Friday, December 31, 2010

Happy New Year!

Wishing all my blog friends, and anyone else for that matter, a happy, safe, and prosperous New Year!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Christmas Eve Sermon

This is a rerun from last year, but I really like it. 
Where you see (Start Music Here), imagine Mannheim Steamroller's Stille Nacht playing.

I find this time of year to be very interesting.  We seem to spend so much time and effort preparing for Christmas, but by the time Christmas gets here, all we can do is cheer that it is over.  Christmas seems like a race, doesn’t it?  We rush to the stores on the morning after Thanksgiving to get all the sales.  We rush from party to party.  We rush to visit family and then we rush home to prepare for the people who are rushing to visit us.  In all the chaos, I am glad you found your way here to worship this evening!
Really, I am not here to try to make you feel bad:  We have the talk shows and commercials to do that for us.  What I am here to do is to tell you that there can be something different than all the hustle and bustle.  There is a different world out there just waiting for us!  The problem is that in our haste, we so often miss this other world, a world that is right under our noses.  Maybe this is one of the dangers of living in a blessed society; (and even with the economic situation we find ourselves, we are REALLY blessed!) we are so surrounded by so much blessing that we often fail to notice the blessings.
So tonight, I invite you to slow down and enjoy the peace and rest that is Christmas Eve.
There is a certain peace when it is snowing.  The snow seems to absorb all the sound and all you hear is the light fall of snow on the trees.  As you stand there, listening, you feel the slight tickle of snow on your nose.  This tickle is not unpleasant, but it does remind you that it is getting a little cold out, so you begin to walk.
As you are walking, the snow becomes heavier.  It is now also getting colder, so you begin to walk a little faster.  The snow continues to fall and it is hard to tell which direction to go.  Things are not familiar.  Although you do not know where you are going, you know it is better to keep moving than to stop.  So you trust and keep on walking.
Up ahead, you see a faint light; at least you think it is a light.  You walk toward the light in the hopes that is may be a house or at least a campfire.  As you approach, the light continues to grow brighter and brighter.  The glow is warm and twinkles off the falling snow, each flake bursting into a rainbow as it flutters by.  You continue to approach the light and it becomes brighter and brighter.  Soon it is almost blinding in its brightness, but strangely, it does not hurt your eyes.  As you approach, you begin to notice that the night is not quite as cold.  – As you enter a clearing, you assume the light and the snow must be playing tricks with your eyes because in front of you stands a great choir of angels!  They gleam with a warm and glistening light.  As you approach, you hear them singing!  They are singing, “Glory to God in the Highest!  And on Earth, peace to all of good will!”
THE FEELING HERE IS WONDERFUL!  You don’t want to go anywhere!  You just want to stay here and enjoy this wonderful light.  You just want to stay here and enjoy the music and the warmth!  You just want to stay here and be at peace.  But the angels are now telling you to go!  There is something even more wonderful to be found!  All you need to do is open your eyes and stay awake, the way will be shown to you.
And with that, the angels disappear.  The light, the warmth, it is gone.  The angels disappear and you are left standing in the snow.
The snow seems to be even heavier now, and after standing in the glow of the angels, the night seems all the more dark.  You stand in the snow, not quite sure what has happened.  But you realize that you have to do something as your toes begin to grow numb.
So you start walking.  You are completely disoriented and are not sure where you are going.  But you need to keep moving, and as you move, you begin to become warmer.  And as you move, you begin to see another light ahead of you.  At first it seems rather low to the horizon; you hope that is may be a home where you will be able to find shelter for the night.  You begin walking more quickly toward the light.  As you walk, you notice the becoming brighter and brighter.  But you also notice something else; as you move toward the light, the light begins to move higher and higher in the sky.  By this time, although the snow is getting deeper, your curiosity gets the better of you and you keep trudging along.
Ahead of you, you notice a village.  It seems the light you have been following has stopped over the village.  Although this seems strange to you just about everything that has happened this night has been strange.  You look down at the village.  Other than the light in the sky over the village, nothing else seems to be out of place.  But wait!  Out of the corner of your eye, you see it.  People!  People are coming toward the village form all directions.
As you stand there, looking, you notice that the snow has stopped.  You look up and notice the clouds have departed and the sky is clear.  Now you can see the source of the light that has been leading you.  What you have been following thorough the dark and cold of the night was a star!  O, what a star!  A star so bright that it could cut through the darkest, coldest night.  A star that has led you through the woods and now stands over the small village ahead of you.
You notice the people walking toward the village.  People are coming from all directions.  They, too, are looking toward the star!  They, too, are walking through the snow, following the light of the star.  Seeing the people pass beside you reminds you that you have stopped moving when you looked down to the village.  And as you stand there looking, you notice a chill run through you.  This chill seems even deeper now that the clouds are gone.  Or is the chill deeper because you know there is a warm village ahead?  In either case, you blow into your hands to warm them, and once again start moving toward the village.
As you get nearer and nearer the village, the light from the star grows brighter and brighter.  You notice more people approaching.  You cannot make out who they are, but you see them traveling in ones and twos or in small clusters.  They all seem drawn to the star and to the light.  You wonder if they have seen the angels too.  You hope they have so they, too, could have experienced that wondrous warmth, glow, and peace.
Now the wind is picking up and you feel it ripping through your clothes.  The air is cold on your skin but the light of the star seems to warm you from within.
You wander through the streets of the village.  Everything seems closed, locked for the evening.  None of the people of the village can be seen.  Maybe they are afraid of all the people streaming into their village.  You stop and look but all the houses are closed up tight against the wind.  You begin to move again.  Your heart burns within you but it is getting harder to keep your feet from becoming numb.  You need to find a place to seek shelter against the wind and cold.  You are getting desperate.  Whenever you stop, the cold sinks into your bones.  Blowing on your hands no longer works.  You need to find shelter from the cold world surrounding you.
You look down the road and see a barn.  The light of the star seems to be shining down on this spot.  The star!  Why have you stopped following the star?  You see the people gathering around this barn.  Although there are people standing by the door, a warm light spills out onto the snow. 
(Start Music Here)
You begin to run toward the barn and the warmth that must be there!  So many people must be seeking warmth against the cold of this dark night.  All the other places are boarded against them; this is the only place that is warm and welcoming.  As you run toward the barn, you begin to see the people gathered more clearly.  They are not quite the people you expect; they are the poor.  They are the homeless.  They are the lost.  For all of these people to be gathered here, it must be a very welcoming place.
As you approach, the people gently back away and allow you to pass.  You can feel the warmth of the barn and you can smell all those good, “earthy” smells of the hay and the animals.  And after the cold of the world outside, this warm world feels safe and welcoming.  You take a deep warming breath and feel the cold and stress slip away.  The warmth and light of this special place surrounds you and a profound peace sinks into your bones.  You close your eyes and relax.  With the chill gone from your body, you realize how truly cold you were.  But now, in this place, that is all just a sad memory.
When you open your eyes, you see something quite unexpected.  You see a young family.  There is the father, and the mother, and a very tiny baby.  The baby is so small and so fragile; he can’t be very old at all.  You cautiously walk toward the family but then you hesitate.  You wonder if you are welcome.  Dare you enter into the peace and joy you see before you?  Dare you disturb this moment, disturb these people?  You stand wondering what to do when the mother beckons you forward.
It is remarkably still in the barn.
You cautiously walk up to where the mother has placed the baby.  There was no proper place for the mother to lay the baby, so she gently placed him in a manger filled with straw.
You look down and see a tiny face.  Such a small face, such a fragile face.  But in that tiny, little face, all you can feel is love and acceptance.  As you look into that tiny, wonderful face, you realize you are no longer cold.  As you look into that tiny, miraculous face, you wonder how you could have EVER been cold.  As you look at that tiny, beautiful face, you realize you need never be cold again.  All the chill in your body had left.  All you can feel is an indescribable warmth.  All you want to do is stand there and stare.  How can one so small impart so much love and warmth?
Now you remember; there are others here, yes, but there are more who are boarded up in their homes!  Everyone should feel this love!  This love, this peace, THIS WARMTH is something to be spread to the whole world!
You look to the mother and you ask, “May I go and tell others about your wonderful son?”
She looks at you and smiles.  Her smile fills you with an unexplainable warmth.  She says, “That is why you have been brought here.  You have been chosen to receive this great love not to keep it to yourself, but to spread it to others!  Go!  Run as fast as you can!  Tell the world of the miracle you have found here!”
You turn and run out of the barn.  You feel more joy than you can ever explain.  You have been chosen to receive this great love and to spread this love to others!  As you run through the night, you realize that the warmth you felt when looking at the child stays with you.  The light of the moon lights your way and the love of the Christ child burns in your heart.
This is the joy of Christmas.  It is not the rush of gifts and parties.  It is the love of a tiny child, come to earth, to give us a love we can never, ever, understand.

After sermon, lights are out.  I will walk over and light the white candle on the Advent wreath and begin singing Silent Night while lighting candles in the congregation.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Sunday, December 19, 2010

I am so ready to quit.

I have been trying to figure how we have come to this point.

When I first come to St. Swithins, I was excited to hear that there was someone in the congregation who made stained glass.  From the pieces I had seen, I knew that this was someone from whom I could possibly learn some techniques and with whom I could share my excitement.  But I must admit that when I showed a piece to you, Former Secretary , and your first comment was that I needed to polish my solder lines, I was a bit taken aback.

Then there came the repeated calls to hire Former Secretary back as the secretary.  Even though I had made it known that I did not hire from the congregation, I was still receiving constant pressure to hire Former Secretary back.  (I was also instructed by the Bishop that I would NOT hire from the congregation, but I did not feel that this was pertinent to the conversation as this is my general mode of operation.)  It became annoying to continually explain that Former Secretary was not going to be hired back and to constantly get pressured to do so.

Although this is conjecture, there also seems to be some connection between the difficulties with Stage Mom that was getting played out with the Secretarys.  I was not told about Stage Grandma’s surgery, but then I was getting blamed for not visiting her.  How could I visit if I did not know the surgery was going to happen?  Shortly after this, Former Secretary Husband decided that I needed to visit Fr. Alcoholic.  And later, Former Secretary Husband decided that I needed to visit people from the congregation.  And then after the “ambush,” he asked me to hire back Former Secretary.  I was confused as to why I would want to hire back Former Secretary after being ambushed in BC.

Things seemed to calm down for a while.  A new secretary was hired and went to work.  But shortly thereafter, Former Secretary Husband spent one Sunday morning going through the files.  I was not sure why, but I was not going to ask; I assumed it was something to do with Junior Warden activities.  Later, Former Secretary Husband presented me with some papers telling me that the new secretary needed a contract.  My understanding was that this was not necessary and if Former Secretary Husband would have asked at BC, this would have been cleared up.

I had also been troubled that Former Secretary Husband and Former Secretary appeared to look at Current Secretary’s office as their own space.  Granted, the office had been Former Secretary’s while she was the secretary, but the computer and files were not just open to anyone.  I know that the files are open to BC members, when Former Secretary Husband had gone through the files for what appeared to be the express intent to make hiring the new secretary difficult, I was troubled.

Then came the conversation about the stained glass in the sanctuary.  I moved the glass with specific purposes in mind.  (That purpose was to paint the window for Christmas.)  Former Secretary came to me and told me that she did not like the fact that the glass had moved.  She said that the glass was in the east window so that the sun would come through it.  I explained that the glass was not proper sized for the windows and that since the glass had moved, people seem to be more involved with it; seeing it and appreciating it.  Former Secretary said that the glass should be moved back and I thanked her for her opinion but the glass would not be moved.

It was shortly after that the “beading incident” occurred.  That it was not even considered to check with me to see if the timing was ok and that the building was open totally boggles me.  This just seems like something that would occur.  Granted, that was an assumption that I made, and I would have assumed that this was an innocent mistake except for one thing:  The sign-up sheet. 

When I returned from vacation, I found the sign-up sheet for the beading workshop on the bulleting board in such a way that it was covering the note that I put on the board saying that use of the building had to come through the secretary’s office.  The way the sign-up sheet was placed, there is no way that this could have happened “accidentally.”  The push-pins were removed from the original sign, then the sign-up was place over it, and the original push pins were put back in.  I tried to see this as an “accident,” but all I could see is it was as disrespectful and a direct attack on my leadership of this church.

Then there was the ambush by Former Secretary Husband at the BC meeting following the vacation.  Did I send out letters?  Did I call people?  As with the situation involving Stage Grandma, it seemed to be too coincidental that I would go against Former Secretary’s wishes and an ambush from Former Secretary Husband would appear.  I will admit that this is conjecture, but again, there seems to be a correlation.

I was surprised to have Board Member bring up the need for a calendar.  I was trying to figure out why Board Member would need the calendar, she did not seem to do anything that would require consulting the calendar.  Again, it felt like some trap was being set.

I was also surprised that throughout all of the “Beading Incident” one key person was remarkably quite: Former Secretary.

Then came the “Family Fun Night Incident.”  Granted, the calendar was not back out, but the calendar seems to be metaphor for something else that is going on.  There is too much drama over this to have it “just be about the calendar.”  The question about whether Church of God was going to use the building again felt like a trap.  Committee Chair was in charge of set-up and had already talked to Cong. Pres.  Current Secretary was in all week if people needed to know the building usage.  The usage calendar was on the bulletin.  But I was told (granted, this was from Board Member) that Current Secretary should have known to call the Women’s Fellowship and let them know.  (This just does not make sense to me.)  Then when I walked out, Former Secretary and Board Member were staring at the bulletin board, at the spot where the calendar was.

I said the calendar was not coming back.  Well an argument ensued.  I decided that I would rather leave the situation and regroup then to say something to Former Secretary that I would later regret.  Former Secretary accused me of “not communicating” and for turning my back on her.  I explain that I did not want to say anything that I would regret.  Instead of leaving it at that, she decided to push the situation.  And, unfortunately, I said some things that I regret; not that I would not have said them, I just would have said them in a more appropriate way.

I put on my coat to leave and Former Secretary said that maybe she should leave.  I did not stop her.  Again, if felt like I was being set up.

The Bishop came and talked about how we needed to move beyond our past and how we needed to look at what we are doing to each other.

As soon as the Bishop left, Former Secretary Husband claimed that Former Secretary was innocent in the situation and that I better never speak to her in that manner again.   And Board Member said again that Current Secretary should have called the Women’s Group and let them know because this was my “big show.”  So much for the message of the Bishop!

I quit!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Nutcracker

OK, Nick had never seen the Nutcracker before.  So we went to the movie, Nutcracker in 3D.  In my opinion, not worth seeing.  It reminded me of a bad cross of Tommy and The Wizard of Oz.   About the only thing that was Nutcracker about it was some of the music, it had a Rat King, a Nutcracker, and a growing Christmas tree.  Other than that, nah.  For introducing someone to The Nutcracker, that was not the way to do it.

It so happens that Ovation had a Nutcracker competition.  So we have been watching various versions. 

The Berlin Ballet version was difficult to follow.  Not really sticking to the story.  Although the guy who played Drosselmeyer was beautiful!  He was not the traditional old craggy Drosselmeyer, but a young and mysterious one.

The Bolshoi was wonderful!  Very traditional.  Well danced and well costumed.  None of the dancers really stood out, although the guy who played the Nutcracker was very talented.

The final Nutcracker we saw was the Bejart Nutcracker.  Usually I would not like a production like this because the music and the Pas de Deux was maintained.  Otherwise, the dance was a story of the choreographer's life.  Now, I tend to be a purest, but OMG, the guys were BEAUTIFUL and very scantily dressed.  The "Drosselmeyer" character was just a joy to look at!

Well, now Nick has seen The Nutcracker.  I probably should give up looking at ballet dancers ballet for a New Year's resolution.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Advent 3A Tell Him What You See

Advent 3, 2010

Tell Him What You See

Matthew 11:2-11

First off, I am going to apologize for this sermon. This is not the kind of sermon I usually like to give. I like to preach things that will be enlightening and uplifting. And I really like people to walk away from a service with two feelings: one is being challenged and the second is being supported and empowered for that challenge. But with today’s gospel reading, I am having trouble with the supported and empowered part. I think we have plenty to challenge us in today’s readings; that is not the problem. What I see as the problem is that we don’t have a lot to feel uplifted about.

Let’s first look at the story. John the Baptist is in prison. He has been out spreading the message to the people that the messiah, the anointed one, was coming. Because of his message, the authorities of the time have gotten just a little upset with him. And how little was this upset? Enough upset to get John thrown in jail and eventually enough to get him beheaded. That is not much upset at all, right?

So we have John in jail; awaiting who knows what. John sends his followers to see if Jesus really is the messiah. John wants to be reassured that what he had been giving his life to had, in fact, been the proper Rabbi, not just another person claiming messiah status.

Now, Jesus could have been nice and simply answered, “Yes, that would be me!” and sent John’s disciples back. But, of course, Jesus won’t just answer the question and be done with it. No, Jesus refers back to the passage in Isaiah that tells what to expect when the messiah comes: the blind see; the deaf hear; the poor are raised… What Jesus is saying is, “Look around, all the things that have been foretold are occurring. If all these things are happening, then you should assume that the Messiah is here.” So without actually answering the question, Jesus IS answering the question.

If we were to look around today, would we be able to tell that Jesus is the Messiah? If we were to go back and tell John what we see and hear in the world today, my guess is that it would be much different than what Jesus presents. People are starving. People are being tortured. People are indiscriminately blowing each other up. (I guess it wouldn’t be much better even if they were discriminately blowing each other up.) People are walking into schools and killing each other. We may listen to politicians, but we certainly NOT hearing good news. In many ways, hatred seems more present than ever.

This is, in part, the reason that many Jewish people give for not believing that Jesus is the messiah. If the messiah has already come into the world, then how come the world is so messed up? How could something like the Holocaust happen if the Son of God has come to redeem the world? How can oppression and exploitation exist if the Good News has come to the world? How can we claim that Christ is the Messiah when the fruits of the Messiah’s presence are nowhere to be found? And you must admit, that is a pretty hard argument to refute.

When we look at the world, it is difficult not to get depressed. The way things are now, even places of worship need to have armed guards. One group of people is telling another that they are wrong and neither side gives any credence to the point of view of the other. It is pretty depressing. If we proclaim that Christ is alive, where are the blind gaining their sight? Where are the deaf, hearing? Where are the poor having the good news brought to them?

Is the fulfillment of Isaiah being lived out in our malls? In our schools? In our jobs? Within our congregations? Are we, as a country and a world, focusing on the needs of those around us or are we just searching for ways to hide and keep ourselves safe? If John were alive today, would he believe that his life was given for a purpose or would he assume it was given for some kind of pipedream?

In all honesty, I don’t know if things were really all that much better in the time of Jesus. In Biblical times, they had their problems too. There were people who were hungry. There were people who were homeless. There were people who were begging. There were people who were warring. And in actuality, it probably is better now than it was back then. But that does not get us off the hook. We know that the world could be a better place for us all. And it is this world, this better world, that Jesus points us to.

John’s disciples could have gone back to him and said, “That Jesus guy is crazy. On the way back here, we were accosted by five blind beggars. And when we tried to tell them that the Messiah had arrived, they all pointed to their ears and said, ‘Huh?’” Even with Jesus in their midst, I am sure that the problems of society continued.

But I am also sure Jesus was not lying. Miracles were happening. The blind were receiving their sight. The deaf were able to hear. It may not have been happening to everyone, BUT IT WAS HAPPENING! And this is the important thing, just because it was not happening to all didn’t mean that it unimportant! It reminds me of a story I heard. A man was walking down a beach and noticed thousands of baby turtles scurrying to get into the water. But many, if not most, of the turtles were being eaten by the birds that saw the whole thing as nature’s “All You Can Eat” buffet. Now the man also saw a woman picking up baby turtles and she would toss each baby turtle into the water. Well, the man decided to tell the woman how silly this was. He said, “Look at all the baby turtles and so many of them are being eaten. Picking up one here and there and throwing it in the water isn’t going to make any difference. Why bother?” At this question, the woman looked at the little turtle in her hand, and then heaved it into the ocean. She turned and responded to the man, “It made a difference to that one.”

If we turn on the news, it is tough to not get overwhelmed. It is tough not to just look at the situation of the world and turn away in disgust. Really, the whole thing looks like a losing battle. But that would be like the woman saying that since she cannot save all of the turtles, she would not save any of the turtles.

I’m guessing that God may feel very similarly. There was so much happening. The sin in the world was so great. God could have just turned away from our world and have forgotten all about humanity. God could have just abandoned us and left us to our own will. But instead, God sent Jesus.

Now Jesus could have looked at the Middle East of Biblical times and decide that the problem was just too big for one man and decided to do nothing, but he didn’t. He went out. And even though he could not encounter every blind, deaf, or poor person in the world, he healed those whom he did encounter. Just because he could not physically touch all of them didn’t mean that he shouldn’t touch any of them. While Jesus was on earth, he did what he could for those who were near him. He healed those who came to him and brought the good news to those who would listen.

We, as Jesus’ followers, are also called to likewise go out into the world. Even though it may look like the problem is just too big, we are still to go out and be the light of Christ in the world. That is one of the things about the Gospel of Matthew; Jesus is always calling us, not just to faith, but also to action. It is in the Gospel of Matthew where Jesus gives the great commission, telling the disciples to “go and make disciples of all nations.” And we too are called to go out into the world and make disciples. And in most cases, that is going to be one person at a time.

This too was the way John had gone out into the world. John went to the people and spoke of the one that was to follow. And this is also what Jesus is referencing in that somewhat confusing last section of the gospel reading. How can Jesus say that no one has arisen greater but yet say that he is the least of those in heaven? Seems kind of confusing.

What Jesus is referring to is that John is the last and the greatest of the “Old” prophets. John is the last prophet before Jesus is risen to glory. John was the greatest of prophets, but like I said last week, he does not have the whole story; John does not know about the resurrection. But it is us, the ones who come after that may be the least in the kingdom of heaven but are greater than he. We have the knowledge and promise of the risen Christ where John did not.

And it is through the risen Christ that God scooped up all of us turtles on the beach and tossed us into the ocean of forgiveness. It is through the risen Christ that we are given new sight. It is through the risen Christ that our have our ears opened to hear the good news. We have what John did not have and could not know; we have the blessing that God spread over the world.

So we are able to go out and to do more than we ever thought was possible. We are able to bring healing to a world that is in pain. Now granted, we may not be able to bring this healing to the whole entire globe, but we can bring it to our family, our places of work, to our congregation, we can even bring it to those we meet in our daily lives. When Christ was on earth, he was just in one spot. But through the power of Christ’s Spirit within us, that power can encircle the world. Just by doing our part, we help create the world that Jesus told the disciples to report to John. But as with the theme of Advent, we are not there yet. We may never get there in our lifetime. But this is the vision Jesus would have us strive for and as we look to that day when we remember Jesus’ birth, we also look to the day when reign of God will be here on earth.

That is our challenge. And I guess we have the uplifting promise of the Spirit. So this isn’t as bad as I suspected. In Advent, we have both, the promise and the expectation. But with Christ, we can live in that tension and still go out to spread God’s love to all we meet.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Voice in the Wilderness Advent 2A

I was thinking back to my days in grad school. I was remembering one afternoon when there was this man on campus. He was in his mid-thirties and dressed in jeans. He referred to himself as “Brother Jim.” Now the thing that made Brother Jim so memorable was not what he was wearing, it was what he was doing. He was standing near the Student Union on campus telling all of the people that they were “Damned to hell!” Now remember, this was the early 1990’s in the middle of Iowa, we didn’t see this kind of thing very often! Brother Jim was telling people that frats and sororities were nothing but “Hotbeds of fornication!” and he was telling people that listening to rock-and-roll music was to be “Brainwashed by the devil!” And best of all is he kept telling people that wearing shorts was a heinous sin and would cause you to burn in hell.

Needless to say, Brother Jim had quite a crowd of people surrounding him. Most of the people that surrounded him were there to heckle the guy. People were opening their Bibles and quoting scripture back to Jim in an attempt to refute his arguments. Some people were just taunting him to see if they could get a rise out of him. The Abnormal Psychology class decided to have an impromptu field trip o watch not only Brother Jim but also the people in the crowd.

Finally, the security people came and escorted Brother Jim off campus. When Brother Jim complained that he had every right to be on campus as this was a public university, the security people agreed. However, the security people also told Jim that they would not be responsible for his safety if he chose to stay on campus. With these words, Brother Jim decided to leave.

Now Brother Jim didn’t call those of us standing there a “brood of vipers,” but he could have. He wasn’t baptizing, but he was calling us to repent. He wasn’t wearing camel hair and eating locusts, but he was certainly drawing a crowd. And the people came out; some of them, myself included, came out just to get a look at this “nut.” But by the time security finally lead him away, a very large crowd had gathered.

This is probably the closest I have ever come to a situation similar to that of today’s gospel.

When I read today’s gospel, my first thought was, “Oh, John the Baptist. Prepare the way of the Lord. Yadda, yadda, yadda.” I thought that this should not a hard one. John was right, we should turn our lives around. I thought that yes, we should live our lives to the glory of God. I mean, really, this is pretty old hat, isn’t it?

As I have said before, this is one of the dangers of living in our time: The readings from the Bible just become often told stories. These stories lose the immediacy that they had when the events originally happened. For many of us, we have heard the story of John the Baptist so many times that we forget that he was a radical in the community. He had crowds surrounding him not because they wanted to hear what he had to say but because they thought he was a kook!

The people of biblical times were a people in search of meaning. They were looking for a person to come and save them from their problems. They were looking for a warrior king to come in and save them from the harsh government. As such, one group of people would follow just about anyone with a new teaching while the rest of the people would stand around and heckle the teacher. I guess when you don’t have TV; just about anything will count as entertainment! Well, most of the people in the crowd surrounding John were of the same mind as those surrounding Brother Jim on campus; most just wanted to see the show. Similar to the people in the crowd on campus wanting to tell the “nut” he was wrong, the Pharisees and Sadducees went out to listen to the “kook in the desert” and to tell him how his preaching was wrong.

The question I have, though, is; why do so many people want to tell these “kooks” they are wrong? If these people really are not in touch with reality, why do we pay any attention to them? If these people are not in touch with reality, why do they make us so angry with their words?

I think we listen to these people and get angry with these people because they speak a truth to us. Within their ranting and ravings, there is a word of truth that convicts us. When John yells at us from the desert, we know that despite all of the hype, somewhere in his words, he is speaking a truth we need to hear. But I’ll tell you, I may need to hear the words but I don’t want to hear them! When the man was ranting on campus, some of what he said I believe was wrong. I don’t think wearing shorts is a sin, but I do think there were things that he was saying that we did need to hear. I think Brother Jim was calling us to look at our life anew just as John was calling the people of the Biblical time to reexamine their lives.

Now, believe it or not, these people, calling to us from the wilderness, are trying to make our lives better. They are trying to show us a way of living that will bring us peace and joy not strife and contention. They are trying to show us a new way of living that they believe is pleasing to God. That doesn’t sound like a bad thing, does it? But if it is not a bad thing, then why do we resist?

I think we resist because in the words of these people shouting in the wilderness, we are not hearing the word of God! We resist the words of John and of Brother Jim because these are not the words of God. It may sound odd to say, but the words these men speak are not the words of a Savior! These men in the wilderness come close to speaking the words of a Savior, but they miss the mark.

As I said, both John and Brother Jim are trying to show us a way to live our lives that is better and more fulfilling that the way we had been living; the problem is that this way of life is more difficult. Actually it is even more than that, what John and Brother Jim are asking is downright impossible! I think we resist the message because we are left in a corner: We cannot always live the upright, upstanding life; but if we don’t live an upstanding life, then we will burn in Hell! So we resist the message because it convicts us without giving us a way to redeem ourselves.

This is the way of the world. The world tells us that it is all up to us. The world tells us that if we don’t do it, it won’t get done. The world tells us that we are totally responsible for our lives. This is the way of the law. The law tells us what we do wrong. The law points out what we need to fix in our lives. This is not bad, but this is not what we are waiting for in advent. We are not waiting for someone to yell at us and tell us that we are vipers.

What we are waiting for in Advent is the one to come who will change us and will change the world. We are waiting for the one who promises us a future of hope and discovery, not just one of judgment and punishment. We are waiting for the Savior.

Jesus is the one we are waiting for. He is the one who gives us love, power, and forgiveness. Jesus gives us more than just the option of “turn or burn.” Jesus gives us a reason to listen to John and to Brother Jim and gives us a reason to heed their words.

You see, the words of the Baptist are a call to wake up and experience life anew. We are to listen and respond. But our salvation does not depend on response. Our salvation does not depend on us. If it depended on us, we could never make it. But it doesn’t, it all depends on the great gift given to us in Christ. Christ didn’t die so that we could “earn” our salvation, Christ died so that we could receive the gift of salvation, a freely given gift. Christ died so that we could have a full life. Christ died so that even if we don’t change and get it all right, we still have love and forgiveness.

This is the freedom of the gospel. John and Brother Jim tell us that it is all up to us. John and Brother Jim tell us that we need to change or we are damned. John and Brother Jim tell us that we need to repent or we are lost. But Jesus tells us that we are saved. Jesus tells us that we are loved and forgiven. Jesus tells us that we are free to live a life of service because we have been given the ultimate Christmas gift. This is the gospel and this is the gift of Christmas. As we look to the birth of Christ, let us also remember the great gift that we have been given.

Welcoming in Christ (Unfinished Sermon)

Often, when I have interviewed with churches, I will ask them to describe themselves without using the words “Welcoming,” “Friendly,” or “Outgoing.” One of the reasons I do this is because I think these are words what we really do not know the meaning of. We may think we know what they mean, but when I look at various congregations, it seems that that understanding was not present.

In our reading from Romans, Paul tells us that we are to welcome each other as Christ has welcomed you. That we are to welcome each other for the glory of God.

So, if we are to welcome each other as Christ has welcomed each of us, what does that mean?

Well, that is a question that I cannot answer for you. That is a question that I can only answer for myself. I can tell stories about being rejected by congregations and denominations that I had devoted my life to. I can tell stories about family and friends that chose to let me know that I created too much difficulty to bother with. I can tell you stories about judgment leveled against me because I did not conform to someone’s preconceived notion of what it meant to be Christian.

Now, some of you may be drawing conclusions as to what I am talking about. And in some cases, you would be right, but in other cases you would be very wrong. I have lost friends because I believed that God could and would save anyone. I lost friends because I believed that God’s love was greater than anything we could do here on Earth. Something as simple as believing that Christ’s gift on the cross was meant for everyone has caused me to lose friends.

In the situations of my life where people have turned me away, I am sure if you asked these people, they would all claim to be friendly and welcoming. No one wants to think of themselves as cold and judgmental. And in the stories I could tell, I am sure all the people thought they were doing the right thing. But in each of these situations, what I felt was not welcoming at all; what I felt pushed me farther away from the love of God. I don’t think that what I felt from these people who claimed to be Christians was what Jesus had intended.

How did Christ welcome people? Did he pass judgment on them? Did he speak of them with contempt and fear? Did he make comments about people just within earshot? No. When Christ welcomed people, he welcomed them with love and with compassion. He invited the sinners and the outcasts to eat with him. He extended forgiveness to the adulterer. He embraced the downtrodden and he healed the ones who were excluded from society. He became the servant to those whom society called outcasts and died for us all, even as we continue to flaunt our gift. This is the welcome Christ gave to us and the welcome we are to give to others.

I want you to take a moment. Think of a time when you were not welcomed. Think of a time that you were shunned, hurt, or cast out. What did they do that made you feel left out and alone? What happened that let you know that you did not belong?

Now think of a time when you were welcomed. Think of a time when you felt lost and someone brought you in and made you feel at home. What changed? What helped you to feel that all was ok? What was said that let you know that you were indeed welcomed.

To be welcomed as Christ would welcome us is to have

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

More Sleepless Nights.

This whole thing with the Former Secretary (FS) is getting crazy!  I keep tying to find ways to not get snagged into all the systems stuff, but find it difficult. I know that people are rebelling because I am holding boundaries where there were previously none.  This is not going over well with the FS so she is getting people to do her bidding.

I just feel entirely too thin-skinned to be doing this.  I know I just need to stand up to the whole thing and call it out, but I am too wimpy for that.  I just want to go away and do something involving no other people except Nick.  I just want to be left alone.  I am tired.  I am jumping at shadows.  I am amazed at how mean "Good People" can be.

Then I have to ask how am I contributing to the system?  How am I being reactive?  How is my reactivity contributing to the general anxiety of the system?  Am I doing more harm than good there?