Sermon: Go From Your Country

Genesis 12:1-4a
John 3:1-17

It was Christmas Day 1989, and I imagine my family, like most families, was settling in for Christmas dinner. It was just another Christmas for us, but across the world, the Romanian Dictators Nicolae and Elena Ceaușescu were being executed, after a hasty trial, for crimes against the Romanian people. The entire nature and horror of those crimes would not emerge for months and years, but for the first time in a generation, the Romanian people could breathe the breath of freedom.

It was January 1992, and I was finishing my studies at Eastern Nazarene College in Quincy. One of my last requirements was a missions course that was being offered during the January term. J-Term courses were intensive, three-weeklong courses that met every day for those three weeks. The course was taught by Nazarene missionaries from the Azores who was home on leave. I had to take the class as a graduation requirement, so I signed up.

The first day of class arrived, and I went to the appointed classroom full of suspicion. I wondered what these Nazarene missionaries would teach this nice Catholic boy. Little did I know that one class would change the direction of my life.

The class would focus on world missions but with a particular emphasis on the work in the orphanages of Romania. The course instructor, who remains a very dear friend to this day, would be bringing us firsthand accounts from the field. Her daughter and friends were in Romania on a mission trip to bring what aid and comfort they could to the children in a particular orphanage far away from the media attention in the Capitol City of Bucharest.

Remember that this was back in the day before Al Gore invented the internet, so communication was difficult. But we heard stories of the work being done there, and something inside me stirred. I had felt this stirring before, but this was new. This was to leave my comfort zone and “Go from my own county.”

Today we have two stories of movement and change. We begin with the story of Abram from the Book of Genesis. Abram, who would later become Abraham, is called by God to leave everything he knows, his family, his home, his flock, everything, and go to a place he has never heard of.

It is an interesting use of words here. God does not call Abram to a particular place; nope, God calls Abram to leave everything for a “land that I will show you.” Abram does not know the destination. God is calling Abram not only to leave everything but to trust in the destination that is not certain. God calls Abram to step into the dark without light and trust that God will guide him along the right path.

Abram is like most of the people God calls ordinary. Abram is home, doing a job living a life he has chosen, and, by all accounts, is pretty happy. They were not native to the land they occupied, but people traveled in those days to find better land to graze their livestock and raise their families.

I am sure Abram had dreams and aspirations, but this call came along and changed it all. Genesis tells us that God called Abram, but what does God’s voice sound like? A couple of weeks ago, we heard of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness and God’s voice coming from the sky, saying, “this is my son in whom I am well pleased.” Was it that sort of voice? Did anyone else hear it, or was it just Abram?

How did Abram, or for that matter, how do we know it is God’s calling and not us sounding like God, calling us to do something? We want to be sure; we need to be sure. That thing was stirring inside of Abram to Go and do. So Abram started listening to that still, small voice inside of him and tested it to see if it was God. Abram determines it is God’s voice, he listens to God, and his life changes forever.

Abram is called to change his location; Nicodemus is called to change his mind.

Not all of God’s calls are to do extraordinary things like found nations of people or raise the dead. Sometimes, God calls us to change our minds. God calls us from the wilderness of ignorance and darkness into the bright light of knowledge and love.

In the Gospel passage, we hear from John Jesus meets Nicodemus. Nicodemus is a teacher and a council member, so he has to come to Jesus in secret. Nicodemus is afraid of what will happen if he is found out. Many people feel this way and are uncertain about stepping out of their comfort zone to ask another to come to church. What will they say? What if they ask me questions I cannot answer? My faith is private, and I want to keep it that way.

Nicodemus was not afraid of discomfort; he was scared for his life. If he were found out, he would be put out of the Temple and shunned, basically ending his life. But he desired knowledge and sought out Jesus for the answers.

Nicodemus was an educated man and believed a certain way. Some people like things in black and white, and they do not want to think about things differently. Because of their privilege, some people want things to remain the same as they have always been, and when challenged in their narrow belief, they make fun of those who believe differently and call them things like woke.

Change can be difficult, and realizing that the way you have always thought about something is not necessarily that way can be jarring to one’s system, and we do not always react as we should. But then enter outside forces that think like you do and constantly preach the message you want to hear. Maybe your church does or the news network you listen to. You are so deep in the belief that the very thought that you might be wrong seems impossible.

Then along comes this guy named Jesus who says we have to love everyone. Surely, he does not mean everyone. He must mean people who look like me, talk like me, love like me, and think like me. Surely, he will allow me to continue to hate and persecute those who are different. Surely, he will let me hate people I do not understand because I am so unsure of my own skin that I have to persecute them to feel better about myself. Surely, he means that I can persecute those who do not think the same way I do and force them to believe the way I do. Jesus is not saying that everyone deserves to be loved and forgiven; he cannot be saying that!

But that is precisely what Jesus is saying. I mentioned last time that if your God hates the same people you do, it’s time to find a new God.

The call to discipleship is a call to change. Once we decide to follow Jesus, we must do just that; follow and following requires action. We must be willing to see things differently and through this lens of love for God and everyone. We do not have to like others or support their actions but must love them.

In January 1992, I felt something that I determined was God’s voice. I left all that I knew and all that was comfortable and, for a short time, put myself into an uncomfortable position. I left my country and traveled to Romania, where I worked for a month doing what I could. As I said earlier, that yes to that stirring changed my life in ways that I still have not figured out. It opened my eyes and my perspective and changed the way I thought and think about so many things.

Abram listened to God’s voice and became the father of a great nation that changed how we now look at the world. We are, in a sense, inheritors of that call to Abram and are part of that great nation of believers. Like Abram, we are being called to “Go from our own country” of darkness and ignorance. We are being called into the light and to help others find that light. We are called to come and see what God is doing in the world and what our part in that is. The critical piece is that we are looking, listening, and not standing still.

We have questions like Nicodemus, and we can find the answers. We are being called to challenge our beliefs that we thought were true and might have been at the time, but now, not so much. We are being called to examine and reexamine our beliefs and our thoughts. St. Paul said that when he was a child, he thought and acted like a child, but now that he is an adult, he needs to think and act like an adult.

We must be open to the idea that not everyone thinks the way we do and that we might be wrong. We must be open to the concept of change. As much as we want them to, things cannot remain the same forever; things must change. Faith is not a static practice; it is ever-moving and ever-evolving. Nicodemus asked questions, and although he did not get a direct answer from Jesus, he was put on the path of enlightenment and discovery. But it began with questions and seeking answers. Do not be afraid to ask questions and challenge the answers and your beliefs.

Don’t worry about having all the correct answers or doing things the right way; God does not call the equipped; God equips the called. If we say yes when God calls, we will be prepared, and there are a ton of examples in scripture to back that up. So don’t worry about your preparation or lack thereof; just say yes to the call and enjoy the ride.


Blessed Are

Matthew 5:1-12

Every so often, there is a clamor for the 10 Commandments to be placed on the walls of courthouses around the country. If memory serves, there was a judge in a southern state that felt the 10 Commandments were more important than the Constitution when it came to the laws of the land. Then I read where a minister asked, why do we put the Commandments on the wall, not the beatitudes?

Chapter five of the Gospel of Matthew begins what has been called the Sermon on the Mount. Mountains play a rather significant role in the life and ministry of Jesus. Just before this passage, Jesus is tempted by being brought to the highest mountain in the area and shown all the lands. The tempter tells him that if he worships him, he will have all of this. There are several other occasions when Jesus is on a mountain teaching and preaching, but there is something special about this one.

We have come to the point where Jesus is ready; he is prepared to begin his ministry. He met John and called for folks to repent. He has wandered in the desert for 40 days and been tempted. He has called his disciples, those that will be the closest to him over the next several years, as he lays out a vision for the Kingdom of God.

There is a connection to the history of Israel as well. I mentioned that Jesus had been in the desert for 40 days already. After John baptized him, Jesus went out in solitude to prepare for his ministry. He spent that time wondering if you will in the desert and being tempted. This parallels the time the Jews spent after the Exodus in the desert. You will remember they spent 40 years wandering and faced all sorts of temptations.

But today, he stands on this mountain and lays out for us what he has in mind, his ideas, and his vision for the Kingdom of God, which he says is at hand. He stands as Moses stood on the mountain when he gave the law written by God’s hand. But this law, this fulfillment of that law of Moses, is not punitive but rather the new way for us to bring God’s kingdom right here.

It is important to note that at the very outset of Jesus’ ministry, he stands tradition on its ear. God’s kingdom, God’s love will not be directed to the upper wealthy but rather to those on the margins, those on the underbelly of society; blessed are the poor, the meek, and those who mourn. These come right at the start of this whole thing. Jesus is showing a preference for those we do not like to see.

But it sounds weird to say blessed are the poor, the meek, and those who mourn. So how can we find blessings at those times in our lives? We need to start by looking at the word blessing or blessed.

Like most words in translation, there are several meanings, and it is up to the translator to choose the correct word that conveys not only the meaning of a particular word but the meaning of the phrase the word is part of. So, for example, the Greek word translated here as blessed could also be translated as happy, happy are those… But it could also be translated as blissful.

So unlike the law that Moses gave, these ideals that Jesus is offering are not something we are measured against or feel guilty if we do not live up to. There may be more to what is happening here than what we see on the surface.

What if, and hang in there with me, Jesus encouraged us at the outset of his ministry rather than an impossible standard to live up to? What if, rather than another list of things to feel guilty about, Jesus encourages us for the long journey ahead?

We have already seen in the preceding chapters that Jesus has gone into the wilderness and proclaimed the kind of Messiah he will be. He calls together a community that will be with him to help him in the coming weeks, months, and years. He spends time teaching and healing and then, in this chapter, tells us full-on what he is going to do, changes everything.

Jesus is calling the world to repent but not in the sense of “shame on you, you dirty sinner,” but rather, “get on board, turn around and follow me.” Jesus is presenting us not with a measuring rod of failure or success but a glimpse of the community of faith. A glimpse of what we can be.

I believe that Jesus was not specifically talking to the poor, the meek, those who mourn, and the rest, but instead, he was speaking to us, the community. What if Jesus said, “blessed is the community who makes room for the peacemakers. Blessed is the community who makes room for the meek, those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, who are poor in spirit. Blessed is the community who makes room for those who mourn at the brokenness of the world, who is unstained by the impurity of the world. Blessed is the community who knows persecution is inevitable and still decides to make room for those the world thinks are unimportant.”

Since the time of Moses, the law has been used as a stick to keep people in line; many religions and many Christian faith groups today continue to use the law to keep people in rather than encourage them to create communities built on love and support.

Jesus is ushering in a new way to be a community. Jesus is not abolishing the law of Moses but instead changing the focus away from the juridical aspect of the law towards grace and mercy. We must remember how radical this sense of community was, where there was room for everyone without exception. A place where people would be nourished and helped without question. A community where we grow together and journey together.

But all will not be bliss if we adopt this ideal of community. The final two blessings are for those who will be persecuted for following this new way, and we will; we are. Not everyone has or will see things in this way. Many cling to the law because it gives them a sense of superiority over others and this, sadly, includes many of my colleagues in ministry. But I cannot be concerned with what others think, nor should you.

Getting caught up in the things that divide rather than the things that bring unity is very easy. As followers of Jesus, we are called to a particular way of living our lives which is summed up relatively well in the Prophet Micha, “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”


Sermon: The Water’s Fine

Matthew 3:13-17

I am not sure, but I was probably a month old, but shortly after I was born, I was brought to the Church to be baptized. I was dressed in a white garment, denoting my innocence that I still carry to this day. My family and some friends gathered around the marble font that was at the back of the Church; the priest read some prayers, promises were made on my behalf, and water was poured from a gold seashell over my forehead with the words, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and the Holy Spirit. I had been part of an ancient ritual that we still practice today.

Today, we gather on the banks of the Jordan River and see John the Baptist, dressed in his ragged clothing, calling people to repentance and a change in their way of life. When Jesus comes, John hesitates; he tells his cousin that he should not baptize him, but that Jesus should be the one doing the baptism. Jesus tells John that he must baptize Jesus to “fulfill all righteousness.” And so, John Baptized Jesus.

Immediately after, the heavens were opened, and a voice was heard, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Scripture also tells us that a dove landed on Jesus’ shoulder; the dove is often the symbol used to denote the presence of the Holy Spirit. This is one of several theophanies or epiphanies that we encounter in Scripture, moments when Jesus reveals that he is God, not just at that moment but from in the beginning.

But why did Jesus have to be baptized?

To answer that question, we need to look at a few things. First, what is the nature of baptism? What does baptism do? And the most fundamental question is, what does baptism mean?

The answers to each of these questions could be a sermon or a lecture in and of themselves, so I will try to summarize 2,000+ years of theological study and understanding; you might want to hold on, this might get a little bumpy.

Water is the ordinary means of baptism, and water is vital to life. We need water to sustain our life and the life of all of creation. Water is the substance that joins creation together; without it, creation will cease to exist. We use warm water to clean and sanitize and cool water for refreshment. We find peace beside the still water, and very often, the sound of gentle water falling during a rainstorm calm and soothes us.

Water is also essential to us in the life of the Church. In the introductory words of the baptism service, we hear these words, “we are initiated into Christ’s holy Church, … incorporated into God’s mighty acts of salvation and given new birth through water and the Spirit. All this is God’s gift, offered to us without price.” The Rev. Taylor Burton-Edwards explains, “Baptism is the ordinary means of rebirth and initiation into the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.”

Scripture tells us that God created all of creation, including humanity, to be good, but that goodness was distorted when sin entered the picture. Sin distorts the image of God contained inside of each of us and degrades the whole of creation. In baptism, we reject the power of sin and begin our journey as disciples of Jesus Christ.

The baptism ritual begins with a series of questions asked by the minister and answered by either the person being baptized or their parents, Godparents, or guardians if they cannot answer for themselves. The questions ask if we renounce wickedness, reject evil, and repent of sin; accept the freedom and power of God to reject evil, injustice, and oppression; and confess Jesus as Savior, trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as Lord alongside all who are part of the universal Church.

But baptism is only the beginning. Rev. Burton-Edwards explains, “Baptism starts that process of breaking us away from sin’s power, but it is sanctifying grace throughout our lives that actually accomplishes it.” Baptism makes room for God’s grace to begin to work within us.

Now just a quick bit about the so-called “original sin.” We often hear this term, which relates to that first “sin” of humanity in the garden. You will remember I talked about this recently and said that the original sin was pride and arrogance. This sin is what distorts the image of God in humanity and degrades all of creation.

The idea of original sin is that we not only carry a propensity to sin but that we are somehow tainted with that first sin. It would be like someone in your family, say, your father committed a crime and was sentenced to prison. For whatever reason, he could not fulfill the sentence, so the court told you that you had to finish it. Not only do you have an association with the crime because it was your relative that committed it, but now you have the guilt of that crime.

Theologically this is not the case. At baptism, we are not cleansed of something that happened eons before we were born by people, even if they did exist, that we did not even know. This idea that we must be cleansed from something beyond our control does not line up with my understanding of a God who loves and cares for me. Why would I carry such a sentence before I can do something about it? It is theology like this that has done damage to people and the witness of God’s love for all without exception.

As I have said, baptism prepares the way for grace to begin to work in each of us. Through the grace of baptism, we are entering a covenant relationship with God, and God is entering a convent relationship with us. Baptism gives us the tools to walk in the light rather than the darkness, but we have to choose to use those tools and learn how to use those tools.

“Baptism is not an act that imparts something just to you,” Burton-Edwards clarifies. “It is an act that brings you into a spiritual relationship with the whole body of Christ. In which you are becoming one with them and they are becoming one with you.”

Just a quick bit about baptism and church membership.

In a United Methodist Context, baptism makes one, regardless of age, a member of the Church universal, the denomination of The United Methodist Church, and their local congregation. In the United Methodist Church, there are two types of membership: baptized and professed.

Professing members are those who have been received into membership by profession of faith and those who were baptized into the Church but have made a public profession of that faith by confirmation of the promises made at your baptism and by reaffirmation of those same promises.

Let us now turn our attention back to Jesus and the Jordan.

John’s baptism was about repentance and confessing sin, so does John consider Jesus, a sinner? Did Jesus consider himself a sinner and in need of repentance? Scripture mentions nothing about sin as it relates to Jesus’ motivation to be baptized by John. Jesus’ baptism is more likely a signal of identification of Jesus with God’s kingdom, which John says is at hand and which Jesus will shortly proclaim and inaugurate. In this way, repentance is not only preparation but a response to God’s presence among us.

But wait, there’s more.

Jesus’ baptism signals his humility in submitting to God’s call through John. Jesus fully identifies with all those coming to John seeking deliverance and preparing for the suffering to come for God’s chosen servant.

John is saying there is no longer confidence in the Jerusalem authorities as the exclusive arbiter of God’s redemptive activity. Jesus’ baptism by John anticipates his own denunciation of the temple authorities and his crucifixion at their hands.

Our baptism may signal for us a turn from the power of sin and death, but it is often less clear what false gods in our lives we are turning from and what new ways we are turning towards. Jesus’ baptism signals his denial of the power of sin over him generally and a refusal to bow before any power but God, including the power of empire that dominates Jerusalem. Our baptism signifies our commitment to his story, his ways, and his fate as our own.

Water is an integral part of the story for the reasons I have mentioned and a few theological reasons. Creation came out of water. Water was the first element created by God. Water became a sign of the covenant made between God and humanity through Noah. Salvation for Israel came from the parting of the waters during the exodus from Egypt, and it is through water that the redemption of humanity in the earthly ministry of Jesus began.

Jesus’ baptism formally marks the beginning of a new stage in God’s action as creator. A new time is brought forth, and the realization of God’s intentions not only for humanity but for the whole of heaven and earth, whose unity, disrupted by human disobedience, is now being restored by the obedience of God’s son and servant.

Matthew’s story of Jesus contained in his Gospel is not just about the salvation of humanity and is not just about our transport from earth to heaven. Instead, this is a story about the reconciliation of the whole of heaven and earth.

This is what the idea of a new creation is all about and why the baptism of Jesus is not just an event for him. On the contrary, this action of Jesus submitting through humility to John is the beginning of fulfilling God’s purpose for the whole of heaven and earth.

Our baptism prepares us to continue and participate in this redemptive work. So let’s get busy and get to work.


The Lone Walk

Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick takes the Lone Walk in 2015

The transition of power in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts occurs with the official swearing-in of the new Governor and Lieutenant Governor in the House Chamber on January 5, 2023, at 11:30 am. The peaceful transition of power is steeped in tradition and the law.

Before the swearing-in of the new Governor, the outgoing Governor hands over a few items to the new Governor; a pewter key to the Governor’s office, the Butler bible (that belonged to Civil War General and Massachusetts Governor Benjamin Butler), a gavel made from wood from the USS Constitution, and a two-volume set of Massachusetts general statutes with an inscribed note from each Governor.

But the most visible sign of this transition of power is what is known as the Ceremonial Lone Walk.

It is unclear when this tradition began. Some say it started with Governor Increase Sumner in 1799. Sumner served as Governor from 1797-1799, the Governor’s term was one year in those days. It is unlikely that Sumner took the Lone Walk because he took his last oath of office in bed and died five days later.

Suffolk University History Professor Robert Allison gives credit for the Lone Walk to Governor Benjamin Butler at the end of his term in 1844. Butler left office with few friends and political allies and literally walked alone down the steps of the State House. The tradition has continued since with slight modification.

The front doors of the State House are also steeped in tradition. The Ceremonial Front Doors are only opened on three occasions; when the Governor leaves the building at the end of his term, when the President of the United States or a foreign Head of State visits, and the reception of Regimental Flags into the Permanent Collection.

At 5:30 this evening, Governor Charles Baker will take the Lone Walk, symbolically ending his eight years as Governor. Governors Ed King, Michael Dukakis, Jane Swift, and Mitt Romney all made the walk with their spouses. Tonight’s walk will include Baker with his wife, Lt. Governor Karen Polito, and her spouse.

Sermon: The Story Continues

Matthew 2:13-23

This is probably one of the most challenging passages of Scripture that comes in our lectionary passages. As difficult as it is, we must face these challenges head-on and look for meaning through all the carnage. Sure, there are questions, why would God allow such things to happen? If God could warn one family, why not all of them? As difficult as the passage is, the answers are even more difficult if there are even answers to the question.

I am no biblical literalist, so from the outset, there is no evidence in the historical record that this event took place. Instead, scholars believe Matthew is using a story of great horror to showcase Jesus’ eventual death; why he chose this way to describe it goes beyond my understanding, but we are left with it, and we cannot hide from it.

Although we are only a week from the birth story, we have kicked things into high gear. First, the shepherds have come and gone, and now, the Magi have also come and gone. We have yet to hear much about these Magi or Wise Men, but they take center stage in the story today. We hear more about them next week when we celebrate Epiphany, so for this week, let’s leave it at that, they outsmarted the King, and he was not happy.

With everyone gone, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus are by themselves for what might be the first time since Jesus was born.

What is often overlooked in this passage is God’s faithfulness that is woven throughout the passage. The family takes a journey escaping death threats and a violent ruler’s anxieties in a story of three distinct sections held together by dreams, divine action, and geographic movement with a ton of symbolism.

Matthew is writing to a predominantly Jewish audience, and because of that, he wants to show that Jesus is the long-awaited Christ. Matthew quotes the Hebrew Scriptures more than 40 times, indicating that the story of Jesus is part of God’s continued faithfulness to Israel. Matthew seeks to proclaim and confess that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah and has come to fulfill Scripture. The promises made to Abraham and his children are realized in this child, and Matthew wants to make that point. The Magi, who are not Jewish and thus outsiders, are symbolic of the fulfillment of humanity’s hopes and that Jesus’ salvific work will not be confined to the Jews but to everyone.

We have another dream sequence; this is the third if you are keeping score. In this dream, Joseph receives instructions to take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt. Joseph’s actions show his continued trust in God and obedience to what is being asked of him. He does this without question; he answers yes to God and does what is asked.

Another Scripture seems to be fulfilled here. Reaching back to Hosea, “Out of Egypt I called my son” (2:15). Hosea is not usually considered a Messianic text but is used by Matthew to link the story of Jesus with the story of Israel. Matthew leads us to consider a connection between Herod and Pharaoh and illustrates that the family of Jesus and Jacob found safety in Egypt.

In the passage from Matthew, we hear a quote from Jeremiah about Rachel weeping for her children (31:15). In Jeremiah, Rachel weeps for her children (Israel) in Ramah as they are taken into captivity in Babylon. This passage expresses deep grief, but it is also a passage of hope, looking toward the day they would return. Jeremiah and Matthew name the grief and trauma, and yet, loss and darkness are not the end of the story; hope remains that even amid significant loss and suffering, we can trust in the ultimate faithfulness of God.

Then we have another dream sequence, and Joseph is told to leave Egypt and return to Israel; the danger has passed, and he can go home and establish his home in Nazareth. There are a few reasons why this place was chosen to be the family’s home. First, there may be subtle hints towards Jesus as a Nazarite, one set apart for holy service. There is also a linguistic connection. Again, using Matthew’s desire to link Jesus with the coming Messiah, who will be from the line and branch of David. The Hebrew word for “branch” sounds like “Nazareth,” and this harkens to the passage from Isaiah, the branch that comes from the stump of Jesse (Isa. 11:1).

But the most common seems to be the idea that Jesus hails from an insignificant place, showing God’s continued preference for those on the outskirts of society. There is a contrast between Jesus as King and Herod as King. Jesus lives in a quiet corner of the Roman Empire, offering a ministry of inclusion and restoration. Jesus manifests his power in love and humility. Herod lives in a palace surrounded by wealth and displays his power through violence and killing.

Matthew does a fantastic job linking the story of Jesus with the story of Israel. Both Jesus and the Israelites go to Egypt to seek safety and come back. The stories are linked by water: Israel is guided to deliverance through the Red Sea, and Jesus is declared God’ Son in the Baptism in the Jordan. Israel and Jesus were both tested in the wilderness. Israel cannot uphold their end of the covenant God made with them. Jesus redeems the story and offers a new way and a new outcome.

Jesus’ story redeems humanity’s story, providing hope amid loss and, ultimately, liberation. The story of the incarnation, God becoming human, is a story of power manifested in love and humility. This is a story of joy mingled with loss. We start to see the shadow of the cross in this story as a tiny child threatens a powerful king.

The critical point of this story is that even while suffering and death, we can remember the signs of God’s faithfulness, love, and humility. We cannot forget that hope is found in a child, God incarnate, and in the divine promise of ultimate restoration, not just for Israel but for the whole world.


Christmas Message 2022

While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger because there was no place for them in the inn. Luke 2:6-7

Tonight, behind all the lights and tinsel, the packages and bows, and the parties and time with family, a little child is born in borrowed space to two frightened parents uncertain about the future and what will come next for them.

Tonight, we witness the birth of the Prince of Peace and the Lord of Lords through Word and song. But he does not come with robes of purple and gold chariots; he comes in simplicity wrapped in simple bands of cloth and is placed in the only space available, the place where the animals feed.

With all of creation around him, the creator once again walks with creation, and the rift created by the pride and arrogance of humanity is repaired. Because the “Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” we no longer live in darkness, and our wandering can cease.

This is the night, O Holy Night.

The other night, my family and I watched A Muppet Christmas Carol. I had read somewhere that this was the most faithful to the original Dickens story of all the other versions. Unfortunately, I cannot testify to that, but it is an excellent telling of the story.

While watching, I was reminded that we never truly understand what another has gone through to make them who and what they are. All we see is what lies on the surface, and perhaps, like Scrooge, that makes them appear cold but under that gruff exterior is a human being, created in the image and likeness of God, that needs compassion and understanding.

It took some pretty radical interventions to get Scrooge to change his stony heart into a heart of flesh. What Scrooge needed more than anything else was love and compassion. Scrooge learned that there was nothing he could do to change the past, but he could change the future, and he was shown how to do that.

The child whose birth we celebrate tonight came to show us a different way. This way is the way of love and the way of compassion. Our task is to continue to follow that way and show others love and compassion.

The story of Christmas is love, love for all without exception.

The Cold Moon: Time for Reflection, Endings, and Celebrations

As I write this, most of the country is in the cold grips of a winter storm. It is precisely these events that give the Cold Moon her name. The Farmer’s Almanac says that this moon is the Cold Moon because we have just entered winter. Native Americans refer to the moon by this name because of the changes in the natural world, and the midpoint of winter, which we entered with the solstice a few days ago, is the darkest part of the season.

Some may find it odd and even a bit heretical for a Christian minister to be writing about the spirituality of the Moon, but I see nothing wrong with taking part in the energy of creation. I believe that God created all around us and that the essence of God is in all of creation. There is much we can learn about bringing balance to our lives from the natural world, the natural ebb and flow of the seasons, the dying and rising again, and the long rest periods. As much as we might try and deny it, we are part of the natural world and creation, and our bodies respond to the energy in all creation. If we only allow our minds to open, we will see this reality and begin to understand how we are all connected.

This season is also a time for reflection and endings; it is the last moon of the year which will shortly come to a close. Noura Bourni writes, “we’re asked to sit in silence and stillness, ideally contemplating the last 12 months of our lives and allow gratitude to inform our thought process.” Since we are stuck inside anyway, it is a good time for this reflection.

But we are not just to reflect; this is also a time of endings. Shed anything that might be distracting or damaging to your soul and spirit. Write these things down on paper, toss them in the fire, and free yourself from them. There is something healing about putting your pen to paper this way, and tossing that paper into the fire is an act of freedom from those distractions.

In your time of reflection, review what is no longer working for you and resolve to make changes in your life that do not include those things. Then, like distractions, write those down on paper and throw those into the fire. Then, as the fire consumes the unwanted in our lives, bask in the glow and warmth of that same fire that will make way for new life to emerge in you.

This time of the year is also ideal for repairing relationships. Reach out to those we have become estranged from and offer or ask for forgiveness. Forgiveness is essential for our spiritual well-being. Remember that forgiveness is for us, and our soul is critical. The act of forgiveness, even if it is not accepted or reciprocated, frees our soul from the burden it has been carrying and returns the power to us. Forgiveness is a powerful tool in our spiritual life. Ending the year with repaired relationships allows us to begin the new year with a clean slate.

The Cold and last moon of the year is also a time of celebration. We recently began the celebration of Yule; Christmas will soon be upon us, and Hanukkah started a few nights ago. These seasons celebrate light, and now the days will begin to get longer as we welcome the sun’s rebirth.

During this time of light, the light of the season, and the light of the Cold Moon, ask more questions, share your feelings, and be present in the current moment. Doing so will help promote warmth, camaraderie, and optimism during this otherwise cold and harsh period of the year.

Yule: The Rebirth of the Sun

Yule, or the Winter Solstice, is when darkness overtakes the light for the last time, and soon, the days will become longer. For this reason, Yule is often referred to as the celebration of the rebirth of the Sun.

It is hard to trace the origins of the feast. Some say it goes back to Egyptian time, through Mesopotamia, and beyond the Middle East. The selection of December 25th as the celebration of the birth of Christ was to coincide with this idea of the rebirth of the sun with the birth of the Son.

There are many other Christian connections to Yule. The sun reborn at Yule is reborn of Mother Earth, the Great Mother. The Son born at Christmas is born of the woman, chosen by God for her great piety and, in many Christian denominations, is the Mother of the Church. The warmth of the reborn sun brings life back to the earth that has gone dormant, and the work of the Son brings new life into the heart of humanity that, for many, has gone cold and dormant.

Back when we grew our food and needed to store it for the winter, Yule was filled with the belief that what was left of the harvest would get us through the rest of the winter until we could hunt and replant the fields. Therefore, part of the celebration of Yule was the feast and food sharing. This was often a scary time to share from one’s stores since one did not know if there would be enough. But share we do; we give gifts to others from our abundance as an expression of trust that God will bless those gifts and the giver.

There are many symbols for this time of year; the most obvious is the evergreen. Outside my window, where I sit to write, are many evergreen bushes and plants. The evergreen shows off life when everything else looks dead, almost standing there defiantly saying that new life is coming soon. The custom of bringing bits of evergreen into the home was to brighten those long, dreary nights and remind us that the earth would quickly be brought back to life. Likewise, the ornaments that decorate your Yule/Christmas tree remind us of this same rebirth.

The wreath we hang on our doors or windows is also a symbol of Yuletide. The wreath is a circle with no beginning and no end symbolizing the circle of life. Traditionally wreaths are made from evergreen to remind us that the spark of life is always present, even in the bleak midwinter. A wreath on your front door symbolizes a welcome to weary travelers seeking shelter from winter’s dark and chilly realm.

The Yule Log is another symbol of this time of year. Traditionally the log would be cut from the previous year’s Yule tree before it was discarded. That is difficult for those who now use artificial trees, but there are some workarounds.

The tree represents life’s survival of death and, by saving a bit of the tree from the previous year, expresses an understanding of life as an eternal circle but does not end with death. Three holes are often drilled in the log for candles that may represent the goddess’s Maiden, Mother, and Crone or, in a Christian context, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The candle flame brings light to the room, and the burning of the Yule Long brings warmth to the home.

The Yule Cake or the Buche de Noel achieves the same symbolism. The cake is decorated to look like a log. Candles are added to the cake or placed around it for the same purpose and symbolism as the wood log, and by eating the cake, the essence of the Yule Log, warmth, and the reminder of the coming sun/Son become part of us.

But there is also a spirituality that goes along with Yule. Yule is when we stand within the darkness, knowing deep in our souls that the light will triumph. Yule is also the time for a deep spiritual journey to our interior. It is a time to look at the year that is passing and all that we have done and left undone and rekindle that light within each of us. Yule is the season of birth and renewal of the earth and ourselves.

Regardless of how we celebrate, the idea is to be grateful for all we have and for the knowledge that the sun/Son will soon be reborn/born, and the earth will rejoice.

Give you a Sign

Matthew 1:18-25

We have almost reached the end of our Advent journey, but we still have a few days left. The good news is we have managed to keep the candles burning, which means we still have some hope, peace, joy, and, most importantly, love left to give. Our Advent journey has been about waiting and preparing for the coming of the Christ child in just a few days. This time of year can be busy with decorations, gifts, and parties, but I hope you could take some time to slow down and meditate on the extraordinary event that is still yet to come.

Last time we focused on Mary and her yes to the angel when she was asked to be the mother of her Lord and Savior. We talked about the importance of walking in the light of God’s will in our lives, even if we do not know the end of the story. God spoke to God’s servant, and she answered the call. She had questions, as I am sure we all do, but she still said yes.

Today we come face to face with an often-overlooked character in the story of Jesus’ birth, Joseph. I tend to feel bad for Joseph because he is all but forgotten in the story. Mary and Jesus take center stage, and poor Joseph is relegated to a subordinate position, but Joseph also has a calling.

Scripture does not reveal much about Joseph, so we must rely on tradition in our biographical sketch. First, we know that Joseph and Mary were from the same town. Second, we know he was a carpenter by trade and was older than Mary. Third, we know he was a widower and that there are children, but the number is uncertain. Finally, we know that he became engaged to Mary, and looking back, we might understand that Joseph was chosen for this role by God.

Joseph is a reluctant member of the cast in this great story. When he finds out about Mary’s condition, he wants to divorce her, which certainly is his right under the law of the day. But he has compassion for Mary and her family. He is willing to “send her away” to avoid embarrassing situations for Mary and her family. There is an assumption that he was willing to pay for their relocation.

But then, the second of three dream sequences begins, and the same angel that appeared to Mary comes to Joseph in a dream. The angel tells Joseph that all will be well. Mary tells the truth, and the child she carries is to grow up to do great things. Joseph awoke from his dream and took Mary into his own home.

Joseph’s next scene is when the couple is on their way to Bethlehem to be counted as part of the census. Joseph is very protective of his new wife, although he forgot to make a reservation at a local B & B, so they are forced to go door to door looking for accommodations. Finally, they do find a place, and Mary goes into labor. The child is born, and all seems to be well. But, then, all manner of folk start to show up.

It must have been confusing for Joseph and Mary. Sure, they knew their newborn son was to be someone special, but I am not sure they knew all the details, and now, all these people are coming around. They were far from home, without family, and I am sure they were a little scared. But Joseph takes Jesus into his heart as any father does with his child.

I recently saw a depiction of the night that Jesus was born. It was Joseph, holding Jesus in front of him to look into the child’s face. Behind him, almost out of focus, is Mary asleep on the crude bed they fashioned. Joseph is looking at Jesus as if saying, I am here and will not let anything happen to you. No matter what he thought before this point in the story, Joseph is now all in, and he has become the protector of Jesus.

We get brief glimpses of Joseph after this. We see him when the angel again tells Joseph to take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt to avoid Herod and his dastardly plan to kill the child. Joseph does as directed, and this young family, although tradition tells us it is several years after the birth of Jesus and does as directed. They do what they need to protect their family; they leave everything they own and everyone they know and go to Egypt. We do not know how long they are there, but eventually, they come home.

Joseph does what any parent would do, takes care of their children.

I mentioned earlier that Joseph was a reluctant participant in the story, and I take great comfort in that. There is an old saying that God does not call the equipped, God equips the called, and I believe that with my whole heart. Joseph rightfully so had many, many questions, but he trusted in God, and God did not let him down. In many ways, the yes of Joseph is just as important as the yes of Mary. They both have a choice and choose to follow God’s will.

Today’s Advent theme is love, and we see that expressed in what Joseph did. Joseph loves God and his young, new family and risked it all to say yes. He risked his reputation, and he risked his life. But, like Mary’s yes, Joseph’s yes changed not only his life but the world.

There is no mistake that love is the final theme of the four weeks of Advent because without love, none of the rest matters. Unfortunately, we have many examples of people claiming to be Christians, going through the motions but not expressing this sacrificial love we experience this season. In the examples of Mary and Joseph, we see two people not living for themselves but living for another. We see an example of how we surrender our will to God’s will, regardless of the cost.

Today we light the final candle in our Advent Wreath, and it seems fitting that tonight, our Jewish brothers and sisters light the first candle of Hanukkah. The center candle on the menorah is the Shamash, the candle that lights all the others. Without the Shamash, none of the other candles will be lit. So be the Shamash, the one who helps others and the one who lights their way.

I hope you know by now that it is my sincere belief that Love is central to the message of the Gospel. Without love, none of it makes any sense. Love is the only answer—everything that Jesus did, he did out of love. What Joseph did, he did out of love, and everything we do, we have to do out of love. It is really that simple.


Stand as a Signal

Isaiah 11:1-10

Several years ago, there was a fire in the Great Smokey Mountains in Tennessee, and much of the area was burnt. When something like this happens, we often think of trees and shrubs, but what of animal life? The Smokies are filled with all sorts of animal life that live off the land and require what is there for their sustenance. If it is gone, they have to seek it someplace else.

Several months after the fire, my family held a reunion in the Smokies. We have been doing this for several years, and we rotate around the country so we all have a chance to attend. The evidence of the fire was still present, but the scars had started to heal.

One night, Nicky and I walked up from our rented house to the hotel where several other family members were staying. We had heard that there were bears in the area, but we had not seen any. You see, the bears had come down off the mountain in search of food, and they figured if humans were around, there must be garbage.

While sitting on the patio at the hotel, some bears appeared. It looked like a mother and her cubs; they were rather large but cuddly from a safe distance. We watched in amazement as they moved from one trash can to the next in search of food. Finally, the hotel manager emerged and banged on some pots, and the bears meandered back into the woods.

As we were leaving, someone said that the bears had returned. My instinct was to keep walking in the direction we were heading because I did not want to become their next meal. My wife, on the other hand, had a different idea. So, being the good husband I am, I followed behind her at a safe distance, ensuring there was nothing between me and a path to safety.

We started back up the stairs from the road to the hotel parking lot and when we reached the top, there she was, momma bear in all of her frightening glory. I don’t think I had ever been as scared as I was at that moment or since then. But there was my wife, phone camera in hand, telling the bear to say cheese. I was like don’t say cheese; they might think we have cheese and want to come for a visit!

Anyway, as you can see, we survived to tell the story. The bears were not interested in us and went about their business, looking for food. So the story had a happy ending.

Today we heard some of the more famous lines from the Prophet Isaiah:

“The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.”

In other words, peace shall be restored to the earth.

If we go back to Genesis and the creation story, we read that humanity and animals lived in peace and harmony. It literally was paradise. It all changed with the arrogance of humanity, and it continued to get worse. Fast forward millions of years, and here we are, fighting off bears at the trash can! Whatever upset the peace, we are still dealing with the effects today.

However, I wish to point out that this peace comes after what Isiah said last week about judgment and the purging of the bad folks. Before there can be peace, there has to be justice and mercy, for they go together and cannot be separated. Oh, sure, we can talk about healing divisions, and that we are a divided country, all of which is true, but until there is mercy and justice, there can be no peace.

One of the many titles of Jesus is Prince of Peace. As I have said on many occasions, Jesus came to show us the way. He chose to be born like us so we could relate to him. If he had come down out of a cloud with fire and whatnot, how would we be able to relate? Jesus was born to humble beginnings to a race in captivity. He grew like us; he fell down and scraped his knee. No doubt he fell in love and had his heart broken. He had stomach aches, back pain, toothaches, and all the rest. We know from scripture that he felt grief and anger as well as joy and happiness. Jesus came to say look, I offer you a different way, a better way than the way you are headed, and that involves peace.

In a couple of weeks, the theme of Advent is love, and we will talk about love as I believe love is the only thing that matters as it is central to the message of the Gospel. But before we can get there, we need peace.

We often lament that we are divided as a nation, and, as I have mentioned before, I don’t think that is necessarily bad. I think we agree on much more than we let on, but we are so busy yelling and screaming that we are not listening, really listening.

However, there are some things I cannot and will not compromise on or listen to. In the last few years, and even more in the previous few weeks, we have seen a rise in antisemitism, and that just cannot stand. I want to be clear; there is no compromise with people who think Jews, or anyone for that matter, is less than and should be treated differently than anyone else. Any supremacy, whether white or national, is a sin, a scourge on humanity that must be whipped away forever!

Let me make one more point clear; there can be no compromise, none with anyone who wishes to take away or deny fundamental human rights to another based on skin color, economic circumstances, legal status, who they love, or any of the other ways we want to separate people. The people who wish to do that do not want to bring people together; they only want to force them apart.

Isiah is prophesying a time when order will be restored to earth at the most basic level. But where does it all start? It has to start somewhere.

I know it is a somewhat sappy song, and for a time, it was overdone, but there is some truth to the lyrics of Let there be peace on earth. The truth is peace has to begin inside each of us. We cannot fight for peace and justice if we do not practice peace and justice in our own lives. Likewise, we cannot find the middle ground if we despise those on the other side. Sure, we can disagree with their positions, but we must remember that, just like us, they are created in God’s image.

In my work at the Treatment Center, I talk a lot about how much of the spiritual journey is about changing the way we think about things. We need to rewire our minds to other possibilities. This past week we focused on finding our authentic selves to be able to answer the question, who are we at our core? To find that, we need to be able to silence the external and internal voices that want to pigeonhole us and label us.

But we also need to remove malice from our hearts.

When we remove malice from our hearts, we make room for grace and can offer grace. The example used was being happy for someone who excels in their job or gets that promotion that you wanted. So if you see someone getting ahead to excelling, be happy for that person and let them know. Congratulate them for their accomplishment, and by doing so, we remove the malice, and we have extended grace, and the world just became a bit more peaceful. I know it might sound stupid, but it works.

The world that Isiah speaks about does not come about by magic but rather through a lot of hard work and pain. God is not going to snap God’s fingers and make it so; that is not how it works. Remember, God sent Jesus, not an army armed with weapons of mass destruction. God sent Jesus, not a politician armed with hate in their voice. God sent Jesus, the prince of peace, to show us another way, and that way begins inside each of us.

As a child of the 70s, I grew up with great religious movies like Jesus Christ Superstar, Godspell, and my favorite, Brother Sun and Sister Moon. If you have never seen it, you owe it to yourself to take the time and watch. It is a modern telling or retelling of the story of St. Francis. I think we sometimes forget that Francis was a reformer. Strip away all statues with animals and whatnot, and we see that God’s call to Francis was to rebuild his Church. Of course, he thought it was the physical church outside his village, but it was to rebuild a sense of church through humility and peace.

Francis came from a wealthy family and had everything he could have wanted. But when God called him, he quite literally stood in the town square and stripped away all of his earthly possessions, and humbled himself before God. Francis began to rebuild the physical church, and at the same time, he rebuilt the church within himself.

As you are aware, there is a prayer that is attributed to Frances about peace, and it is a very personal prayer. Francis beings, make me an instrument of your peace. In other words, let peace flow through me to the world. Francis goes on;

Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon,
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.
Where there is sadness, joy.

O DIVINE MASTER, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console:

To be understood as to understand;
To be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive –
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned.

Peace begins inside each of us, and we all have the potential to make this world a better place. Let the prayer of Francis be our prayer this day and every day, Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.


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