Sermon: Are We Listening?

A Sermon on 1 Samuel 3:1-20

We have all seen it. Some of us wear it on our lapels. The comma used by the United Church of Christ with the phrase “God is still speaking.” According to proper English usage, we use commas to separate independent clauses when they are joined by any of these seven coordinating conjunctions: and, but, for, or, nor, so, yet. In other words, we use the comma because the thought is not finished, there is more to come. The belief behind the symbol and the saying is that God has not completed his revelation yet, we are an ongoing project, and God’s revelation continues in each generation. But we have to pause here and ask two questions, are we listening? And, who are we listening too?

I was once asked if I had a favorite book in the Bible, and I responded by saying yes but with a qualifier because I have two favorites, the Letter of James and the Gospel of John. James is genuinely my favorite, but I gravitate towards the Gospel of John because of its spiritual message. All of the Gospels have a spiritual message, but John’s Gospel is all about spiritual and not just miracles and names and places.

The image that comes to mind when I think of John is the Divinci panting of the Last Supper. In that painting, right in the center, is Jesus. Reclining on Jesus, with his ear pressed against his chest is John. Now, I have no way of knowing if this is what happened but I do know that the Gospels tell us that John was the Apostle that Jesus loved. This is an intimate position and one of familiarity but what strikes me most about this image is that John has his ear pressed against the chest of Jesus and therefore he can hear Jesus’ heartbeat, the very heartbeat of God.

The ancients believed that the center of our being was our heart. Some thought that our soul resided in the heart and that is what made it the center of our nature. All of our blood passes through our hearts and feeds all of the other parts of our body. The heart, like other organs, is essential to our lives and we need it to be working at full capacity. John pressed his ear against Jesus and listened to his very essence, his very being he heard what was in his soul and that is where John’s message comes from. It is not enough to just listen to the words that “God is still speaking” we need to listen to the essence of the message.

I truly love this passage from 1st Samuel that we heard read to us today. The scene we see before us is almost comical. A young man is sleeping, and he hears a voice, he gets up and runs in the other room because he thinks his teacher is calling him. The teacher tells him that he did not call him and to go back to bed. Three times this takes place until finally; the teacher understands what is going on.

The Lord was calling out to Samuel, but Samuel did not “yet know the Lord” as it says in verse 7 so he did not recognize the voice that was calling to him. Samuel thought the voice was his teacher Eli and so he ran to him. Too many times we run to follow the voice we think we hear or the voice we want to hear because it is easy or because the voice is saying the things that we believe and the things we want to do. Sometimes we run to that voice even when that voice spews some of the vilest hatred a voice can speak, but because we are confused by the voice, we continue to follow it and make excuses for it.

Sometimes there is so much noise that we cannot hear the voice of God. Sometimes we discount the voice of God because it is calling us to do something we do not want to do or because of where the voice is coming from, perhaps a country that is well…. Less desirable.

After Eli figures out what is going on he tells Samuel to go and lie down again and when the voice calls to his say, “Speak Lord for your servant is listening” and in the end this is what happens and God makes a revelation to Samuel that will change his life and change the course of the history of his people. For us to hear the voice of God, we have to know what the voice of God sounds like, and that takes discernment.

Jesus left us with some simple rules to follow, and you have heard me speak of these many times, love God and love neighbor. Jesus tells us that all of the law and the prophets hang on these to commands of his, his new law if you will. He did not come to replace what was there before but to fulfill it in the command to love God and love neighbor. So we can begin discernment by asking if the voice we hear calls us to love God and love neighbor and if it does not then it is not from God.

If the voice you hear is calling you to hate or discriminate against another, it is not from God. If the voice you hear is telling you it is okay to insult people because they look different then us, it is not from God. If the voice you hear is calling us to violence, it is not from God. If the voice you hear is calling you to deny basic rights to other human beings, it is not from God. Discernment is not easy, but it is vital in the life of a Christian.

With all that said, my experience is the voice of God is not always as clear as we would like it. Samuel had to figure it out, with the help of Eli, his teacher, and that is what we have to do as well. Sometimes the voice will indeed come in a dream, and sometimes that voice comes from and usual place or person.

The lectionary Gospel passage for today comes from John’s Gospel, and it is the story of Jesus calling the first disciples. Jesus finds Philip and says to him, “follow me.” Philip finds Nathaniel and tells him that he has found “him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathaniel replies and says, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nazareth was not a good part of the country, and some might even call a “hole” of a place. It was the back of the back, one of the worst and poorest places on earth but God chose this place, this “hole” of a location to bring forth his Son. So you see, the voice can, and often does, come from some pretty weird places.

It is our job to be aware of the voice that is still speaking. Just as God was calling Samuel to do great things God is calling each of us to do something great but we have to be listening, and we have to know his voice when he speaks. Love God Love neighbor; anything else is not from God.

Sermon: I Resolve to….

This sermon is based on an article that originally appeared on the Sojourners Website. Click this link to read the entire article.

I have never been a great one a keeping my New Year resolutions.  Sure, I like to make them but about the 3rd of 4th of January the wheels have come off the wagon and by February I cannot even remember what they were. Yes, we all want to be a little lighter than we are and sure, we will try and exercise more but these are things that we should be doing anyway, but somehow making a resolution makes us feel a little better. The desire to change is not a bad thing as change allows growth and growth is a very good thing.

But what resolutions are we making in our spiritual life?

The other day I was reading an article, “10 Resolutions for 2018” which included a few suggestions for a spiritual change for the coming year. I take no credit for any of this, we maybe some of the thoughts are mine.

  1. To start each day with a “yes!” to my faith – and to my personal and public morality.

I have said this before, we need to recommit ourselves to our faith journey every day. We need to say yes to God’s love and yes to our allegiance to Jesus Christ. We need to say yes to discipleship and that means acknowledging that Jesus Christ is Lord and no one else. Saying yes to my faith will mean saying yes to being an engaged citizen, practice honest civil discourse, service to what is right, not just what is popular, and courageous witness to what is wrong. I pledge that I will continue to speak out, in a louder voice, against what I perceive as evil as my faith teaches me.

  1. To have the courage to say “no!” when that is required, wherever it is required.

This includes all aspects of our lives. This is one of my weakest points, I have trouble saying no and because of that, I get over committed and things don’t get done. But saying no means to go beyond our own personal comfort. We need to be able to say no to people, even in our own family or church family when they defend ideas and actions that are antithetical to the gospel. We need to demand, of ourselves and others, conversations about our gospel values and to hold political discussion in Christian communities and hold each other accountable.

  1. To not say “no,” or wait to stand in opposition to wrong and dangerous ideas and actions, until I see how other will respond.

We need to follow the gospel, wherever that will take us, regardless of the political implications of our actions. We should not do something, or not do something because it is popular but all of our actions should come from our understanding of the gospel and because it is right. We need to be the ones who have the voice for the least of these.

  1. To hold the bible in one hand and the news in the other as I go through each day.

We should always strive to make decision, public and private, based on our gospel values and what Scripture demands of us and teaches us.

  1. To better answer the biggest challenges of 2018 by acting on my faith, rather than reacting from my emotions.

To respond to genuine outrages with deeper commitment rather than anger and to respond to despair with action rather than cynicism. We need to strive to combat hatred, in all forms, with love, a deep abiding love not just lip service and to counter feelings of hopelessness with hope and optimism.  In 2018 we, as a congregation, will face one of the biggest decisions a congregation can make that of calling a new minister. The choice needs to be influenced only by prayer and not by personal agendas. Start praying now for the person that God has already chosen and pray that the decision we make will be made in that spirit of prayer and guidance from the Holy Spirit.

  1. To see evil and injustice as a call to go deeper.

Deeper into the disciplines and practices of our faith; deeper into relationships with allies and friends, especially across racial lines; and deeper into our relationships with those on the margins and who are most vulnerable and targets of injustice.

  1. To spend more time with family.

Our children and our grandchildren need to understand what is going on and how to respond to it. We do them no justice by trying to shield them from the realities of this world and, whether we try and protect them or not, they will be exposed to it. We need to find the words to explain it to them and to teach them to pray for the world and what is going on. We protect them by giving them the tools and skills necessary to help them interpret things and by our assurance that we will be together through it all.

  1. To pray for particular people who will be playing critical roles in the outcomes of political events in our country and the world.

I will pray earnestly for the press that they will search earnestly and endlessly for the truth and have the courage to print it. I will pray for the judiciary to face the hardest questions with a commitment to the rule of law more than the rule of politics. I will pray for our leaders in congress, regardless of their party affiliation, that they would understand themselves as separate branch of government and to hold to the ideal of checks and balances. And I will continue to pray for the president. Our scriptures instruct us to pray for our political leaders even if we disagree with them, especially if we disagree with them. But we must also pray for our church leaders. As I mentioned we are facing one of the biggest decisions a congregation can make. Pray for all those involved in the process that the Holy Spirit will guide us. And please, pray for me each day as I strive to help to guide this congregation.

  1. To work and pray to grow in my trust of God, friends, and community.

I will strive to trust in faith, hope, and love and believe that the greatest of these is love and to be ready, every day, to act by faith, in hope, upon what I believe even if it is not always popular.

A Christmas Reflection

For Unto us a Child is Born

What is there to say about the festival we have come to celebrate tonight? We have all heard the story more times than we can count but we can always find something new in the story.

Tonight the fulfillment of a long wait is realized. Tonight our hymns switch from “Come, thou long expected Jesus” to Joy to the world. At the start of the Advent season, the world aches for a Messiah: now those who walked in darkness see a great light, for a child is born.

Christmas is not merely an anniversary celebration of the birth of Jesus but it is the active remembering of what God has already accomplished in Jesus Christ and the promise of the coming completion of the reign of God. At Christmas we proclaim not only the birth of Jesus, but the birth of a new creation. Despite what the newspapers seem to say every day, the way has been made clear; the chasm between God and humanity has been bridged because of the birth of Christ, and God’s reign of justice and peace has already begun.

Tonight we hear the message of a world-transforming reign of righteousness and justice that is a radical prophetic claim. The main actors in this narrative are the shepherds, the unlikely messengers but God does not always do things the way we think he is going too. God chose the shepherds to deliver his message, the lowly were to be the first ones to preach the good news that the savior has been born. God chose to take on humanity and to be born of a woman, not in some palace but in a cave designed for animals. God chose to be born to a race of people in an economically depressed place to reverse the course of history; he has exalted the lowly and removed the powerful from their thrones.

The message of tonight, the message of the Gospel is that God loves each ones of us just the way we are. The birth of Christ ushered in a new way, a new of thinking, a new way of acting, and a new way of believing. Down through the centuries the Church has not always been good at proclaiming the good news but we are getting better at it. The good news is that God loves each of us and forgives us unconditionally.

In a few moments we will dim the lights in the church. During the four preceding weeks we have lite one candle on our advent wreath and tonight we lite the center candle the one we call the Christ candle. From that single flame we will light each candle here in the church and as we begin in the front we will watch the light spread to each person in each row.

Light is a powerful force in the darkness and tonight we are called to take that light with us as we leave this place. We are to take not only the light but the warmth that the small flame gives off, that warmth is the love of God for each and every one of us. We cannot simply take that light with us but we have to take it with us and share it with others so that the light spreads and the warmth of God’s love spreads to everyone.

Sermon: Birthing of a Promise

A Sermon on Luke 1:46-55

One cannot listen to Christmas music without hearing the song, “Mary did you know?”  One would think this song in an ancient carol, but in fact, it was written, and first released in 1991 by Michael English. Since that first release, it seems every artist has released a version of the song. It’s a sweet song, as Christmas carols go, but from a theological perspective, it is all wrong.

The singer asks the rhetorical question of Mary and then walks the listener through the biblical account of Jesus life. That part of the song is spot on, he walked on water, he made the blind see and the lame walk, but coming back to the question of did Mary know we merely need to turn to the Scripture passage we heard this very morning, and the answer to the question has to be yes, Mary did know.

Mary’s Song, as the Scripture passage we heard today is known, is probably one of the most well-known passages of Scripture, perhaps as famous as the song and is a song of a young girl who has said yes to her God who has asked her to do a most extraordinary thing.

If we back up a bit in the story, we have Mary being visited by the Angel Gabriel. Tradition tells us that Mary was born to Joachim and Anna, who were of an advanced age, and was raised with the temple walls and was a young girl of profound spirituality. The angel comes to Mary and tells her that she is going to give birth to the savior of the world and asking only a simple question she says yes. God asked Mary a question that would change the course of her life, and without hesitation, she said yes.

Several years ago I was leading a bible study on this particular passage, and someone asked how many doors the angel had to knock on before he came to Mary who said yes. I paused for a moment, as I had never really thought about that question before, and my answer was only one, Mary’s door. God knew that Mary would say yes because he knew that she would say yes. And because this young girl said yes the world would change forever.

Mary’s Song puts forth a new work of God and this work is not given in lofty theological terms but as an ethic that will change the world. In concrete and specific terms, Mary sings in the language of revolution to record her understanding of the great truths that have unfolded in her saying yes. And because she says yes her soul magnifies the Lord; and her spirit rejoices in God her savior. Because she said yes her inner knowledge of what God has done has called her to worship. This young girl, born of low estate, unmarried, and living is an economically poor and militarily occupied country has become the Theotokos, the God-bearer.

Mary’s song is a reversal of the world order of her day, and perhaps our day as well. She sings that God has used his strong arm to scatter the prideful. Pride has often been looked upon as the first and the core sin for which all other rise. The great sin of Adam and Eve was not the eating of the fruit which was against God’s desire, but that they thought themselves equal with God, pride. Pride broke the relationship with God, and now God is using his strong arm to break that down.

Mary also sings about bringing down the powerful from their thrones and lifting up those who have no voice and no status in the world. She sings that God has filled the hungry and sent the rich away with nothing.

But what does all of this mean?

We can draw two conclusions from Mary’s song. The first is that God does not approve of prideful people nor powerful rulers that disregard the lowly in their charge, or of rich people who get fat while the hungry starve. Of leaders that deprive some of rights while giving more rights to others. Second, God uses and looks with favor on those of low estate. Jesus said the poor will always be with us, he said this because they would be a constant reminder of our responsibility towards others who have less than we do and no matter what, as we see in the story of the widow’s mite, we all have something we can give to help those around us. Mary has given us a glimpse of the new heaven and the new earth that God is ushering in with the birth of Jesus Christ.

Mary’s song maintains inclusion of all people in God’s plan preaching a potent reminder that God’s purpose will always turn the status quo upside down. We can be better friends, spouses, mothers, daughters, grandmothers, and neighbors as we say yes to the new thing that God is doing with and within us.

Mary, did you know?  Why yes. And now you do as well.

Sermon: Shouts of Joy

Zephaniah 3:14-20

How hopeful are you for the future? According to a survey of conducted at the end of 2014 only 34% of those surveyed thought 2015 would be better than 2014 with 42% expecting it to be the same and 18% expecting it to be worse.

How hopeful are you for the future? Maybe the news we watch on TV each day discourages us. We hear of terrorism, desperate refugees, intractable civil wars, Fires and storms raging all over the country. Overall it’s not a very hopeful picture.

The situation was not so different in the time of Zephaniah who lived 600 years before Jesus was born. Just about a hundred years have gone by since the destruction of Israel, Judah’s sister kingdom to the north, and the ten tribes of Israel had been devastated by the Assyrians. Wiped out, never to appear again on the stage of history. Down in the south, centered around Jerusalem, huddled the two tribes that made up the Kingdom of Judah. Things had not been so good in Judah, either. Idolatry had run rampant. Cult prostitution and child sacrifice had crept in. Criminal activity was everywhere. Merchants cheated their customers. Widows suffered in poverty. Power was abused by those in authority. Everywhere things looked bleak. People were not hopeful.

But listen to what Zephaniah says
Sing, Daughter Zion;
shout aloud, Israel!
Be glad and rejoice with all your heart,
Daughter Jerusalem! (v14)

It must have seemed strange in these circumstances that Zephaniah tells his listeners and us to rejoice and be glad and shout aloud. Why?

Simply put, Zephaniah offers a profound and lasting hope in a troubled world.

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tracey Letts writes in her play, August: Osage Country, “Thank God we can’t know the future, or we’d never get out of bed.” She is reflecting a pervasive, corrosive milieu of fear and grim resignation in our time. In his time, the Prophet Zephaniah rehearsed a similar drama of human sin, involving “violence and fraud” (1:9), arrogance, and immorality that produced disaster, reproach, and shame. But, thank God,  Zephaniah knows something of God’s future.

I was asked why do we need to read the prophets?

Prophets say what no one wants to hear, what no one wants to believe. Prophets point in a direction no one wants to look. They hear God when everyone has concluded that God is silent. They see God where no one else would guess he is present. They feel God. Prophets feel God’s compassion for us, God’s anger with us, God’s joy in us. They dream God’s dreams and utter wake-up calls; they hope God’s hope and announce a new future; they will God’s will and live it against all odds. Prophets sing God’s song and sometimes interrupt the program with a change of tune. Prophets shout hope when all seems hopeless. We need more prophets in this world today!

The prophets bring hope not only to the people of Israel but to us, people living today, right here in the midst of our own pain and suffering. We listen to the prophets during Advent because, centuries before the birth of Jesus Christ, they brought the message of good news, “Do not fear… the Lord, your God, is in your midst.”

“Do not fear” is not a plea from the prophets to those listening but a declaration. The Angel Gabriel appeared to John the Baptist father Zechariah and the first words “Do not be afraid.” The same angel appeared to Mary to announce that she would give birth to the savior of the world and his first words “Do not be afraid.” The angel appeared to the shepherds in the field, and he said, “Do not be afraid… I am bringing you good news of great joy.” When they ran to the empty tomb the angel, sitting on the tombstone, said to them, “Do not be afraid… He is not here, for he has been raised” (Matthew 28:5-6).

Do not be afraid for God is with us and will never leave us no matter what. When all around us seems to be going off the rails, when the world is closing in on us, God is there with us.

This past week another politician has decided that he is also a theologian and announced that God is in control. Well, if he had gone to seminary he would have learned that is we say God is in control that means he is not only in control of the good things but he is in control of the bad stuff and that is just wrong theology. God gave us free will to determine our future. God created all that we see around us and left it for us to use as we see fit. If God were in control, he would not have had to flood the earth in Noah’s time. He would not have had to send prophets, and he certainly would not have had to send his only son to die on the cross to show us a different way. God Is not in control, but God is walking right beside us all along the way to show us the way to new life, and that is what this particular politician does not understand.

This morning we light the third Advent candle the rose colored one. We pause in our journey of confession and repentance, the original meaning of Advent, to throw off that feeling of desperation and despair and we focus on Joy. Joy because unlike those in Zephaniah’s time we know that tomorrow will be better and that the day after that will be better and the day after that will be better.  Jesus never promised his followers, and that includes us, that our life would be comfortable in fact he said the very opposite. But what he did tell us is that we would not be alone in our journey and our struggle.

“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, Rejoice… The Lord is near” (Philippians 4:4-5).

John the Baptist: Holy Troublemaker

One of, if not the central figure of our Advent journey is John the Baptist. John is fundamental to our Advent journey because he, like the season of Advent, is calling us to repentance and to make room for the coming of the Savior into our lives. John is a preacher and a thorn in the side of not only the religious leaders of his day but the civic leadership. John is a “Holy Troublemaker” and speaks truth to power and tells it like it is.

There is much we can learn from the life of John the Baptist. John’s role was to point the way to Jesus and to remind people of their need for repentance and that God loves them. John’s entire mission was to prepare the way, to get things ready for the one who was coming after him.

But John is more than this; John is the one who paved the way for Jesus. John is the one who announced that the time had come and that the long-awaited Messiah was here. John pointed to Jesus and showed him to his followers and even encouraged them to follow Jesus rather than John. John has left us an example to follow that of being the ones who bring the message of Jesus Christ into the world.

What the world needs now is more John the Baptists, and we can be those people for the world.

Sermon: Where are you, God?

A Sermon on Jeremiah 33:14-16

 

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.” Jeremiah 33:14-16

We have come to the season that time has forgotten. In our 21st century world, the period between Thanksgiving, or even Halloween, and the start of the Christmas season on December 24th has become a period of shopping and other holiday frenzy. I always hear people complain about how early retail outlets put their Christmas offerings on display yet those very same people skip over the liturgical season of Advent as if it is nothing to be concerned about.

Advent is a season about expectation, about waiting, and about preparation for the coming of the Christ child. Just think about the number of hours we spend getting the house ready for Christmas. Dragging the decorations down from the attic or up from the basement. Trying to get all of the strings of lights to work, and getting frustrated when they don’t. Standing in what can seem to be endless lines waiting to pay for stuff that will either be broken or forgotten about in less than a month, yet we spend so little time preparing ourselves, our hearts our minds, and our souls for the greatest gift of all.

The reading we heard from the Prophet Jeremiah this morning could be classified as a lament. The people of Israel are in exile in Babylon. They have lost everything, homes, lands, and their future but more important than all of that they have lost all hope. So rooted are they in their despair that they cannot imagine an alternative to what has happened to them and so they cannot remember God’s promise to them, so Jeremiah comes along to remind them. The message Jeremiah is bringing is supposed to be one that will restore hope even in the darkest hours but also Jeremiah is filled with grief, and so his message of hope comes across as a lament. The message of the First Sunday of Advent is hope not hope for material wealth and greatness but hope in a future that God has promised them and a future that God has promised us.

During the season of Advent we hear from the Prophets and prophetic literature to point out the importance of waiting, anticipation, and trusting in the promised future that seems removed from our current circumstances. What the prophets are trying to tell us is that we are called to not only name suffering and injustice but to lean into God’s promised alternative future. We may light our Advent candles for preparation, hope, joy, and love but the prophets’ sound justice and righteousness.

During the lighting of the candle on our Advent wreath today we heard from another Prophet, Isaiah and that darkness has covered the earth. But Isaiah does not leave his people there with the image of darkness he tells them about the light the light of God’s glory that will shine into the dark places. The light of God’s love that comes upon each of us and assures us of our forgiveness and that God loves us. The light from that one candle is there, shining forth, to bring us hope us just as Jeremiah was bringing hope to his people.

One of the characters that we are introduced to during Advent in John the Baptist. It’s funny that we run into him during Advent since his story is so intertwined with the story of Lent and Easter but we run into John in his role as a prophet as the one who is crying in the wilderness and John’s life is one that Christians should emulate.

John is a holy troublemaker a prophet who speaks truth to power he is preaching his message of repentance and preparation to the people, but he is also a thorn in the side of power both civil power and religious power. In Christian art, John is always depicted as pointing towards Jesus. In the iconography of the Orthodox Churches John is never painted without looking towards Jesus. John is included on the wall that separates the people from the holy place but is always leading the way towards Jesus. And John is a preacher but not a preacher that brings fame and glory to himself. He is not a preacher that is walking the halls of power. John is not a preacher that sits with kings and advises them, not John is a preacher what brings glory to God and preaches a message of transformation. His message points towards Jesus as the one, the only one, who can take away the sins of the world. John is a fascinating character that only has a cameo role in the salvation story, but it is an essential role because he points to the promise of hope that Jesus is bringing.

We are now the ones that need to carry that message of hope out into the world. We are the light that needs to shine in the darkness. We are the ones that need to seek justice, mercy, and peace in the world. We are the ones that need to be a thorn in the side of power, and we are the ones who need to continually remind people of how much they are loved by God just the way they are and that God forgives them.

Like John, we are called to speak out and act out in our faith, and we are called to, in the words of another prophet, “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”

Advent, the Forgotten Season

“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” Isaiah 40:3

If you look around your neighborhood, you might think that Christmas has come early. Christmas seems to come earlier and earlier each year with retail establishments putting out Christmas decorations after Halloween or even earlier. But it is not the Christmas season, that season does not begin until the 24th of December, the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas is Advent, and if you skip it, you are missing out on a beautiful time of the year.

Advent is a time of expectation. Advent is the season of waiting. Advent is the season of patience. Advent is a time of spiritual preparation when darkness falls earlier, and we await the light to come and brighten the darkness. Advent is the season when we hear the prophecies of the birth of Jesus Christ, and it is the season for us to get our hearts ready for that time.

The great Russian/American theologian Alexander Schmemann referred to the Advent season as the Winter Pascha and linking it back to the time of Lent that is celebrated just before Easter. Ancient Church customs called for a period of fasting and repentance during this time of year, a tradition still maintained by Christians of the Eastern Orthodox traditions. Advent has, since the earliest times of the Church, been seen as this time of preparation and we have lost that in our present day.

Each of the four Sundays of this season has a theme, hope (Isa 60:2), peace (Isa 9:6-7), love (1 John 4:9-11), and joy (John 15:9-11) and in many churches a candle is lit for each of those Sundays as a reminder of how we, as the light of Christ, are to drive the darkness out of the world. These themes and their associated Scripture passages call us to repentance, but they also call us to action.

This time of year can be busy, but the call of Advent is to slow down, just a little, and focus on what the coming season of Christmas is all about, the Birth of our Savior. Slow down, and meditate if only for a few moments each day and enjoy Advent.

Reigning Compassion

A Sermon on Matthew 25:31-46

“When you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, members of my family, you did it to me.” (v. 40).

We all have done it. We have all walked by someone in need and looked the other way. I recall times in my own life when I crossed the street to avoid people looking for a handout. We have all done it. This passage from Matthew 25 makes me uncomfortable is some many ways. I cannot help everyone; we cannot help everyone. But what we can do is remember what Jesus said: “When you do it to the least of these, my family, you did it to me” – not, please notice, just the certifiably hungry and truly deserving. The only criteria he set was “least of these.”

Who are the “least of these?” The weak, the vulnerable, the little ones. What you and I are called to do is not overlook or ignore, but to look into a human face and to see there the face of Jesus Christ, because that is what he said.

Any student of the New Testament knows that the only description of the last judgment is right here in this passage from Matthew’s gospel. In this story, there is nothing about ecclesiastical connections or religious practices. There is nothing about theology, creeds, orthodoxies. The only criterion that mentioned is whether or not we saw Jesus Christ in the face of the needy and whether or not you gave yourself away in love in his name. Let me say that differently. In the end, at the last judgment that we will all face, how we have treated others will be the only criterion used.

Each year I make an appointment with my doctor. I have blood drawn, perhaps an x-ray and an EKG. I meet with the doctor who forces me to get on a scale, pokes and prods, asks questions and in the end announces if I am healthy or not. Usually, except a few things, like the scale, I am pretty healthy. In many ways, the passage from Matthew is a wellness check. The passage is not meant to scare or condemn but only as a wellness check on our spiritual life, just like a wellness check on our bodies, to see where we are and how we might change our habits, so our lives become healthier and more balanced.

These words of Jesus are a call to a radically new social structure based on the God-given dignity and value of every human being, regardless of their gender, race, creed, national origin, socio-economic status, religion, or no religion, etc.  The God-given dignity and value of every human being. “What you do for, and to, the least of these, you do to me.”

There are three essential ideas here in this passage.

A statement about God is the first. God is not some remote being on some far off mountain or cloud, God is right here, in the messiness and ambiguity of life. God is here in good times and in bad. In calm weather and the hurricane. God is most present in the ones that are needy. If we want to see that face of God we only have to look into the faces of one of the least of these, the vulnerable, the weak, the children.

The second radical statement is about religion. All throughout history terrible atrocities have been committed, and are still being committed by people shouting about God. Religious officials hide clergy abuse and other abuse and try to explain it away and justify it with references to Mary and Joseph and others in Scripture. Religions deny communion to those with whom they disagree. Religious leaders and others condemn each other, excommunicate each other, invest inordinate amounts of energy and resources fighting one another over who gets in and who is kept out, over whose doctrinal formulas are correct and whose are false most of which Jesus had nothing to say.

The third thing said here is not social, political, economic, or even religious it is personal. God desires not only a world modeled on the values and teachings of Jesus Christ, God wants us – each of us. God is not a social engineer but a God of love who wants to save our souls and redeem us and give us the gift of life – true, deep, authentic human life.

God saves us by touching our hearts with love by gently persuading us to care and see other human beings who need us. God wants to save us from obsessing about ourselves, our own needs, by persuading us to forget about ourselves and worry about others.

Loving those for whom Jesus gave his life, particularly those who are undervalued, is primary expression of our love for God and our experience of God’s love for us. God’s greatest project, the entire reason that Jesus died on the cross, was to teach us the fundamental lesson, the secret, the truth – that to live is to love.

Gettysburg Address

President Lincoln (center, hatless) speaks at the dedication of the Gettysburg… (Library of Congress )

I have been in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania for the last few days along with many other reenactors and living historians for the annual commemoration of remembrance day. On this day, November 19, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln gave a speech at the dedication ceremony for a new national soldiers cemetery here near the site of the bloodiest battle of the United States Civil War. It is always sobering, coming to Gettysburg, standing on the battlefield, and remembering what took place here and the number of men that gave their lives. Standing at the “high water mark” and looking out across the field of “Pickett’s Charge” even I cannot help but reflect on the bravery on the soldiers, both Union and Confederate during those three days of battle.

But those reflections are for another day, today we focus on remembering the dead and the speech that President Lincoln gave on that day.  The speech lasted about 2 minutes and is one of the finest Presidential speeches of history. Lincoln reminded those present, and those that would read it later, of the principle of human equality as put forth by the founders of this nation in the Declaration of Independence. He proclaimed that the Civil War was a struggle not only to preserve the Union but that it would bring equality to all of its citizens. The gave homage to those who lost their lives i the struggle and that their sacrifice should not be forgotten.

President Lincoln’s Address at Gettysburg:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.