March 5th, 2017_ Enjoy Lent, Week 1

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Saving Joy

Isaiah 12: 1-6

Romans 5: 12-19

Call to Worship

Lent is no time for misery.
Lent is a time for careful self-reflection and re-connection with Christ.
For God is indeed my salvation. So I will trust and have no fear.
Lent is an opportunity for repentance.
A time for having God remake our hearts and reshape our aims.
In loving kindness, God’s anger turned from me.
I was drawn close again and comforted.
Lent is a season for joy abundant.
Exhilarated by defying sin, shattering indifference and turning our faces back to God.
I will draw water with joy from the springs of salvation!
I will sing to the Lord, who has done glorious things!

Sermon

Once upon a time, sin came to earth…. That is story number two in our Bible.

Right after we delight in God the Creator, and marvel at the vast “goodness” of the earth… we are quickly introduced to the problem. The problem the rest of the book seeks to resolve. Once upon a time, sin came to earth.

In our passage from Romans, Paul recalls the story of Adam and Eve; a tale that has long been referred to as “The Fall of Mankind.”  It’s one that we all know well. In Eden, God created a boundary for Adam and Eve to obey. But what are boundaries if not curious things just begging to be explored? And through the influence of sin, a creature of sin, Eve dared to defy that boundary. And (as thousands of years of “the patriarchy” have taught us…) she pulled Adam across that boundary with her. And together, they tumbled from Paradise. Tumbled into a world of shame and hardship/ pain and sin… tumbled into our reality.
The Genesis story of Adam and Eve is a metaphor, of course, describing what it means to belong to a humanity that is in broken relationship with God/ that is is broken relationship with the world. In Paradise, sin was this slithering tempter/ a creature that invaded God’s happy place to invite destruction. In reality, sin… just is… it’s rooted in each of us- it’s there in our self-serving evolutionary instincts, it’s in the disposition of our will to oppose God, sin is there when we push against our own well-being… sin is just there… it is deep and unavoidable and devastating.
But as Adam and Eve tell us, we are not meant for sin. We are not meant for a broken relationship with God. If you think back to the details of this story in Genesis, when Adam and Eve walked through the garden of Eden they walk side by side with God- naked and unashamed. When they took their tumble from Paradise, they were now naked and very ashamed, one of the first things God did (after giving them a talking to), was lean down and fashion clothes for them out of animal skin. Their shame was a testament to their sin- having defied God’s boundaries, and yet they are still loved by a God the wants their every need to be meet/ loved by a God who can’t stand to see them hiding away. A God of compassion and mercy.

Contrary to that old adage, “To err is human, to forgive is divine.” To err is not human, to sin is not human. Sin opposes the goodness of God’s creation. Sin is very much not what God intended us for. It is not human- it is dehumanizing.

But thankfully, Paul tells us in Romans, God came up with a solution to this problem of sin. Grace.
That same God who bent low and sowed clothes together for his beloved, yet wayward, Adam and Eve… that same God bent low again in Jesus Christ. Taking on sin himself, he overcame its consequences! Death and shame are no more.
Grace is meant to reclaim us for relationship with God. Grace is meant to reclaim us for the goodness that we were made to be. The free gift of Grace is meant to reclaim us for a life of joy.
Paul’s letter to the Romans is perhaps one of the most directly translatable to the 21st Century church. The church in ancient Rome was at the heart of the empire- a cultural crossroads. Rome was a vital trading destination that saw people from all over the world, it was a place for the exchange of ideas, the birthplace of new movements. It was a city where the world felt very small. But the Romans were also a society of very indulgent people- where everything and everyone had a price.
The church of Rome was understandably focused on staying rooted in all the hustle and bustle around them/ staying grounded in a changeful world. Paul knew this, and so in his letter he offered them this reminder of their identity: They were a people of grace. In a world where sin… just is… Paul reminds them that sin does not have dominion over them.

And this is the truth that remains for us today.
This passage is for every Christian who has had to wrestle with sin; a sin that remains even after baptism. This is for the faithful church leader who has struggled with addiction to painkillers, or gambling, or internet porn. This is for the self-righteous bible thumper wracked by long-held hatred for certain sinners they condemn. This is even for the survivors of combat or domestic abuse, those who carry within their bodies the legacy of someone else’s sin. This passage is for them. It is also for the church member long enmeshed in the deadening comfort of privilege and for those long stuck in the webs of oppression. (Christopher Grundy, Feasting on the Word)
In a world where sin… just is… we are all reminded that sin does not have dominion over us. For we are a people of grace.

Thomas Merton once wrote, “This, then, is our desert: to live facing despair, but not to consent. To trample it down under hope in the cross. To wage war against despair unceasingly. That war is our wilderness. If we wage it courageously, we will find Christ at our side.” (Thomas Merton, Thoughts of Solitude)

To Merton, anything that brings despair has to be challenged. Even though sin remains a reality in our lives, it must not have our consent. We were made as part of God’s good creation, and if we are to honor that… then sin must be challenged. And when we do, it is in those attempts that we find Christ at our side: The great giver of second chances. Grace is meant to reclaim us, wash us, and remake us for a life as generous as the love that created us in the first place.

Our Lenten theme this year is “enjoyLENT: Fasting from fear, feasting on joy.” Lent is a season of reflection and confession. It’s a time of waging that war on all that is despairing with courage.
As we honor this season, may our hearts are set on the promises of Easter. That we are enlivened by joy/ a soul deep confidence in God’s love for us.

Amen.

Litany of Confession

(From Walter Brueggemann’s poem, Revise Our Taking)

You, you giver! You have given light and life to the world;
You have given freedom from Pharaoh to your people Israel;
You have give you only Son for the sake of the world;
You have given yourself for us;
You have given and forgiven, and you remember our sins no more.
And we, in response, are takers:
We take eagerly what you give us;
We take for our neighbors near at hand as is acceptable;
We take from our unseen neighbors greedily and acquisitively;
We take from our weak neighbors thoughtlessly;
We take all that we can lay hands on.
It dawns on us that our taking does not match your giving.
In this Lenten season revise our taking,
That it may be grateful and disciplined,
even as you give in ways generous and overwhelming. Amen.

Words of Assurance

Friends, our sins are washed away in the Spring of Salvation.
Be assured today that God’s grace is multiplied for all.
A gift given through the work of the cross so that we may have life and joy abundant.

February 26th, 2017 – Transfiguration Sunday

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Don’t Be Afraid

Exodus 24: 12-18 & Matthew 17: 1-9

In the magical world of Harry Potter, the students at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry take a class called Transfiguration, with the brilliant and sassy Professor McGonagall. There they learn how to transform their pet rats and pet birds into teacups/ they turn flowers into candles. There is one memorable scene where a student attempted to turn himself into a shark, but he only half succeeds.
When we hear the word “transfiguration,” for the most part, this is what we have in mind- the change of state from one thing into another. And, indeed, the Greek word in Matthew 17 for “transform” is the very same word from which we derive “metamorphosis.” Like, caterpillars into butterflies.
But, today, we need to look past our understanding of Transfiguration. The hard to explain/ supernatural events that unfold in our Gospel reading are not about mere change. Rather they are about seeing/believing/ grabbing hold of what has been there all along.          Today we see Jesus. Son of Mary, Son of God. Today we see Jesus as the glorious/exalted Lord of Lords who has been with the disciples day in and day out for years as their teacher, Messiah, and friend.
If there is a metamorphosis/ a transfiguration in this story. I dare say it is not Jesus’, but our own.

Let’s pray to begin our time of message:
 Light of Light, as you spoke from the pillar of cloud to Moses and the Israelites, so you spoke from the bright and powerful mountaintop cloud to Jesus and his disciples. May your word live through us today, that we might bear your light and love to the world. We pray this message be redeemed for your glory, Lord. Amen.

The story begins with a long climb up a windy mountain side in the early light of day. Jesus, along with his disciples James, John, and Peter, they all search for a place that will be their church for the day/ a place where they can pray.

There’s a reason, I think, as to why so many of humanity’s most sacred places are high up on mountains. There is something about the climb to get there that is clarifying, like praying with your whole body. The strain of your muscles, the focus of your mind all work together for a singular purpose – to get higher. To tangibly draw closer to the heavens. To climb is to pray.
When Jesus sought to be with His Heavenly Father he often did so atop a mountain. Going some place that was above it all, some place that left the business and the needs of the world far below. He would find a place that was set apart, holy. One that felt closer to God.

And so… with aching calves, and wheezing breath (and with that little buzz that finds it’s way into your ear during a good long climb)… Jesus and his disciples let the distractions of the world fade with elevation. As the morning wanes they finally find what they are looking for- their church. And so they get on with what they came there to do, they sit and they pray.
Now, imagine with me that you are in the shoes of one of these disciples. Through your mind’s eye, I invite you to step into this scene.
You find a comfortable looking place out of the sun. You sit with your back against a tree trunk, and settling in you let your heart catch up with your lungs…
Once you body finds a calm again, you pray what you know to pray and you sit in silence with eyes closed. After a while, you begin to simply listen for God/ for inspiration… and if you are like me… thats when you begin to feel the annoying allure of sleep pull at you. So you let your mind wander and wonder for a bit.

Just six days ago, Jesus had told all of his disciples, that a dark time coming your way…
He had said that, soon, you were all going to Jerusalem, a place everyone knew you were very unwelcome. (As the movement Jesus had begun in his ministry was seen as an assault on the established Jewish way.) Jesus went on to say that in Jerusalem he would suffer and be put to a brutal death. And then, if you weren’t already overwhelmed, he said that after this death, he would rise back to life. Jesus spoke plainly about such things. He spoke plainly of suffering, death, and the impossible.
That night, you remember, Peter was so shocked that he practically shouted at him, “Never, Lord! Never will this happen to you!” And in reply, Jesus shouted back, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns…”. And looking around at all of you he said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me…”

That news/ that evening’s troubling revelation had been hanging in the air for six days now. And so, as you sit in your mountaintop sanctuary, you lean into the worry you had been holding in check. You let your confusion and your fear flow to God. Perhaps, not knowing the words to pray or what to ask… you offer God the only thing you can- your presence. Prayer enough. Peter, who had dared challenge Jesus on his plain spoken announcement that night, is there at your side, eyes likely closed in prayer. Surely, he too must be thinking of what’s ahead…
But then a strange glow hits your eyelids and draws your attention away from the worry.
You open them just a crack… and past your lashes you see Jesus- You see your friend as you have never seen him before. Standing there radiating light. Face like a flame. Clothes dazzling white. Arms raised in intercession.
Reaching out to the other disciples- you get their attention. Peter’s eyes open and widen, his jaw drops (which seems to mirror your own reaction). They all join you in marveling at this radiant light. Somewhere between terrified and curious, you take it all in… you stand and move just a little bit closer… through the light, the figures of two more men emerge from the glow. Moses and Elijah. Dead men come back to life, standing at the side of your friend. Standing at the side of God’s glory. Somehow, they are here and yet this feel like the old story of Mount Sinai. They are here on earth and yet you know that this is somehow a part of the Kingdom of God.
Peter, at least, has sense enough to recognize the holy ground you now stand on. “Tents!” he says, “We need tent! Remember Mount Sinai? The glory of God came and camped out! We need tents for worship!” Peter was always quick to say something… at least this was an attempt at reverence.
But it would be light capturing a firefly in a jar, you think. It’s not meant to be contained. Something in your heart tells you to just take it in… just receive… the moment. This light wouldn’t last. The Glory of God!
As you marvel, a cloud comes. You can feel it’s cool, wet air wrap around you.
But like a brewing mountain storm… the cold wet air suddenly intensifies. The wind begins to whips the fog around you. It becomes heavy and pressing. This is not the cute little cumulus clouds that you admire high in the sky on a beautiful day… this cloud is active and alive… everywhere! It smells of lightening and waves as it swirls heavily around you!
Peter finally stops yammering about tents, as the hair on the back of your neck stands up.
Through the dense foggy thickness… the light of Jesus/the light of Elijah and Moses pulses brighter than ever. The cloud shades your vision. You strain to see, but then then a rumbling/thunderous voice says, “This is my Son, the Beloved!” The voice come from everywhere. From the very fog that is wrapped around. It sounded close and far away.      “Listen to him!” It rattles your bones. “Listen to him!”
Not, listen to me… but listen to him.
Listen to Jesus, the glorious Messiah at the center of it all…. The One who came to save and to serve. The One who was born to die, so that all might have life.
It will be just as He said, you fear. Jesus, your friend, son of Mary, yet also Son of God. He will be brutalized in Jerusalem, he will die… But also, he will defy possibility. He will be resurrected. This man, isn’t only man… he is God. Emmanuel, God with us. And it will all be as he said.
The cloud dissipates as fast as it came, leaving you to exhale so hard that it brings you to your knees. You and the other disciples find yourself facedown in the dirt, overwhelmed and terrified, at what you had just seen and at the prospect of what is to come.

Laying there in the dirt, again letting your heart catch up with your lungs, you wonder if you dare raise you head/ raise your eyes to see… Fear, or awe maybe, makes your movements slow and cautious.
Before long, your hear the unhurried steps of a man in sandals walk across to you. He puts his hand around your upper arm and he lift you to your feet. “Get up. Don’t be afraid.” Calming words spoken close to your ear. Jesus moves on to Peter and on to James and John… each time saying “Get up. Don’t Be afraid.” You dust the dirt off… And with a breath of courage you finally look up… Just Jesus, there. Regular Jesus, alone again. Not glowing. Just the dusty, smiling, bearded, itinerant teacher you thought you knew so well. Your Messiah.

He looks at each of you and says, “How about we don’t tell anyone about this for a while? Not until I do what I came here to do. Don’t be afraid. The Son of Man will be raised from the dead.”

Together, they walk down the mountain. And in doing so, it seems they are transfigured. Having shed the fear and the worry at what lay ahead, they were raised again into a since of restored purpose. With each step of the decent the disciples knew that the work of God was at hand. Work that would bring restoration, would bring renewal and far more to the whole world. They stepped with courage even as their feet were pointed towards Jerusalem.
They were all different men, now. Except for Jesus, of course. The time on the mountain revealed who he was, who he had always been. The holy, powerful, glorious Lord of All had been with them the whole time. When he spoke kindly at the Samaritan woman sitting by the well, when he had reached out a healing hand to lepers, when Jesus wept over the death of his friends Lazarus, when he smiled gently at the misguided Rich Young Ruler… each and every day as they all simply broke bread, swapped stories, and traveled down dusty roads as friends.

The disciples had seen the fullness of God. The Father, the Son and the Spirit – radiant and holy, giving a victory cry of resurrection before the Son would be stripped bare and emptied at the hands of humankind on the cross.

This is a story that we take with us into Lent.
It reminds us that we never journey alone. “It tells us that sometimes things get really scary before they get holy.” (Barbara Brown Taylor, The Bright Cloud of Unknowing). It tells us that God’s glory is evident among us even when we can’t see it or comprehend it. It tells us that when darkness and difficulty come our way, we don’t have to be afraid.

This Lent, I pray that we all have hearts of transcendence. That we lean into the solemnity of Lent, while at the same time we embrace the solemnity of joy. That we might hold Lent and joy in tension with one another. For even as we journey to the cross… journey to the dark place where a crown of thorns will be placed on the Godhead, we go knowing that it is God’s redeeming work. We do not journey unassured.
May our hearts transcend difficult and darkness, having now been filled with holy, transfiguring light.
Let us pray:
Lord Jesus Christ, on the mountaintop, Peter, James and John
looked upon the majesty of your glory,
and from the mystery of a cloud
heard a voice declaring you to be God’s Son.

Though we do not live on mountaintops,
Grant that we too may glimpse your glory.

In the mundane/ ordinary rhythms of our live
may there be for us moments
when sights give way to insight,
And the paths of earth become the road to heaven.
Amen.  (An Iona Community Prayer)

February 19th, 2017 – Sixth Sunday After Ep

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Perfection: A Donut Theology

Leviticus 19: 1-2, 9-18

Matthew 5: 38-48

 

“They say that nobody is perfect. Then they tell you practice makes perfect. I wish they’d make up their minds.” Winston Churchill

Matthew 5:48. “Be perfect, therefore, because your Heavenly Father is perfect.” That is what Christ has to say to us this week. At the apex of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, we are told exactly what is expected of us as disciples. Perfection. Teleios in the Greek.
Hearing this, we are tempted to jump right to acknowledging the impossibility of this expectation. For as Romans (3:23) confirms for us, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” I admit I was tempted this week to write a sermon on forgiveness instead of perfection.
But. I think we can be brave in the face of un-attainability… and consider that there might be something to this notion of perfection for God to reveal to us today.

Let’s take a moment to bless this imperfect sermon on perfection:
     Lord, we approach your Word with the heart of a student. Help us to learn, to grow. Place in us an openness of mind and a softness of heart for we wish to understand your truth. Lord, bless this time of message today, might it be redeemed for your glory! Amen.

Now… for the task of pondering perfection I present to you… a visual aid.
(unveil a plate of donuts)
I have been looking forward to this sermon all week… (take a bite.). A greater example of perfection I have yet to encounter.
Did you know that the most popular donut in the world is the simple/ classic glazed donut? I prefer one with a bit more pizzazz as you can see from my sprinkled selection. (Take a bite.)
This may be a cause for debate… but my sources say that donuts originated in the 16th century Holland. And they were so greasy from the oil they were cooked in that the Dutch called them “oily cakes.”
The Pilgrims, our Spiritual forbearers, who had lived in Holland, brought the cakes with them when they came to New World. It is hard for me to picture Puritans indulging in sweets… but if you read it on the internet it must be true, right?… Their version was a round doughy ball about the size of a nut… thus the first “doughnut.” (Take a bite.)
The origins of the donut hole is particularly intriguing. Captain Hanson Gregory, in the 19th century was eating a doughnut while sailing through a storm… And suddenly, the ship was rocked violently and he was thrown against the ship’s wheel impaling his poor cake on one of its spokes!
(Take a bite)
Seeing how well the spoke held his cake… Captain Gregory began ordering all his cakes with holes in them. Which made them rather convenient for snacking…
I should probably stop there, but I have one more donut story: Doughnuts were popularized in the US after the Salvation Army began feeding them to the troops during the Second World War! The Salvation Army folks had doughnut cooking stations assembled out of garbage pails and they served them to the soldiers by looping them over the end of a bayonet…
(Take a bite)
The Soldiers got so hooked on them that they were called “doughboys.” And in my research this week… I wasn’t sure if that was in reference to the cakes or the soldiers… probably both.
(at this point the whole donut has been eaten)
Now for the riddle… So, what is left of the donut?

The donut hole, of course…

To say that “perfection” is the same as being sinless is like saying that a donut is the same as the hole.
(Grab another donut). I’m not going to eat this one…
Is this donut real? Yes. Is the hole real? …
The hole exists in relation to the donut.
The hole exists only if the donut exists.
And now, because I ate the donut, our donut hole no longer exists.
No donut, no hole.

The donut hole represents my perfection, and yours. It exists only in relation to the actual perfection of Christ. Christ being the donut in this illustration, of course.
We, as human beings, are not capable of perfection…
Although, Pelagius did dare to believe that perfection was achievable. Back in the fourth century the doctrine of Original Sin was all the rage. And this theologian taught that contrary to this Original Sin idea humanity was untouched/unwounded by the sin of Adam. It was his thinking that humanity was perfectly able to fulfill the laws and teachings of Scripture without divine aid if they were just dedicated enough. To Pelagius, the grace of God was an unnecessary charity for the faithful. Something pitiable almost.
But, what does he know! Pelagius was labeled a heretic by the church and exiled to the deserts of Egypt for this “doctrine of self-sufficiency.”
We know we aren’t perfect… And so, It is hard to hear the command, “Be perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” So much so that we want to immediately discount it and move on.
But, Scripture also tells us that there is perfection to be found in Christ – and for us, in our relationship to Christ.
The donut hole exists in relation to the donut.

The Greek – Teleios, appears often in the New Testament (48 times). Teleios is translated as perfect (as we read here), as mature, complete and persistent.
The root of this word does not come from blamelessness or sinlessness or even purity- the root is in the concept of maturity or a developed wholeness.
“Be mature, as your Heavenly Father is mature.”
“Be complete, as your Heavenly Father is complete.”
“Be persistent, as your Heavenly Father is persistent.”
Our Teleios is something that becomes. Our perfection is something that is sought. It grows though practice and activity.
So the obvious question is, what practices and activities develop perfection?
“You have heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other… If anyone sues you and takes your shirt, hand over your coat as well.. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go two.
You have heard it said, ‘Love you neighbor and hate your enemy,’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
Our perfection comes in putting the teaching of Jesus into action.
– We are to surprise the angry with our peace.
– We are to defuse a bully with our humility.
– We are to be so generous that our behavior encroaches on recklessness.
– We are to discount our very human gravitation towards fairness in exchange for mercy.
– We are to love even when it challenges our boundaries of what is/ who is lovable.

The way you are perfect is by the way you live, living in a way that is different/ in a way that is countercultural/ living in a way (even) that may seem counter-instinctive… in a way that is holy (set apart for God). And for what purpose? Jesus.
Our job as Disciples is to rain down mercy, compassion, kindness, peace and radical loving action – because… Jesus. Because of the Emmanuel. “God with us.” The end goal of growing our perfection/is to bear the Emmanuel to the world.

Jesus said, “Do not resist an evil person.” That portion of this passage always stops me in my tracks. It just doesn’t seems to jive with the rest of the Sermon on the Mount. How are we to live into our instructions to be a people of integrity, and justice, and truth… if we are not to resist/ to stand up to, evil? How can that possibly be a teaching of Jesus?
As frustrating and as powerless as this sounds: Evil is not ours to conquer. It is only God that can really squash evil.
But, as my preaching professor in seminary once told me. “Jesus is sneaky. He is Sneaky Jesus.” In our discipleship/ in our living out the gospel, Emmanuel is made present. “God with us.” The Kingdom of God is revealed- its light and hope breaks through.
Evil is resisted not by us alone. Evil is resisted in God made present in this world.
We are the hole to Jesus’ donut.
In our perfection in discipleship/ in our persistence at being good disciples/ in our effort to be complete disciples… God works.
It is in these effort that love is conquers the evils of this world and the Kingdom of God is made manifest.

G. K. Chesterton once wrote, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”
Discipleship can be difficult and costly. When all we want to do is meet anger with anger, Jesus demands that we be better than that. When all we want to do is remain blissfully unaware to injustice, Jesus invites us to draw close/ to open our eyes.
Discipleship often costs us our bliss and our pride, and our desire to get the last word in in a fight. It costs us our calm and our comfort.

The Sermon on the Mount began with the Beatitudes, a vision of the Kingdom of God. A reality where the poor in spirit are filled, the mourning are made glad, the persecuted are released and the peacemakers are uplifted. A reality that God intends for our world. Jesus is not asking us to be perfect, as in without error. But Jesus is asking us to be persistent towards bringing the Kingdom of God to bear. So we must ask ourselves… is it worth the cost?

It was to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. When essay “The Power of Nonviolence” he wrote:
     We had to make it clear that nonviolent resistance is not a method of cowardice. It does resist. It is not a method of stagnant passivity and deadening complacency. The nonviolent resister is just as opposed to the evil that he is standing against as the violent resister but he resists without violence. This method is non-aggressive physically but strongly aggressive spiritually.

And this a little later:
     Another thing that we had to get over was the fact that the nonviolent resister does not seek to humiliate or defeat the opponent but to win his friendship and understanding… The aftermath of non-violence is reconciliation and the creation of a beloved community. It is merely a means to awaken a sense of shame within the oppressor but the end is reconciliation. The end is redemption.

The end if the Kingdom of God.
Our discipleship is costly and can be difficult. And in our attempts hindsight often has much to teach us. But our perfection (our persistence) is not ours alone. Persistence belong to the one who went to the cross for me, for you, for the the world.
And in the effort and actions that we are able to offer… perhaps it is at least a shadow of the ‘pefection’ Jesus demonstrated in his living and suffering and dying on our behalf. That was the truest example of perfection- to love that much is what it is to be perfect for our heavenly father is perfect.

December 24th, 2016 – The Redemption of Scrooge, Christmas Eve

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The Redemption of Scrooge

Christmas Eve

This Advent season we have journeyed with Charles Dickens, and his colorful cast in A Christmas Carol. It has been for us a window into the beautiful story of Emmanuel, God with us.

I doubt I could find a handful of people in this sanctuary who are unfamiliar with Dickens story. We know it so well: Scrooge, a man who has chained his life, his identity and his happiness to an idol named “Gain” -he is visited one night by Jacob Marley, his old business partner, who, as Dickens tell us, is as dead as a doornail and has been for over seven years. Jacob’s Ghost comes to Scrooge telling him that there are consequences to the way we live our lives. He shows him the chains of calamity that weigh on him in the afterlife. Chains that are anchored by money boxes, gold coins and business ledgers. For he is doomed to remain worshiping in eternity what he worshiped during his life…

But Jacob Marley, does Scrooge a kindness. He sends to him three Spirits: The Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet To Come. So that they might draw him into a state of reflection and repentance… Jacob gives Scrooge a “chance and a hope” to mend his ways of apathy and greed.

In his journey with these Spirits a mirror is held up in front of him. He sees who he is, who he has become. And perhaps most daunting… he is made to revisit the hard moments and the choices that set him on this current path… he has to see them and reckon with them.

But in the grief and in this time of rather harsh realization… Scrooge learns that there is always hope. There is always hope.

Tonight, we will hear the final scene of A Christmas Carol. Brad Rudich and MaKenna VanRaalte will be helping with the reading tonight, together we will attempt to do some justice to Dickens beautiful prose.

Last week, Scrooge had asked the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come, “Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of things that May be, only?” And now Scrooge has his answer, that there is indeed a chance and a hope.

The Reading of the Final Scene

Scrooge’s new life had just begun. A life of generosity, a life of laughter and warmth, a life of fullness and love. That Christmas morning, Scrooge let go of the idol “Gain” that had consumed him and Scrooge entered anew into a redeemed existence!

It leads us to ask, is it really possible? Is it really possible that God could love me that way? Is it really possible that God could set before me a new path? A new opportunity and purpose?

And the answer to that is a resounding yes! That is why Jesus came, that is the reason for Emmanuel. Because of what happened at Christmas grace is an ever-present reality.

Remember Christ’s Parable of the Lost Sheep. The Good Shepherd left the 99 in search of the 1.

Or the Parable of the Prodigal Son. The father didn’t make his son work of his debt, he didn’t make him prove himself before granting forgiveness… No the father ran to his son, arms wide in acceptance! Any wrongdoing long forgotten… it didn’t matter.

God’s love is a bottomless pit, it is recklessly abundant. And it often seems to stand in contrast to our human concepts of fairness or what is deserved.

Through our hope in Christ- our past, our present and our future are held together in grace. …

The Christmas message is pretty simple, when you think about it. God came from heaven to take on our human form to show us just how much God loves us. That’s pretty much it.

Simple, but astounding.

God looked at humanity and saw just how dark and difficult our days could be. God saw how confused we could get about our identities. God saw the many painful things that we do to each other out of that confusion.

And so God did something about it. God sent the law – “Love God and be good to one another.” God sent prophets to remind us when we needed to get back on track. But then God got involved. Personally.

But, to our continued surprise- God didn’t come to us in power to punish or to frighten or to scold … Rather God came as an infant! Powerless and needing! All to tell us that we are loved, unconditionally, deeply and for forever.

No crèche, or nativity scene, is complete without Mary looking adoringly down a baby Jesus… it’s pretty extraordinary to think that God could love us with that same intensity.

And to answer any question about who was in and who was outside of this love… God sent us a rather clear message when God brought the Good News first to a group of misfit and outsider shepherds, to an unwed teenage mom, and to foreign astrologers who practiced an entirely different religion.

All so that we would get the message… that God’s love is for everyone! Regardless if the world see you as loveable. Regardless of whether the world sees your worth…

As Sophia read in our passage from Isaiah:

“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace.”

The Narrator of A Christmas Carol describes Scrooge as “one who kept Christmas well.” That doesn’t mean that he was known for his hosting abilities.

To keep Christmas well is to begin to see through God’s eyes. God knows just how dark and difficult our world can be.

God sees the children walking to school hungry in the morning.
God sees the cancer patient enduring yet another treatment.
God sees the confusing madness of in Aleppo.
God see the veterans waging silent wars against depression.
God see the widower struggling with his first Christmas alone.
God sees the Scrooges of this world who are wrestling with their legacy.
And so we are reminded that Christmas is especially (even now) for them. Emmanuel- God with us, is

always on the side of the hurting, the overwhelmed, the grieving… those feeling like they are on the outside looking in.

God sees them- sees their worth/ their need.

To keep Christmas well, means that we too see it all. That we have God’s eyes/ God’s vision/ God’s compassion.

To keep Christmas well, means that we choose to radiate joy and light and love. That we choose to rage against a dark/ bleak world.

Children of God, with Christmas in our heart, fueled by the assurance of God’s grace, we can work to be the ushers of God’s hope, peace, joy and love into this world. Ebenezer Scrooge reminds us that life is short. How we spend our time matters. While our past, present and future are held together in grace- we are still called to be move by it. To be moved and inspired by Christmas.

December 18th – The Redemption of Scrooge, Part 4

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The Redemption of Scrooge

Part 4

Psalm 146: 5-10 & Luke 1: 46b-55

You may have noticed last week in my sermon that I kept mixing up the words Advent and Lent. At Christmas time I tend to think a lot about Easter. And I find that at Easter I think a lot about Christmas. Which seems about right. Endings invite us to reflect upon beginnings. And beginnings upon endings.

So this week I embraced this pull towards Easter and I read John’s account of Easter morning, when Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb of Jesus to find the stone rolled away from the entrance. And I found myself wondering why Jesus bothered with the stone. Just a few days after Easter, Jesus would appear to the disciples who were shivering in fear behind locked doors. Jesus didn’t bother then with the door. So clearly the stone being rolled away didn’t serve a practical purpose. The stone being rolled away must have been for Mary/ for us. There must be something to this invitation to see the emptiness. To acknowledge that there is nothing there. To see and believe, perhaps.
Like Mary looking upon an empty tomb, Scrooge looks upon an empty life.

Both saw something that terrified them. And for both their fears were met with hope.
Scrooge must journey with the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come into the darkness, not so that he might be scared into changing his ways, but so that he can see the emptiness of where his love of money and his indifference to the suffering of other will lead him.


In the Easter story, Mary is asked by an angle, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

Scrooge’s life was void of compassion, and kindness, and love- it was empty, dead. There was no life to find there. And seeing it, the emptiness, it brings Scrooge to his knees.

“Spirit, hear me. I am not the man I was. I will not be the man I must have been. Assure me spirit, that I yet may change the shadows you have shown me by an altered life. I will honor Christmas in my heart and try to keep it all the year.”

That is repentance. A cry for forgiveness and grace.
Scrooge says, “I know who I used to be and I don’t want to be that person anymore.”
This realization finally happened for Scrooge as he glimpses death, both his own and that of Tiny Tim’s.

I have found that when I meet with families who recently had a loved one die that their minds are flooded with the big existential questions of life. “What does my life mean? Am I making a difference through my life? Will anybody even be sorry that I’m gone? What happens, really, when we die? Am I ready for that?” When we encounter death for ourselves, we are pushed into a reflective place.

Scrooge finally takes into account his legacy. Which is so very broken, so far from loving. So empty.

One of the marvelous things about A Christmas Carol, is that Dickens chose to feature a character who was at the end of his natural life. Scrooge was an old man, he had wasted nearly every moment of his time on earth… and yet he is still offered a new beginning, a fresh start. Dickens’ reminds us of the surprising truth in grace, that we are never beyond God’s reach. We are never beyond a second chance.

That is the spark of life in all this emptiness.


Listen to Mary’s words in her Magnificat:
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me.”

This is what it means to live with Christmas in our hearts. Joy in being called worthy by God even in lowliness. Filled with thanksgiving because we are now aware of what God has done for us in grace.

It’s a big jump to go from emptiness to fullness.

Yet with Christ it is possible. Christmas is really a harrowing story, death and life collide. Light exposes the darkness. Even the broken places that exist deep in the recesses of our hearts/ and in our world are dragged kicking and screaming into redemption.

Scrooge’s repentance finally lets Christmas in.

Dickens wrote a very abrupt ending to this scene of Scrooge with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. We are left suspended between the intensity of Scrooge’s raw repentance in the Churchyard and the relief of knowing that this hasn’t happened yet. At the end of this chapter, like Scrooge, we are frozen- not quite knowing if we even dare to hope.

It has a rather remarkable hang time.

I pray that in this place of suspense we find an invitation to reflect upon our own legacy. That we see the hope/ the possibility of letting Christ prevail over each of our life’s testimony.

Children of God, I encourage you as we make our final approach to Christmas Day, to consider what it is to have Christmas in your heart.

None of you, I am certain are as empty or as lost as Scrooge. But still… ask yourself: Does my story/ my legacy speak to mercy? Are my actions those of love? Is my grace a precious and costly thing?

Those places that are empty or hurting or wayward, do not have to remain so… because in Christ, there is our redemption.

In Christmas, our emptiness is made full.

December 11th, 2016 – The Redemption of Scrooge, Part 3

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The Redemption of Scrooge

Part 3

Zephaniah 3: 14-20 & Mark 13: 24-37

Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Present, stood outside the Cratchit’s window that Christmas day.

The Spirit watched on nodding his approval, seeing a family living so happily in the moment. And Scrooge watched pondering something just out of reach of his understanding. Just before that dinner scene ended, Mrs. Cratchit proudly sets the Christmas pudding on the table for them to admire. A tiny mound, decorated carefully with holly. The children all ooh-ed and ahh-ed. Mr. Cratchit told his wife that it was her greatest baking achievement since their marriage. All while Mrs. Cratchit blushed and happily squirmed under their praise.

No one thought to comment on the fact that it was a small pudding for such a large family. For as Dickens’ wrote, “It would have been flat heresy to do so.”

They were just happy for its mere existence.

Scrooge watched on as Mrs. Cratchit served the pudding, and as his clerk held Tiny Tim’s hand. It was to Scrooge’s apparent amazement, that he saw a father who loved his son, wanted him to be close.

As I was telling the children this morning during our Kid’s Talk, it’s Gaudete Sunday. The third week of Advent is a time of being surprised by joy. In Advent we spend time acknowledging that we live in a bleak world, one that needs Jesus. We spend time in the stillness and in the darkness waiting and praying for God to finally arrive. We cry out for a heavenly light to come and illuminate the world. A season of lament. But on Gaudete Sunday, we, like Scrooge, press our noses up to the glass, and get a peek at Christmas morning/ at promises fulfilled. Of what it is for light to be let in. We see and say, “Gaudete!” as a sort of carrot encouraging us onward through this journey of Advent.

Our Prophet reading this morning from Zephaniah is particularly beautiful.

“Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; Shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart… The Lord has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies… you shall fear disaster no more.” (jumping around Zephaniah 3: 14-15) So beautiful, in fact, that we might be tempted to go home and read the rest of the book looking for more of this assurance. But, there is a reason that this passage is our’s on Gaudete Sunday, it is a flash of light in an otherwise dreary book.

Up until this point, Zephaniah has detailed a story of spiritual and political oppression perpetrated by corrupt Judean leaders. His duty as a prophet was to bring these leaders and the whole population of Judah a warning against such injustices. Zephaniah speaks to a world where the oppressed are fear-filled and ashamed, while the powerful are haughty and have consistently thumbed their noses at divine correction. But the prophet assures them that God will make right these unjust systems, that God will heal the shame of the people.

Now, it’s likely that not many of us readily identify with this label of the “oppressed person”. We don’t generally think that we live “fear-filled” or “ashamed” lives. And perhaps that’s true, we do not live within systems of obvious oppression. On the contrary, most of the time we may enjoy the privilege, opportunities, prosperity and freedoms of Middle America.

But our bliss is not permission to be oblivious.
When I look out the window here, I will not see a solider with a rifle over his shoulder as he keeps watch and keeps “peace”, I won’t see a tank stationed in front of City Hall. But years ago, while I was on a mission trip in the Dominican Republic…that was what I saw/ that was the Dominican people’s reality everyday.

This week at Bible study we talked about the carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem”. A song about the light of God filling the streets of this quiet little town- but nowadays if you were to visit Bethlehem you would have to go through two military check points as you travel between Jerusalem in Israel to the West Bank of Palestinian territory. A distance of maybe 8 miles.

But, let’s bring it a little closer to home.

Last Sunday during our Joys and Concerns we prayed for four friends of this congregation who were undergoing cancer treatments. We prayed for people who were stressed- fearing not having health benefits come next year. We prayed for students who felt overwhelmed by the enormity of their mounting student debt.

This week my mother, an elementary school teacher in Flint, texted me in the middle in her reading lesson to let me know that the school was being evacuated for fear of a bomb- and could I please pray.

Our bliss is not permission to be oblivious.

Oppression/fear/shame it is all around us. In the world, in our communities in our hearts and homes.

Advent it s time for acknowledging its frustrating hold on the world and look to the coming Lord for answers.

Twice, Zephaniah tells the fear-filled masses that God is with them and that God will not abandon them. And this message awakens the people with hope.

John Calvin said that, “…when fear prevails in our hearts we are as it were lifeless, so that we cannot raise even a finger to do anything: but when hope animates us, there is a vigor in the whole body, so that alacrity (meaning cheerfulness) appears everywhere.”

It takes looking the challenging/ scary things of this world in the eye to understand hope. Only when we acknowledge just how much we need Christ in this world can we understand the importance of God’s promises. Promises that invite us to rejoice!

“Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; Shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart… The Lord has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies… you shall fear disaster no more.”

At Christmas, we are reminded that God is with us. We are reminded that God promises to bring about a world free of fear, shame and injustice… And at Christmas we are reminded that we are part of making that world a reality.

The Ghost of Christmas Present, just before his time ran out with Scrooge, showed him the doom of mankind- As Dicken’s described them: ragged, yellowing, wolf-ish children named Ignorance and Want. Beings that meet Scrooge’s gaze in accusation and refused to look away… The Spirit warned Scrooge not to deny them/ not to ignore them… But to live in defiance towards them/ to starve them of their hold.

This week a friend described for me anew why we light the candles of the Advent Wreath. It’s not a countdown to Christmas, it isn’t necessarily symbolic of Christ’s light entering the world. We light the candles as an assault against the night. We light them in defiance of oppression and fear/ignorance and want. It is a way of laughing in the face of evil. Of rejoicing in the midst of grief. It is an act that is certain/ standing solidly in the promises of God. Decidedly joyful.

The Cratchit family, dared to rejoice even in their poverty. Bob Cratchit pulled Tiny Tim close to his side/ held his hand even knowing that the lose may be coming.

Hope, certainty, love… joy. These are things that Scrooge did not understand. Not until he saw them modeled for him/ taught to him.

Children of God, I encourage you this Christmas season to be like the Cratchits. People of joy, even in the midst of hardship. People who do not take what they have for granted. People who model a certainty in the promises of God. For that is joy.

 

December 4th, 2016 – The Redemption of Scrooge, Part 2

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The Redemption of Scrooge

Part 2

Malachi 3: 1-4 & Matthew 24: 36-44

I wonder… if we were to find ourselves in Scrooge’s position- having been taken by the hand and led off by the Ghost of Christmas Past- I wonder… if each one of us wouldn’t find a scene like this buried deep in our minds. Pushed into its shadows. A memory, that even years later (decades even) is still raw, still elicits a reaction in spite of ourselves. A memory of love lost, an opportunity missed, a deep regret.
If you were to read on to the end of chapter two in Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, the Ghost (being rather merciless) would show Scrooge a Christmas of Belle’s years later as she is surrounded by her children and her husband in their humble/active home. Practically a post card for happiness and busy children and contentment. Scrooge grieves it, saying, “What would I not have given to be one of them!” He watches,

taking in the love and the joy that Belle offers her family… and thinks, “and yet to have been man enough to know its value.”

Hindsight made a fool of Scrooge. Of his pride, of his need to be right, or to be his own savior… Hindsight can be humbling and even cruel at times- making fools of us all.
Our Scripture passage today from the prophet Malachi, shares this troubling lesson on hindsight. Much of Malachi is written as a series of disputations, or formal disagreements. Picture a really uncomfortable HR meeting where co-workers are airing grievances against one another. The prophet Malachi (who’s name means “My messenger”) is acting as a mediator or a go between in this situation. On the one side: The People of Israel are saying “God isn’t fulfilling expectation.” Mainly that God has not yet exercised enough divine judgment against their enemies/ that God hasn’t yet avenged them from their struggles! But, in rebuttal, God assures them that the Day of the Lord will come – just in God’s timing and in God’s own wondrous and mysterious ways.

The Prophet Malachi goes on to invite the People to consider honestly if they are ready for such justice – ready for this time of judgment. Malachi points out that the complaints of the People of Israel smacked of self-righteousness. He reminds them that on the Day of the Lord they too shall meet with the Refiner’s fire. Malachi held a mirror up for the People of Israel, so that they might see their own acts of injustice and apathy and ignorance… which are just as dishonoring to God as any wrong doing by an enemy.
The People called for the coming of the Lord safely assuming that they would be like spectators!

 

Verse 3 states, God’s justice…”will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the Lord will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness…”

Now, when we hear language like: Day of the Lord, justice, righteousness, judgment and fire… I don’t want you to be stuck thinking about hellfire and brimstone. God’s judgment is not solely punitive. And God’s judgment is never about our very human concept of fairness or making sure people get what they deserve- like “Karmic justice”. Judgment is bringing about God’s will for this Creation – shifting this world toward love.

Justice/Judgment is not an end, but a place of restoration- it’s about being made whole and moving forward.

Think about Malachi’s language of the Refiner’s fire.

When gold or silver (or any other ore) is unearthed- the valuable mineral is mixed in with lots of dirt and garbage. And so it’s all heated to burn away the junk, leaving only that which is valuable. Fire purifies. We know this. But… consider this: “When silver is refined, it is treated with carbon or charcoal, preventing the absorption of oxygen and resulting in its sheen…” A good silversmith, even in the days of Malachi, would have known that the refining process is complete only when they can see their own image reflected in the now mirror-like surface of the metal.
As Genesis tells us, we each bear the image of God, the imago Dei.

Moments of fire and judgment and purification in our own lives… they are not meant to destroy us/ guilt us/ burden us… they are meant to restore the divine in us.

Scrooge’s tale is ultimately one of restoration. Here is a man invited to consider his choices. Invited to look the mistakes of his past in the eye. In doing so, he grieves/ he is humbled/ he laments/ he burns. He burns away what is muddying up God’s image and getting in the way of him bearing love to the world. Pride and greed, sorrow and isolation. It is burned away.

Scrooge’s judgment is to reckon with the choices that lead him so far astray.
It’s not pretty at times. There is some kicking a screaming, some doubting and tears…
But let us remember that judgment is not a punishment, it is not an end. Judgment is a means and a way.
Advent is a season of purification. For leaning into this uncomfortable process of judgment.
We, like Scrooge, are asked to consider our choices and acknowledge all that we have allowed to get in the way of our purpose- to bear God’s image and love to the world.

Reflection and hindsight might indeed make us fools, but because of Christ (because of what happened at Christmas) Bah Humbug can be conquered/ peace can be found.
The Nativity story is filled with flawed/ unexpected/ or seemingly damaged people. Shepherds- social outcasts, people with a very tarnish reputation. Magi – mystics, who were outside of the accepted religious practices of the day. Mary and Joseph- humble people who were just as human as the rest of us… and yet they were all invite to witness Christ’s birth. Not because of their perfection. But simply because God loves us all and has an existence of joy and love and hope and peace planned for us all.

 

In a little while we will all share in the act of Holy Communion, and as Advent is a season of purification, I implore you to be judged. Open your heart for reflection and let God in. For with our Lord we are brave enough to reckon/ with our Lord we are bold enough to reach out for inner peace. With our Lord, we can once again be made new.