. Not all believing the same. Not all having the same theology, the same belief on stances, the same ideas on how to do good. Not all identical. But united in wanting and working for a more loving world for all.

While Jesus stands with his disciples and a toddler, Moses stands before God and with his elders. We hear how the Israelites hunger for meat. So Moses goes to God and says – God, these are the people you birthed and raised. Why are you not mothering them? I’m just one man! So God replies God will mother them and give the people more meat than they can ever eat, and will share the Holy Spirit upon the elders so that Moses has more leaders to help out with the large camp. We read how the Spirit comes upon the gathered elders in the center tent, and they gain powers of charisma and prophecy.

But two guys not in the center tent ALSO gain this. Like John, someone goes and tattles. Like John, Joshua tells Moses – stop them! They’re not with the in group! They’re not one of us! Moses, like Jesus, replies – let them be. Moses proclaims, “I wish that all God’s people were prophets – and that God would put the Holy Spirit upon them!” Moses dismisses the idea there is a competition among who is the best and proper follower of God and who isn’t. He dismisses the idea that God’s voice can only be found within established institutions, within churches. Moses says God will speak where God wills – and Moses wishes we all were given the Holy Spirit!

At Pentecost, we were! At our baptisms, we were! And God is limited by neither and will send God’s Holy Spirit to speak love to the world wherever people are receptive to receive it.

In these, our selves, our flawed selves, God speaks. In these, our institutions, our charities, our churches, God speaks. In our imperfect following of Jesus, in our imperfect ways of living together, in our imperfect good deeds – God speaks.

The name of God – the name of love – perseveres. And anyone speaking in love is an ally.

To your left is a body part of Jesus. And you are not that same body part. To your right is a body part of Jesus. And you’re not that same body part. That is good. We are different. But you’re both working for the same thing: working for love. Working in the name of Love. Working in the name of Jesus. We are not enemies. We are family. We are one body.

We are salt. Salt brings out the best in food. It makes sweets sweeter, savory dishes more savory, and even makes cold dishes colder.

We are salt. Salt heals. Salt water rinses help the body heal itself. Salt brings balance to the body’s ions and helps electricity flow from one member to another.

Salt is essential to life. Animals gather around salt licks and lick the salt off our sweat because salt is so essential to well living. It tastes amazing. Our bodies crave it.

When we stop being salt, what are we? I have a box of salt at home. It reads: Ingredients – Salt. That’s it. Nothing more. When I remove the ingredient salt – what is left in my box?

Nothing.

When we stop being the sprinkle of salt that brings out the best in others, and in the world around us, what are we?

Nothing.

When we stop being the radical lovers, the generous givers, the includers, the ones saying ‘more the merrier!’ and throwing open our doors to all people, all races, all genders, all sexes, all ages, all who want to live in the name of Love – who are we?

Maybe just a social group. Or a family reunion group. Without the love of God, love of our neighbor, love of ourselves, and love of all strangers – we cannot say we’re the body of Christ. We cannot say we’re salt that brings out the best, the flavor, of all.

You’ll never agree 100% with any human, including yourself. You’ll never agree 100% with any denomination, any church, any charity. But you never have to agree 100% to appreciate the good they do.

Go and be salt. Be the church. Be love.

Amen.

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.

Amen.

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?

ANERAlogo_reg-01-01

 

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.

Amen.

Let Me Rest

Matthew 25:1-13 

jerusalem-israel-oil-lamps
Lamp, 100 CE, Israel – Palestine, Jerusalem dig

The disciples ask Jesus, What sign are we to watch for – what is the coming of the Kin-dom of Heaven like? And Jesus tells them several chapters about just that. Today, we hear the parable of the 10 bridesmaids, or 10 virgins, 10 young women.

It goes like this: The coming of the kin-dom of heaven is like ten women who have been asked to bring in the bridegroom. They are to guide him through the winding streets in a parade to the wedding banquet where the beautiful bride awaits. All of the women come with their lamps – these are the signs of the procession. Think of a lamp hung on a stick you carry up above your head for lighting the path. It makes quite the show. Five of those who came actually brought oil to light these showy parade items and make them functional – in case the groom comes over night. Five of these women brought the lamps to be part of the parade, but didn’t bother with the heavy lamp oil. Maybe they figured since they left in the daytime, the groom would be along shortly. Who wants a parade and wedding feast at an unexpected hour like 2 or 3 in the morning?

But, as we hear, the parade is delayed because the bridegroom is delayed. As night comes, all ten women fall asleep waiting. The wise and the foolish both sleep.

In the middle of the night, someone shouts, “Here comes the groom! Come on out to meet him!” Everyone got to their feet to ready for the celebratory parade. They got their lamps and hung them on their poles, trimmed up the wicks, and got ready to be the light to guide in the bridal parade to the party.

But only five of the women were actually ready to do this. They thought they had an easy and fun job only. They brought the lamps, the symbols of their roles, but not actually the heavy and messy oil to put IN the lamps. The other five women had brought the messy and heavy oil and are ready to do the job they were asked to do.

The foolish women who realize they actually needed to participate in this, and not just show up, ask for some of the oil. But the wise women reply, “There’s not enough to go around.” If all ten lamps are lit with the oil, the oil will run out before they guide the wedding party to the banquet hall. Better to have 5 lamps last the whole way than 10 lamps that die out half way there and leave everyone stumbling in the dark. So the wise say, “You best go prepare now.”

But while the foolish women were gone getting oil, the groom came close enough for the parade to start. And so it did. And the five guides lead the people along to the party.

Meanwhile, the foolish women get their lamps started and come running back to the party, late, saying, “We’re ready to help with the parade! Look! We have our guide lamps lit!”

But the groom said, “It’s too late. The time for that has already passed. I don’t need bridesmaids to guide people anymore for the party has already started.”

And the bridesmaids were very sad and cried.

Now, normally, I hear this preached with the punch line: therefore stay awake! Stay vigilant! Keep watch!

You never know when Christ will return!

NEVER REST! NEVER SLEEP! WATCH! KEEP ALERT!

But you know what, I’m tired.

Always being vigilant, always on edge – that means always stressing. People who are in war zones and who must always be alert suffer from all kinds of physical and mental harm from constantly being “on” and unable to turn off. Resting is one of the hard parts for our veterans coming home to adjust to, and do – because they’re so used to being “on.”

It works for a computer – turn it off, let it rest, plug it back in again – it works for us, too. We need rest. Does Jesus want us to wait with such expectation that we all start showing the Blue Screens of Death?

We need to sleep sometimes.

Always being in emergency mode means our minds begin to re-write themselves to thinking this over-load of adrenalin and cortisone – this load of stress hormones – is normal. So we freak out even more easily next time something stressful happens. Sometimes we even begin to crave chaos and stress.

Our bodies age rapidly from these strong chemicals and we get aches, pains, high blood pressure and low immune systems. We turn to self medication to help us get by – alcohol, cigarettes, another cup of coffee, eating too much or too little, sleeping too much or too little.

We get to feeling isolated, lonely, overwhelmed, angry.

Since Jesus is our good shepherd, who wants the best for us, and offers us to lie down in green pastures, who invites us to dine with him, I cannot think he was advocating we live our entire life in fear of the rapture, the End, and the return of Christ. I cannot think he was telling us to suffer from constant stress because we’re Christians.

The kindom of heaven is like ten bridesmaids… who fell asleep. Christ, the groom, came while they were sleeping.

So the difference is not who took a rest and who didn’t. All ten slept. The difference is who prepared for waiting and who didn’t. Who came ready to work, and who didn’t.

Some of the women came not just with the symbols of their job – the lamps – but also came with the hard part of the job, too – the oil.

Some Christians have the symbols of their faith – Easter, Christmas, maybe a cross – but wise Christians do the hard part of the faith too – the whole loving others bit.

When Christ arrives, it is too late to suddenly go “be” Christian. The time for action is now. The bridesmaids who remembered they are to be guides – day and night – with their lanterns are able to respond to the call. They can rise and go. The women who were only committed for the good parts aren’t able to rise and go and participate. They have to go get oil. They have to go prepare, although the time for preparing has already passed.

The wise Christians come at the call, guide with their lamps, and enter the wedding party. Enter into Christ’s presence. The foolish Christians are delayed in responding to the call, and by the time they get their act together and come saying “I’m ready to walk with Christ now and do all that love-your-neighbor-stuff!” Christ tells them, “The time for that is passed. The party is already going on now.”

Often I hear this talked about in terms of the Last Days. I had a great-uncle who liked to sit us kids down and somewhat terrify us with images of The Apocalypse: The Day of Judgment: THE return. Picture that in the strongest Appalachian accent you can, now. And he liked to tell us about how death comes suddenly, unexpectantly, and you need to get right with Jesus NOW. Because you can’t get right with Jesus after you die. And he’d tell us that the Final Day will be essentially the cutting off line for everyone. No more chances to get it right. You either are in the party, or you’re not. Either Saved or Not.

Yes – one can understand this parable that way.

I understand it a bit differently. See, Christ was, and Christ will come again… but Christ also IS. Christ IS Risen. Christ told this parable. Christ will one day bring the full reign of God on earth as it is in Heaven. But Christ also is here, right now, as near as our shadows.

I think the clarion, the call to action, to rise up from our sleep and trim our lamps, is happening every day; because we encounter Christ every day.

Where? Lord? I did not see you?

What you do to the least of these you do to me.

Every day, we see some chance to step up and guide the kin-dom of God into the world. Every day, we see Christ. Some of us are prepared to act. Prepared to guide. Prepared to minister and amplify the voices of the silenced and be present for one another. And some of us… are not.

I’m not saying we’re doing this because we’re mean. Nor are we doing this out of blindness and not aware of the needs in our community and world.

No.

We’re tired.

I bet those five bridesmaids who didn’t lug the heavy oil were tired.

Had they known the wait was going to be that long, they would have brought the oil. But they judged the odds, compared how likely it was that the groom would come in the day or the night, and chose. They chose wrong. But I don’t think it was that they meant to be wrong.

They just… are mortals. Fallible. And tire.

When we’re in constant stress mode, our reserves are all drained out. Not just our physical reserves, but our emotional and spiritual too. If we know someone really truly needs us, we’re there for them! … But it’s the casual encounters, the strangers, the hard to notice people who society makes invisible… it’s they we forget. They we don’t prepare for. But it is they who are Christ, the groom, coming into our lives at unexpected times.

They are the sick. Colds never come on our schedules. Dementia is not wrote on our calendar “Oh, Dec 2017, time for a stroke!” Those with long-term illnesses are the most forgotten. Those suffering from depression, lack of mobility, and… that one we hate to admit the most… being old.

They are the imprisoned. Where are our prisoners? Who tells them of Christ’s love and forgiveness and mercy? Who welcomes in people with criminal records and says, ‘Yes, you can work here,’ ‘Yes, you may have a loan,’ ‘Yes, you are welcome.’ Incarceration may last five years inside a prison, but it is a life-long sentence.

They are the naked and hungry. Poverty is one of those things we try to hide. We as a society shame people in poverty and tell them it is their fault so we don’t have to see them. Seeing them makes us feel badly about our own wealth. We pass rules banning people from loitering and panhandling and yet don’t provide shelters that are open 24/7. Where are these people to go? Work. Get a job. Ever been unemployed and looking for a job? Try looking for a job without a phone, a mailing address, shower, warm meal, and reliable transportation. Then add maybe a criminal record or a illness you can’t afford the medication to treat.

You and I – we can’t respond – can’t reach out and help others – when our lamps are empty. When we’re running on fumes. We need time to fill ourselves with oil so we can be lamps to others.

We need time to rest, to sleep, to be able to serve.

We are getting ready to enter the holiday season. Thanksgiving and Christmas and New Years. Does the thought make you tired?

Then it is time for change. Time for rest. Time to build up those oil reserves.

For every day we are supposed to listen for the call – but we’ll only be able to respond if we’re ready.

Take time to be holy.

Take time to be still.

Take time to rest in the peace of God.

Amen.