Tag: Christmas

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.

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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.

Treasured Treasures

Isaiah 60:1-6
Matthew 2:1-12

Whatever happened to the magi’s gifts?

Walk and think with me on this.

Some magi — likely priests of Zoroasterism — came to Jesus with treasures: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Two were prophesized by Isaiah — the wealth of kings and the scent of a deity used in temple worship. But the third gift, myrrh, is unique. It is the scent used to anoint the dead. All three gifts are expensive and rare.

I don’t know how and why they picked their gifts. Maybe the gold is for the king, the frankincense for the services praying for the new king, and the myrrh for the king who died — since there can only be one king at a time over a county.

However it is, they take some of their wealth and they begin to follow a star to see over which country it appeared. The county happens to be Judea, whose capital is Jerusalem. But, as we know, King Herod is still alive and none of his sons have taken the throne as a new king. Yet the magi are certain there is a new king in this land, this land of the Jews, somewhere. So they keep seeking and following the star.

We know eventually they find Mary and Jesus in a house – maybe this is Jesus’ childhood home and Joseph is off working for the day. Toddler Jesus is there and these foreign priests bow to the boy and present their treasures to him. Our Epiphany, our realization, is that Jesus is both God and mortal; both king and sacrifice; both judgment and forgiveness.

But then the magi head home, avoiding Herod (or Herod Jr. We’re not really sure what year the magi came to Jesus.)

So have you, like me, ever wondered what happened to that treasure? I mean, does this treasure go towards buying carpenter equipment? Does it get stolen? Is it buried somewhere? Was it passed down in the family or help fund Jesus’ adult ministry?

As an adult, Jesus spoke about treasure. Our Lord tells us (Matt. 6:19) “Do not store up for yourself on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal…” Was Jesus speaking out of personal experience? The precious oils and saps of frankincense and myrrh decayed and the boxes rusted and their cloth was moth ate and thieves took the gold. Maybe that’s what happened to the treasure.

There’s lots of stories outside of the Bible people have made up about what happened to these gifts from the wise men. Some said it helped them flee to Egypt, some say it started Jesus’ adult ministry, and one old story says it was stolen from Jesus by the very same thieves he was later crucified with.

In truth, we don’t know what happened.

But not knowing is kind of the definition of treasure…

Treasures are a pile of riches– usually ancient — and usually considered once lost and forgotten until discovered. I mean, we don’t say a bank is holding treasure… it has money. A set and counted amount of money. But we tell stories that a dragon has a treasure trove, and we mean a dragon has an unknown large amount of gold and gems, precious things we can’t even name, all which the world thought was forgot but now is found under said dragon.

Robert Lewis Stevenson’s novel Treasure Island is all about finding that unknown lost sum, the excitement, the mystery, and bringing the wealth back into the world.

Ali Baba and the Arabian Nights is all about learning the magic password – open sesame – and finding all the stolen treasures hidden in the secret cave – and how he takes these out and uses them.

Treasures are what we value, stored up, ferreted away, what was lost and is now found and returned to the world.

So since the magi brought Jesus treasure… and it was lost… doesn’t that mean we can find it again?

Like a treasure map with a big x to mark the spot, they had a big star to mark the spot they left their treasure. So maybe it’s just a matter of picking the right star and following it… but what if it was a star that wasn’t always there – it was just there a little while? Like a comet or an asteroid?

Or what if Matthew was trying to tell us a story with a deeper meaning rather than trying to give us a map to coins and perfumes?

I mean, later in Matthew, Jesus’ whole saying on treasure is: “Do not store up for yourself on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourself treasures in heaven, where neither moth no rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal, for where your treasure is, there will be your heart also.”

Maybe the wise men are a foreshadow, a hint, at what later Matthew wanted us to remember about Jesus: Jesus didn’t value monetary wealth and the treasures of the earth. Jesus valued the treasures of heaven. Treasures like prayer, helping each other, being honest, loving each other and loving God.

Treasures that we can find, and give to the world, over and over again.

Or maybe, we’re to understand that the wise men went and put their treasure where their heart was. Jesus, their heart, is who they gave their treasures to. Herod, meanwhile, kept his treasures to himself and so kept his heart to himself. He only loved himself. The wise men were wise, and knew to love God.

See, I have heard before that we are the heart of Christ. And we are Jesus’ treasure. And since we are Jesus’ treasure, and his heart, Jesus stores us with himself in heaven. Safe and secure.

The reverse is this: When Jesus is our treasure, our hearts are with Jesus. So that we are encircled by Christ, surrounded by love, like treasure inside a protective chest.

When I think of my own heart, my heart is a treasure trove. A hoard of treasures. It is my wealth. In it is love and memories, loyalty and laughter, people, family, friends, pets, and places; and my God.

Sadly, however, even the treasure that normal moths and rust and thieves can’t take still can slip away like sand through my fingers. Time makes some memories fade, and like a thief in the night, some of my favorite places have been stolen for urban sprawl. Family, friends, pets… they all pass away.

So what do I do?

I think Jesus’ answer is still the best. Entrust him with this heart of treasure. Pray. Tell God our favorite memories, our favorite places. Tell God of our love for family and friends. Tell God our gratitude for loyal pets and good jokes. Trust God to take all of our treasures and store them in heaven where they cannot degrade, cannot fade, cannot be stolen or fall apart.

Treasures get lost… and found… lost and found. We might lose our treasured treasures on this earth, but those we entrust to God shall always be findable.

One day, what will you find waiting for you stored away in heaven? What stories, what memories, what loves, what joys, what prayers have you tucked away?

Given to Saint Michael’s UCC Baltimore, Ohio, 12-3-2016

What Child is This?

Samuel 2:18-20, 26
Colossians 3:12-17
Luke 2:41-52

Our Lectionary gives us today the story of two women, both seeking their sons. Hannah goes to see Samuel and finds him in the temple. Of course, she expected to find him there. She presented him to the temple to be raised as a priest in gratitude for God hearing her prayers to grant her a child. We’re told that each year Hannah goes to the temple and brings with her a ephod, an outer garment that priests wear sort of like a sleeveless shirt. She’s sewn and made this for her growing little boy and she gives it to him to wear until the following year when he’s outgrown and worn it out.

What child is Samuel? He’s a child of God. Gifted by God, regifted back to God, and being raised by priests of God. He’ll grow up to be a great prophet.

But he didn’t start off being raised by priests. He started off being at home, until he was between the ages of 3 to 12. So all those formative early years he was raised by Hannah… and Hannah must have raised him right, for he comes to the temple already knowing of God and prepared to be a servant of the divine.

We’re told that the work God begins, Hannah continues, and the work Hannah begins, God continues – everyone wants this little boy to grow up in wisdom and with the love of God.

Mary is the other woman. She, too, has visited the temple as she does so yearly for the Passover Festival. Like Hannah, she came to the temple with gifts to leave there – and like Hannah she goes back home after visiting. However, Hannah purposefully left her son with the priests. Mary did not. Hannah knows her son is being well cared for and loved by Eli. Mary does not know where her son is, or who he is with, or if he is in danger. Hannah has peace and praises God. Mary has fear and pleads with God.

We heard in Luke’s Gospel how Mary and Joseph leave their traveling extended family and book it back to Jerusalem to search the streets and markets, homes and place of worship for Jesus. When, where, and how will they find Jesus?

Will they find him safe? Will he be with friends? With family? Is he crying at the gates? Is he stolen – kidnapped? Is he sold into slavery, left for dead in a gutter, after all of these years, have King Herod’s men identified the new born king and finished their job at making sure there is no king but Herod Jr.?

At last, after days of searching, Mary and Joseph find Jesus in the temple sitting and talking, listening and asking questions of the rabbis. Mary exclaims, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety!” She’s so angry, so elated — her deep, deep love of Jesus makes her this furious because she was so, so worried about what had happened to him.

And Jesus is a typical kid, “Why were you searching for me? I’m not lost.” Then Jesus becomes an atypical kid by concluding, “Don’t you know I must be with my father?”

We’re told Mary and Joseph don’t understand what Jesus is saying. I picture them grabbing up their son roughly, covering him in kisses and wanting to beat his pre-teen bottom blue for giving them this fright and wandering off without permission. I think they must apologize to the rabbis and thank them for caring for their wayward son. And they must march Jesus out of Jerusalem with threats of being grounded until he can grow a proper beard.

After this passage, we’re told Jesus, like Samuel, grow in wisdom as he ages and grows with God’s love and human love. After this, when nearly thirty, Jesus begins his public ministry.

Jesus doesn’t start open rebellion with mom and dad. This scene isn’t the beginning of teenage years where he fights them tooth and nail for independence. He frequently tells people to follow the laws of the prophets, which include honoring your father and mother and not giving them trouble and woes.

And Mary treasures what has happened in her heart. She thinks on these things, ponders them, takes them out of her mental memory box and looks them over. I think, later, she begins to wonder, and put the pieces together, of just who this child she’s raising is.

She’s raising the boy devout. She takes him to the temple and observes the holidays. She teaches him his faith well. But here he is, taking the faith she’s given him and expanding it in new ways she never foresaw.

This happens still nowadays. We raise kids with faith – teach them about their loving heavenly parent, teach them to pray, teach them to follow the Bible… but they make the faith their own. Some are like Samuel, and never give their parents woes. They become more devout and are a source of pride for their parents. Some kids grow up to be like Jesus, and give their parents woes. They become more devout, too, but their devotion isn’t “main stream” and “traditional.” They try out new ways of worshiping God and they rock the religious boat.

Every generation has it’s boat rockers who explore where, when, and how to find Jesus. The Christian music we listen to on the radio – the Christian Rock – was once that far-out and distrusted way of worshiping God. Now these songs find their way into even more traditional services and churches. A couple of them are in our hymnal. Taze, another music style, is in our hymnal and once was suspect. I know several of us are suspect of large churches — “mega churches” — or churches that have gymnasiums, coffee centers, projectors, or lack pews.

At one time, organ music was very suspect and banned from churches. But… many of us hear God in the songs and hymns.

Generation after generation, people take the faith given to them by their parents, and make it their own. Generation after generation, people hear the angels sing and go looking for the good news, the messiah: go looking for Jesus.

You see, Jesus has a way of slipping out of sight. We all get traveling along the road we’re used to, like we do every year, and we assume Jesus is with us… but you know, he might not be. It may be that the Way of God has moved, the spirit has moved, and our old ways no longer travel with Christ.

Jesus says he doesn’t get lost. He is always about his father’s business, always doing God’s work and in God’s house.

We get lost. We lose sight of Jesus, and his beacon telling us the will of God.

Then we have to go seeking the Christ again. We know he’ll be with God, we know he’s always residing with us, but… at the same time… these wonderful assurances and these wonderful truths don’t tell us anything solid. They don’t tell us whether or not Christian Heavy Metal is acceptable, let alone do they tell us if we should suddenly have Christian Rock songs in our services. No, knowing Jesus is with God and not lost, and that we’re to discern when, where, and how to find Christ, is not the same as having solid answers at all.

Instead, we’re told our faith is a journey where hopefully we increase with years and wisdom. We’re told each generation finds Jesus is new ways, hears God in new forms, and understands our shared sacred text in different interpretations.

It’s really, really hard to not think those who are different than us surely have lost Christ. It’s tempting to think we need to find them and yank them back to where we found Jesus… but… our scripture challenges us to examine ourselves… and realize that God is ever new, ever speaking, ever moving, ever creating life, and generation after generation must make their own pilgrimage to find Christ in the temple of God.

We can give someone new to the faith our map, told them what works for us, and guide them for awhile… but that child of God is their own person. And when, where, and how they feel the presence of God may be totally different than when, where, and how we feel God’s presence.

So treasure the experiences of others in your heart. Ponder them. Wonder. When you meet someone who experiences God in a way totally alien than you, wonder: what child is this? And give God loving thanks for coming to us in so many different ways. Amen.

Given to Saint Michael’s UCC, Baltimore, Ohio, 12-27-2015

Light of the World

Isaiah 9:2-7
John 1:1-14

Darkness… nothingness… emptiness… silence…

There is a void, no form, and the spirit, the wind, the voice of God hovers over the face of the deep darkness.

And then suddenly, God SPEAKS. “Let there be light!”

And there is light – stars, burning blazing suns, glistening comets, churning atoms and vibrant energy — and God sees this light, and it is called good.

God speaks more, and more — land and water, birds and bees, trees and fish, bugs and animals, you and me — God speaks us into existence. God’s word is life.

In the beginning, the word of God, the voice of God, the intention of God always exists with God — and is God — and God creates all things into being by speaking. God’s speech and action are one and the same. When God speaks, life happens.

And this word, which is the truth of God, and which all things gain their breath of life, and which deeds and intentions, actions and word are one and the same — this incredible word became flesh and lived among us.

The word of God, God’s voice, became the man we call Jesus.

This light, the very light of God, was gifted to all who are the children of God.

The Gospel of John takes us to the Nativity Scene in such a cosmic route. He reminds us of Genesis, and how the speech and deed of God started everything, and the speech and deed of God continues everything. The speech and deed of God, writes John, is present in Jesus.

When Jesus speaks, his words change reality. When Jesus does something, his deeds speak loudly of who God is.

This concept of speech and deed being one and the same isn’t as heady as you might imagine. Think about this: when is a person ‘married?’ Maybe from the moment they said “I Do?” Those words change reality. These performance utterances CHANGE the world just with the speech.

“I name you John.”
“You are under arrest.”
“I apologize.”
“I dedicate this example to St. Michael’s.”
“Court is now in session.”

Reality before and after these words is different. The words change things.

Some of the most powerful words God ever spoke were through the mouth of Jesus.

Jesus said, “Go. You are forgiven.” and in doing so, forgave sins against God.

“This is the blood of the new covenant, shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.” In speaking such, he made it so.

In speaking forgiveness, forgiveness happened. In speaking a new covenant, a new promise was made.

John writes to us that this power to change reality we, too, possess. We can use our words, our deeds and intentions, to say “I forgive you of your debts against me,” and make it true. We can forgive as we are forgiven. We can love as we are loved. We can be a light to the world because the light of the world has come.

John goes to such lengths to explain how Jesus truly is the incarnate word of God – truly is God’s breath, Word, wisdom, truth put into a human body.

This is a very, very important concept in our religion. It is a huge point of difference between ourselves and our Jewish and Muslim brothers and sisters.

We preach, and believe, that God God’s self was in Jesus.

That is why we say Jesus is Emmanuel – God With Us. That is why we say God chose to share our common lot. God became human. It is why we say God truly understands what it is to be human… because, in Jesus, God was human.

God experienced being born.

Teething.

God experienced the frustration and joy of siblings, cousins, relatives.

Those awkward teenage years.

God knows what it is to hunger and thirst, to be in pain, to be lonely. God knows what it is to be joyful, to be surprised, to be loved.

God knows what it is like to be you and me.

The incarnation of the Word of God is also why we say God came to us… rather than we went to God.

None of us can choose to be divine.

But God chose to come to us.

We are now already chosen. Already loved. Already forgiven. Already a child of God. It’s nothing we can choose, but a gift given to us. A precious, precious gift.

And all we can do is decide how to respond to this gift.

Joy? Hope? Love? Peace?

Awe? Stunned silence? Tears?

Perhaps something beyond words.

When we share communion today, listen to the words that are used. Listen to how words shape our reality, shape our response to God’s gift. Listen and say the words yourself.

Our Lord is God’s Word. And God’s word is a lamp unto our feet. A guide. A way to respond to the gift of God’s abiding, God-with-us, love. Amen.