Holy Calling, Holy Changes

Jonah 3: 1-5, 10            Rev. Dr. Galen E. Russell III

Mark 1: 14-20  Januayr 21, 2018

And Jesus said, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”

Prayer:  Holy God, may we hear your call and move with your Spirit as we respond.  In Jesus’ name, Amen.

 We are alive on planet earth, and that’s a wonderful thing, but living as a human being on this great planet earth is more than just being alive, breathing, and existing.  Many of us, if not each of us, in our own unique way, can hear a call from some part of our physical, natural world and identify with that call, can’t we?

Some sailors, for example, hear the call of the sea.  Something deep within their souls resonates with that call, identifies with the nature of the sea—the magnificence of its size, the free movement of its waves, its terrifying power, its placid beauty, and its life-giving properties.  Only certain folk hear the call of the sea, and when they do, there’s very little to stop that person’s heartfelt desire to get out on the open ocean, right?

Some hikers hear the call of the mountains and identify with that call in their own nature… it’s a place of challenge, of beauty, of awe and wonder, of ancient developments, of fantastic vistas, of life and death.  There’s very little to stop a person who hears the call of the mountains in their heart to find a way to get onto its slopes, right?

Some musicians hear the call of music deep within their souls.  There is very little to stop that person from identifying with that call within and will find themselves needing to do something more than just tap their feet to the beat.

Some hear the call of motherhood, of fatherhood, the call to be parents.  The nature of motherhood or fatherhood or parenthood, are, generally speaking, already engrained in us… and when that call is heard, all options are on the table to figure out how to have and raise a family.

I could go on, and I’m sure you could, too, but let me move forward and suggest that, like I’ve suggested before, in the spiritual life, things are not much different than the physical life.  Many of us, if not each of us, in our own unique way, can hear a call of our holy God. Before you say, “I’ve never heard the call of God,” hear me out. In fact, I think God’s holy call goes out to all people, to all human beings.  It can penetrate into our inner souls and touch the part of God’s nature that lives in us and is a part of us.  And, each of us can identify with God’s nature already within us.

We know at least some of the nature of God, right?  We know God’s nature is love.  We know also God is a God of justice, of peace, of inclusivity and non-partiality, of deep compassion for the poor.  We also know God is a holy God.  So, when you hear the call of God, I think it’s possible that God’s call is resonating with God’s nature of love, justice, peace, inclusivity and non-partiality, of compassion and holiness that already exists within us. God’s call touches us there at that deep level.

When Jesus began his ministry proclaiming the good news of God and that the kingdom of God was near, he was God’s holy nature in human form.  His voice called to Peter, Andrew, James and John and the rest of the disciples.  Immediately, his voice, his holy call to them penetrated into their souls, and I think touched the part of God’s nature that lived within them.  His voice touched God’s nature there in their hearts.

When that happened, the holy calling made for holy changes right away. It wasn’t like, “Oh geez, now I have something else to do in my busy day…” it was that they had a totally new identity.  The holy change was a new way of living.  It was not just a conscious change, but a sub-conscious one, too.  It was a total change.  From that point on, they no longer fished for fish; they would fish for people.  They were no longer focused on the family business, but they were focused on God’s business.

God was going to use them to bring others into God’s presence, grace and love.  They would help others know that God’s realm was near, indeed, it was within them.  God’s nature was part of their lives, and Christ Jesus was their teacher and guide helping them to understand that.  So, there was very little they could do to hinder the inner urge to follow Christ’s holy call because holy changes occurred within them.

Now, to be sure, we can resist that call and God’s nature in us.  We can, like Jonah, run in the other direction, which is what happened to him as recorded in the verses before our passage.  You know the metaphorical story… Jonah heard God the first time, Jonah resisted, he fled on land, on the ship, he was dumped in the sea, he was swallowed up by a big fish, and spewed up on land.  But, God was persistent, and the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time.

Likewise, we can ignore God’s holy call.  We can disregard God’s love, God’s sense of justice and inclusivity and non-partiality, we can snub God’s holiness and compassion deep within us.  We can let our own viewpoints, our own desires, our own designs on life we can figure on when, where, and how we want God’s call to be convenient for us.  We can demand that the call should go along with our own schedules… we can let all that be front and center in our lives, but actually, those will drown out God’s actual call to God’s nature that lives in us.

Sadly, there is no shortage of illustrations and examples of people drowning out God’s call to love and justice, peace and inclusivity, compassion and holiness.  Just look at the Turpin family and their house of horrors with their thirteen children.  Just look at human trafficking and the illicit sex trade that’s rampant around the world.  Just look at the opioid crisis all around us. Just look at the language from our leaders regarding other countries.  Just look at the dysfunctional systems and tax bills that widen the chasm between the wealthy and the impoverished.  Just look at the oppressive powers that still allow the dehumanization of our bodies in a variety of corporate, political, and entertainment industries.

We are to practice God’s nature that’s within us, and sadly, there many places where so-called Christians and other faithful people fail to regard God’s nature within.

Thankfully, God is persistent.  Eventually, when God called Jonah to be a prophet to Ninevah, even though he resisted at first, God’s call penetrated into his inner soul and touched the part of God that lived in him, and he was profoundly changed.  He grumbled most of the way, but He identified with that call; he moved with it; he reflected God’s holy nature that was in him when he spoke out against the evil ways of the Ninevites.  He called them to repent, and look what happened!  The holy call penetrated to the nature of God in their hearts, and they changed their ways.  And, God was merciful and changed plans regarding the calamity that was supposed to happen to the Ninevites.

Jesus’ holy call to repent is nothing short of making changes revealing the nature of God within us.

In no small way people in our day and age can listen to the holy call of God and, if desired, make holy changes, I think.  When we hear the holy call of God, can we respond to that holy call by practicing God’s nature that exists within us?  Something deep within our souls resonates with that call.  We have a new identity in Christ.  The holy change is a new way of living, of being, a new way of existing that is focused in on being about God’s business.

You’ve heard the phrase that is said every Christmas— “Keep Christ is Christmas.”  While I don’t agree with the saying as a rebuttal against the inclusive approach to the holidays, I do agree with an adaptation of that phrase which is “Keep Christ in Christian.”  I take that adaptation to mean that as Christians, we are to follow Jesus Christ.  We are to emulate God’s nature that was in him, and his very nature, by the power of the Holy Spirit, is breathed into us.  We are Christians because we have a holy calling by Christ.  We follow him, and we are changed by Him, and we practice his nature which is God’s nature, within us.

This happens in our lives.  God knows who we are, what we like to do, what our gifts are.  God understands our strengths and weaknesses, what we try to avoid, too.  In our families, can we respond to God’s holy calling by making holy changes of love?  In our professions and vocations, are we able to live out our holy calling to follow the Christ by practicing holy changes of peace and justice?  In our church, are we able to answer Christ’s holy call by making holy changes which shows God’s nature of inclusivity and non-partiality to all people?  To be an all inclusive church is to practice God’s nature within us, I think.  As we make our minds up about political issues, about problems in our society, are we able to do so in ways that reflect our holy calling and the holy changes occurring within us?  To let God’s nature within us influence us in how we respond to societal issues is to practice God’s nature within us, I think.

We have a holy calling from God in Christ, and the part of God

that lives in us, God’s nature, is love and holiness.  So we practice love and holiness.  We have the holy change of a new identity in us, it’s God’s nature of justice and peace, of inclusivity and non-partiality, of God’s compassion  within that is in us.  So we live with and practice all these.  And when we hear God’s holy call and respond to the holy changes within, there is very little to stop us from hindering the inner urge to follow Christ, and decide to be at his service for the many people struggling because of the issues within this world. There’s very little to stop us from being disciples from being the church.

May God help us practice God’s holy nature within us, for God’s purposes through and through.  Amen.


Perceptive Listening

John 1: 43-51   Rev. Dr. Galen E. Russell III

1 Samuel 3: 1-10              January 14, 2018

“Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”

Prayer:  Search us, O God, know our hearts.  Try us, O God, and know our thoughts.  And lead us in your way, the way everlasting.  Amen.

Recently we’ve seen video news clips of rescuers searching the massive mudflows in southern California immediately after the disaster looking and listening for survivors.  We offer our prayers for the victims and their families and the rescuers.  We also watched emergency personnel do the same thing in Mexico City last September after an 8.1 earthquake struck.  They searched through the rubble of collapsed buildings listening for the faint sounds of survivors.  We know that it takes a certain kind of listening when an airplane crashes and investigators try to locate the black boxes.

This kind of listening requires not only knowing what to listen for, but also what not to listen for...what  kind of sounds must be blocked out.  People doing the listening must discriminate out all other voices, all other noises, messages, and sounds, and zero in on the sound of someone trapped… someone in need…the pings of the black box... they must hear beyond the plethora of sounds and listen for the one sound in the midst of it all.  They must hear more deeply.

This is true in our physical lives. The same is true in the spiritual life.

Today’s scripture passages have some of the same idea—there’s a certain kind of discriminatory listening going on.  The background to our gospel lesson is that Jesus is fresh off of calling Andrew and Peter, telling them to come and see what he is all about.  They are quick to say “We have found the Messiah.” Andrew and Peter heard more than just words—they listened more perceptively. They discriminated out all other messages, voices, thoughts and listened to the voice of Jesus calling them.

The next day, Jesus now finds Philip and says to him “Follow me.”  Philip heard more than just words, too.  He hears more deeply, more perceptively.  Apparently, he right away is convinced that not only must he follow Jesus, but he must tell others about him.  So Philip immediately goes and finds Nathanael and tells him that Jesus is the one Moses and the prophets wrote about.  And after sneering a bit, Nathanael likewise perceived the deeper truth about Jesus and affirmed he was the Son of God!

I wonder if we might think that listening for God’s voice is not something we are particularly good at.  We say “God is Stillspeaking,” but in order for that to have any effect, we have to be still listening, and maybe we think we are pretty good at it, right?

To be honest, I can relate to Samuel’s story a bit better than Philip or Nathanael’s stories.  Because Samuel has to fight through his preconceived ideas on who he thought he heard!  He hears God’s voice, but he thinks it’s Eli’s voice.  He hears his name, but he thinks Eli is calling him.  How often does that sort of thing happen to us?  We mis-identify who is speaking and misappropriate the importance of the message, and we go down that path, only to find out we got it wrong.

I can relate… I am working on this sermon, and my phone does one of those “rrr-ii-ng” — it’s the sound of an “important” news item making headlines.  “Oh, I better check it out!”  Or, it’s the “ding dong” when a new email arrives.  “Oh, I better find out what that is…”  And, just like that, I’m distracted, and I can’t concentrate on the word of God, and I can’t listen perceptively to God’s Stillspeaking voice.

Thankfully, God is persistent.  With Samuel.  With us.  With me.  The third time Samuel hears God’s voice, he follows Eli’s advice, and responds to the Stillspeaking voice saying, “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.”  Samuel lets go of his preconceived notions and opens himself up to not just hear the words so they come to his ears, but to listen to God’s word as they come to his heart.

Samuel’s story is a model for our own spiritual journeys, I think.  In the midst of all our distractions, all the voices that sound out to us, all the mis-perceptions and mis-identifications of what is important, we have to let go of our preconceived ideas of what voice to listen to and open ourselves to the inner whisperings of God’s spirit.

The great missionary E. Stanley Jones wrote in his autobiography that during the year of 1907, just 23 years old, he as a person of faith and great oratory skills received an invitation from a college president to teach at the college.  The president told him, “It is the will of the student body, the will of the townspeople, the will of the faculty, and we believe it is the will of God for you to teach in this college.”  At the same time, however, he received a letter from a friend who wrote, “I believe it is the will of God for you to go into evangelistic work here in America.”  Then a short time later, Stanley Jones received a letter from his denomination’s mission board saying, “It’s our will to send you to India!”  And if all that were not enough, Stanley himself suspected that God was calling him to go to Africa as missionary!  In his autobiography, he called this a “traffic jam of wills!”  (Jones, Stanley, The Divine Yes, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1976, pp. 68-69).  Boy, I’ll say!  But, after much prayer and discernment, after much perceptive listening to the inner workings of his life, Stanley Jones went to India and served God there until he died from a stroke in 1973 (Homiletics, January/February 2018, pp. 18-19).He had to listen perceptively—zeroing in on God’s will through the other parts of his life.

It’s in the inner workings of our lives where I encourage us to practice perceptive listening.  Where we let go of our preconceived ideas and trust that God’s voice is coming through in the very essence of our lives.  God speaks in our insights, our hunches, our dreams, our bursts of energy, our hunches, our studies, our prayers, our adversities, our failures.  Right from the very beginning of our lives, God knows who we are, and within these inner workings of our lives, God speaks. God calls. God is in the creation of our next steps.

Sometimes I have counseled people who feel uncertain and anxious of God’s guiding voice, and feel stuck as to what to do, I invite them to practice clearing their minds, and to trust in God implicitly… to turn the uncertainty and anxiety of the next steps over to God, and then in faith, sit and wait.  The very next thing that comes to mind, the very next thing the person senses should be done, whether it is to say something, or to get up, or to make a phone call, or to write a reflection, or whatever it is, trust that God’s is at work in the creation of that thought.  Perceptively listen to that thought, and do it, and leave all the rest of what results after that up to God.

Perceptive listening always involves persistent faith, not necessarily a lot of faith, but persistent faith… faith in God to take care of the things that not in our control but are a consequence of our decisions to obey and follow God in that one idea.  To walk in the way of Christ.  To do God’s will believing that we are intimately involved in God’s universal purposes.

That’s God’s thing.  To see us.  To know us.  To speak to us.  To take care of things not in our control as a result of us following God’s ways.  To call to us to be involved in God’s purposes, not just as individuals, but also collectively, as a church.

As a church, I invite us to listen perceptively to God’s Stillspeaking voice in the inner workings of our church life, where we know about God’s love, God’s hospitality, God’s inclusivity. To listen. To obey. To believe in God’s purposes. So, in the decisions we are making, as we explore what it might mean to be an All-Inclusive church:

· to grow toward becoming an Open and Affirming congregation

· To examine what it might mean to make all areas of our building accessible to all

· Even to call a new organist…

I invite us to have faith and trust implicitly in God, to throw out pre-conceived perceptions to God and listen perceptively to God’s Stillspeaking voice.

The psalmist says, “Search me, O God, know my heart.  Try me, O God, and know my thoughts.  And lead me in your way everlasting ” (Psalm 139: 23-24)  “We are known completely by God.  Everything we do matters to God.  God’s knowledge of us is grounded in God’s love for us.  God’s awareness and God’s creativity are one graceful movement in our lives.  Nothing is too small or large for divine awareness and activity” (Epperly, Bruce the Adventurous Lectionary—Second Sunday after Epiphany—January 14, 2018, retrieved December 27, 2017).

So,  fling all out, and discriminate out all other voices, all other noises, messages, and sounds, and zero in on the sound of God’ Stillspeaking voice.  Then say, “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.”

Let us be quiet and listen.  “Speak Lord, for your servants are listening.”  Amen.


By A Different Road

“By A Different Road”

Isaiah 60:1-6

Matthew 2:1-12

Rev. Dr. Frederick A. Young

Pastor of Youth, Education and Outreach



Rev. Frederick A. Young                                                       January 7, 2018

Epiphany Sunday


Will you join me in prayer:  God of wisdom and love, be with us as we explore our role in welcoming the Christ Child into our hearts and world.  Amen.



            Today we celebrate a revelation! An Epiphany, the Word of God made flesh, born in a tiny baby for the people of the world.  We hear the familiar story of those who traveled a great distance to bow before the newborn king. For unto us a child is born; a savior, a peacemaker, a great light of healing and hope.

            For a couple thousand years, many have speculated over the identity of these majestic Magi.  Although we sing about Three Kings as we did again today, the word Magi has nothing to do with royalty, but here describes a priestly class of scholars gifted in such things as astrology, astronomy, and the interpretation of dreams.  They came a long way to worship a new powerful king.  Do you think they were surprised to find a small baby?  Their gifts do seem odd for the holy family. By paying homage to the Christ Child, they were mocking the mighty Roman Empire, crossing religion, race, and class to honor one so lowly born.  In essence, the Magi were seekers of the truth, visionary Gentiles, spiritual beings who followed the light of a star they recognized as being out of place in the sky.  Such wisdom could have kept them hostage within their own heads, within their own countries, but instead they followed the star’s brilliance down an unfamiliar road. 

            How did these strangers find their way? They looked to nature for signs and guidance.  God also provided direction through dreams, just as Joseph was guided by angels in his sleep.  Once close to the land of Bethlehem they stopped in the most logical place to find a king, but no one in the court had heard of a new ruler.  Herod thought he could sweet talk these travelers into stopping by on their return trip, but they bypassed his request to honor the one true authority; a classic case of wisdom over worldly power.

            Often we focus less on the journey and more on the strange gifts brought by the Magi. Gold for royalty, Frankincense to anoint the Holy One, Myrrh to prepare the broken sacrifice; but what about the gift we fail to mention, the light of wisdom that arrived with these scholars.  The sages were given the opportunity to learn much more than the average citizen and quickly understood that Jesus carried a message of love wrapped in flesh and swaddling cloths, he would be a gift to change the status quo, an offering for all generations.

            If only the story stopped here, steeped in such radiant knowledge, but we know that the narrative ends violently, with the slaughter of so many innocent infant lives at the hands of a very scared King Herod.  An ordinary worldly ruler who represents very real resistance to the kingdom logic found in the royal baby of God. 

            “There’s nothing ordinary about Epiphany. It is the season of magi, baptism, and God’s presence in unexpected places. The manger child is born anew each moment, and each moment can be an Epiphany, an unveiling of divinity in everyday life.”  In these uplifting words, Theologian, Bruce Epperly reminds us about who we are as followers of the light.  Followers in opposition to the King Herod’s of today’s world.  What is that you seek today?  How are you waiting with anticipation for your world to be rocked?  To be changed? By which road are you willing to return home? 

            This reminds me of our friend, Amy Addams and her relentless efforts to raise funds for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.  Many of us have taken her famous Cookie Walk in our church Social Room, where every cookie imagined can be found waiting to be selected.  A fundraiser, which yields hundreds of dollars each year.  This is but one culinary endeavor, Amy is constantly holding bake sales at work, and within the community. When she is not in the kitchen, she is running for the lives of others.  Right now as we sit in this warm sanctuary, Amy is in Disney World running within a series that consists of a 5K, 10K, half and full Marathons, that’s almost 50 miles in 4 days, with all proceeds benefitting her passion and charity.  She prepares for months, baking and running, running and baking, the result, her heartfelt contribution of $8,255 this year alone, to finding a cure for blood cancers that end far too many lives.  

            Unlike the shepherds who saw the sky dissolve right over them, the magi prepared themselves like athletes for that one moment of grace and promise.  Along their journey, they studied maps and charts and interpreted books, cyphers and symbols, to lead their way.  They prepared for every hardship their journey could present, fatigue, boredom, hardness of heart as they traversed deserts, moved over mountains and across plains.  It took great courage and understanding to know enough to go the distance, pace by pace, keeping perspective. 

            We can learn a lot from all three:  The shepherds show us how to be present in the moment, the magi displayed wisdom and poise through many an unlikely landscape and from Amy’s courage, never giving up on something that can change the world.   

            We claim to be a church where God is still speaking, where anything can happen and everything is possible.  Yet imagine today a visit to Christ Church by religious or political leaders from that same part of the world, Iran and Iraq, Palestine and Nigeria.  Now picture that these visitors break many of the rules which help define who we are as a community of faith.  Would our welcome be extravagant?

            Matthew’s Ancient World presented similar difficulties, which leads us to ask why this story was included. The narrative is unique to this Gospel.  The "why" is just as important as the reason the Magi set out on their journey.  The Author of Matthew wants his audience to hear about the Good News of God's universal and all-encompassing grace; grace freely given even to those outside Jewish traditions.  Although we might not admit it, we have our own outsiders whose presence in the circle of God’s grace might surprise us.  The Christ Child, who attracted strangers from the east to his bedside, later welcomes the likes of Samaritans and fisherman, prostitutes and tax collectors, Pharisees and Roman soldiers.  In this light, we too have just as much to learn from this text as the ancient folk from Matthew’s world.  Who might be outside our sanctuaries looking for sacred space within? 

            While we may think Christmas gift giving stems from St. Nicholas, today’s scripture strongly suggests the tradition starts here in the story of strangers bringing extravagant gifts to a little baby, but more importantly in Jesus himself, a gift from God.  For instance, In Mexico, El Dia de los tres Reyes, Three Kings Day, is the day in which gifts are traditionally given, not Christmas Day.  Within this Spanish culture, Epiphany is the culmination of the twelve days of Christmas.  The gift of God incarnate has the potential to turn the whole world upside down and forge a new reality, a promise that begins with this visit.  What do you hear in this story?  I challenge you to ask yourselves what you can glean from the magi’s visit that would jump-start your own gift giving journey.  Perhaps, like Amy Addams, you will take on a New Year’s resolution to change your life not just for the good of self, but for the benefit of another.  Maybe you are thinking, “There is no way I am going to start running marathons!…” that’s okay, but seek something that might change your perspective of the Christmas story.  Look for that one thing that will give you a new outlook on how you too can share the light of Christ. 

            We hear in our scripture text today that God has sent a gentle shepherd who will nevertheless upset the powers-that-have-been. We hear that the smallest things, like a newborn baby, can terrify the arrogant.  We learn that God's reach of grace goes far beyond every obstacle within or without.  We celebrate that a great light has come into the world, a dawning that draws all people and calls us to live our lives illuminated by its truth.  This is Epiphany – a revelation of the divine, sudden insight, and intuitive understanding. Thanks be to God. Amen.   



Some ideas and history for this Sermon have come from the reflection of Kathryn Matthews Huey, UCC on-line Sermon Seeds, 2013. From At the Edge of the Enclosure, a blog by Suzanne Guthrie, and from Bruce Epperly’s on-line resource:  Living a Holy Adventure on Patheos. 

The Birth Made Know to Us - Christmas Eve 11 p.m.

Luke 2: 1-20     Rev. Dr. Galen E. Russell III

Christmas Eve  December 24, 2017

“Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.”

Prayer:  May you be born in us again this night, O living God!  Amen.

Merry Christmas!  Merry Christmas!

We have reason to sing praises to God tonight—to say “Alleluia!  Christ is born!”  I say, Alleluia, you say Christ is born! Alleluia! Christ is born! We have reason praise God because God’s grace is offered and we live as redeemed people.  “Alleluia!”  Christ is born!  We praise God our hope for the future is imminent because we have a life filled with God’s presence.  “Alleluia!”  Christ is born!  We praise God because a deep Joy comes to our inner spiritual lives that can permeate throughout every aspect of our life’s journey.  “Alleluia!”  Christ is born!  Why not praise God?  The promise that Love expands through us is the way that Jesus’ realm continues forever!  “Alleluia!”  Christ is born!

Grace.  Hope.  Joy.  Promise.  This Advent, all these bring us to this moment: Birth!  “Alleluia!”  Christ is born!

Advent means, as I’ve said before, “important arrival.”  Many of you have met my Mom.  She flew in from California last Tuesday.  I went down to Baltimore Washington Airport to pick her up.  I was ten minutes early, so I walked into the terminal and checked the board to see what gate the  plane would be at.  C6 it said.  It also said it had arrived.  Just then, my phone rang.  It was Mom saying the plane was at the gate, and she would see me in ten minutes.  I went quickly to the C concourse hallway entrance, and stood there to wait.  After all, I was expecting an important arrival.

I waited.  I waited some more.  No Mom.  Heck no passengers at all.  Just a few workers. Something wasn’t right.  Better go back and check the board again.  Yep.  Sure enough, the gate was really D16.  Did I misread it?  Probably.  But, I hustled. As I arrive at concourse D, there’s Mom, arriving, too.

It occurred to me… this is what Advent is like… waiting for the important arrival of Jesus’ birth.  But, it really helps if you’re in the right place, looking down the correct hallway.  And, you have to read the signs correctly, too.  The message on the sign board has to be accurate as well.  Or, you can easily be standing there, staring down the wrong hallway, led there by inaccurate information.

Our culture tries to tell us that Christmas’ arrival is important only to kids… because it’s magical.  Because if you’re good, your presents will arrive.  Heaven forbid if you’re on the naughty list!  If that’s why Christmas is important, I think  that’s looking down the wrong hallway.

The message that consumerism and commercialism say is that Christmas’ arrival is important because we get material things to add to our already big piles of material things.  Get more, and you’ll be happier than you were before.  That’s waiting at the wrong entrance of the wrong hallway, I think.

Those kinds of messages in our culture and signs are all around us.  It becomes important to use our discerning abilities and go back to the sign board of God’s word, and re-check the story.  Re-check the message.  Re-check the purpose of the birth of Christ, the Messiah—which was to bring in the new era of God’s saving grace for all.  Re-check the name “Jesus,” which means “the One who Saves!”  When we see God’s saving grace in Christmas, we’re looking down the right hallway.

Can we re-check the meaning of “Emmanuel” which means in English “God with us?”  Re-check the power of God’s justice and peace for everyone, the power of Shalom.  Re-check the humble beginnings of Jesus’ birth and connect the same humility with greatness.  Greatness is not in being powerful and mighty.  Greatness is being humble before God—when we see justice, peace, and humility in Christ’s birth, that is looking down the correct hallway.

Can we re-check the message?  Can we re-check our hearts?  A sure sign that Christ birth is made known in us is that the transformed heart and lifestyle that we see in Ebenezer Scrooge, and George Bailey, and the Grinch shows up in us as well.  When we see our lifestyle change and transform us with a new heart and spirit toward God and 

toward others, we’re seeing the birth of Christ again in our lives. We’re looking down the correct hallway of Christmas.

As we conclude our Alleluia Journey! that leads up to the birth of Christ made known to us in our lives, I remind us that our journey never really concludes.  We are always on the journey praising God because God’s gift of Christ is born in us again.  We can see the signs, and like the shepherds, desire to go directly to where Christ is born.  And, after we worship Christ at his birth, we have God’s work to do.

Would you please turn in the hymnals to selection #584.  Christ, the Light of the World is born for us!  We celebrate his birth, yes, but his birth is made known in us when we reach out to others sharing in the work of Christmas.  The lyrics of the verses are based on the Christmas poem by Howard Thurman.

[sing “I am the Light of the World]

Alleluia!  Christ is born!



Expansive Promise

2 Samuel 7: 1-13, 16    Rev. Dr. Galen E. Russell III

Luke 1: 26-38   December 24, 2017

“He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

Prayer:  Holy and eternal God, God of light and love on our journeys, we are so near, so close to the birth of your Son.  May we feel your presence as we worship you.  Amen.

Just the other day, Mom, Barb and I watched a movie called “Victoria and Abdul.”  Any of you ever seen it?  Interesting film that touches on racism, power, and aristocracy.  One of the more humorous (and distressing) things about the story is how everything revolved around Queen Victoria. She was catered to. If she was eating her soup, the other guests at the table could eat their soup.  As soon as the queen stopped, her soup bowl was taken away… and so were the soup bowls of all the guests, whether they were finished eating or not!  If the queen stood up after a singer’s performance, everyone stood up.  And so on.  At the time, Queen Victoria was the most powerful person in the world, and of course, she lived in the finest castle, the Windsor Castle.  Abdul, a Muslim servant from India becomes her close friend, teacher, and confidant.  Before long, Queen Victoria figures out that Abdul was living in servants quarters.  She immediately orders that he live in the guest house in a fine bed. Abdul and his friend were totally amazed.

Those parts of the movie remind me of today’s Bible story. In the biblical days, King David was among the most powerful of world leaders.  He and his armies fought many nations and were against plenty of other kings.  But, there came the time that there was a relative peace over the land. And David had everything he wanted. He was catered to. And David got to thinking… he was living in a fine house made of cedar, and there was the ark of God housed in a tent.  Something seems terribly out of balance here.  So, with typical human thinking, David has in mind to build the finest temple for God and the ark.

But, God’s thinking is the opposite.  God tells the prophet Nathan to go to David and ask, “Are you the one to build me a house?  Have I ever asked, ‘Why haven’t you built me a house of cedar?’”

And leave it to God, this becomes a perfect opportunity to make a metaphor out of an ordinary item.  “Moreover,” says God to David through Nathan, “I will make you a house!” not as in a building, like David is thinking, but as in a family… as in a large amount of descendants and relatives, as in a dynasty, a kingdom in the future, which would be part of the House of David… standing on the promises God made from the past in Genesis, that this house would be the House of Jacob.

This is a promise that is much more than David’s son Solomon building a temple for God, which Solomon does.  It’s an expansive promise, one that sees a kingdom that shall endure forever!  A promise that sees the realm of God coming to earth, ever expanding outward with the birth of Jesus.

The angel Gabriel tells Mary that the baby conceived in her womb will be great. His name will be Jesus, and he will be called the Son of the Most High, and God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.  Not a throne as in the human way of thinking, like Queen Victoria sitting on her throne, governing as the High Empress of England and India… but a throne as in the head of a spiritual household… as in a large amount of spiritual descendants and relatives.  Gabriel says that Jesus will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of this realm there will be no end!

In other words, God’s promise expands all the way to us!  We are of the House of Jesus!  Which is the expanded version of the house of David.  Which was the expanded version of the house of Jacob.  God’s promise to Abraham, Jacob, David, Jesus, us! Jesus’ birth actually expands God’s promise made long ago, as was spoken by the prophets, and even earlier by God.

God’s realm comes alive in Jesus—and in that realm, what God values comes alive, too.  God values love.  God values covenant with us.  God values justice and fairness and dignity for all people.  God values those who are down due to no cause of their own. 

And I believe God values similar practices from us.  So, much of human thinking gets turned upside down and expanded from there. 

Unjust social structures are overturned.  Hungry people are fed, physically and spiritually.  The wealthy sacrifice for the good of the whole.  Tax policies benefit the poor and average citizen.  Schools and churches and other places of worship and other public areas like concert arenas are safe.  World leaders seek peaceful coexistence.  Churches everywhere promote and practice all-inclusivity.  People in power humbly recognize the value of all human beings and treat all people with respect, dignity,  and love.

That’s the vision of God’s expansive promise. That’s the vision of God’s will being done here on earth as it is in heaven. But we must ask ourselves—is this happening? IF not, how can it happen? Love.  That’s the answer.  Love expands.  Love is how Jesus reigns forever.  When we love, that is how there will be no end to the House of Jesus.  Jesus’ birth reminds us that God’s love is this expansive promise made to us.  Love is for us.  Love is with us.  Love expands as we give it away.

Peter Marty, publisher of the Christian Century tells a story of the morning in December 1992, when he noticed a small gift beside baby Jesus in the outdoor crèche.  The handwritten note taped to the wrapping paper read, “Happy Brithday, Jesus.”  Birthday was misspelled.

Curiosity got the better of him, and he opened the gift.  Underneath the red wrapping paper was an old Shake ‘n Bake pork seasoning box.  Inside the box was 33 cents and a piece of notebook paper with the words, Dear Jesus, Happy Birthday.  Here’s some small change for you to feed someone who is hungry.  I give myself to be kind to others as you were kind to other people on earth.  Love, Maria.

Peter Marty knew right away who Maria was.  She was a tender soul who lived in the house on campus that the church owned for persons living with chromic mental illness.  Even though plagued with a severe case of paranoid schizophrenia, she seemed to know that love was the only thing that she had to give away, and she knew love comes from God (Marty, Peter, www.christiancentury.org/article/publisher/birthday-present-manger-scene, retrieved December 20, 2017).

For God is love. And somehow, love is what expands when we give it away.  When we treat all people with love, dignity, and respect. When we practice what God values...peace, love,  justice, kindness, and mercy toward all.  It is God’s expansive promise.  That is the reason we say “Alleluia!”  Jesus brings in the realm of God’s love.  And of his house, of his realm, there will be no end.  We say “Alleluia!” Christ is born!  Praise be to God!  Amen.



Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

Luke 1:47-55

Prayer:  We have come seeking our Lord.  We have come, seeking ourselves.  O God of new beginnings, remind us where to find them both.  Amen. 


            Traditionally at Christ Church for the Third Sunday of Advent, we adorn our chancel area with the crèche, and manger, and in most recent years, the animals of the stable.  Can you imagine Christmas without shepherds and a baby in the manger?  Did you know that the Gospel of Luke is the only account of the Birth of Christ to include the traditional Christmas story we have come to hold dear?  Only in Luke do we hear about the shepherds and baby Jesus being placed in the feeding trough.  Luke’s account is the only one to include the beautiful canticle of Mary that we just heard and it is only of the Gospels to include the familiar stories of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son.  Most importantly, Luke highlights the women at the center of Jesus’ ministry, Mary Magdeline, the sisters Mary and Martha, and of course the woman, we celebrate today, his mother, Mary. 

            Artist and Author, Jan Richardson writes:

It matters that we hold the light for one another.
It matters that we bear witness to the Light that holds us all,
that we testify to this Light that shines its infinite love and mercy on us
across oceans, across borders, across time.             

The women who surrounded Christ all recognized and testified to such Light.  They knew Jesus.  They loved him, and they shared him with others.  None however knew the sacrifice of such generosity as did Jesus’ mother, Mary.  Mary gave up more than we can ever imagine throughout her life.  As a young woman, making sure her chores were complete before playing with her friends, timidly courting her betrothed, she existed to serve others before herself.  Then within the brightness of one Divine visit, she found herself rebuilding her identity, agreeing to become something else, something mysterious, bearing the light itself.  Her “yes” was one that changed the world.

            Within the words of the ancient prophet, Isaiah, we hear how the Israelites were also in the midst of an identity crisis.  Their temple and their city lay in ruins.  They are a lost culture without a home, uprooted and on the move.  But the prophets words of comfort and reassurance of God’s plan and presence provide fodder for them to begin their rebuilding efforts.  Both Mary, the mother of God, and the ancient mouthpiece of the Lord, Isaiah, echo words of Thanksgiving and praise to the God who plucked them out of the familiar and into a new unknown world of vulnerability, trust, and hope. 

            Often during Advent when I am visiting in the homes of those less mobile among us, I read the Magnificat and tell folks that it is one of my favorite passages of scripture.  I am particularly drawn to the light, which shines on a woman the ancient scriptures tell us little about.  We know that Mary is the chosen Mother of Jesus who while pregnant, visits with her much older cousin, Elizabeth whose unborn child leaps for Joy upon the presence of The Christ.  After Jesus is born she dedicates her son at the temple for the price of two turtle doves, has to back track to the temple when Jesus is a teen to pull him from a group where he is teaching scripture.  Later she appears at a wedding in Cana, persuading Jesus to perform his first miracle.  Then we see her at the foot of the cross.  There is precious little in between her acceptance and obedience in agreeing to birth the world’s savior and holding him after his death. There is no account of her feelings being so young, unmarried, and pregnant.  And nothing about the small town ridicule she must have faced attempting to mask the glorious blessing bestowed upon her.

            Mary was born to elderly parents, Joachim and Anna, in Jerusalem and later moved with them to Nazareth where she later received a visit by the Arch Angel, Gabriel.  She was a peasant girl and more than likely hers was a family of farmers or shepherds.  Mary, like many in her town worked hard from a young age.  One of her daily chores would have been fetching water at the one and only well in the village.  Some think this is where the angel first appeared to Mary.  Mary was obviously devote in her faith and trust in God, for in a brief moment, the Divine plan for the redemption of humankind waited upon the acceptance of a little Jewish girl. For generations to come, this poor, humble young woman has been the personification of a person ready to hear the Word of God and see it through to fruition. 

            In her Meditations on Mary, Kathleen Norris writes…

I treasure Mary as a biblical interpreter, one who heard and believed what God told her, and who pondered God’s promise in her heart, even when, as the Gospel of Luke describes it, it pierced her soul like a sword.

 Norris goes on to talk about a conversation she once had with a Benedictine Nun who pondered why Mary was forever depicted in art as a teenage beauty queen.  Renaissance Art often shows the Mother of Jesus draped in royal robes and perfectly manicured when truly she was a strong peasant woman capable of walking the hill country of Judea and giving birth in a barn. 

            It is what Kathleen Norris writes next that I truly love. 

But I also caution that if we insist too much on a literal Mary, encasing her too firmly in the dress of a first-century peasant, we risk loosing her as a living symbol.  Sooner or later a child will inquire, as my ten-year-old niece did recently, “Why don’t people ever show her as a normal person?”  She then drew her own Virgin Mary in perky shades of Barbie, but her body was strong.  She looks as if she might have come from an aerobics workout, ready for anything.  Placed on her torso, where Supergirl’s ‘S’ might be, is an equally perky dove, representing the Holy Spirit.

On this Third Sunday of Advent, we are invited to create ourselves anew, to break through our own identity crisis, whatever form they may take.  What is it that you need from Mary today?  What does the Mother of our Lord represent in your life?  How are you too, listening for God’s Word and making it happen? 

            You do not have to be a Christian to hold Mary close to your heart.  Her allure is breathtaking, and her courage unbeatable.  For centuries one of her greatest strengths as a symbol of faith is the extensive tension she exemplifies between the humble peasant woman and the powerful mother of God.  She is a symbol of healing, of hope, and of peace to many… perhaps the first symbol of transfiguration. 

            On the table today are many images of Mary, most, void of color.  I like that, because to me, it makes her more accessible.  You all know the talent of my beautiful wife, Kara.  Today, once again, I have a painting she devoted into creation a few weeks back.  It was indeed a purposeful meditative process that offered respite and healing to her.  Yes, it is Mary, depicted as the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico.  I am sure if you ask, she will explain all of the painting’s symbolism, but when I look at it, I see hope.  Hope in a present and future where no one is truly alone. 

            More so than any other, with the exception of perhaps of Jesus, Mary is depicted in multiple ways in many cultures across the globe, each image with its own story and history.  For instance, The Virgin of Guadalupe came to be when in 1531 the Virgin Mary appeared to an Mexican peasant named, Juan Diego on the mountain of Tepayac, in Mexico.  They met four days in a row and on the last day she created a field of flowers despite the frozen ground and asked Juan Diego to take them in his cloak to the bishop with a message.  When Juan opened his cloak filled with spring flowers it was imprinted with the image of the Lady.  Theologians who have studied the imprint of the Lady agree that the Virgin of Guadalupe appears as a person of mixed race, a symbol of the union of the indigenous Aztec and the Spanish Invaders.  Each depiction, no matter the time or culture it represents, is a reminder that when God comes into our midst it is to upset the status quo. 

            In the Post-Exilic time of Isaiah God’s people were downhearted and feeling alone.  They were frustrated with God and sought intervention from the Divine.  However, their despair served to bring them together as a people.  Mary, as a symbol of strength, courage, hope and joy serves to bring people together too.  She still is one of the most beloved and idolized women of the world.  Mary is often considered Luke’s model of obedient, contemplative discipleship.  She is not defined by her biological motherhood, but blessed for her belief, known as one who heard the word of God and makes it happen.    

            What are the traditions that you hold dear?  In what ways are you like Mary, young in heart, yet willing to explore the ways your faith  will lead you to an obedient way of being? 

And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.  Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.                                                                  Amen.