Exploring the Word | Spreaker

Monday, December 30, 2013

Full time faith, 12.29.13

Matthew 5:13-19

13“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. 14“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lamp stand, and it gives light to all in the house.16In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

17“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

John 15:9-17

9As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.

12“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. 16You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. 17I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.

A lot of the ways we talk about Jesus focus on big moments. If you read the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicean Creed, two landmark statements of faith not only for the Presbyterian Church, but for the church universal, all they say about Jesus’ life is that he was “conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried.”

Those are all important things, but they are not the whole story. Jesus lived a whole life between those moments. His incarnation, his becoming human for us was not just his birth. His sacrifice for us was not just his suffering and death on a cross. His life also tells us about God’s priorities and it shows us what it means to live a life in sync with God. That whole life is our example, not just the highlights.

There’s a feeling about our lives too that can go along with the highlight reel Jesus. We can think of our life mostly in terms of big moments too: our birth, graduation, our wedding, the birth of our children, et cetera. We might think of our faith journey in moments too: memories of Sunday school, confirmation, when we first claimed our faith, the moment we were “saved.” The big moments are important, they provide the outlines of our lives and give shape to something that often feels pretty squishy, pretty nebulous, but they are not the whole story or even the most important part.

The biggest part of our lives, and Jesus’ life is the little stuff. While the major moments are easier to pick out, ultimately, the day to day direction of our life is more important. While we can call single episodes defining moments with some honesty, the day to day details are what make the definition true or false. If I say I’m a Christian, then not just the big moments, but also the small, even unnoticed details should say the same thing. Otherwise, I’m a hypocrite, not a Christian.

Jesus didn’t just appear to die, and he didn’t just come to free us from sin in a flash so we could have a ticket to heaven. He came to show us what a faithful life looks like, to show us how to live here and now in this troubled, but also sacred world. If we follow Jesus, our goal is for our lives to match his life, not perfectly, not exactly, but in general. If Jesus is light in the darkness for us, we are called to be light in the darkness for others. As the Father sent Jesus into the world, Jesus sends us into the world now.

One thing we see when we look at Jesus’ life is that the whole thing fits together. In other words, Jesus lived with integrity. His birth in a barn was strange, but it wasn’t disconnected from the rest of his life. His birth was about taking a step from heaven to earth, and choosing to step into human history in a particularly humble way.

The rest of his life showed the same concerns; he lived a humble life and focused his ministry on the poor. His teachings talked about putting God first, about the last becoming first, about the care of others in all our decisions. He died a humble death like a slave or a rebel, hung between two thieves, one of whom he was welcoming into God’s kingdom. The big moments and the consistent teaching in Jesus’ life speak the same message: love God and love others.

Our goal is the same: not only to speak the faith of Christ but to live it as well. Not only to live our faith in our worship, our “saving moment,” but in our everyday choices, at work, at the bar, taking our kids to activities, in our family relationships.

The point of everything we do in church is not a moment when someone says, “I believe, sign me up.” The point is to produce and nurture lives of faithfulness that will touch other people with God’s love and grace. The goal is the overall trajectory and integrity of our lives. The goal is day in and day out loving faithfulness.

Our passages don’t use those words, but they do share that idea. Jesus tells his disciples they are the salt of the earth, which means they have to stay salty; they can’t just be salty at the beginning. He says they are the light of the world. That means they need to shine their light so people can see their good deeds and give praise to God. That means they have to do good deeds regularly, not just when people are looking. They need to shine light for others all the time, not just when it’s convenient.

The key word in the passage from John is “Abide.” That means, stay or remain. Jesus tells his disciples to abide in his love by keeping his commandments. That means we’re not just supposed to feel Jesus’ love at Christmas and Easter; we’re invited to rest in Christ’s love all the time. Along with abide, we see the word commandment; in other words, resting in Christ’s love isn’t passive, we don’t just receive love, we also actively seek it out through a life of obedience.

The other key idea is matching Jesus’ life of love. Jesus says, “As the Father has loved me, so I love you; love one another as I have loved you.” Jesus invites the disciples, he invites us, to take his life as an example for our lives. We see something special in Jesus. There’s something compelling, something inviting about his life; his story catches our attention. We’re called to be filled and transformed by his love, and to live that love for others in our own lives.

Jesus lets the disciples know that the love he’s talking about isn’t a warm fuzzy feeling, but full of courageous and sacrificial action: “No one has greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” He’s right up front with them that their love for others, like his love for them, is going to cost them dearly. The disciples at that table won’t all die for their faith, but they do all put love into action as the guiding commitment, the consuming passion of the rest of their lives.

That means we can expect hardship to be part of our life too. Our faith is going to cost us something. The life we live as Jesus’ disciples is not a spectator sport, but an active engagement with other people in a loving way. Different Christians live that out in different ways, but true discipleship can’t be just a small part of our life.

When I think about Christians laying down their lives for their friends I think about Christian Peacemaking teams. These are groups of Christians trained in non-violence, who go to unstable places in the world to support people there. Christian Peacemakers from the US travelled to Iraq before and after the US invasion to put themselves where US bombs were going and show that the church in the US cared.

Similar ministries happened in Columbia at the height of the violence there. Christian accompanists stood alongside Columbian peacemakers to show that they were not alone. These folks risked their lives to show the love of Jesus for those in harm’s way.

I think also about civil rights protestors in the American south who put their bodies on the line for freedom and dignity. I think about the women’s prayer movement that took to the streets to protest the Liberian civil war and to pray for peace. Through Christian and Muslim women praying, marching and working together, the Liberian dictator Charles Taylor was thrown out and hope for peace under a democratically elected president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, is alive and well.

These are examples of Christians laying down their lives to put their faith into action. In many of these cases the ministries were not only moments of courage and risk, but also consistent commitment to a faithful struggle. The women of Liberia sang and prayed publically for peace for more than a year. Many of the civil rights leaders in the US put the rest of their lives on hold to commit to the movement. Accompanists in Columbia trained extensively and then moved to Columbia for months or even a year.

More to the point, these actions are the fruit of lives of committed discipleship. Even if they are highlights, they rise out of preparation and practice so that the Christians are ready to lay down their lives when the moment comes. The lives of true disciples are consistently about love; remarkable episodes of faithfulness are part of the wider story, not disconnected moments.

All that sounds very heavy, and discipleship is serious, life-changing business. It’s also joyful. Jesus says he’s giving his disciples this commandment to love so that their joy may be complete. Following Jesus is hard sometimes, but it’s also wonderful and freeing. When we decide to follow Jesus we are set free from chasing worldly success. We’re set free from the stress of measuring ourselves against other people in terms of wealth or accomplishments. We’re free to simply love other people, to serve other people, to listen, to care. We’re free to rest in the love of Jesus and to let that love shine through us to the world.

You and I have somehow been drawn to Jesus. Something about his story and his love attracts us, so here we are. In some way we have all decided to follow Jesus, but maybe we haven’t really committed to that yet. Maybe we’re still trying to follow with part of our life. If that’s the case for you, if you think of your faith as one small part of your life you probably feel stress and tension. You probably feel unsure about how your life fits together, and phrases like “complete joy,” don’t describe how you think about your faith and life.

Jesus calls us to follow, not as one activity we do, but as the core and meaning of our whole life. When we truly live as disciples that discipleship shapes everything else we do. Jesus tells us that’s going to demand sacrifice, but also that it’s going to bring us joy. So today I invite you to take another step in your commitment and choose to follow Jesus with your whole life. I invite you to bow your head and pray with me for a new birth of Christ within us, a new Christmas of commitment and discipleship and joy. Let’s pray:

Loving Jesus, you came to us as a baby born in a manger. Your whole life told the story of love and commitment, commitment to the world and love especially for the outcasts. You taught your disciples that love through your example and you invited them to follow. Help us follow you today and every day. Help us commit fully to your example of love, courage and sacrifice. Fill us with the joy of discipleship, the joy of community, the joy of an integrated life wholly dedicated to love. Guide our steps and claim our heart for your own. We pray these things in your precious name as we seek to truly make you our Lord, amen.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The light shines in the darkness, Christmas Eve

Isaiah 9:2-7
2The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness-on them light has shined…. 6For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 7His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.

Luke 2:1-14
1In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.

6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

8In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid; for see-I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger." 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14"Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!"

15When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us." 16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
            A lot of the time we feel like God is far away. Sometimes we’re glad for that because, honestly, we kind of want to be left alone. We have plenty to do without thinking about God. The kids need to go to basketball and cheerleading and Scouts. The deadline is Friday, the mortgage is almost due and mom’s having trouble with her nurses again. We’ve got enough on our plate without staring off into heaven looking for meaning when we know the world is really about cold, hard facts.

            Sometimes we feel like there should be something more, but there doesn’t seem to be. When we lose a relative or a relationship or a job we feel this emptiness that doesn’t fit with the idea we heard long ago about a God who loves us deeply. Maybe we try talking to God and all we hear is silence, or we pray for a miracle and no healing comes.

            Maybe you used to believe, but now we’re not sure. Maybe you’ve been sitting in the same pew or one that looks like it for thirty years, but the words just don’t have the impact they used to. The promises you learned when you were young seem so hard to believe now because the world is hard and the nights are long.

            Maybe you want to believe but you’re carrying a burden that keeps you away from God. Maybe there’s something in your past you’re ashamed of. Maybe someone hurt you so badly you can’t let it go and the anger eats away at your soul. Or maybe somewhere along the line you got the message that Christianity is for good people, or successful people or straight people. Maybe someone told you you didn’t fit in, didn’t belong.

            Sometimes the small words are the most important. Isaiah says, “To us a child is born.” He says, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” The angel tells the shepherds he is bringing, “Good news of great joy for all the people.” “To you,” not to the rich, the famous, the powerful, but to you, the ordinary, the struggling, the outcast…. “To you is born a savior.”

            Jesus didn’t appear for the folks who have it all together. He didn’t come because heaven was boring and he wanted a change of scene. He didn’t come to reassure the folks in power that they were doing ok and that keeping people down was fine. Jesus came for us, for you. He came for everyone, and especially for those who sometimes feel like no one is on our side. The people who walked in darkness now see a great light.

There have been dark times this last year. Right across the bay a year ago two brave firefighters were murdered and two more were injured as they tried to do their job. Many people have lost jobs, lost family or lost relationships. Others have recently seen great light: a new job, a new baby, a deepening relationship.

In all the ups and downs, Jesus comes into our world, into our hearts to save us. To save us from despair and loneliness, to save us from complacency and self-satisfaction, to save us from spending our whole life chasing success instead of following love.

            Jesus came to bridge the gap between God and the world. He came to show us a whole different side of God, a whole different side of power and of love. The story of Jesus is all about God stepping out of power, taking on our weakness and our trouble and jumping into the middle of everything hard about human life.

Even at his birth Jesus tears down boundaries. The radical move of becoming human wasn’t quite enough for Jesus. He chose to be born in a barn to parents who weren’t married yet. The rest of his life follows that pattern too. Jesus keeps reaching out to people who are on the outside, people who are looked down on, people who have to struggle to survive.

Jesus is a savior for everyone. Whatever is keeping you away from God, keeping you from feeling at peace, keeping you from being who you are meant to be, Jesus came to save you. That doesn’t always mean he’s going to take the burden off your shoulders, but he can transform it and transform you.

The illness isn’t cured, but the stress of care giving is redeemed by a deepened love for your mom. The job doesn’t change, but as you trust God’s love more you find space for joy in the small moments of your work. The relationship isn’t healed, but you find a way to let go, to lay down the burden of the past. The shepherds return from the stable to their work, not free from struggle, but free from struggling alone.

            To us a child is born, for us a son is given. Good tidings of great joy for all people. Come to the stable and be renewed by the light of God’s love in the darkness. Thanks be to God.

Monday, December 23, 2013

the light of hope, 12.22.13

Isaiah 55:1-13

Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. 2Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.

3Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live. I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David. 4See, I made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander for the peoples. 5See, you shall call nations that you do not know, and nations that do not know you shall run to you, because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he has glorified you.

6Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; 7let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. 8For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. 9For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.

10For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, 11so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

12For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. 13Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.

Romans 5: 1-5

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

There’s a big part of me that hates Christmas. I hate shopping, anyway; and I pretty reliably leave things to the last minute. That makes it much harder to find joy in choosing the right gifts for people, because the choosing and the shopping happen under pressure in stores full of people.

Christmas shopping brings out a whole range of feelings in me, many of them unpleasant. First, there’s worry about not knowing what to get, and combined with that all kinds of worries about forgetting someone, spending too little, spending too much.

Then I feel guilty. I feel guilty because I didn’t plan ahead so the gifts I chose aren’t as thoughtful as I want them to be. I feel stretched financially and then I feel guilty about that because I know I have it easier than most people. I alternate between feeling like I should be a more generous gift giver and wishing the people in my life didn’t exchange presents at all because many of us feel similar stresses about the whole thing.

Shopping brings me face to face with the enormous amount of stuff we as a society want, buy, sell, give and return. I think a big part of our consumption, frustration, stress and depression has to do with a constant barrage of messages that things are the way to happiness. We feel overwhelmed by the things our TV’s and our children tell us we should buy. There is never enough time or money or energy for us to feel caught up in a world that’s always asking for more.

Regardless of the source of our stress, we have a deep fear that something big is at stake in the shopping and celebration that surrounds Christmas. Too many things depend on us and too many things are out of our control. We are scared that no matter what we do it won’t be enough. We shop, and plan and run, to fend off the hopelessness we feel threatening to overwhelm us.

Isaiah had never been to Walmart or Target, but he knew a lot about communities trying to establish security through their own efforts at any cost. He saw Judah plan and fight and oppress the poor because they thought wealth showed God’s blessings and that, as God’s chosen, they would not be defeated. Then after exile, the people felt lost and hopeless. The land and God’s promise went together, so they couldn’t imagine how to rebuild after the fall of the Holy City. Desperation, despair and hopelessness set in and they didn’t know how to seek God again.

Like Judah adrift after exile, we spend our money for things that aren’t nourishing and our labor for things that don’t satisfy us in the deep sense. We buy and buy (or wish we could buy) because at some level we think consumption is our only way to satisfy our desires. If we get the right gift, maybe we’ll be loved. If we don’t we risk our loved ones’ happiness. Maybe the longing we feel can be satisfied with the latest things advertised on TV.

But things don’t give us value and, ultimately, they don’t make us happy. Love, community, peace, faith: these things make us happy. God’s love gives us value.

Isaiah shows us what really nurtures and satisfies us. The image is of God welcoming everyone to clear springs of water, refreshing and pure. Beyond the water, God also offers rich wine and milk to drink. Not only are people’s basic physical needs met, God offers a celebration with only the best food and drink.

God wants to nourish us: body and soul. God wants to satisfy us, not only giving us what we need, but what we deeply want. And God doesn’t just want to satisfy the chosen few, the people of Israel or the church or the successful; God wants to renew the world in peace and joy. To a people drowning in fear and stumbling in the darkness, Isaiah brings a word of hope.

My ways are not your ways, God says. As high as heaven is above earth, so are my ways than your ways. Our attempts to secure meaning through hard work or shopping or cooking might not be getting us anywhere, but God’s word accomplishes its purpose. It doesn’t return empty, but instead it nourishes the ground and brings forth a harvest of joy and peace.

I spent the last two days feeling pretty trapped in Christmas stress. Even some of the ministries I love made me feel stressed instead of joyful. I love dropping off the Christmas baskets, and I finally got the gifts wrapped for my two Christmas angels and was excited to drop them off. When we got there the youngest child in the house was the granddaughter, so she wasn’t on my list and I didn’t have anything for her. I walked out of the kitchen feeling like a failure and I had disappointed a little girl.

I wasn’t even looking forward to the living nativity. The weather was lousy and I kept feeling like things weren’t going quite right. But then I got excited because everyone was pitched in. Karen, Karen, Tedd and Mike took care of hospitality; Sally and Al lent a portable stereo; Karen, Lea, Donna and Kelly got everyone dressed and a cast of actors from twelve to seventies (along with a loud donkey and other animals) brought the story of Christ’s birth to life. It was just what I needed, and from the grateful shouts and honks I wasn’t the only one. God’s word became flesh in Jesus, and for the twenty somethingith year Laurelton brought that story to life for the community.

As the evening went on and the cold and rain started to make me wish for 8:30, a young woman I’d never seen before started taking pictures from the sidewalk. I thanked her for coming and she said, “This is so beautiful. I can’t tell you how long I’ve waited for this. I’ve wanted to see a living nativity for years and I’ve never managed to go to one. This year my husband surprised me and brought me here. I’ve got tears in my eyes.” Truly, God’s word never returns empty, but it accomplishes God’s loving purpose.

Advent and Christmas is about hope in the darkness of despair. It’s about seeing a peaceful kingdom, even though the world around us is still full of violence. It’s about a vision of bread and wine, milk and food for everyone with no one worried about how they are going to pay for it. It’s about a dark night in a strange city with no room at the inn somehow becoming the entry for God to come into the world as a baby.

There’s a lot of confusion about hope, especially when we talk about the biblical hope for God’s peaceful kingdom. Hoping for God’s kingdom isn’t wishful thinking. It’s not ignoring or escaping from reality. It’s not putting on a cheerful face and pretending things are better than they are. It’s also not the false wisdom of the jaded cynic who says things are the way they are and nothing is going to change.

Hope is keeping our eyes on God’s vision of wholeness, peace and community and moving towards it. It’s also seeing clearly the problems of the world and the dangers that surround us. One theologian says it something like this, “Wishing is like drifting in a gondola; hoping is steering a ship through a gale.”

Thinking about hope like steering a ship helps us see the difference between short term and long term. We hope for the kingdom of God; that’s the far shore we trust we’re heading towards, the goal of our journey. Between that shore and us there are lots of waves, sharp rocks, and sand bars. In the big picture, we steer towards the far shore, but the moments and days of our journey are more about avoiding dangerous obstacles and sometimes seeking shelter for a few days.

The kingdom of God gives us our general course; the details of the current world in all its joys and sorrows determine what route we take to our destination. The journey takes courage, creativity, clarity and flexibility. Sometimes we think we’re going to go right around an obstacle, but the wind leads us left instead. Sometimes we need to shift course suddenly to avoid a rock. No matter what route and deviations we need to make, we keep a sense of the goal in mind all the time, and that destination shapes how we get there.

We can’t simply wish ourselves across the ocean, there’s a lot of work to be done. Just imagining a world at peace won’t create a peaceful world; there are all kinds of steps from relationship building to policy to collaboration, to prayer that have to take shape along the way. If we’re going to travel successfully, we need to be clear and honest about the challenges.

Paul’s words fit right in. He writes: "We also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”

When we suffer and hold on to our love and faith we learn how to endure. As we learn to endure faithfully, our character: our courage, our integrity are strengthened. As our character gets stronger we see how faithful God is through it all, so our sense of hope grows. If God walks faithfully with us through divorce and death and financial struggle, we learn that a joyful kingdom for everyone can be real too. If God can bring this community of different people with all our scars and quirks and baggage together, we have reason to hope for a world where people come from east and west and north and south to sit together in the kingdom of God.

We’ve all been let down and hurt. So has God. The people God created in love have been hurting each other from the beginning. The special people God called by name and freed from slavery kept turning away from God and oppressing the poor, even though every part of their law reminded them that God loves the poor. Through prosperity, prophesy, exile and return, God’s heart broke to see his beloved children suffer and sin.

God had been burned over and over again, but God doesn’t give up on us. So God sent the son in human flesh, as a vulnerable baby to scared but faithful parents. Jesus knew fear and sorrow. He knew poverty and rejection. He knew suffering and death. All for us; all for love. In Jesus we see God’s kingdom: a kingdom of welcome, righteousness and love. We see where this crazy story is going and we know the powers of the world do not like it, but they can’t stop it. So come to the waters, come to the stable, seek the Lord, hope for the kingdom and steer through the storm. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it.

Thanks be to God.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The light of Christ's truth, 12.15.13

1 John 1:5-10

5This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. 6If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; 7but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.

8If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.

1 John 3:14-19

14We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another. Whoever does not love abides in death. 15All who hate a brother or sister are murderers, and you know that murderers do not have eternal life abiding in them.

16We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.17How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? 18Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. 19And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him

John 1:14, 16-19

14And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth…16From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

John 8:31-37

31Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; 32and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” 33They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?”

34Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.35The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. 36So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed. 37I know that you are descendants of Abraham; yet you look for an opportunity to kill me, because there is no place in you for my word.

We’re talking about truth and falsehood, truth and lies today. As I was figuring this sermon series and the scripture lessons out, I was not quite sure if the darkness here would be ignorance or lies. The Bible talks a lot about wisdom and knowledge, so there’s no shortage of insight we could look for in terms of overcoming ignorance and coming to know God.

There are many things we don’t know. We don’t know how long the world is going to last. We don’t know why bad things happen to good people. We don’t know how long we are going to be alive. We don’t know how to cure cancer or Alzheimer’s Disease or HIV. There are lots of important areas where we need more knowledge to conquer our ignorance and make the world a better, brighter place.

There’s a difference between ignorance and lies. My mom taught me when I was a kid that what makes a lie a lie is that someone says it on purpose. There’s a bad intention at the heart of a lie. A little beyond where our last passage ends, Jesus calls Satan the father of lies and says lies are Satan’s native language. Lying isn’t just incorrect, it’s wrong in a moral sense too.

Lies aren’t just a problem in our individual relationships. There are also lies deep in the fabric of our national beliefs that distort our vision of the world. Sometimes we know these lies aren’t true on the surface, but we hear them so often that they seep into our consciousness and mess us up without our even knowing they are there. These kinds of lies are sometimes the most dangerous, because we don’t even realize we’re being deceived.

So today we’re going to look at a few of the big lies that distort our life in the light of Jesus. Jesus comes as light in the darkness, bringing the light of truth into a world darkened by Satan’s lies.

Lie: “We’ve got it all together.” This lie comes up in many different forms. The heart of it is that we are doing fine on our own. One way we see this lie at work is in our instinct to put our best foot forward in church. When people ask how we’re doing we say we’re doing fine. We keep conversations at a surface level because we don’t want people to see what our real struggles are.

This lie is especially tricky, because we usually know it’s not true. We don’t feel like we have it all together, but we think maybe, if we work hard enough at looking like we have it together we’ll get by. That means we stress and struggle to present the right appearance while we’re terrified our whole life will collapse or someone will figure out that we are not who we appear to be.

We imagine too that real sin is something outside. We think about murderers or famous people whose moral failings are obvious. Sometimes instead of that we think about the things we imagine we have no control of. We think about the fact that we don’t have enough time or money, and say to ourselves that those things keep us from being the people we feel like we should be.

Truth: “If we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” We can’t be healed if we aren’t honest about our disease. We’ve got time each worship service to open up to God in silent prayer about where sin is tying us up. What do you ask God’s healing for? Are you keeping your relationship with God too safe? Are you just “confessing” things like, “I wish I had more time.” Or I’m sorry I said that word I shouldn’t have said.”

Are you really letting God into the places of your life where you need deep change? “God, I’m trapped by my need to be a good guy.” “Lord, I’m so caught up in having the right things and finding the right presents for my kids that I’m forgetting what your birth is really about.” “God, open my heart to the people I’m having trouble truly accepting as my brothers and sisters.” “Jesus, help me trust that you are real, that you really love me and that I can build my life on your teachings.” “I need your grace to free me from my guilt about the past.”

If we confess our sins, if we stop dancing around the edges of the real problems in our life and let God in, God will forgive us. Not only that, the blood of Jesus, the pure, loving sacrifice he made for us will cleanse us from all our sins and free us from what’s wrong with us. If we let him, Christ will change us, slowly maybe, but surely, more and more into his image.

Let’s shift gears a little bit; how about this lie: “Faith is what we believe. As long as we believe the right things, we’re OK with God.” A variation on this is when we struggle with our faith because we aren’t sure we believe the right things and we let that struggle distract us from what our faith calls us to do. Maybe you aren’t sure how much you “believe in” the Bible since it was written by humans so long ago. Or maybe the miracles Jesus did just seem so hard to believe that they block your engagement with the rest of the story. Or maybe you’re just not sure about heaven and hell. Because you’re not sure about those beliefs you can’t commit to following Jesus.

Truth: “We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another. We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”

The Christian faith is about love more than anything else. That means, first,you can struggle all you want with the beliefs of Christianity. Honestly, if you keep working on living your faith, putting your values in action, while you read or listen to scripture, those beliefs will either become clearer to you or they’ll become less important.

My biggest struggles with my faith were about biblical truth. I worried that I couldn’t be a Christian if I wasn’t sure about everything the Bible says. The more I focus on the heart of the gospel, which is God’s amazing love for us, the less I worry about the details of whether Jesus really fed 5000 people with loaves and fishes. Interestingly too, the more I read the Bible and practice my faith, the more I see that the Bible speaks the truth even if I don’t think everything necessarily happened the way the Bible tells it.

God’s word speaks truth about what love means. It tells how a community should work. It reminds us that God wants to bring the world back to wholeness and peace. Don’t let your questions about what the Bible says distract you from what you know scripture calls you to do. Honestly, it’s not that complicated: Love God, which basically means open yourself to the creator, higher power, savior, Spirit, and make those deep values the actual priority in your life instead of just a side note, and love other people in a real and meaningful way.

God shows us the best image of love in Jesus’ life and death for us. That doesn’t mean we’re called to act like martyrs, but it does mean we are called to sacrifice our comfort for others. The more we do that, the more we will find freedom and grace in community.

What we believe is important, but it’s always evolving. Where our faith really matters is in how we put it into action. The details are less important than the center. Do your actions, the day to day way you live your life, reflect that love is the center of the universe? Take one step closer to that goal today and another tomorrow.

Lie: “I’ve got to get mine/I worked hard for what I have. So people who don’t have much need to work harder.” There are lots of variations on this one, but the basic idea is that our economic success is what gives us value or shows our value. Related to this is the idea that hard work is how we succeed and get ahead in the world. Like most deeply destructive lies, this one has some truth to it. Hard work is important and good, but there are people who work harder than you do who are much less successful.

Also related to this lie are other lies about how our society values people. One lie is that our society is a level playing field. In fact, prejudice and injustice are still alive and well. Women are paid less for the same job as men. Racial and ethnic minorities face serious barriers to success that white people don’t even have to think about. The people at the top in society make the rules, and those rules almost always benefit the people who make them.

Truth: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” It sometimes seems easier to just go along with the rules of the world that we have learned. It’s easier to let prejudice slide or allow the unpopular people to be bullied or ignored. The powers in the world we see are too strong, so it’s easier to just go along to get along.

The truth is that God loves all of us. Each of us is equal in God’s sight and at the same time, there is a special place in God’s heart for the poor and oppressed. That’s a big part of the story of Christmas. God didn’t choose a palace or a wealthy family for Jesus’ birth. Instead, the Lord of creation was born to poor parents in a stable. The truth of the gospel is that God sees the world differently than we do. God sees each of us truly, no matter what lies we tell others or even ourselves. God loves each of us and wants us to repent and be free from the lies that keep us enslaved to the world’s injustice, hatred, prejudice and fear.

God calls us to put our love and faith in action by reaching out to others. We’ve got some great opportunities to do that with our angel tree and Christmas baskets. We can also do that by supporting our work with Cameron and by supporting the work of the church as a whole. Laurelton is not the most efficient charity in the world, but we are a place where people can come together from different backgrounds to form real community. That community needs resources to function and we can all be a part of that.

Amidst all the lies that we tell ourselves and that our culture tells us, Jesus breaks in as light in the darkness. He says as we continue to follow him, “You will know the truth and the truth will make you free.” As we break free from the chains of false expectations and false demands, we step into the truth of loving community and a world being made whole by God’s amazing love. This Advent we prepare for the coming of God’s perfect love in the form of a baby. So with trust and honesty, let us make space in our hearts to welcome the Christ child.

Thanks be to God.

Christ, the light of justice, 12.8.13

Isaiah 5:1-10

Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. 2He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes. 3And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard. 4What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it? When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?

5And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. 6I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it. 7For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!

8Ah, you who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is room for no one but you, and you are left to live alone in the midst of the land! 9The Lord of hosts has sworn in my hearing: Surely many houses shall be desolate, large and beautiful houses, without inhabitant.10For ten acres of vineyard shall yield but one bath, and a homer of seed shall yield a mere ephah.

Isaiah 10:20-23

20On that day the remnant of Israel and the survivors of the house of Jacob will no more lean on the one who struck them, but will lean on the Lord, the Holy One of Israel, in truth. 21A remnant will return, the remnant of Jacob, to the mighty God. 22For though your people Israel were like the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will return. Destruction is decreed, overflowing with righteousness. 23For the Lord God of hosts will make a full end, as decreed, in all the earth.

Luke 1:39-56

39In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

46And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 54He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” 56And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.

            We spent the six weeks before Advent talking about suffering and how our faith fits into that. Suffering is part of the human condition. It’s part of the darkness that hangs over our lives and makes it harder to see each other and to see God. Related to suffering, there are other forces that make our lives darker than they should be: injustice, oppression, lies, despair, and doubt, to name a few.

            The incarnation, the conviction that in Jesus, God became human and lived with us, is all about God stepping into our dark world as a light of hope, love, joy, peace, comfort, and truth. During Advent we wait and prepare for Christ’s light to come. Carl started us on our Advent journey last week by introducing how Christ comes as light in the darkness. In the three weeks to come we’ll look at some of the specific areas of darkness we face, and how Christ brings light to those places. As usual, the areas we’ll cover are not the whole story; there are more dark places in our lives than the three we’ll talk about, but by digging deeply into these, we should gain the insight we need to imagine how Christ can lighten other areas of darkness too.

            First: a word on Advent. Advent is a season of preparation. The mystery of the incarnation, the mystery of God becoming flesh is too amazing to take in just at Christmas. The reality of God’s kingdom, which we see in Christ and trust will totally transform the world one day, demands preparation. We have to get ready to embrace the Christ child. We have to get ready to embrace God’s loving kingdom by giving our hearts and lives space to be transformed by grace.

            A big part of that is repentance. The forces of darkness are so strong that they have warped all of us. Even though as people of faith we know better, we are still part of the darkness that fills our world. We need to change, we need to repent and let go of that darkness so we can be ready to welcome God’s kingdom in Christ.

            This week we’re focusing on preparing for Jesus as the light of justice in a world darkened by injustice and oppression. Justice is one of the most important themes in the whole Bible. It’s closely related to the idea of judgment, and also, maybe surprisingly, related to God’s love. The prophets of the Old Testament were tireless voices for God’s justice in their society, and they often suffered for it.

When we set up communities, whether that community is a church, a city or a nation, there will be people with more power than others. That’s not a problem if the people in power are committed to making sure that everyone is treated fairly, has a voice and has what they need. The trouble comes when the people in power look out for themselves at the expense of others. As a community becomes more unjust, the people in power not only neglect the needs of others as they pursue their own interests, they also take advantage of weaker members of the community to get further and further ahead.

That process means the darkness of injustice is closely tied to the power structure in a system, so it quickly gets imbedded in the status quo. When prophets criticize, the powerful people who benefit from that injustice counter by accusing the prophets of attacking the community’s values and being a threat to society. The prophet Jeremiah was locked up and almost killed for criticizing the leadership in Jerusalem. Amos was told to leave the holy city of Bethel because he spoke against the King of Israel. Protest against injustice is often seen by people in power and by others as unpatriotic.

No matter what the response, true love is honest. Prophets see what a community could and should be and use that vision to challenge where the community falls short so it can become better. Nelson Mandela is a great example of that kind of prophetic love. He imagined a South Africa for all its citizens, where everyone would have the right to vote and the chance to succeed. With that vision he criticized the apartheid state that deprived the black majority of their rights and their voice. For that, he was condemned as a traitor to his nation and jailed for 27 years.

As the world and nation came more in line with Mandela’s vision, he and other political prisoners were released. Not long afterwards, democracy came to South Africa and the “traitor” was elected president, because his criticism was about building a better nation, not tearing the nation down.

Israel and Judah were special nations because they were formed by God’s calling, not just by human political processes. Their constitution was God’s law, which meant that a deep concern for the wellbeing of all, especially the poor and vulnerable, was right at their heart from the beginning. The light of God’s justice was a key part of their guidance system. At the same time, Israel and Judah were like every other nation because the powerful used their power to make life better for them, often at the expense of the poor. The darkness of human selfishness started to spread over the chosen people of God.

Isaiah was one of God’s prophets sent to call Judah back to God’s path. The parable Donna read was one way Isaiah tried to help the people see where they were going wrong. The parable talks about God building up the nation, giving it everything it needed to thrive and produce a just society. Despite all God’s care, the nation produced injustice and oppression instead of righteousness and faithfulness, so God sent Judah into exile.

The good news is that exile isn’t the end. Some of the most profound insights in scripture are the fruit of exile or other times of trouble. Many of the Psalms were written in exile as were many of the most powerful passages of the book we now call Isaiah.

Like Israel and the prophets, the church is called to embody God’s justice and love, which is good news especially for the poor. Mary’s song of praise is a great example of God’s calling for the community of faith. We are called to be part of God turning the world upside down. That’s not going to be comfortable, but it is going to give us a new opportunity to fulfill our calling as God’s people. Like Israel, the church can find great power in losing the power we cling to today. At the end of exile we may be only a remnant, only a small part of what we once were in terms of size, but we will be a faithful remnant.

We can’t come into the light unless we recognize that we’re standing in the darkness. Isaiah’s words, Mary’s words and Advent itself call us to see the dark places in ourselves and our community. We are tempted by the selfishness we see around us. We’re tempted to fit in with a culture that measures people’s value by their possessions. The economic comfort we might have is connected to the injustice that poisons our community. We all need to repent, and Advent is a great opportunity for that.

Even as we repent, while we still struggle with our role in injustice, God calls us to be honest and bold in seeking justice for all. We all have different gifts, different ways to follow God’s calling today.

We saw one example in Nate VanLoon’s campaign for family court judge. Nate saw an opportunity to use his gifts to be a voice for justice for kids and families. Even though the election didn’t turn out the way he had hoped, God can still use the conversations he had to plant seeds of justice. Sally’s work for justice in New Orleans is another good example of using our gifts to bring God’s light in dark places. So is the work we do with UPT on issues of urban poverty, education and gun violence.

Ella, Karen Kingsbury, Bob Hicks, Marino and Joyce have or will have a hand in a grant we’re working on with Cameron to improve church collaboration on hunger in the city. That complements our existing service with Cameron that many of us participate in here. Our ministries in our neighborhood, especially CafĂ© and our new clothing ministry: Simple Blessings Boutique, connect us directly with people who are often left in the darkness. As we continue and strengthen those ministries we’ll learn more about how injustice works in our society and how we can follow God’s calling to be the light of justice.

Mary heard God’s call to bear a child, a savior for Israel and the world. She heard that call and knew this new life growing inside her was part of God’s plan to lift up the lowly and bring down the powerful. She saw God’s just kingdom shining like light in the darkness, and she opened herself to all the danger, joy and pain that comes from lining ourselves up with God’s calling.

With Mary, Elizabeth and Isaiah, we hear God’s call to justice. This Advent time of prayer, singing, prayer and candles gives us space to prepare our hearts for God’s kingdom. Take time this moment, this afternoon, this week to seek out the darkness of injustice in yourself. Take time to look for the ways societies warped priorities have gotten your soul out of joint. Ask God to come into your heart, to lighten your darkness and give you strength to repent. With penitent hearts and courageous faith we can be open to the light of God’s justice shining like a star over the barn in Bethlehem.

Thanks be to God.