Our Approachable God

 Luke 12: 32-40            Rev. Dr. Galen E. Russell III

Isaiah 1: 1, 10-20              August 11, 2019

 God is still speaking,

 Let your Word abide in us, O Lord.

“Come now, let us argue it out, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are read like crimson, they shall be like wool.”

Prayer: Living and holy God, it is a blessing to be in your presence.  May we know your enrichment.  Amen.

 Christian Century editor Peter Marty tells a story of one of his coworker’s daughter Emily.  Emily recently graduated from preschool.   Preschools do graduations nowadays.  Emily’s teacher told her proud parents that in all her years of teaching she never met a more sweet child.  “She’s an absolute angel, full of kindness toward others, always generous.”  That was nice.

Then the teacher added, “For her own good,” she said, “You two will have to toughen her up.  If you don’t, she’ll get eaten alive in the Chicago public school system.”  Whoa!  The parents were taken aback.  The teacher also said that Emily should deal with tough kids like this: “If they hit her, she needs to learn to hit back.”  The message, of course, is that sweetness, kindness and gentleness are weak and should be downplayed in order for Emily to survive in the challenging world of kindergarten and beyond (“Tender and Tough,” Peter W. Marty, Christian Century, July 17, 2019, pg. 3).

I get it.  It’s a rough and tumble and unbending world  out there, and rough and tough is needed sometimes, isn’t it?

But, in a way, isn’t that kind of sad?  Kindness, gentleness, generosity—all God qualities—aren’t these hard enough to come by as it is, let alone downplaying them in the raising of our kids?  Instilling in our kids the values of the equality, dignity, and respect for all people and have them live that out with kindness, gentleness, and generosity—these are, I believe, vital in making the world a better place to live.  They shouldn’t be downplayed.

It’s a sad day when the rough and gruff is what is first required in order to live and survive in this world.  Is that like having a stain of sin on our hearts before God?

 It’s a sad day because gun violence is still out of control.  Are mass shootings becoming like just another day?  I saw a Tom Toles political cartoon way back in February of an AK 40 with a silencer on the barrel.  And the silencer has words on it, “If another mass shooting occurs and nobody cares anymore, does it make a sound?”  And then way in the corner, it says “About as much as “thoughts and prayers” (from the Washington Post, Century Marks, Christian Century, February 27, 2019, p. 8).  Ouch! It’s now mid August 2019 and for years now, and lawmakers still have not done anything.  Is gun violence a sin-stain on our hearts that God’s sees?

 It’s a sad day when our Outreach committee was discerning to support the Bethany Children’s Homes Helping Hands program in Womelsdorf.  That a federally funded grant program that took in 25 children during June.  The average length of stay is 15 to 45 days.   This group of children was younger than expected, ages 3 to 4 years old!  It appears to me a direct connection of very young children separated from their parents and loved ones.  At the border.  And, is the sin-stain growing darker?

 It’s a sad day when mounted police officers put a leash on an arrested man, making him walk between them like an animal.  Images that take us back to 1800’s chattel slavery days remind us of our pervasive racism and white supremacy.  God sees the sin-stain like scarlet on our hearts.

 It’s a sad day when prosperity gospel preacher Kenneth Copeland pronounces, “Glory to God!  It’s ours!  The Gulfstream V is in our hands!”  This is the third $36 million dollar executive luxury jet purchased for Kenneth Copeland Ministries.   God sees the sin-stain that is red like crimson.

 It was a sad day when the leaders of Jerusalem and Judah were just going through the motions of their worship rituals, putting on a front of faithful devotion, making a big show of saying the words about God’s ways, without really following God’s ways.  Speaking for God, Isaiah thunders that God hates worship that denies the realities of poverty and injustice for people.  God had enough of meaningless burnt offerings.  God was weary of festivals when they disregard the poor and oppressed.   They did a lot of doxology—praising God with words, and very little doxapraxy, which is praising God in practice and action.  God is furious, and shuts eye and ear, to them, according to Isaiah.

Now that I’ve ranted a fair bit, where’s the good news in all of this?  Did you notice?  Isaiah knows God.  And Isaiah never loses sight that God still engages in relationship with humanity, even with our sin-stained hearts.  So, Isaiah circles back, takes a deep breath, and calmly instructs, “Now wash yourselves.  Be clean.  Remove evil.  Learn to do good.  Seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”  Make yourself ready for God.

 And God says, “Come now.”  Which means “approach me.”  God says, “Let us argue it out,” which means let’s be in conversation.  Let’s reason together.  Let’s be in a covenantal relationship with each other.  Let’s settle this.

 Even though we have sin-stained hearts, we are still encouraged to approach God. Back in the day, people thought they would die to be in God’s presence. The Holy one of the universe who is magnificent, awesome, powerful, terrifying.  Yet God says “come.” We may come sheepishly, knowing of our past failures.  We may come with fear and trembling knowing God is tender and just at the same time.

But, as we approach, Jesus says,  “Do not be afraid.  It is God’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”  The kingdom.  That is a life filled with God’s love and grace and forgiveness and mercy.  It is a new life with God made more real than ever by Jesus Christ!

 And as we approach God, by God’s grace, the Holy Spirit’s presence begins to transform us.  God says, “even though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow.  Even though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.”  And deep within our spiritual lives, self-interests diminish and God’s interest rises.  Deep within our hearts we see the kind of life with God that goes contrary to kind of life we often see practiced.   And as people who’ve approached God and felt the grace of forgiveness, we now have to be the ones who push for God’s ways going forward from that point, living into what is possible.

 Recently I became aware of a story about John Lewis, the congressman from Georgia.  When he was in early high school attending a segregated school in Alabama, his uncle took him to New York for one summer.  For the first time in his life, he saw blacks and whites living, working, shopping, eating side by side.  He saw educational opportunities that he did not know existed.  He saw a future he never imagined in Alabama.  At the end of the summer, he went back to Alabama, back to where he was treated as less than equal.  And, he really understood what segregation was all about.  That summer in New York John Lewis credits as giving him the desire to push for change, for living into what is possible (Heath, Emily, Glorify, Reclaiming the Heart of Progressive Christianity, Pilgrim Press, Cleveland, 2016, pg. 50).

 Similarly, as we approach God, we are able to experience the joy of living with holy love, grace, and forgiveness; we’re able to experience our sin-stained hearts made clean.  Then we can live into what is possible -  our lives start to look positively Christ-like, and our actions filled with God-qualities of kindness, gentleness, and generosity, and more.  God’s ways begin to  take center stage.  Not downplayed, but lifted up.

 But, we have to do the hard work.  We have to decide to approach God. We have to decide to make that connection with God. To let the Holy Spirit have an active part in our transformation.  To let God’s qualities take a highly influential place in our lives.  We have to decide that our attitudes and actions reflect that our sin-stained hearts are made clean.  And, we have to decide all that again and again, day after day.

 And, somewhere along the line, we become resurrection people.  People who know that even when we sin, the grace of God shows us that there’s a better way.  That same grace gives us no choice but to stand back up, keep moving forward, and keep approaching our approachable God.  Amen.

 

Just Browsing...Or, Deep Commitment

 Gal. 5: 1, 13-17, 22-25             Rev. Dr. Galen E. Russell III

Luke 9: 51-62   June 30, 2019

 “… his face was set toward Jerusalem.”

Prayer:  May your Spirit influence us deeply, O God.  Amen.

Recently Barb and I were in a department store on the hunt for some new front porch furniture to replace the old chairs that were tattered and frayed.  After a maybe 2 minutes of looking around, a salesperson showed up.  Pretty quick… understandably because he was working on commission.  “May I help you?” he asked.  “No thank you… just browsing.”  He knew what we meant… we weren’t come back as soon as we were no longer browsing, but ready to make a commitment to buy the chairs and table.

So, we were narrowing down all the options, asking bunches of questions: “Does it look nice?  Is it good quality?  Does it meet our needs?  Is it in the budget?  Is this the color we want?  Should we keep looking at other department stores?”  And on and on…  These were all decisions… choices we were making in the browsing process. The questions were all about us.

 We make these kinds of choices all the time, don’t we?  Someone looking for a job browses through the Help Wanted section of the Merchandiser or the Advocate, asking important questions: “Does the job fit what I want?  Do my abilities match what the employer is looking for?  How much does it pay?  How much vacation time is there?  Will I be satisfied?”

 People often visit our church.   Quite frequently they say to me, “We’re church-shopping.”  I know what that means… they’re just browsing.  Checking us out.  Experimenting.  Getting the feel for it.  Asking questions: “Is it friendly?  Did people talk to me?  Am I bored?  Am I entertained?  Did I laugh?  Is it pizazzy?  Is it dull?  Does it suit my needs?  Was my faith inspired?  What about that pastor?” And so on.

This browsing process is important in our lives.  All the questions are valid and play a role in helping us make our decisions.  When we finally make the choice, that’s going deeper.  It’s making the commitment to buy the porch furniture, to apply for the job, to decide to join a church.  There’s a time for just browsing...and there’s a time for deep commitment.

On the journey of faith, we often are just browsing… asking questions like “What is the cost to me by following Jesus?  Does it suit me to be a Christian?”  So many people say to themselves, “So, if I decide to follow Jesus, what’s in it for me?”  Most of those questions are “I” focused questions.  That’s just browsing in the faith.

To go deeper in commitment of faith, I think asks different questions—such as “What does it mean to follow Jesus?  Do I believe what he says?  Am I willing to act on what he says?  Am I willing to act on what he says? What can I do to please God?  How can I live out my faith mimicking the ways of God shown to me by Jesus?”  The focus is more on God, and less on my owns self and my own well-being.

 Jesus brought his followers right up to the point of that decision.  They were either just browsing in the faith, not so serious about it, or they could make a commitment and go deeper and follow him to Jerusalem.

They all had that choice.  The Samaritans had a choice to receive Jesus or not.  When they understood that he was determined to go to Jerusalem, no doubt to face great struggle and distress, they were like, “Nah...we’re good.”

Other followers expressed some noble sentiments of following Jesus wherever he would go… and he was like, “You do know you will not have a regular bed to sleep in…”

 Some other would be followers heard a stern reply from Jesus saying essentially, ‘If you are going to follow me, then do it!  There is no halfway.  You’re either all in—or you’re not.  Don’t be distracted—even by the things you think are important to you, like burying a loved one, or saying good-bye to your family.  Remember to seek first God and God’s righteousness, and all the other things which are important to you are in God’s care (see Matthew 6:33).  Trust God.  So, don’t just browse around your faith.  Follow me.  Totally.  Have deep commitment.’

 I think this means, in part, that we can choose to make God the #1 influence in our lives.  And, when we do, we start to realize that our needs do not command as much attention.  Because our trust in God goes so high that we know that God understands our needs.  Can we learn to say, “God’s got this?”  The timing may not work out the way we think… the actual unfolding of events may not happen in the way we see them happening, but deep commitment means having faith even when we can’t see the way forward.  That we don’t understand why things turned out the way they did, but we understand God covers our needs. And, our needs are covered in the process.

 I have the privilege of mentoring several people on their journeys toward ordained ministry, and last week I met with one of my mentees who just graduated from LTS in early May.  She is getting her ordination paper ready and is preparing to put her UCC profile to be sent to Search Committees at local churches.  She remarked that she would need a church job with a certain amount of hours, and a certain salary that would need to replace her full-time salary that she receives now.  She would also need to remain in close proximity to her adult children.  All valid concerns.  But, I asked her, “How do you feel about trusting in God with all those concerns? Letting God handle them?  Choosing to make God the #1 influence in your life, and throwing your profile out there so that every search committee in the US would have a chance to look at it?”  She said, “Pretty nervous.”  I said, “Yeah, but going deep in commitment means trusting in God all the way.”

 How about you?  Ask yourself, “Am I just browsing around the faith, or  am I going all in with deep commitment to letting God be the #1 influence in my life, my decisions, my attitudes?  Am I following Jesus and his ways?”

 For another part, I think having deep commitment means understanding that the stronger we move into deep commitment and less browsing we do, the more God gets active in our lives… and the more we see God creating moments when we live out our faith.  If God brings to our attention a person who is in need, whether it is support, or compassion, or food, or whatever it is, are we just browsing in faith, or does deep commitment cause us to act?

If God brings to our awareness unjust actions taking place, of bullies oppressing others, of hatred and violence becoming condoned, are we just browsing in our faith, or does deep commitment cause us to respond?

 Author Rev. Emily Heath tells the story that in the aftermath of the white supremacists rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, people of her town held a vigil.  They stood with candles in front of the town hall and pledged that they would not be silent in the face of neo-Nazi rhetoric.  As they were leaving, a young girl, no older than eight, came up to Emily.  “Excuse me,” she said.   “What are we going to do now?”

Emily says the question shook her.  They took a good first step.  They refused to give a pass to white supremacists by turning their heads the other way.  But what now?  She bent down and explained in as age-appropriate way as possible that now they had to keep working.  They need to build a town where friends and neighbors would always be safe and loved.  They would need to learn how to tell the truth about God and God’s love when people are hateful.  That’s going in with deep commitment to following the ways of God in Jesus, I think.

Funny.  The little girl looked confused.  She said, “No, I mean, what are we doing right now?  Are we all going home?  [Are we going to get something to eat?]  Or, are we going to do something else?” (Heath, Emily, Courageous Faith, Pilgrim Press, Cleveland, 2017, p. 130).

That’s just browsing in the faith.  It’s good to show up at vigils.  It’s easy to feel like you’ve done enough by making a response.  But, what happens after that?  Do we go home?  Eat?   Or, can we go deeper?

It’s good to write an ONA Covenant.  But, just writing it… is that just browsing?  Can we go deeper?  In a minute here, Bruce is going to lead us in affirming our faith as we recite our ONA Covenant, and this is good.  But, just reciting it… is that just browsing?  Or, can we go deeper with commitment?   This July perhaps we can support Lancaster Pride?  June is Pride Month.  Maybe next June we can find ways to support members of the LGBTQ community?

 To go deeper in commitment I think means to live out our faith, not just to speak it.  It means choosing to respond to prejudicial jokes or comments saying that’s just not cool.  When we hear something hateful or hurtful or untrue about a group of people not represented, it is our job as people of faith to disrupt it, to tell the truth—that from God’s point of view… everyone is made in God’s image.  All human beings are our kin… part of the kin-dom of God (just in case you were wondering if that was a typo in the Prayer of Dedication for our offering—it was not.)

Having deep commitment to faith in God is a choice.  Let us choose to live by the Spirit, walk in step with the Spirit, committing to loving our neighbors as we love ourselves.  May God help us.  Amen.

 

 

A Touchstone of Faith

Proverbs 8: 1-4, 22-31 Rev. Dr. Galen E. Russell III

 John 16: 12-15            June 16, 2019

“When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth.”

Prayer:  Holy Spirit, ever-present, please work and breathe into our consciousness today as we worship you.  Amen.

 Last Sunday, the day of Pentecost, what a joyous day!  We worshiped God while we listened to the authentic faith of six of our Confirmation youth.  The Holy Spirit could be felt as these youth shared their faith through video, through conversation, and through Children’s Moments when they shared words like ‘omniscient.’ We felt the Spirit as they were robed by their parents and given stoles by their mentors, as they  had hands laid on their heads and were prayed over, and as they shared in Holy Communion.  The Spirit of truth came.  The Spirit of truth was and is guiding our youth and each of us into deeper truths about faith, about living a life in the Holy Spirit.

 That was last Sunday.  What about today?  Do you feel the Spirit here in this place today?  Do you sense that God’s divine truth and wisdom and presence are moving among us now?

I hope so.   Because Pentecost is not just once a year thing.  It is not reserved for the drama of tongues of flame and speaking in other languages and confirming faith, and all that.  Pentecost is the gift of the Holy Spirit that happens all the time.  Every day.  I think the Holy Spirit comes, and we have to learn to see it, to recognize it, to sense it guiding us as to God’s wisdom and God’s truth in any situation of our lives.  Let me share some examples of the Holy Spirit’s promise.

 I believe the Holy Spirit is the power that works and breathes in our lives and in our ministry.  As in when we feel the inspiration during worship as we sing.  As we pray.  As we offer our gifts.  As we laugh and love our kids.  As we recognize our fathers and grandfathers today and the core values that reflect healthy fatherhood and healthy relationships.  As we honor our graduates.   Or, when we feel the energy of working together at our Egg hunt, Chicken BBQ or our All-Church Auction.  The Spirit helps us feel that energy.  Maybe the Spirit is the energy.  Do you sense God’s wisdom in understanding that?

Does the Spirit of truth speak when we see the power of life over death?  As in when healing takes place in our heart and spirit after a loved one passes on.  And we find ourselves back on our feet again.  The Spirit of truth comes in those times, I think, and we understand in the Spirit, healing can come. And we’ll be able to move forward.

The wisdom of the Holy Spirit is when we know the hope of resurrection in places where lifeless wreckage seems to have the center of attention.   As in when communities suffer from horrific flooding or terrible tornadoes that ravage homes and businesses, and still the community comes together to help recover and clean up.  The Holy Spirit stirs our consciences and guides us to get our there and help to make the effort.

The gift of the Holy Spirit is what keeps us having faith when we hear of another shooting.   As in when former Red Sox superstar David Ortiz aka “Big Papi” got shot in the Dominican Republic.  The Boston Red Sox organization flew him back to Boston, and he is now recovering after major surgeries.  Can you see the wisdom of God here?  David Ortiz long ago retired.  Yet, the ball club took care of him and brought him back home. Somewhere someone was saying, “we are family.”

This is the gift of the Spirit. It is when we realize a shift out of a frozen state and are being brought back to life occurs.   As in when as a nation, we’re finally starting to address the serious mental illness epidemic we face in our country and worldwide.  I think the Spirit of truth is guiding us to perceive that mental illness is a main issue in the core of our mass shootings or rampant gun violence.

 Life happens.  We know that.  And God says that wisdom and understanding are always present, in all circumstances of life.  The good.  The bad.  The ugly.  At the heights.  At the lows.  At the crossroads.  Right on the square of High Street and Market Street, at the busiest intersection.  Right where the traffic is thickest, or thinnest, out on the country roads and back roads.  God’s wisdom is God’s truth.  Wisdom is a touchstone of our faith.

I’ve always associated the word ‘touchstone’ as something you can refer back to just to be sure you’re on the right track.  It’s like a bench mark, or setting of the bar.  A criterion for high quality, excellence.  Companies that have vision statements use them as touchstones in the sense that the statements reflect the core values of the company, and the goal is that everything the company does is supposed to have that criterion as a fundamental part.

 When Walt Disney was starting to build his corporation, he started out with a simple vision statement: “To make people happy.”  Short.  Sweet.  To the point.  It was his touchstone in that everything he wanted the company to do had this one vision at heart.  Every movie.  Every character.  Every fantasy.  Every musical show.  Every parade.  Every thrill ride.  Every display area.  Every one of their theme parks.  Every hotel.  Every train ride. Every cruise. Everything Disney was designed to make people happy (https://www.reference.com/business-finance/disney-s-vision-statement-say-company-2df08b9830aa0412, retrieved June 14, 2019).  It was the touchstone for Walt Disney.

 We have the Spirit of truth and wisdom as a touchstone for us on our faith journeys.  Jesus promises that the spirit of truth comes to us as our lives grow in readiness to receive it.  There is still so much that the Spirit of truth wants to say to us, but we cannot bear it until we, too, are led and guided and are formed by a life lived in the Holy Spirit.  And a life lived in the Holy Spirit leads us to God’s wisdom which grows from faith and best faith practices.

Jesus is our best example.   He is our touchstone of faith.  Jesus knew that life was happening to him—in all its ugliness.  He knew this was his last night.  He knew he would love to share more of God’s truths with the disciples, but their hearts weren’t ready.  All through their life with him, Jesus showed them that he was the Son of God.  Yet they needed to be led into this truth by the Holy Spirit. They needed to learn the truth experientially through his passion, death, and resurrection.  He assures them that the Spirit will guide them into this deep truth that glorifies God.

 The living Spirit of Jesus is the Holy Spirit that came on the first Pentecost to the Jewish Christians.   And on the second Pentecost experience when the Gentile Christians received the Holy Spirit, and Peter learned that “truly God shows no partiality” (Acts 10:34).

 It comes to us!  The living Spirit of Jesus Christ keeps coming to us.  Christ’s Spirit keeps guiding us into deeper truths as we grow in faith and readiness to receive God’s wisdom in our lives.  Jesus is, I believe, Emmanuel.  God with us all.  Today.  Now.  In all of life.

The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Jesus, reflecting God’s message and values.  The Holy Spirit keeps Christ alive in our hearts and our journeys.  The Holy Spirit’s gifts are not found primarily in speaking in tongues and Pentecostal drama and in the high moments of Confirmation, Baptism, Holy Communion, etc.,  but mostly in living in the way of Jesus, in the basics of life, in the welcoming, embracing, healing, and nurturing we do.  Living with God’s core values, I think.

 So, Christ’s words in scripture have the highest authority and the deepest wisdom in comparison to say, the words of Paul, or the writings of Moses, or the prophets.  All of their words point to Jesus as the touchstone of faith.  Which means Jesus’ words are the benchmark, reflecting excellence, illustrating God’s core value of love for all people and all creation.

 Dear friends, know this: the gift of the Holy Spirit guides us to the hope we have in Jesus.  We can entrust our lives to him.  He is the head of our church, and in his name we are free to love one another and share that love with people who are hurting and long to experience of God’s core values of love, acceptance, forgiveness and mercy, to experience of the new life that God provides.

Once, long ago, people believed they could not look upon the face of God and live.  Now, we are invited to look at the face of God in Jesus and live as we’ve never lived before,  with God’s wisdom and Jesus as the touchstones of our faith.  It all becomes real when we live a life formed in the presence of the Holy Spirit.

Amen.

 

Life Without Chains

 Revelation 22 (assorted verses)  Rev. Dr. Galen E. Russell III

 Acts 16: 16-34             June 2, 2019

“… immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened.”

Prayer:  Come, Holy Spirit, Come!  Please let your Spirit speak to us, invigorate us, and set us free so serve you.  Amen.

 Sunday, two weeks ago, billionaire investor and philanthropist Robert F. Smith, gave a commencement speech to the graduating class at Morehouse College, Atlanta, Georgia.  It started out as a typical commencement speech, with a little bit of his background, how his education helped him along the way, etc.  Robert Smith told the graduates how he launched his career that enabled him to accumulate great wealth, in the billions.  But then, he deviated away from his prepared remarks and said, “My family is going to create a grant to eliminate your student loans!”   The grads and their families were speechless for a moment—before erupting in cheers and shouts of disbelief.  Morehouse President Davis Thomas said, “There was amazement in the room, people’s mouths dropped open.”  “Students were looking at each other like, ‘What did he say?.’”  Apparently the President said, Can you imagine the feeling of freedom?  Can you imagine the relief?

Estimates are that the cost of Robert Smith’s gift to the 2019 all-male graduates of this historically black college could be in the $10 million range (https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/2019/05/19/billionaire-robert-f-smith-pledges-pay-off-morehouse-college-class-s-student-loans/?utm_term=.8d38079b2b97, retrieved May 31, 2019).

 There are 396 graduates in the class, and most of them are leaving school shouldering a ton of debt in student loans. But, suffice it to say, the chains of their financial obligations are gone.

This is a very good thing because this could and should alter their lives altogether!  African Americans and some other non-white groups are still chained to centuries of by-products from legal enslavement, legalized discrimination in employment, housing, education, and health care.  The massive racial wealth gap in America is clear when the median white family’s net worth of $171,000 is ten times that of the median black family’s net worth (from the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, 2016).  So, at least those graduates aren’t chained to financial debt on top of the other residual chains many experience.

Today’s story from Luke has several types of chains which hold people down, or control people, or detain people.  There’s the chain of slavery.  The slave girl with a spirit of divination is owned by someone else.  She’s the property of that person. She’s not free to move about as she wishes, to go wherever as she chooses.  She’s chained down by her owners.

The owners have the chain of dependency.  They are chained to the girl, dependent on her as their major source of income.  So, when Paul commands the spirit to come out of her in the name of Jesus Christ, it unchains her owners from their source of livelihood, which upsets them so much that they convince the magistrates and the crowd to beat Paul and Silas and throw them into prison.

Paul and Silas are held by literal chains in prison, and the jailer is chained by the fear of death if any prisoner happens to escape under his watch.  But, he’s also chained spiritually by Roman pagan beliefs.

 We all have our own chains, don’t we if we think about it?  Don’t we deal with our own brands of detainment at times?  Our own way of causing our own cell blocks some times?   I mean some people are chained to their addictions. Drugs, alcohol, gambling, money, you name it. Some are in the cell block of lying and constantly manipulating the truth.   Some are fastened to prejudices against other people unlike themselves.  Some know the chains of loneliness and lack of companionship, some are into their phones all the time.

 We see on the news all the time that people chain others by violence.   We see the chains of arrogance, selfishness, amoral actions, bullying, even at the highest levels of government worldwide.

 But, the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ is that God keeps coming back to us in our enslavement, and can love us back to life in our deaths.  God enters into our jail cells, regardless of how we got in there, and can earthquake the walls that hold us to crumbling.  God keeps reaching into the dirt of our lives, regardless of how we got dirty, and opens the doors.  God keeps resurrecting us from our graves, regardless of the our death-inducing choices, and the chains get unfastened.

 This past week, a yoga instructor named Amanda Eller was rescued after being lost in the jungle of Maui for 17 days!  Being lost is experiencing a different type of chain.  She broke her leg. She got a severe sunburn. She stayed alive by eating insects, wild berries, drinking stream water, and sleeping in the mud trying to keep warm, which, by the way, she doesn’t recommend.  In a Facebook video recorded from her hospital bed she said,  “Seeing the way that the community of Maui came together … just under the idea of helping one person make it out of the woods alive, just warms my heart.  And just seeing the power of prayer and the power of love when everybody combines their efforts, is incredible,” she added.  “It could move mountains” she said.  Every single step was ‘I choose life.  That was the only thing that kept me going” (https://nypost.com/2019/05/25/how-yoga-teacher-amanda-eller-survived-17-days-lost-in-a-hawaiian-jungle, retrieved May 31, 2019).  And she painstakingly stepped out in to the open when a helicopter hovered overhead.  And the chain of being lost was unfastened.

Nadia Bolz-Weber tells the story of how one of her church members named Michael had given up on life.  He got into a motel room alone in central Oregon with a razor in hand.  He had bled out, but managed not to die.  Someone found him and called 9-1-1.  In the hospital, the ER doc asked if he had any family.  “Just a brother, but we’re not close,” he said.  Well, this “not-close” brother flew from Denver to Oregon, picked Michael up and brought him to his home in Denver, broken body and spirit and all.  This is where Michael learned to breathe again after he tried to stop breathing altogether.

 Three months later, Michael heard Nadia preach a sermon at Red Rocks Amphitheater, outside of Denvera , bout God reaching into our graves and loving us back to life.  He wasn’t a church-goer at all at that time, but he began right then.  And now, he’s found new life in Denver.  The doors that were once closed opened up. The chains once holding him were unfastened. (Bolz-Weber, Nadia, Pastrix, Jericho Books, New York, 2013, p. 170 and following).

I know life without chains doesn’t happen to everyone in the same way.  I know that for some the chains are on for long, long periods of time.  I know things don’t always work out in the ways we think should be best. One group of students have their loans paid off.  Most don’t.  One person gets rescued and another dies.  One person doesn’t bleed out, and another finds the end of life. I know such things push back on our sense of fairness.

But, life without chains is not about equalizing life and everything becoming fair.  It isn’t about us being perfect or being made perfect.  It doesn’t look like us being wonderful specimens in God’s showcase, either.  Being all good and nice and everything.

Life without chains is where God’s ways are visible.  It can be awkward and discomforting.  Like when you are graced when you don’t deserve grace—that’s a weird place, isn’t it? Or, when you offer grace when the other person doesn’t deserve it at all, either.

 Life without chains looks like finding meaning in loving actions.   It looks like singing in the face of evil or adversity.  Having hope in dire circumstances.  It looks like a recovering alcoholic at an AA meeting, sitting with a sponsor or in the group. Life without chains looks like reconciling with your neighbor, whether you’re right or wrong.  It looks like forgiveness.  It looks like inclusivity in the face of systemic and embedded exclusivity.   Life without chains makes you new on the inside.

I believe God invites us to have a life without the chains.  God invites us to come! If you desire a life without chains, Come! If you hunger and thirst for God, come!  If you long for the amazing grace and love of Christ, Come!   If death is holding you back, remember death couldn’t hold Christ down.  And a life full of meaning and love, deep joy and surprise, spiritual nourishment in community will all be yours.

Let anyone who wishes, take this water of life as a gift.  Imagine the new life!  Imagine the amazing grace!  Imagine being set free!  Come, says our Lord Jesus!

 My chains are gone, I’ve been set free!

Please stand and sing with me.

 Amazing grace, how sweet the sound

That saved a wretch like me

 I once was lost, but now I’m found

Was blind but now I see.

 ‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear

And grace my fears relieved

 How precious did that grace appear

The hour I first believed.

 My chains are gone,

I’ve been set free,

My God, my Savior has rescued me

 And like a flood, God mercy reigns

 Unending love, Amazing grace.

 The Lord has promised good to me

His word my hope secures

 God will my shield and portion be

As long as life endures.
 My chains are gone,

I’ve been set free,

My God, my Savior has rescued me

And like a flood, God mercy reigns

Unending love, Amazing grace.

 the earth shall soon dissolve like snow

The sun forbear to shine

 But God, who called me here below,

Will be forever mine.

Will be forever mine.

You are forever mine.

My chains are gone,

I’ve been set free,

My God, my Savior has rescued me

 And like a flood, your mercy reigns

Unending love, Amazing grace.

 And like a flood, your mercy reigns

Unending love, Amazing grace.

 

And the Walls Come Tumblin' Down

 John 13: 31-35             Rev. Dr. Galen E. Russell III

Acts 11: 1-18    May 19, 2019

 “… the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, ‘Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?’ ”

Prayer:  Holy God, lift us please, from where we are to where you intend us to be as we serve you and practice your way of love, through Jesus Christ we pray. Amen.

As I studied the scripture texts for today and entered into my regular sermon discernment, the rock n roll song by John Cougar Mellencamp “Crumblin’ Down,” kept coming back to my mind.  The song is a hit from 1983; probably most of us have heard it.  Here’s the chorus:  “When the walls come tumblin’ down, when the walls come crumblin,’ crumblin,’ When the walls come tumblin,’ tumbling’ down.

The song is sort of a coming of age song, not so much about growing out of adolescence into adulthood, and all that that means, but more so about discovering what it means to grow out of the societal, or cultural, or familial expectations or trappings that are like walls that prevent you from becoming who you are, or who God calls you to be, so that you have freedom to be who you are.  And, when that happens, a whole new world opens up, and the old walls come tumbling down.  The song sings that you’d better stand clear when the walls come tumblin’ down—because everything is going to change.

 A brief biblical background for tour scripture texts… In Jesus and Peter’s day, there is this major cultural divide between the Jewish people and the non-Jewish people, or the Gentiles.  Jewish people were the well-established.  They were religious and lived by Moses’ law, which included dietary rules.  They practiced circumcision for health and sanitary purposes, and the practice served for Jewish men to have an identifying mark setting them apart from the Gentile men.

 On the other hand, the Gentiles were considered “outsiders” to the Jewish religion and were unclean.  They were considered pagans because they didn’t believe in the one true God.  In fact, many of them believed in many gods.  Gentiles were considered to be unsanitary in basic living,  they had no dietary restrictions, and the Gentile men were uncircumcised.  In general,  the Gentiles were unwelcomed by those in the Jewish community, and the two groups could not be more different and distinct. The cultural walls between the two groups were built up.  They did not relate to one another.

Then Peter has this dream.  We read it from Acts 11, but Acts 11 is actually the retelling of the dream, almost word for word from Acts 10.  All of Acts 10 is the story of the dream happening for the first time and all the circumstances going around it.  A side note… generally speaking, if an author repeats something right away, take note.  It is something important, so pay attention here, the author is saying.

If you get a chance, read chapter 10 of Acts.  It’s a fascinating story.  Because remember the story of Pentecost?  We will hear that story again on Pentecost Sunday (June 9th— Confirmation Sunday).  That story was about when the Holy Spirit descended upon the Jewish people who believed Jesus was the Christ.  And, they were filled with the power of the Holy Spirit!  They spoke in tongues and for the first time worshiped as followers of Christ.  We consider that day to be the birthday of the Christian Church.

 Acts 10 is the story of how the Holy Spirit fell upon the Gentiles afterward!!  And they spoke in tongues and worshiped as followers of Christ, like the Jews did earlier.

So, Peter’s dream is this vision of the Spirit instructing Peter, this practicing Jew, to eat unclean, Gentile food!  The message worth repeating is that  in Jesus Christ, God is breaking down the walls between Jew and Gentile, between circumcised and uncircumcised, between the believer in one God and those who believed in many gods.

Peter ate and drank with those from a different religion, a different way of life.  He was criticized for doing that.  But God gave them the same gift of the Spirit.  Peter says, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality” (Acts 10:34)  Wow!  And the walls come tumblin’ down!  You hear ‘em?

Luke, who is the author of Acts, wants his readers to get it!  He describes the church developing in a way that it is meant to develop.  Barriers get broken down.  Those considered as “outsiders” are now full-fledged members of the emerging Christian movement.  God’s acceptance of others is based not on religion, or nationality, or sexuality.  God’s acceptance of others is based on divine blessing! It’s God’s idea.

 All these generations later, I wonder if we are supposed to be practitioners of the same divine, inclusive blessing!  Because God loves diversity, I believe.  Should we be open to the varieties of divine revelation and religious experience, greeting diversity with hospitality?  The church I think is to embrace diversity, whether ethnically, racially, theologically, or sexually.  Because it’s meant to reflect God’s diversity.  Embrace does not always mean acceptance of all behaviors and opinions, but it means having an openness to the legitimate experiences that others have… And the walls come tumblin’ down!

On Thursday last week, a pastor from the Elizabethtown Ministerium said to me, “I wanted to ask you about something you said in your sermon at the Lenten worship service.”  He recalled the story about the three distinct rivers on earth that don’t meet, but their evaporated waters meet in the sky and water the earth and its people indiscriminately.  The metaphor speaks of God’s divine blessing shared with all people of the earth indiscriminately.  He said, “Then you believe that all people get to heaven?”  I said, “Yes, I believe so.  Jesus came because God so loved the world… not just a group of individuals who say and believe the right things.  Whether in this life or in the next, I believe all encounter the risen Jesus.”  I wish I would have remembered the story from Acts 11… I might have been able to quote, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”  He said, “Well I disagree with your liberal theology.”  “That’s fine,” I said.  God works through us despite our differences… Hopefully when the walls come tumblin’ down.

It’s not about one of us being right and the other is wrong.  It’s about being open to the experiences other people have and believing that God is working in the midst of them.

 It’s about believing that Christ ushered in the Age of God’s Grace, and we’re called to live that way.  Didn’t he transform the old law of Moses into a new covenant of God’s love and grace, mercy and forgiveness, inclusion and welcome, new life and resurrection?  Aren’t we supposed to live as people of grace?  As people of the resurrection?

So, I went to two Ministerium meetings last week.  I told you about my experience at Thursday’s meeting.  On Tuesday, however, our UCC’s Lancaster Association Ministerium met, and the topic was capital punishment.  Our speaker was a pastor who served as a chaplain for prisoners on death row.  We began to explore why we have capital punishment, the act of legally taking a life because the incarcerated person took someone else’s life.

We discussed the perception that our culture might be stuck in the old law of Moses and not the new age of grace brought in by Christ.  The eye-for-an-eye mentality is that justice means getting even, enacting revenge.  Justice is not thought of as seeking fairness and restoration of broken relationships  through means of grace and love.  We discussed how we’ve gotten this way as a culture, as a society.

My thought is that the message of Christ’s new covenant of grace and love, forgiveness and mercy are drowned out by society’s and political leader’s louder voices—voices of revenge and myopic understandings of justice.  Our societal practices follow right along those with the louder voices.

 What if though, the progressive church loudly spoke a different message in our culture?  What if we spoke about and  the practiced love, mercy, forgiveness, loudly?  What if we lived the word of God, even if we can’t get our heads around it?  That’s what faith is for.  We are asked to have faith in the way of Christ.  The way of God’s grace.  What if, on faith, we changed the message people hear?  Revenge, intolerance, inhospitality, exclusivity - what if they all get drowned out by speaking out and living out the messages of love and grace, mercy and forgiveness, inclusion and welcome, new life and resurrection.

 Change the voice people hear, change the world.

Change the message people hear, change the world.

Change the practices we engage in, change the world.

And the walls come tumblin’ down.

Jesus’ words we hear in the gospel of John are words he said to his disciples at the Last Supper.  His words - they’re from  a dying man who knows he has very little time left.  Like a man dying on hospice care,  he wants his family to hear his last words—words of supreme importance, words that are his legacy, words that have the power to change the world.  He is calling on them and all his followers to love.    To love one another.  This dying man wants God’s love to reign supreme, for love to be the loudest voice, for love to by the identifying mark on a person that reveals that they are saved by God and a follower of Christ.

 Will we, as Christ’s followers carry on that legacy?  Will we speak that message with the loudest voice?  If not us, then who?  If not the church, then what institution?  Can we be the church that is Spirit led?  That reaches out to victims of injustice?  That out of love becomes a partner in Christ’s ministry?

 The good news is that Christ’s dying words were not his last words or actions.  God raised Jesus from the dead, and the risen Christ continues to reach to us in our hearts, in our spirit.  Through the power of the Holy Spirit, Christ continues to show us how to love each other each new day.

 And what happens?  The walls come tumblin’ down.  Crumblin,’ crumblin.’  When the walls come tumblin,’ tumblin’ down.  Amen.

Let’s stand and sing our hymn.  Amen.

 

Everything that Breathes is in the House

 Psalm 96: 11-12           Rev. Dr. Galen E. Russell III

 Job 12: 7-10     April 28, 2019

Luke 6: 43-49              Earth Sunday

 “In his hand is the life of every living thing, and the breath of every human being.”

Prayer:  O Holy God, Creator and Author of all life, we hear your word and feel the inspiration of your Spirit.  Lead us, we pray, toward deeper faithfulness in the stewardship of the earth and everything within it.  Amen.

When our son Joel was just about two and a half years old, he was just beginning to say simple words.  We had a cat, and of course, he could say “cat” whenever he saw the cat in our home.   Well, in late October, we took a trip through Yellowstone National Park.  There was that big fire that summer, and the main crowds had all departed, and the roads were practically deserted.   We were driving slowly, and we came upon a herd of huge bison walking on the road.  I mean they were BIG and right outside our car!  We were amazed at how comfortable they were with us driving next to them.  Joel was sitting in his car seat in the back, and pointing to every huge bison saying, “Cat!  Cat!  Cat!”

Of course, for a two and a half year old mind, generalization makes every animal a cat.  But, as time goes along, and learning occurs, awareness gets deepened, and perspectives change. We learn and grow.

I think the same is true when we think about our planet earth, our environment, and the species of our world.   For example, for centuries, people thought the earth was the center of the universe.  Then, with the invention of the telescope, all that changed.   The sun was thought of as the center; but even that changed as telescopes got better and astronomy became more advanced.  Our sun is but a medium sized star among billions of stars, which is part of our galaxy which is among  billions of galaxies sitting in a huge cluster of astronomical branches that looks kind of like a nerve ending in the universe.  Mind blowing!

 Our planet earth is magnificently situated around our sun  in what’s called the “Goldilocks Zone.”  It’s not too hot because it’s not too close to the sun.  It’s not too cold by being too far away from the sun.  It’s sitting just right… in the right orbit around our sun for liquid water to exist.   Mars is too far away from the sun—all it’s atmosphere was stripped away by solar winds.  So, it’s way too cold for life as we know it.  Venus is way too close to the sun, and it’s carbon dioxide gases have created a green house effect, sealing in the heat—over 900 degrees Fahrenheit on the surface.  We can’t live there.  But, earth… is just right!

 Planet earth is the house in which we live.  “Some say the world is God’s garden.  Beauty for all to enjoy.  Birds and bees, flowers and trees.  God saw everything was good” my song says.  The psalmist wrote, “Let the heavens be glad.  Let the earth rejoice!”  And, “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof...”  Our earth, the Garden of Eden.  The Garden of Eden, our house.  And you remember from Genesis, God called this garden good.  Our house is good.

 The words from Psalm 150 sing “Let everything that breathes praise the Lord.”  Animals.  Birds.  Aquatic creatures.  Plants.  Everything that breathes is in the house.  Everything that breathes is good and praises God.  It has God’s life force in it.

 Everyone knows breathing is maintaining life.  Oxygenated air gives our bodies life.  Our lungs change it to carbon dioxide.  Plants and trees breathe in carbon dioxide and turn it into oxygen.  It’s cyclical.  It is good.

Fish in water breathe in soluble oxygen through their gills.  Water evaporates into the sky, forming clouds, which falls as rain upon the earth, refreshing and restoring the oxygen in water for fish and other aquatic creatures to breathe.  It’s cyclical.  It is good.

Even in his hardship, Job knows that all the species of the earth, sea, and skies testify to the power of God’s creative life-giving energy.  Job declares that God’s work is evident in all that lives on the earth.  God cares for every living thing.  All creation bears witness to the goodness of the earth, and the goodness of life on this planet.

Especially human beings.   For we are created in God’s image.  That makes us co-creators with God on this earth.  That makes us co-caretakers with God on this earth.  We are co-reconcilers with God.  Co-restorers.  Co-protectors of the life on this earth and all living things.  God works with us.  It’s a covenantal relationship that we have with God.  It is cyclical.  It is good.  We are good.

 I think it helps to grow deeper in this goodness,  in this ‘co-covenant with God’ perspective.  Because then we start to see things with God’s eyes.  That means we are better able to resist the lazy urge to take for granted all the resources we have here on the planet.  If we’re working with God, do you think we are more likely to pushback against the I don’t care attitudes regarding the different species of plant and animal life?  As co-restorers with God, maybe we are better able to stand firm against the opposition to global warming which is happening and which science supports is happening?  If we’re working with God as co-protectors, might we be more likely to deepen our respect for all creation, to revere the earth, to care for this house and protect everything that breathes in it?  And to praise God for all this?

The respect for this house and everything within it is learned.  It grows in us if we let it.  Sometimes the growth takes a jarring experience to jump start that growth, though.  When I finished my freshman year in college, before going home, I went to the home of my college fraternity brothers in southern Illinois.  One day we decided to go hunting just for fun. We were out in the woods, and these guys were picking off some birds for the heck of it.  I found a bird in some branches in a bush.  I lined it up in my sights.  I stared at it down the gun barrel.  And stared at it.  And stared at it.  I stared at it so much that it blended in among the branches, and I couldn’t see it anymore.  I knew it was there, so I just closed my eyes and squeezed the trigger.  Closing my eyes made me move just slightly, and my bullet only injured the poor thing.  My college buddy made fun of me later saying that he had to come up and finish the job.  My heart broke, and I knew I could never be a hunter for sport, just for the heck of it.  I can and have hunted to eat. If you can call fishing as hunting for food. But, the point is,  one must learn to enlarge the perspective that all life is precious. We learn respect for living things.  For life in this house.  All life is good.

 We are good.  Inherently good.  Jesus teaches that if one is good within, then goodness comes out in our actions.  He invites us to come to God, hear the word of God through Jesus, and act.  Being made in the image of God helps us to act, I think, as co-creators with God, co-covenant makers.   We see divinity in all things.  We see God’s life-energy living in all creatures.  We offer care and compassion, wisdom and healthy oversight into the care of everything that breathes.  For we all live in this house.  Together.  Amen.

 

Lenten Community Sermon - What are We Carrying THAT For?

Isaiah 53: 3-6   Rev. Dr. Galen E. Russell III

Hebrews 10: 11-25       April 10, 2019

“Let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.”

Prayer:  Holy God, let us, in our sanctified state, be people who reflect your life living in us.  Amen.

Some of you know that I was born in Hawai’i and lived there for the first ten years of my life.  I remember going to the beach a lot, practically every Sunday afternoon.  We’d get home from church, eat a quick lunch, and my parents would load up the car with a picnic dinner, and off we’d go.  I remember all I was responsible for was to take was my towel.  Mom and Dad packed everything else.  Then we moved to Illinois when I was almost 10 years old— in the middle of winter—that’s a whole ‘nother sermon!

So, the beach wasn’t part of my life again, until many years later, until after I got married, had kids, and moved to Pennsylvania.  And, believe me, I had an eye-opening awakening as a young parent taking kids to the beach!  So long to the good ol’ days of ‘going to the beach with only a towel!’  Instead, WE (because you know parenting is a “we” proposition) took the playpen, sand toys, regular toys, baby bottle, baby bag, baby blankets, baby stroller, not to mention the goggles, the boogie boards, nerf football, umbrellas, 2 lawn chairs, and so on.  Half the time I grumbled, “What are WE carrying THAT for?” All the games, the toys - weighed me down. Except when it came to the cooler—I understood why we carried that!  No, why I carried that!

But, once I got to the beach, once the car was unpacked, and the stroller unloaded, umbrellas set up, and mom and baby daughter were settled, four year old son and I enjoyed the blessings of the beach.  The warm waters.  Body-surfing waves.  Pleasant breeze.  Putting on goggles looking at fish.  Ah! The memories of Hawai’i  come flooding back.

Of course, going to the beach meant carrying physical objects, but as always, the physical life has its parallels in our spiritual lives.  So, let me ask us—what spiritual baggage do we carry around that weighs us down?  What gets in the way of us being authentically redeemed people of God?  People whose lives are blessed because our Savior bore our infirmities?  Our Savior who carried our diseases?  Who was wounded and crushed for our iniquities and transgressions?

If Christ truly bears our sins, carries our spiritual baggage, what are WE carrying them for?  Seriously.  If the redemption of the whole human race took place, and we are healed and made whole, we have no business holding on to our sinful baggage.

But we do, don’t we?  Erika Bentsen is a Daily Guideposts author tells a story of how she gave up crossword puzzles last year for Lent.  She describes herself, little by little, letting her love of crossword puzzles take a dominant role in her life.  She said that she got to the point that if she found a crossword puzzle anywhere, she would drop what she was doing, and do the puzzle.  Often, she would put things off to do a puzzle.  Sometimes she would pretend to listen when someone was talking to her when really she was working the crossword puzzle.  She would bring home the classified ads just for the puzzle inside.  Erika started making decisions to accommodate her habit of doing crosswords.  She craved doing them.  She didn’t realize how addicted she had become.  She realized that she had been serving crosswords like a god, wasting so much time on games

That’s the insidiousness of sin.  It can be subtle.  It can be clever.  It can quietly pull you in without you even knowing it.  Ericka had to start asking herself, “Whom do you serve?  Or, better, what do you serve?” Really.  So, she decided to give up crossword puzzles for Lent.  That was last year.  Her giving it up helped her re-shape her priorities in life, not just for Lent, but going forward.  Once she did permanently, she found new freedom to do other things.  She no longer is in a rush to do the puzzles.  She no longer craves them.  Instead, she chose not to carry the sin of making a god (with a little “g”) out of something other than God “with a big “G”)  in her life (Bentsen, Erika, Daily Guideposts 2019, Guideposts, NY, 2019, pg. 108).

So, let me ask you—how many of you gave up something for Lent?  [show of hands]  Excellent!  Good for you!  Lent gives us the opportunity to give up something because it mirrors the hard work we must do of making God the only God we worship, which, of course, means we must make the moral decision consciously to give up things in life that get in the way of God and living out God’s ways.

I wish we as a culture, as a society, as people of faith, would do the hard work of giving up sins that we continue choosing to carry in life.  I mean why do we continue carrying the sins of racism, supremacism, exceptionalism?  These are sins.  And they stem from the belief  and the feeling that there is superiority of one race, of one people, of one society over another, which often results in discrimination and prejudice towards others.

We separate people out, we discriminate, but God does not.  So, what are we carrying that for?  Seriously.  If Christ offered for all time a single sacrifice for sin, why do we hang on to these?  Those sins are supposed to die out in us because we’re supposed to be perfected by Christ for all time.  We’re supposed to see Christ in others, aren’t we?

In her book “Dakota: A Spiritual Geography,” Kathleen Norris tells a story that comes from a Russian Orthodox monastery.  A seasoned monk, very accustomed to welcoming everyone, all the guests, says to a young monk, “I have finally learned to accept people as they are.  Whatever they are in the world, could be a prostitute, or a prime minister, it is all the same to me.  But sometimes,” the monk continues, “I see a stranger coming up the road and I say, ‘Oh, Jesus Christ, is it you again?’”

We are all human beings, friends.  We are all one species on this planet.  We are much more alike than we are different.  The beauty is that we are diverse, and Christ died for all of us.  Christ took on the sins of the world - everyone in it.

So, why do we continue to practice the sins of exclusivism?  And, homophobia-ism?  And misogyny and male chauvinism?  The #MeToo movement is calling out the sins of sexual oppression.  What are we carrying these for?  I mean seriously.  If we identify with Christ’s death, then, don’t we have to make a moral decision  not just giving exclusivism up for Lent, not just suppressing it for a while… but instead, don’t we have to put it on the cross where Christ died? Where it is supposed to die out from us?  Doesn’t the gospel speak words that set people free?  Not words that keep them in their chains!

The list goes on and on… violence, bullying, cheating to get one’s kids into college (what is up with that?) … even in our churches, denominationalism often says “my church is the right church.”  What are WE carrying THAT for?  Don’t we know that God is at work in many churches with such differing ideas and theologies  because God is reaching as many people as possible through all of our churches?  Don’t we know that there are other religions in the world because God is reaching others through them?

Two Sundays ago I shared what Raimon Pannikar, a renowned scholar of religion had to say.  He used the analogy of the world’s great rivers.  The Jordan, the Tiber, and the Ganges all nourish the lives of those who live near their banks.  One flows through Israel, mostly nourishing the Jews and Muslims, one through Rome for Christians, one through India for Hindus.  None of these rivers meet on earth, but evaporated waters from each meet in the heavens, he said, and form into clouds that rain down over all the earth.  In the same way, religions of the world remain distinct on earth, but they meet in God.  They morph into the Spirit, which is then poured out into innumerable lives all over the world (Taylor, Barbara Brown, “My Holy Envy,” Christian Century, March 13, 2019, p. 29).  Isn’t it time that we put the sins of denominationalism and religism on the cross?

I believe we have to do the hard moral work of putting our spiritual sins and baggage on the cross, letting Christ’s crucifixion kill off the “isms” we carry.

And, God is present in this holy work we do.  And in Christ, God opens the doorway to a full, abundant life for us.  We can approach God with all of who we are.  Jesus bore our sins, so our hearts become true and pure.  Our consciences are sprinkled clean.  And we find God’s beach.  We find the blessing of the warm water, and the breaking waves, and the pleasant breeze.  We find the wonders of God’s beautiful, metaphorical Hawai’i in our spiritual lives. Or whatever it is for you.  It may not be the beach.  You may find God’s mountain resort.  You may find God’s beautiful fields of bloom.  You may find God’s presence in your family room, living room, in your kitchen, in your church.  Wherever you find the wonders of God’s grace.

And, the door opens for Christ to rise in you.  So, that you may live, but not you; instead, it’s Christ who lives in you, and the old you is gone. It is  permanently changed going forward.  Easter is coming. Easter is here. You have a new life.  You have Christ’s strength to draw on… he overcame all our griefs and sins to bear. 

So, it’s time. Time to unload our baggage.  Give up our sins..  Time to live life anew in Christ.  Amen.

 

Shoes for Peace

 John 12: 1-12   Rev. Dr. Galen E. Russell III

 Isaiah 43: 15-21           April 7, 2019

 “As shoes for your feet, put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.”

Prayer:  Holy one, please meet us here in this place, and then send us out to serve you.  Amen.

 Spring has sprung!  Isn’t it wonderful? I love driving anywhere this time of year, don’t’ you?  You can see daffodils and forsythia in full yellow bloom.  The tulips are up, so are the crocuses, and leaves and bushes all have new buds.  Huge fields of wildflowers offer extravagant splashes of vibrant color— we imagine it’s something right off the Creator’s palette.  On the Today Show this past Friday morning, meteorologist Al Roker highlighted a huge portion of southwestern United States in such full bloom that satellites in space were able to see it!  It’s amazing!

Spring comes around every year as an extravagant gift from God’s abundant store.  It helps us break out of the winter’s depressing dreariness.

 And, like any gift, we have to learn to receive it.  Yes, you can say that spring is a fact of life, a season that comes round every year… no big deal.   But, like Alice Walker says in her novel, The Color Purple, “I think it [ticks] God off if we walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.”  So, spring invites us to receive it.  To stop and smell the roses, as the song says.  To just be—in it.  To savor its presence.

In a similar way, the two Mary and Martha stories in the Bible encourage the same thing.  The first story is from Luke where, on the one hand, Martha is buzzing around.  She’s got her shoes on and is in high gear, doing all the things necessary to pull off the dinner gathering where Jesus is the honored guest.  Mary, on the other hand, I imagine has taken off her shoes.  She is content to simply sit at Jesus’ feet and listen to him speak and teach (see Luke 10: 38-42).

In today’s story from John, Martha again is doing all the serving work, pulling the details of this second dinner party together, this time with their brother Lazarus, who is alive again after being dead for four days—Thank you, Jesus!   And, Mary is once again content to let Jesus be her focal point.  To simply be—in his presence.  To savor these moments with him.  To anoint his feet with expensive perfume.

 Because everyone knew that Jesus was a marked man.  Everyone knew that things had gotten dangerous for him and that his time could be short.  They knew that the upper echelon of Jerusalem’s religious leadership were looking for any reason to take him off the streets, and to do away with Lazarus, too.  So, here he was just on the outskirts of Jerusalem, the outskirts of staging a demonstration and parade, the outskirts of the week that would change history forever.   And, Mary just wanted to be… she just wanted to bless him extravagantly while she had the chance.

 Finding strength in God means figuratively taking off our shoes to be in God’s presence sometimes.  To sit and be—in God’s peace.  To savor the moment.  There isn’t anything to do.  No need to even offer a laundry list of prayer requests to God.  Simply quiet the mind enough to enjoy the beauty and the peace of Christ.  To center in and receive God and God’s gift.

 So, I encourage you, if you want, for the time being, take off your shoes.  Literally.  Right now.  Go ahead.  Take them off.  We are in God’s presence.  Remember what God said to Moses?  You’re on Holy Ground.  So, feel free.  Take off your shoes.  [hold up your shoes]

There will be plenty of time to have our shoes on to do
God’s work later.  There will always be the poor to tend to.  There will always be non-peaceful moments we need to respond to.  There is always injustice that needs a rebuttal.  The time will come to put on our shoes back on so we can proclaim the gospel of peace in Christ.  But, for now, Christ is our peace.  Let’s soak in his presence.  [silence]

In the letter to the Ephesians, that’s what the author says—that Christ is our peace (see Ephesians 2: 14)  Listen: “For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.”

 The both groups referred to here are the Jew and Gentiles—that Christ as peace breaks down dividing walls between the two, but easily it could be between the shoe-wearing, task-oriented Martha, and the shoeless, faith-oriented Mary.  Christ bridges the two and says both are important.  Christ is the peace between the pragmatic and deceitful Judas types and the extravagant ‘now’s-the-time-to-break open-the-good-stuff’ Mary.

 In the church, Christ is the peace between people concerned with brick and mortar, budgets and finances, attendance and participation, and the  extravagant mystics and spiritual thinkers.  We need both.   They are the yin and yang of congregational life, spirituality, and our own maturity in the faith.

In our lives, Christ is the peace we need as we balance housework with romance, acts of service with quality time.  Children’s events and date nights.

 God has gotten us through each day as we attempt to balance out.  As we strive to gather at the table authentically, even with our differences.  We break down dividing walls between those differences.  Because Christ is our peace.

This is the new thing God is doing, I believe.  This is the new thing that springs forth.  Can you feel it?   Christ is our peace that can tear down that which separates and divides us.  All the things God did before—when God got you through the most difficult times, when God made a way when there was seemingly no way… remember all that?  Forget about it!  God has something so much better in store!

 With Christ as our peace, it’s like a river that all of a sudden flows in a dry parched desert giving new life to the dry ground.  It’s like the new energy that comes in the quiet, shoeless times in God’s presence to proclaim the gospel of Christ’s peace to any and all.

 For in the quiet, shoeless times with God, we find strength.  In the deepening of faith, we hear the call to put on our shoes of peace.  It is time—not stay in the quiet place.  Not to stay on the mountain top, not to stay in this sanctuary but to come down the mountain to leave this sanctuary, and enter the valley.  Enter the valleys of suffering, of injustice, the places of non-peace.  It’s time to put on our shoes of peace and walk forward with Christ.

We’ve been energized with our shoes off, now it’s time to put them back on.  Go ahead.  Put your shoes back on, if you haven’t already done so!  We move forward with shoes on our feet because God is doing a new thing with us!

 Our vision forward must always be stronger than our memories of the past.   A couple of weeks ago, my good friend and colleague, Rev. Dr. Bill Rader passed away and entered into God’s eternal realm.  I knew Bill for almost twenty years.  He was active in civil rights and fought against racial discrimination all his life.  Five years ago, when he found out I was coming to be the Lead Pastor here at Christ Church, he was quick to tell me that he served here as the Assistant Pastor back in the mid-60’s.  He also shared with me that in 1964, he worked on forming a human rights commission to combat racial discrimination in public school hiring.  He took a stand for racial justice, but that resulted in him losing his job here as the assistant pastor.

Think of how far we’ve come since those days!  Our church’s track record since then shows that we respond with hospitality and welcome to those who long for inclusion.  Years ago, we took in Karen refugees from Myanmar.   For many years we’ve welcomed and embraced members of the LGBTQ community.  Now we’re an Open and Affirming church!   A couple of years ago, we reached out to the Muslim community in Harrisburg with our prayers, love, and mail when they received horrific hate mail.  Remember when we welcomed, ate, and conversed with “Dreamers” who are undocumented immigrants stuck in our nation’s broken immigration system?   And, back in November, we became a Creation Justice Church!

Good memories.  Good movement. But,  our vision forward must always be stronger than our memories of the past.  We put on our shoes of peace.  Because we are going forward believing that God is still speaking, and still acting, today, and we cannot even begin to imagine the new great things that God is about to do, right here at Christ Church.  Right here in E-town!  Right here in PA!  Put on your shoes of peace!  Here we go!  Amen.

 

The Breastplate of Righteousness

Joshua 5: 9-12  Rev. Dr. Galen E. Russell III

Luke 15: 1-3, 11b-32             March 31, 2019

“Stand therefore… and put on the breastplate of righteousness”

Prayer:  O God, as we worship you, may our hearts be rich and full with you and your love and grace.  Amen.

It’s an interesting phrase. Put on the breastplate of righteousness.  Who says that anymore?  It’s not part of or common language.  The word ‘righteous’ means something different than what it used to mean.  But today, ‘righteous’ means the ultimate of anything, especially when bordering on perfection.  As when something is awesome, amazing, cool, exciting, containing the best possible qualities.  The urban dictionary says the term is often associated with surfers, as in “Dude!  That wave was totally righteous!”  I don’t know.  I only heard it on TV.

Webster defines ‘righteous’ as conforming to a standard or a norm.  In Washington D.C. there is a building called the “National Institute of Standards and Technology.”  This facility is responsible for storing perfect, authoritative samples of weights and measurements.  They have what they call “prototypes” of pound weights and kilograms, and measuring rods for feet, yards, and metric measurements like the meters. All other examples are to conform to these authoritative standards. 

When it comes to understanding  biblical ‘righteousness,’ the authoritative standard is God. It’s not the Bible.  And Christians believe it’s God mostly shown in the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  To be righteous means choosing to live a life that is approved by God and conforms to God’s holy character exemplified in Christ (https://www.sermoncentral.com/sermon-illustrations/69432/righteousness-by-sermoncentral?ref=TextIllustrationSerp retrieved March 29, 2019).

But, that’s where the bug-a-boo is… no one can live consistently in ways that are approved by God, conforming to God’s holy character found in Christ.  All of us fall short of that glory.  Sometimes we get selfish like the younger son in the parable who says to his dad that he wants his inheritance early.  He’s tired of hanging around the boring ol’ homestead and can’t wait to get out of town with the money to go spend it as he likes.  No one to tell him what to do.  No one to be  accountable to… no one to be concerned about except himself.

Don’t we sometimes get way out of balance with selfish stuff like that?  Don’t we sometimes get caught up in blowing our money on material things?  Sometimes we get reckless with things that are precious to us.  At times we could care less about being sensitive to other’s circumstances or feelings.  Sometimes we just get plain ol’ burned out, and tired, and we lose interest in conforming to God’s holy character.  At times, I don’t want to stop and help the person broken down by the side of the road.  Sometimes, I don’t feel like being gracious.  Someone else, I figure, will come and help the person. There, I said it. Sometimes I don’t want to recycle. Sometimes I don’t want to wash dishes. I’d rather throw away disposable ones. I laughed the other day when I heard the phrase, “It’s too much for the baby Jesus!”  But, it’s true sometimes, isn’t it?

But then, a day later, or an hour later, whenever, like the younger son who came to himself and remembered his loving father and the goodness of that life and its benefits, something from the embedded depths of our souls comes to our consciousness—and the true meaning of righteousness tugs on our spirit.

And we have a choice—we either remain in the vicious circle of rock bottom living, or put on the breastplate of righteousness, and we stand against the impotency of total selfishness. Some selfishness is OK, I think.  It’s part of the balancing act of life.  But total irresponsible selfishness is out of balance.

To stand therefore, and put on the breastplate of righteousness I think is really listening to and acting on what our inner spiritual lives say.  What our moral and ethical conscience says.  It enables us to stand against the culture’s sins of excessive materialism and consumerism.  It enables us to stand against government’s overblown emphasis on exceptionalism and nationalism.  It enables us to oppose and defy society’s rampant bent on violence and destruction.  The breastplate of righteousness helps us respond to the needs of our planet.

On the religious front, it enables us to come to our senses and turn from the “I have the correct religion,” mentality.  And, “if you don’t believe the way I do, you’re condemned to the eternal  hot place” mentality.  Like the attitude of some Pharisees in Jesus’ day.  Like the perspective of some modern day Christians. Fact is, no one religion has the corner on the market of all of God’s grace-filled and loving ways.  The breastplate of righteousness that we put on enable us to conform to God’s standard and bring the spiritual well being of all others back into that perspective.  To bring the values of God back online and our actions inline with God.  To bring God’s profound sense of inclusivity to the forefront and turn from exclusivity in our religious practices.

I like what Raimon Pannikar, a renowned scholar of religion had to say.  He used the analogy of the world’s great rivers.  The Jordan, the Tiber, and the Ganges all nourish the lives of those who live near their banks.  One flows through Israel, nourishing the Jews and Muslims, one through Rome for Christians, one through India for Hindus.  None of these rivers meet on earth, but evaporated waters from each meet in the heavens, he said, and form into clouds that rain down over all the earth.  In the same way, religions of the world remain distinct on earth, but they meet in God.  They morphed into the Spirit, which is then poured out into innumerable lives all over the world (Taylor, Barbara Brown, “My Holy Envy,” Christian Century, March 13, 2019, p. 29).  Great analogy. I think of God’s inclusive ways for people of difficult religions. 

What about the older son, though?  He was obedient to his father all those years.  The pharisees were deeply religious and very concerned with obeying God’s religious law given to them by Moses.  From the older son and the Pharisee’s perspective, it was the tax collectors and sinners, and the younger son who were lost.  Certainly not them.

So, perhaps putting on the breastplate of righteousness sometimes means staying the course, like the older son did.  He continued to do what was right.  He worked hard and was obedient to his father.  Any wonder why it was shocking to see his lost younger brother welcomed with open arms?

There is goodness and value from this older son’s point of view, don’t you think?.  Obedience to God’s ways means God’s will gets done, doesn’t it?  Obediently standing up against the oppressive sins of this world helps push us to new places of justice, which I believe is God’s will getting done.  In truth, don’t we hope that the younger son’s return would move him more toward the obedient way the older son lived?

A few years ago, the UCC leadership put the pressure on Taco Bell and Campbell Foods by organizing a boycott  because both companies had unfair labor practices for their workers.  The boycott pushed the companies to change their policies reflecting fairer treatment of their field workers. When that took place people went back to taco Bell and started to buying Cream of Tomato soup again. I believe that our UCC was obedient to God’s will and ways and helped to ensure justice was done.

The truth of the parable is that God welcomes everyone with open arms and forgiving grace.  The parable should perhaps be called “Parable of the Loving Father” and not “Parable of the Prodigal Son.”  It’s largely about God.  So, let us find strength in our loving God who seeks us no matter how far we have strayed—whether squandering the gifts God gives us, or being bogged down in resentment when we think our obedience allow only us to benefit.  Why don’t we  share in other’s happiness when God rolls away the sins of the past for them and for me?  All this helps us conform to God’s standard, helping us to embody the true meaning of putting on the breastplate of righteousness.  May we find strength in God when we do this.  Amen.

 

"The Belt of Truth"

Luke 13: 1-9     Rev. Dr. Galen E. Russell III

Isaiah 55: 1-9   March 24, 2019

“Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist...”

Prayer:  Holy One, may we find our strength in you.  May we wrap ourselves in your bands of truth.  Amen.

The Internet is full of whacky things… crazy videos, unbelievable stories, bizarre pictures.  Once in a while, the thoughtfulness and well-meaning intentions of some of our church members will inspire them to send me these whacky sorts of things as email, text, or Instant Messenger.  Just the other day, your friend and my friend Jerry Heilner, sent me this amusing picture…  maybe you’ve seen it?  It had the caption “For fairly obvious reasons, this church in Tampa Bay, Florida, is known as The Church of the Confused Chicken.”  Doesn’t that church look like a confused chicken?  OMGosh!  I quickly wrote back and said, “Yep.  I think it should be a UCC church—it’s members would be Utterly Confused Chickens!

 Make no mistake though, friends, there is a lot that is confusing in our world today.  It’s hard to know what is the truth.  Because sometimes we hear that the truth is subject to “someone’s version” of the truth.   We heard that from former Mayor of New York Rudy Giuliani last August when he infamously declared that “the truth isn’t the truth.”  It was all due to the question of whether or not the president should testify in the Mueller investigation.

 And speaking of the Mueller investigation, politicians and a good portion of John Q. Public want to know the truth.  What does the report say about Russia meddling in our 2016 elections and other pertinent topics?  We don’t know yet as the report was just released to US Attorney General William P. Barr who may decide to withhold some parts of the it from the public.  What’s truth?  What isn’t?

There are truths and falsehoods and someone’s version of the truth on our faith journeys, too.  There are ideas and opinions out there touted as truths that really aren’t.  Do you recall when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans?  Religious conservatives like  Hal Lindsey,  John Hagee,  Franklin Graham, and  Pat Robertson all were convinced that New Orleans was targeted by God because it was a sinful city.  When the earthquake hit Haiti, Pat Robertson said that the country was paying with suffering because it made a pact with the devil.  All of that—not the truth.  But, so often, that’s what people are told to think.

 When the fifty Muslim people were shot and killed in Christchurch, New Zealand last week, did it mean that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Christchurch?  That question is the same question Jesus asks the people of his day.   Jesus point blank challenges what was thought of as truth—that when bad things happen it’s because of sin… like when the Galileans are killed by Pilate as they worshiped… like when the tower of Siloam fell and killed those eighteen people. It was thought those bad things happen because people were sinful, and God is a tyrant, is angry, and is punishing them.  Did they die due to sin?  Jesus says No, not true!

Instead, Jesus points them and us to the real truth.  He knows that death is a fact of life.  It comes to everyone.  But Jesus says , the real truth is, that death is not as powerful as once thought.  And God is not a tyrant, but like a loving parent. By turning to God now—which is repenting—while we live our lives, we can fasten around our waist the truth that God’s grace and love overcome death, even when tragedies strike, both natural and unnatural ones.

And, not just death of the physical body, but any kind of death we experience.  Most of the time, transition means the death of one thing and the birth of another.  Transitioning to a new job often means the death of the old one.  A new relationship usually means effort was made to heal and learn and  move on from the old one, right?  Jesus says that repenting and turning to God helps us when these kinds of death occur.

 It’s not just moments of death, either.  It’s actually more about moments of life, especially when life is just plain difficult.  It doesn’t matter if, say, your life has gotten derailed a time or two, or three.  The belt of truth is, God can set you once again on the right track.  It doesn’t matter that maybe some decisions were poor ones.  God still can redeem.  It doesn’t matter if you hold onto grudges and have a hard time not using the past against others.  God can heal you and make you whole and others will, too.

 To emphasize this truth, Jesus tells a parable about a fig tree that doesn’t produce fruit.  In frustration, the man who planted the tree was ready to uproot it.  But the gardener intercedes and negotiates for an additional year of work, cultivating the soil, working in the fertilizer.  The gardener has hope! Maybe there’s hope  after a little bit of work.

 I remember the first time I got fired from a job.  It was my first real job when I was a freshman in high school.  I worked in a photography studio, filing and sorting photos, sometimes developing new ones.  But, sometimes I would show up late.  Sometimes I would not complete assigned tasks.  I got smudges over the newly developed photos.  I was upset when my employer came to me and told me he had to let me go.  I wasn’t worth keeping because I was undependable.  Ouch!  My parents had to go back to the drawing board with me, taking more time to help me learn a better work ethic, working with me to develop more self-discipline.  When I applied at the local McDonald’s a year later I was ready—I worked as crew member, then a crew chief, and then a swing manager. Yeah, I was a manager of a Mickey D’s.  But that job took me all the way through college.

 Sometimes the business world might tell you you’re not worth it if you don’t produce.  The world might just fill you with false beliefs about yourself or about others.  But, let God work with you for a time, like a year.  Whatever amount of time, let Christ, the gardener come and intervene.  Because where the world sees waste, God sees potential.  Where false beliefs speak of impossibility, God sees possibility.  Imagine what God can do with you when you strap on the belt of God’s truths in our lives! That God sees hope in you!

 We can come to God and find the life-giving spiritual resources needed.  If you’re thirsty for God, come to the waters.  Doesn’t matter if you think you can’t pay—because no payment is required!  No one needs to pay for God’s love.  “Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price,” says Isaiah.  “Eat what is good.  Delight yourselves in the rich food God offers.  Listen, so that you may live.”

If you’re dissatisfied with the lack of spiritual meaning in the world, then why keep trying to find and buy it there?  The world doesn’t provide, so turn from all those false beliefs.  Because the truth is,  God sees you as precious.  God knows you as a child of God.  God loves you with an everlasting love.  Fasten these truths around your heart, friends,  as you would fasten a belt around your waist.  I hope you find strength in God as you fasten this belt of truth around you, and let it permeate deeply into the center of who you are.

 Because the center of who you are affects the outer parts of your life.  The truth about ourselves deep within our interior directly influences our choices, commitments, attitudes, and actions on the exterior of our lives.  With genuine centered connection to God, we live out the truth of God and God’s love for others, sometimes even in the face of much resistance.

For more than ten years, members of the interfaith humanitarian group called No More Deaths have been placing food, clothing, and jugs of water in the Sonoran Desert,, in a national refugee part of it, to aid migrants who have crossed into Arizona from Mexico.  The people from No More Death are mirroring what they believe down deep—that everyone should have access to means of survival; that giving water to the thirsty is an explicit way of following Jesus; that they are serving Jesus himself.  Giving water to all those who thirst is a sign of God’s compassion.  “Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters,” declares Isaiah describing God’s invitation.

During the summer of 2017, four women from No More Deaths entered into vast desert wilderness refuge along the border, left jugs of water and canned food.  They were followed by a U.S. Border Patrol officer who arrested them, charging them with entering the refuge without a permit and “abandonment of property.”  Last month, the judge convicted the women and sentenced them to six months in prison because they “knowingly broke the law.”  And, five more are on trial in the coming months.

Sometimes strapping on the belt of God’s truth deep within your heart and acting on your beliefs can lead to opposition coming from the world that adheres to a  different truth. But, God’s truths are higher than all of our law-filled truths, I believe.  God’s ways are higher than our ways.  So, perhaps the arrests and convictions might lead to political efforts to make adaptations in the law so that generous humane acts for those in need will not be criminalized (“In Search of the Thirsty, Christian Century, February 27, 2019, p. 7).

Have God and God’s love close in your heart, friends—this is the most important thing in life, says Jesus, especially when facing the reality of death and the realities of life.  I encourage you to fasten God’s truth around your heart as you would fasten a belt around your waist.  I hope you find God’s encouragement and strength as you wear God’s belt of truth.  Amen.

 

Standing Up

 Deuteronomy 26: 1-11             Rev. Dr. Galen E. Russell III

 Luke 4: 1-13    March 10, 2019

“Put on the whole armor of God so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.”

Prayer:  May we find our strength in you, O God, as we grow in faith.  Amen.

 Our bulletin cover and the second image for our worship series is a Norman Rockwell painting, one of a set of four called “the Four Freedoms.”  This one is called “The Freedom of Speech” (1943).  It features a working-class man standing up at a town hall meeting to make his passionate point.  Everyone focuses on him.  Everyone is listening.  He is free to say what he believes.  He has a look of strength and determination on his face very likely conveying Rockwell’s conviction that everyone has a right to free speech.

The man standing up in the painting, in one way, stands in support of his right to speak, but in another way, isn’t he also standing as a resistance to anything that denies that right (https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/jonathanjonesblog/2017/feb/07/norman-rockwell-four-freedoms-trump-roosevelt, retrieved March 8, 2019)?  Anytime you say “yes” to something, most of the time, you also simultaneously say “no” to something else.

 In the spiritual life, it is the same way.  When we participated in the Sacrament of Baptism, Lindsi and Andy, Beckett’s parents, stood up here and were asked if they wanted Beckett baptized in the Christian faith, and if they promised to raise him in a Christian home, preparing him for Holy Communion and Confirmation.  To stand up and say “yes” to that not only affirms their belief in God, God’s love for Beckett and for them, they also promise to help Beckett grow in that love, to grow in the Christian faith.

 As soon as they said “yes” to all that, aren’t they also saying “no” to certain things that might deny Becket from receiving that love?  Might they resist anything that would refute Beckett’s full humanity as a child of God?

 God, I believe always works with us when we stand up with strength and conviction for God, God’s values, and God’s ways.   Simultaneously, God is in covenantal partnership with us as we resist fear and the destructive forces in the world that would deny God and God’s values and ways.

Now, our “Finding Strength in God” worship series began last Wednesday night with the conviction that God is first and foremost our strength as we live our lives on the faith journey.   The first line in the text from Ephesians encouraged us to be strong in the Lord and to rely on the strength of God’s power as we face life.

 Going forward, the Ephesian’s passage offers us war and battle imagery that is to encourage us on the faith journey.  “Put on the whole armor of God so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil” it says.  Obviously, these are spiritual metaphors for finding strength in God.

Our author understands that as people seeking God’s strength while living in this world, we will need to be equipped to stand up for God and what God values.   Because there will be temptations to do otherwise.  Several examples: there will be inner urges to fall back on our sense of privilege in order to get what we want or need.   The devil tempted Jesus to use his status and privilege as the Son of God to deal with his hunger.  “Turn these stones into bread,” he said to Jesus.  “You’re the Son of God!”  But Jesus resisted because knew his voracious hunger is for God above anything else, and his status as the Son of God was not to be misused.

Another example, we might be tempted to think that privilege constitutes entitlement, but as we find strength in God, can we be empowered to stand up against this?   Because really, doesn’t privilege confer responsibility? We live a blessed life in many ways. God, I believe blesses our lives for the benefit of others.

 On Martin Luther King Jr. Day last January, a restaurant called JBJ Soul Kitchen served free lunches at one of its restaurants to federal workers furloughed during the government shut down.  JBJ Soul Kitchen is owned by rockstar Jon Bon Jovi.  He said, “Since founding the Soul Kitchen, we wanted to ensure that anyone struggling with food insecurity had a place to go” (Century Marks, Christian Century, February 13, 2019, p. 8).  Jon Bon Jovi’s faith convictions strengthened him as he stood up from a place of privilege to assist those who were underprivileged.

 We will need to stand up against devilish ploys and stunts that will try to get us to ignore God’s ways of grace and humility and seek glory for ourselves.  Jesus was tempted by the devil to make a power grab, to get authority and glory.  Have the world.

Anyone tempted by that?  To have power?  To be the one in control?  Or, the one in charge?  To be the one who sets the rules and desires people to obey them?

But, Jesus knew that true power and authority and glory all belong to God, and it is God alone whom we worship. So spiritually he stood up and resisted the devil’s temptation.

 There is always the temptation to not trust in God or to rely on God’s strength.  There’s an insistence, sometimes from your own thoughts, sometimes from people around you, or from other sources, that you need to rely on your own wherewithal, to do things with your own strength.

Anyone tempted by that?  To pull yourself up by your own bootstraps?  To do things on your own?  To believe that things won’t be done right unless you do it yourself?  Tempted NOT to delegate?  That’s one I have to resist!

 We might hear devilish statements in our consciousness or from the world that speak deceptions to us… that we are not valued by God, that God doesn’t care we exist, that we aren’t good enough to receive  God’s love or love from anyone else.  Or, we might hear subtle seductions that seem innocent enough, but are ruses and trickeries to get you, to slowly catch you.

 A few years ago, a singer/songwriter was interviewed on public radio.  She and the host were talking about the music business and the ways that the big music industry can limit what an artist can do.  The interviewer asked if the singer felt economic pressure to sell out her vision for her own work.  She replied by saying, “It’s not like someone comes up to you and says, ‘We want you to sell out your vision of your work.’  No, what they say is, ‘We want you to talk to our wardrobe consultant,’ or ‘Our people will touch up your photo for the CD cover.’  The moves toward losing yourself,” she said, “are very subtle.  Sometimes you can get pretty far down the road before you know what’s happening”— how the big music industry people all of a sudden now own you (“The Life That Really is Life,” Rev. Mary Hinkle Shore, Journal for Preachers, Lent 2018, p. 42).  It’s subtle subterfuge.

 We might be tempted to think that human dignity is something earned and only for people we like or who think and act like us, or who were born in our country.  But, God I believe gives us strength to stand up against this deception and to see all people as made in God’s image… that all people are children of God.  Every person has a right to human dignity that is upheld by everyone.

 I was amazed at the story of Davidson College Head Coach Bob McKillop who wanted to have his entire basketball team experience the idea that human dignity is needed for everyone.  The way he did it was to take the entire team to Auschwitz.  In his own words, “The volatility of our world requires a response informed by both a respect for human dignity and an understanding of what happens in its absence.  We stepped into a moment of time where, for millions, evil triumphed and humanity vanished… Our world needs leaders who aim to lead and to serve…  We need advocates for, and defenders of human dignity… that is why we are going.”  The team spent four days there.  Their guide was a survivor of that very camp (“Stronger and More Tender,” Journal for Preachers, Lent 2019, p. 21).

The good news, friends, is that when we come to God seeking strength that helps us stand up against all these forces and more, God promises to not only strengthen us, but to work with us.

 When we stand up for what God loves and values, God gives us strength as we stand.  Notice how the text from Deuteronomy has God as the one who is strong?  We know Moses was the guy who led the people out of Egypt, but Moses’ words say it was God’s strength that did it.  So, essentially Moses and God worked together.  God is the one who stood up for those held in bondage, those who were suffering.  God and Moses stood in resistance to the powerful systems of government that created enslavement of the Hebrew people.

My prayer is that we, too, will find strength in God to say “yes” to God, trust that God is working with us, and to stand up against the wily devilish ploys that we face on our journeys.  Amen.

 

The Great Unveiling

Luke 9: 28-36   Rev. Dr. Galen E. Russell III

2 Corinthians 3: 12-4:2             March 3, 2019

 “And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.”

Prayer:  May our faces shine with the glory of your Spirit, O Holy God.  Amen.

 A man named Alan Naiman from the state of Washington was known for being ridiculously thrifty.  He drove beat up old cars.  He fixed his shoe laces with duct tape.  He sought deals at the deli at closing time.  He also took on additional jobs to supplement his income.  When he died last year, he left behind —wait for it—an $11 million dollar estate.  Who knew?  No one.  Not even his best friends knew he accumulated such a substantial wealth.

When he died, not only did the great unveiling of his wealth take place, but what was also revealed was that the money was to benefit children’s charities for  poor, sick, and disabled kids.  Turns out that Alan Naiman never married, was without children, but he had a disabled older brother.  His life experiences with his brother made him aware of special needs children, and undoubtedly influenced his decision to give the money away to benefit needy kids (“Thrifty to be Generous”, ABC News, December 28, Century Marks, Christian Century, January 30, 2019, p. 8).

That’s pretty amazing, isn’t it?  Something like a veil came off of Alan Nainman’s friend’s understanding, and the greater truth about Alan was revealed.  Once they saw the more complete truth about himundoubtedly, they will never be able to think of him in the same old way again.

 Well, a great truth was unveiled about Jesus when thinking about his transfiguration.  Up to this point in his ministry, everyone close to Jesus knew he was something special.  He had done some pretty incredible things.  But who knew he was THAT special?   When heavenly light surrounded him, filled him, made him glow, and the great members of Jewish Hall of Fame, Moses and Elijah showed up and were talking with him, it was a great unveiling of who God really is in Jesus Christ.  And, I bet something like a veil was lifted from the disciple’s minds, and the deeper truth about Jesus’ true identity was unveiled.  They were never able to think of Jesus in the same old way again, either.

And from that point on , Jesus’ ministry moved to Jerusalem, to accomplish and unveil God’s greatest plan for humanity - the plan of salvation for the human race.

 Paul is writing to the new Christians in Corinth, and he wants these new believers never to look at their faith in the same way again once they turn to Christ.  He uses the imagery that in turning to Christ, a veil is lifted from their minds.  And, they get transformed—they see the glory of the Lord in themselves.   They move from following the old covenantal law of the 10 commandments that was given to them in a glorious way (think Cecil B. DeMille style with the finger of God writing the commandments into stone by fire) to the greater glory of the new covenant by following Christ.  And, all this transformation all comes from the power of  Spirit.

 The problem that Paul faced and Jesus faced before him was that the law grew to become its own god [with a little “g”.]  The religious culture of his day said that you had better follow “The Law,” (which was the Torah—first five books of the Bible), and it was at your own peril, if you didn’t.  In fact, in the verses just prior to the passage I read (1-11), Paul calls “the law” a “ministry of death” and a “ministry of condemnation” because it was so punitive.  If you broke certain laws found in the first 5 books of the Bible, the punitive measure was death by capital punishment, which is exactly what happened to Jesus and then he became entangled in a political mess leading to his execution.

The law did not have respect for people’s humanity or injustice against humanity.  Instead, the law was supreme... and lifeless, cold and exacting.  Yet, the establishment worshipped it.  They idolized it.  They made the law more significant than God.

 But, Paul believed that Christ died and rose again, conquered death, and transformed the old covenantal law into a new covenant.  It’s a covenant of love.  It’s a covenant of freedom.  It’s a covenant that calls for a new way, a change in old living patterns.  For Paul’s believers, and for us,  the work of the Spirit unveils God’s truth about people… that in God people are holy. In God there is freedom to be who you are.  So we are encouraged to see people as sacred, holy, created in God’s image.  Does the great unveiling come when we are willing to be affected by that? By having God in our hearts something like a veil is lifted?  God’s word in our conscience?

I want to share an understanding of Christianity from our earliest days but is not taught enough and is critical for our day. I believe that the great unveiling of the new covenant reveals that the old covenant is superseded by Jesus.  I think that means that the laws found in the Torah take second place to what Jesus teaches. To be followed, they must fit with what Jesus teaches and practices. Even Paul’s words are second to Jesus’ word.  In other words, just because some prohibition is found somewhere in the Bible doesn’t make it the highest authoritative word.  It must meet the test of what Jesus taught—it must fit under loving God, loving others and loving yourself.  Then it can be followed and practiced. Jesus’ word trumps all words.  He was the Son of God!

 Which takes me to the heart-breaking news we heard last week with United Methodist Church’s decision to uphold the ban on same sex marriage and to expel gay pastors and pro-LGBTQ churches.  I am saddened by the refusal of the United Methodist Church (National Conference) to welcome all to the table.  I worked in two UMC churches during seminary days, and have numerous UMC clergy friends, but I am baffled by the refusal of the larger body to recognize the importance of inclusion.

Is it possible the 56% majority rule have made the laws of the Bible their god and not the God of the Bible?  Doesn’t it seem like they are more are more comfortable worshipping the word of God instead of God of the Word?  It seems they have made the Methodist Book of Discipline more significant than the Spirit’s transformation of heart mind and spirit.  Is there a veil covering the eyes of the 56% in the United Methodist Church?

 And the results are nothing short of causing pain and devastation, exclusion and betrayal for many well beyond the 44%.  I think that what our fellow Christians need is not disenfranchisement from the community of faith but more inclusion and support for inclusion in it.

 I received a cartoon the other day that has Jesus speaking to some church folks, each one holding their bibles.  Jesus says, “The difference between you and me is that you use scripture to determine what love means, and I use love to determine what scripture means.”  Which way should we go? Whom should we follow?

Perhaps the real great unveiling comes when we are willing to be affected in our actions because God’s presence and love are in our heart and God’s word on our conscience?  So, my encouragement and love for the United Methodist Church is this: instead of being more comfortable worshiping words, instead of letting the presence of fear and hatred divide, worship the God of Jesus, the God of the new covenant, and engage in the practice of loving ministry that welcomes all.  Because Christ welcomes all.  And have faith and trust in God’s resurrection and restorative power—it can take you through all the struggles that come with doing the right thing of welcoming all. 

That’s also a message to us.  I invite us to have faith and trust in God’s resurrection and restorative power.

“We are engaged in this ministry,” says Paul.  So are we here at Christ Church.  “We do not lose heart,”: says Paul.  We don’t lose heart here, either.  I invite us to keep listening to Jesus.  Let us willingly be transformed, so that we may gaze upon the glory of the Lord “as though reflected in a mirror” and be transformed into the same image.  That change within us can produce change around us.  May the great unveiling continue to happen to each of us as we are affected by God in our hearts, and God’s word in our consciences.  And may we never be the same going forward.  Amen.

 

God's Deeper Plans

Luke 6: 27-38   Rev. Dr. Galen E. Russell III

Genesis 45: 3-11, 15             February 24, 2019’

“God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors.  So it was not you who sent me here, but God.”

As I prepare to read the story about Joseph and his brothers, I am reminded of the news story this week of  Jussie Smollett, and how fast things changed for this young man.  Here’s a young, famous, privileged actor on the set of Empire, unhappy with his salary and, I have to believe, unhappy with the lack of attention he receives in the spotlight.  So, he allegedly feigned a homophobic and racist attack done by thugs who called him names and beat him up.  Then, he allegedly feigned victimization with the Chicago Police.  Only to have it all come out that he paid people to stage the attack, and his wounds were self-inflicted.

 Now, according to the Chicago Police Chief, Eddie Johnson,  Jussie Smollett is the victimizer, and the police, changed from “helper” and “believer” of Smollett’s story to being the victims of his hoax.  You can’t make this stuff up!  What a weird case of role reversal.  Who knows how this one will end?

 Way back in early Genesis days, there was an awful case of injustice that turned into role reversal as well.  Joseph was next to the youngest among a bunch of his brothers, but he was their father Jacob’s favorite.  Joseph had prophetic dreams and predicted his brothers would eventually serve him.  His brothers were upset and jealous of Joseph, and he became a victim of their abuse.  Being the ones in power, the brothers intended to kill him, but instead beat him up and left him for dead in a pit.  Then they changed their mind and decided not to let him die but would sell him into slavery of Egypt, and give Daddy the fake news about his death.

Now in Egypt, Joseph went from victim in slavery to relative privilege because he was bought by Potiphar, a captain of Pharaoh’s guards.   But he soon found himself in prison after being falsely accused of sexual misconduct by Potiphar’s wife.  He languished there for years until he was called upon by Pharaoh to interpret a dream which led him to become the second most powerful man in Egypt.

Meanwhile, the dream he interpreted forecasted a major drought and famine, which allowed Egypt to stockpile supplies, but of course, Joseph’s brothers back home were affected.  Now victims of the famine and vulnerable, the brothers come to Egypt for help and encounter the now powerful Joseph whose command is second to none except the Pharaoh himself.  But the brothers don’t recognize him. 

 Joseph understood that God’s deeper plan was meant for good.  His entire journey was all part of God’s deeper plan, not just for him, but for his entire family.  He understood that God found a way to keep alive many survivors, even through calamity, slavery, despair, and famine.   Jacob and his family came to live and prosper in Egypt.

That story, I believe, has an important message for us today.  God has a way of creating a good plan out of our bad situations.  God is in the restorative business, and if we have faith in God’s ability, and trust in God’s timing, and a heart to practice what God teaches, then no matter what the storm, no matter how dire the circumstances may be, no matter how long it takes, God is working at a deeper plan than what we see on the surface.

Our struggles can seem overwhelming, but I believe God wills good for our lives.  God has a deeper plan.  In the moment of deep struggle, it can be difficult to understand the point of anything.  In the maze of hurt feelings, of guilt, of pain, of long-time struggle, we wonder how we will get through.  But, Joseph’s story invites us to trust that God has a deeper plan in our struggles.

 As we mentioned in the Joys and Concerns, Wes is going through a very painful and challenging recovery after his jaw surgery; however, through the pain and recovery of a jaw that was wired shut, his hope is built up because he believes the outcome leads to goodness of life.  He believes, as I do,  that the pain and recovery will lead to less sleep apnea, deeper sleep, and less chances for life-debilitating diseases like heart attack and stroke.  I told him, “You may have added years to your life!”  “For sure!” he said like a ventriloquist.  God has deeper plans.

 People struggle with economics, addictions, self-identity, even physical disabilities.  In the work setting, the demand to perform or get the contract or bring in clients can be so daunting and stressful.  The other day Barb’s co-worker asked her, “How do you not feel the stress and anxiety of needing to get clients in each month?”   Barb said, “I do my job, do my best, and put the rest into God’s hands.”  We can turn over to God the parts we can’t control.  We can trust in God’s ability to see well beyond what thing we’re going through.  Because God has deeper plans for good.

Now lest this idea that God has deeper plans for all of us sound all neat and tidy and wrapped up, let me remind us that while we might be in the throes of tough situations, or even if we aren’t, we are always children of God and disciples of Christ.   The stark thing I notice from the Joseph story is that he could have held that grudge against his brothers.  He could have taken advantage of the role reversal now that he had privilege and power over them.  He could have tossed them into prison and said, “There!  See how you like it!”

But, he didn’t.   Instead, he acted much the way Jesus taught.  Joseph loved his enemies/brothers.  He forgave them.  He was merciful.  He wanted to renew a relationship with his father Jacob.  He wanted them to come and live with him in Goshen.  And, Joseph saw that God had deeper plans that used his previous struggles for good.

I think our faith journeys call us to realize we, too, have choices of how we react to our life’s situations.  If we are victims in our circumstances, and not-so-pleasant things happen to us, it’s easy not to love your enemies.  It’s easy not to forgive our victimizers.  We’ve all been the victim before in varying degrees, some much more than others.   But Jesus says love your enemies, forgive our victimizers, and do good to those who hate you.   To make that choice enacts God’s deeper plans and gives God the chance to use the struggle for good.

Does this mean I have to love the driver who gets in front of me and drives only the speed limit!  UGH!  Yes. That means I have to love and pray for the person who wants to leave our church because we welcome and include every person in our mission and ministry.  That means I have to love and pray for the leaders of our government with whom I have the most profound disagreements both theologically and politically.  To love even these enacts God’s deeper plans.  God can use the struggle for good.

 However, if we’re honest, we’ve been in situations where the role is reversed, too.  Sometimes we’re Joseph.  Sometimes we’re the brothers.  Sometimes we are the person who is going through an ordeal, and sometimes we are the person who is causing the ordeal.  Sometimes we’re the victim, and other times, we’re the victimizer.  Sometimes we curse others, other times we’re on the receiving end.  Sometimes we strike others, and all of us know what it means to be struck.  I bet all of us, a time or two over the years, have taken something that doesn’t belong to us, and also have had something take from us, too.   None of that is good.  We are all susceptible to sin.

That doesn’t mean God abandons us.  The good news is in power and powerlessness, in privilege and in want,  God has a way of creating a good, deeper plan out of our bad situations, if we have faith in God’s ability, trust in God’s timing, and have a heart to follow Jesus.  To love our enemies and do good.  To not be an enemy and do good.  From wherever we are in life on our journeys, I think we are invited to trust God, exercise humility and generosity, and practice what Jesus teaches with others.  We are, in the words of our closing hymn:

 Standing at the future’s threshold,

grateful for God’s guiding hand.

Asking no protected stronghold,

called to be a pilgrim band.

Seeking ever for new vision

of the gospel for our day.

We move forward in God’s mission

with our faith to show the way.

Perhaps that’s the deeper plan of God.

Let us stand and sing this hymn as we conclude our worship today.  Amen.  

 

Love Takes All Sides

1  Corinthians 13          Rev. Dr. Galen E. Russell III

Luke 4: 21-30   February 3, 2109

“But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and here was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except a widow at Zarephath in Sidon.  There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.”

Prayer:  O God of peace, God of justice, God of love, please enrich our hearts with your ever-present love, once again.  Amen.

The Super Bowl LIII (53) is today.  Really?  I officiated a wedding on Friday, and at the reception I asked a friend who he liked on Sunday.  And he said, “What’s happening Sunday?”  He admitted he doesn’t follow the NFL, and he really didn’t know it’s Super Bowl day until two days ago. 

It is, after all, America’s most religious day of the year.  I admit, I watch it religiously.  I watch for the game.  Love football.  I watch because I’m with friends.  Love friends.  I watch for the commercials.  Love the commercials.  I watch for the National anthem, the halftime show.  I religiously eat myself silly.  Love chicken wings and beer and snack food.

This year, as if we need more reasons to pay attention, there’s controversial side to the Super Bowl, just to spice it up a bit.   Singing superstar Rihanna and rapper superstar Jay-Z both declined to do “LIII’s” halftime show because both stand in support of  Colin Kaepernick. Colin Kaepernick 2016 peaceful protest against racism, oppression of people of color, and police brutality by kneeling during the national anthem has made him the most undesirable of all NFL quarterbacks.  He hasn’t been on  a team for three years. Comedienne Amy Schumer also said no to any Super Bowl commercials, all for the same reasons.   Now, Maroon 5, a band headlined by Adam Levine is the halftime entertainment, along with Travis Scott and Big Boi, and no surprise here, they’re getting flak for doing the show and not supporting Kaepernick’s cause against injustice and oppression in America.

 And, Gladys Knight, the so-called “Empress of Soul” is singing the national anthem.  Now this is an interesting side of the story because Gladys said she is excited to come back to her hometown of Atlanta to sing.  And, she believes that the anthem is separate from the struggle against injustice and prejudice.  She said, “I am here today and on Sunday, Feb. 3 to give the anthem back its voice, to stand for that historic choice of words, the way it unites us when we hear it, and to free it from the same prejudices and struggles I have fought long and hard for all my life…” (http://time.com/5505825/super-bowl-halftime-show-controversy-2019/, retrieved February 2, 2019).  It will be interesting to see what the reaction of the home crowd will be as Gladys takes the stage for the national anthem.

If the reaction is anything like the hometown crowd’s reaction to Jesus, Gladys better be on high alert.   Because Jesus’ hometown crowd loved the fact that their native son came back home.  Loved the fact he made a good name for himself out there healing people, preaching God’s word, gaining popularity.  And the leaders, no doubt, were thrilled to have him be front and center in worship, ready to read God’s word, maybe ready to do something spectacular, like perform a miracle like they heard he did in Capernaum.

 Well, he did read God’s word.  “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because God has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.  God has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  Then he said to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  And everyone was amazed and thrilled with him.

 But, I have a feeling that Jesus knew that their adulation of him was a misunderstanding of who he really is.   My guess is that he knew they were stuck in thinking that they were privileged because he was one of their own.  He knew they expected special favors from him.  He knew they missed the point—that he was the fulfillment of Isaiah’s words.  He was the implementer of those words.  He was God’s answer to anyone oppressed by society, anyone blinded by systemic injustice, anyone held captive by any debilitation, be it physical, emotional, spiritual, or otherwise.   He dashed their hopes for special favors and aligns himself with the ancient prophets Elijah and Elisha.  And, the hometown crowd turns against him because they know that God used those two prophets for God’s purposes, 1) Elijah, to feed a non-Jewish widow in Sidon, and 2) Elisha, to heal Naaman, the general of the Syrian army, again an outsider to their faith.

 The message to Jesus’ home crowd was clear—and aggravating to them—that God’s love through Jesus is for outsiders and insiders, to those left out, looked over, looked down upon, as well as those privileged to be in the in-crowd.  Jesus claimed that God’s grace is not bestowed because of nationality, tribal loyalty, political party, or hometown connections.  God’s love takes all sides.  It is universally available to all.  It is the basis of the “more excellent way” of living for us as Christian people.

Of all the gifts Paul identifies in chapter 12 of 1 Corinthians, love is the most excellent of all of them.  In chapter 13, Paul says to his reading audience that of all the ways of living they used to be before they knew Christ, love is the more excellent way.  The love God instills is central—any effort made without love is not worth it.

For us, does this mean that for any side of an issue, any decision to make, any next steps to take, love becomes our guide,  for God is love?  When you are unsure about anything, remember this: if the next step you take, if the next decision you make, if the next side you choose is done in love—God’s love of us, our love of God, neighbor, and self,—it will be the right decision.  It will be the right next steps.  It will be the right side to be on.

Perhaps our challenge as people of faith, even as a church, is to resist any embedded idea, or culturally accepted norm, or societal sentiment that goes against this law of love.  Might we align ourselves to the side of any issue with the universal availability of God’s love as the central part of that decision?   Maybe love is the ultimate form of resistance to the worst this world can throw at us?

It’s interesting to me to read the comments people make concerning the issues surrounding the national anthem.  You see what sides people take, how dug in they are on their own opinions etc.  But worse, most everyone seems bent on not listening to other sides to the issue while trying to convince every one else that their side is the only right side.  And wow, do some people get nasty in their comments!  Name calling, blame gaming, disrespectful accusations, and on and on.  As a society, I fear we are losing, if we haven’t lost it altogether already, the ability to listen well to each other.

 But, we as Christians, we are not to be like that.  Shouldn’t we, based on love for others, seek to understand each other’s side of a story? to learn from it? and accept the idea that we can agree to disagree?  Shouldn’t we engage in healthy dialogue, willingness to compromise on stalemates, insist on negotiations, especially when people’s lives are at stake?  To give up on the love that is patient and kind, that rejoices in the truth, the love that never ends, is to take us far away from the essence of who God calls us to be.

So, whether you are on Rihanna’s side in support of Colin Kaepernick’s statement on Gladys Knight’s side emphasizing that the national anthem should be separate from the fight for social justice, the important thing I think is to keep our hearts, and our inner spirit connected to God’s love.  To do this religiously.  This helps keep alive in us the promise that while faith and hope abide, God’s love is the greatest on all sides.  Amen.  

 

Soaking Wet and On Fire

 Isaiah 43: 1-7   Rev. Dr. Galen E. Russell III

 Luke 3: 15-17, 21-22              January 13, 2019

“I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals.  He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

Prayer:  Holy God, may we, your children, be open to  your spirit once again, that we may be moved to serve you with joy and gladness.  Amen.

 Some of my most moving moments as a pastor occurred during the Sacrament of Baptism.  I feel the Holy Spirit more powerfully than ever moving within me as I hold a little child, feel the water drip from my fingers and onto the child’s head.  It’s is almost indescribable.

But, the most moving baptism was not with a baby, but was with a high school youth very early on in my ministry.  This young man went through Confirmation, but declined to get confirmed.   Then at a Fall Youth Event at Camp LaForet, Colorado Springs, he came to me and asked if he could be baptized and could confirm his faith.  After talking it over with him and praying with him, I got this sense that he truly was ready.   So, in the worship service that Saturday night, with all his friends, the youth, and advisors gathered around, he knelt in the middle of our circle.  The youth laid their hands on him as I baptized him.  This was one the first baptisms I ever did in my ministry, certainly the first for an older person making a confession of faith.  So, being quite inexperienced at this as I was, I cupped my hands in a big bowl of water, and drew out the water in my hands, and opened them over his head.  It wasn’t much, but it was enough, and water ran down his head, onto his neck, and into his shirt.  He got soaked!  I did that two more times!  We all laughed together, but in the end, you would have thought that I dunked him in the river!  He stood up, tears streaming down his face, which made my eyes fill up, too.   We prayed in thanksgiving, sang a beautiful song, then everyone created this enormous group hug.  And, we just held on to each other for what seemed like an eternity.  He was soaking wet and all of us were on fire with the Holy Spirit.

Baptism.  By water.  By the Spirit.

John the Baptist said, “I baptize you with water…”  By water, it’s the mark we make on a person, usually at imitation of the journey of their Christian faith.  Sometimes, though, a person may believe in Jesus Christ and live life practicing that belief, but was not baptized as of yet.  Like the young man at LaForet.  Like some of our youth even here at Christ Church.  Maybe even some adults here today.

Even so, baptism by water at any age affirms what God did and does for the human race.  It’s Christianity’s way of saying that  God, with infinite grace, spiritually opens wide the gates of love, the gates of heaven, the gates of the eternal kingdom for every one of us.  One author wrote that “baptism [by water] is the mark of a Christian—our citizenship papers” (https://www.homileticsonline.com/subscriber/illustration_search.asp?keywords=baptized&imageField2=, retrieved January 11, 2019).  That’s not a bad analogy.  It’s our permanent spiritual Visa.  By virtue of being a human being, we have a passport—our total acceptance and welcome by God as a participant in God’s realm in this life and the next.  Jesus taught us this.  Jesus died for this.

 Baptism by water is the powerful affirmation of what Isaiah says, that God redeems us and restores us into favor.  A chance to start anew after messing up.  You know… sometimes after screwing up, you might say to your boss, your spouse, your child,  or yourself, or whomever, “I know I messed up, but let me try again.  Let me redeem myself.”

Well, God says, “I have redeemed you.” I’ve restored you.  Get up.  Start again.  God also says, “I have called you by name.  You are mine.”  God redeems us. God claims us, knows us, and calls us by name.  God is with us in all of life—through struggles, trials, life’s overwhelming moments AND in life’s joyous, momentous, and meaningful moments.  We trust that God will strengthen the foundation of our faith with forms of adversity or forms of comfort, with types of misfortune or opportunity.  All of it.  And, all this is wonderful, providing us great hope.

But there is danger here.  Spiritually, we may have the watermark of baptism, we may be soaking wet, but subtly, somewhere along the way,  most Christians think that is all there is to it.  Being baptized by water has morphed into thinking that God is there for our personal purposes.  Our wants.  Our desires.  We want God to answer all our prayers, to bless us with prosperity, and to fix our problems, to bring us good health.  We expect God to give us a good life.

And being people who are fair and honest, we don’t expect God to do all this without anything in return on our part.  So, we choose to be kind, loving, respectful.  We try to treat others as we would like to be treated.  We try to live a good life.  We live with values and morals.  We may develop prayer lives.  We go to church.  All this good.  All this is because we’re soaking wet in the waters of baptism.

 But!  John the Baptist said, “I baptize you with water, but…”  Whenever you hear “but,” you know something more significant is coming.  There’s something more here calling out to us.   John said, “But!  One who is more powerful than I is coming.  I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals.  He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire!”

 Baptized with water is only one part of the Christian life.  Baptized with the Spirit and fire is the other part, and that shifts everything.  Being on fire with the Spirit means that God wants to give us the Spirit of the living Christ.  The same Holy Spirit that was the essence of Jesus Christ is regenerated in our spirit, in our heart and soul.  And what happens?  Paul said it like this: “It no longer I who live, but Christ who lives within me.  And the life I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2: 20).

 On fire with the Holy Spirit means that Christ lives in us, and we decide to waive away the thought that God is for our personal purposes.  And we shift.  We become available to God for God’s purposes.  I think this means we relinquish all our wants, whims, and desires, and we let God have all our abilities, our talents, everything about us.  Because I believe God wants us to identify with God’s purposes.  Whatever those are.  We trust and believe that God knows what we need and want in life and will take care of us as we are used by God.

This is not easy.  Does this mean we are to go deeper in the spiritual maturation process and do some hard work?  Together with Spirit of God, are we take stock of what is good in our spirit, our attitudes, our hearts, and separate out that which is not usable to God?  Don’t worry, the Spirit of God will help you detect what those are in your inner conscience.  It’s the winnowing fork that separates out the useful from the unusable.  Then we become the light of God for others to see.

I read a story about a woman who was baptized in early November.  One of her coworkers asked her what it was like to be a Christian.  She was caught off guard and didn’t know how to answer; but then she looked up, saw a jack-o’-lantern on the desk and answered, “It’s sort of like being a pumpkin.”  The coworker asked her to explain that one.  “Well,” she replied, “God picks you from the patch and brings you in, and with water, washes off all the dirt on the outside that you got from being in the pumpkin patch.  Then God opens you up, and with your help, takes all the yucky stuff out.  You and God do the hard work of removing all those seeds of malice, hate, greed, prejudice, and all that.   Then God carves a new image for you on the outside and puts the light of Christ on the inside of you to shine for all to see.  It is our choice to either stay outside and rot on the vine or to come inside and be something new and bright” (https://www.homileticsonline.com/subscriber/illustration_search.asp?keywords=baptized&imageField2=, retrieved January 12, 2019).  It’s not a perfect illustration, but it helps us understand the hard work that we do as we become identified with God’s purposes for others and not our own.

 That is why I have a deep respect for people of faith and conscience who go out and engage in social activism, for example. I believe that many of them are on fire with the Holy Spirit.  From a place of faith, they call attention to those in power where injustice is taking place, where people are being mistreated and systemic changes are needed.

 That is why I have a deep respect for all of us at Christ Church as we are baptized with water, and we are on fire with the Holy Spirit.  We, as a community of deep faith people, a church in partnership with the Holy Spirit, are doing the hard work of identifying that which is not compatible with God’s purposes of inclusively welcoming every person into ministry with us.   So, we are addressing places where we can be more reflective of God’s great love for our planet earth, for example.  That’s what our Green Team and our Creation Justice Covenant we adopted in November are all about.  I praise God for that!

 We are focusing on places where our building may not give full accessibility for everyone.  That’s what our Imagine the Future Dream team is all about.  They are looking at our facility and are making recommendations of physical change so to make all our ministry events in every part of our building accessible for everyone and safe for everyone.

 And, we are concentrating on how we can be more inclusive, more welcoming, more intentionally mindful of God’s great love for every person of the human race, for everyone who is called by God’s name, who is created for God’s glory.  That’s what our Open and Affirming Covenant is all about which is on our Annual Meeting agenda for us to approve in two weeks.

 All this is because we are soaking wet by the waters of baptism and on fire with the Holy Spirit for God’s use.

Let us stand and sing of these truths as we conclude our worship today.  Amen.

 

If You Light It, They Will Come.

Matthew 2: 1-12           Rev. Dr. Galen E. Russell III

Isaiah 60: 1-6   January 6, 2019

“Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you.”

Prayer:  May we be enlightened by your Spirit, O God, as we listen to your word, as we worship you in the new year.  Amen.

You may recall the ever-popular movie Field of Dreams starring Kevin Costner.  Kevin Costner’s character Ray receives the strange and mysterious message whispered into his consciousness, “If you build it, they will come.”  Remember that?  Of course, the ‘it’ he is to build is a baseball diamond in the middle of his corn field on his farm in Iowa, and the ‘they’ turns out to be old, long ago deceased baseball players still wanting to play baseball.  Crazy idea, right?  But, Ray does the crazy thing, and builds the field of dreams.  And the players come from the cornfield to play ball.  As the movie ends, “If you build it, they will come,” is heard again, only this time, ‘they’ refers to the many people who will pay good money to come to see these long deceased baseball players play ball.  The last scene has the ball diamond lit up against the night sky, and miles of headlights of cars approaching the farm can be seen in the distance.

That catch phrase “If you build it, they will come” kept coming back to my mind as I prepared for today’s message.  I think it’s safe to say that God lit up the world with God’s spiritual light when Jesus was born.  And, just as Isaiah proclaimed, when God’s light, when God’s glory rises out of the darkness of the world, nations, kings, dignitaries, royalty, and ambassadors and people of all kinds all will come and bring gifts and pay homage.  If you, O God, light it, they came.  You, O God, lit it, and they came.

Some scholars suggest that the Magi, the kings, the wise men, the wise women, all the visitors we sing about probably came from all over the known world.  Palestine, specifically the Jerusalem Bethlehem area, sits right where the continents of Africa, Europe, and Asia meet.  These visitors no doubt were not Jewish but represented different races, different religions, different cultures and nationalities.  All came to pay homage not so much to the newly born king of the Jews, but indeed, to the newly born ruler of the whole world.

So, there is an extraordinary hope for today—because if God lights up the world in Jesus’ birth, people will come.  In these biblical stories, we see representatives of the variety of earth’s people coming together, overcoming differences, worshiping and giving gifts to the one who gives new life and light to the world, and helps us work together for a better future.

The question is can we do the same?  Can we as a human race strive to come together?  Can political, civic, academic scientific, medical, and religious leaders from all races and nationalities overcome differences, come together, and work for a better future?  Can we worship the same God who gives new life and lights up the world?  Can we let God’s love be the uniform base for all our thinking? All our decisions? Can we let the ways of Jesus be our guide?  Can we extend God’s grace and forgiveness that we’ve been given?

I was told over the Christmas holiday break that there’s no way that leaders from all areas of human development could ever come together and work to overcome differences, to deepen respect, to work for a better future.  “That’s just pie in the sky thinking,” I was told.  “Idealistic,” said another.

But, that’s the way God intends for us to live.  That’s the way of love.  It’s the way Jesus taught.  If you take that way of life and let God light up your life, light up your spirit, light up your personality, people will come. Because you’re drawn to the light.  Because we are stewards of God’s grace and forgiveness we receive.  We’re sharers of the love God uses to light up our life.  We’re the beneficiaries AND the benefactors of gifts freely given to us by God.  If you, O God, light up our lives, they will come.

We just don’t know who God will send into our lives because we are radiant with the Holy Spirit.  You may be the one person who can help another particular person in need.  If God lights it in your, they will come. They will see God in you.  Lift up your eyes and look around.  They all gather together.  They will come to you.

I recently read about an 84 year old Cuban-American Catholic priest named Fr. Ruskin Piedra.  Father Piedra serves a parish in Brooklyn, New York and founded the Juan Neumann Center, a nonprofit that provides affordable immigration legal services to the community of Sunset Park, Brooklyn.  Much of his work at the center defends people facing deportation or seeking asylum in the US.  Father Piedra also holds funeral masses without the deceased body to help undocumented people grieve because they are afraid to go home for the actual funerals of their loved ones.  Too dangerous.  So, he puts a bare casket stand in the room as he conducts mass providing immense consolation to those families in need.  They feel the love of Christ freely given.  They see the work of the Holy Spirit. And God lights up his life, and people come.  (New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/08/nyregion/the-very-busy-life-of-an-immigrants-rights-priest-in-2018.html, retrieved January 5, 2019).  If you, O God, light up our life and we share your gifts, people will come.

If we light up our church. Christ Church, with God’s love and grace, with warmth and caring, with welcome and hospitality, people longing for those characteristics of loving God for the experiences will find out about us.  People starving for a place of inclusion, seeking a spiritual home where faith can grow and talents and skills are used will come.  Because we cherish God who spends more energy welcoming people than keeping them out.  We love God who spends more time binding up broken hearts and attending to wounds than crushing the world with an iron fist.

I can’t help but wonder about the story after the Magi left and went home by another way.  King Herod flew into a rage and sought to kill baby Jesus by conducting a massacre of all male first born babies 2 years old and under!  This situation in the Palestinian  homeland was too dangerous, and the Holy Family, dare I say it, immigrated to Egypt.  But, what if they got to Egypt only to find a wall preventing them from receiving asylum?  Where would we be today?

If you, O God, light up our church and we become a mirror of your love and grace, lift up our eyes.  Let us look around.  Those seeking a place of welcome will come.

If we let God light the flame of justice and peace in us, people will come in solidarity and support.

Of course, we all remember when nine people were shot at Emmanuel AME Zion church in Charleston, SC back in 2015.  Well, last fall, when the Pittsburgh shooting occurred in the Jewish Tree of Life Synagogue and eleven people were killed, Rev. Eric Manning from Emmanuel flew to Pittsburgh to show his support directly to Rabbi Jeffrey Myers.  And, when Pastor Manning went back to Charleston, he had the bells at Emmanuel toll for the Pittsburgh victims, just as they had for Emmanuel’s lost members in 2015 (Century Marks, Christian Century, December 5, 2018, p. 8).

If you, O God, light the flame of justice and peace in us, let us lift up our eyes, let us look around and see how people of our faith communities gather together in solidarity reflecting your brightness.  Let us be radiant when we come in your name. Let us be fully inclusive and welcoming that we may be instruments of your love, grace, forgiveness, mercy, justice and peace.  If you light it, they will come. Amen.

 

God Comes Near - Glory Revealed

John 1: 1-14      Rev. Dr. Galen E. Russell III

Titus 2: 11-14   December 24, 2018

For the grace of God appeared, bringing salvation to all.”

Prayer:  Holy One, Holy Child, come near to us, we humbly pray.  Let your glory be revealed tonight to us.  Each one.  Amen.

Tonight we affirm God comes near in Jesus’ birth, and God’s glory is revealed!  I often associate God’s glory with lots of light.  Do you?  We will sing in a few minutes the Christmas carol “Silent Night.” It’s easy to think of light shining from heaven when we sing “Glories stream from heaven afar.”  I imagine light surrounding the “Heavenly hosts” of angels singing “Alleluia.”

Christmas comes on the calendar at the darkest time of the year.  Just this past Friday was the winter solstice.  We had the least amount of daylight for the entire year.  The further north you go, the amount of light grows less and less and night grows longer and longer.  At the north pole, there is total darkness, 24-7.  Right now.

As metaphors go, Christ’s glorious light coming in the darkness is a rather splendid one… the light of Christ is born into our lives and pushes back the darkness of meanness and ill-will.  The Son of God is born.  God comes near and we sing it’s “love’s pure light.”

It’s marvelous imagery until you realize that it’s only for those of us in the northern hemisphere.  Did you ever give that some thought?  While we are in a time of great darkness, those living in the southern hemisphere are in a time of great light.  The further south you go, the amount of light grows more and more, and night grows shorter and shorter.  At the south pole, there is total daylight 24/7—right now… this minute.  The sun never sets at this time of the year.

In a way, I like that imagery, too, because God’s great gift of salvation is born with the birth of Jesus.  God’s glory is revealed for the human race, and that gift is God’s light. It is present all the time.  24/7.  We read in the first letter of John “that God is light and in God there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1: 5).  It’s like total light, total glory, the light of the world that enlightens everyone.

This light, this abundant, universal saving grace, God’s glory revealed changes our lives.  When we believe it, when we accept it, it becomes part of us.  And, we work it out in our living.  What God works in, it becomes our responsibility to work it out.

And the best way is through love.  God comes near when we love.  God’s glory is revealed as we show universal acceptance and love.  To be loved fills all of us with hope and the promise of new life.

Radiolab had an episode in 2006 about two young art students who met at a party.  Emilie and Alan, and they fell deeply in love.  They were living the dream.  Then one day, on the way to class, Emilie was involved in a tragic accident—she was hit by a huge truck while riding her bike.  She was clinging to life.  Weeks went by with few signs of hope.  Finally, the doctors deemed Emilie completely unresponsive, and they made plans to have her live in a nursing home.  But, Alan believed there was hope.  He insisted, “She’s in there; she just can’t get out.  You have to give her a chance.”  Because Emilie sustained some hearing loss from her childhood days, she wore hearing aids.  In desperation to prove to the doctors that Emilie could get better, he tried something he read about in the story of Helen Keller.  Alan traced out the words, “I love you” on Emilie’s arm.  Emilie immediately responded.  So, Alan urged them to put in her hearing aids and turn them on.  When that happened, everything changed.  “Just by hearing his voice,” Emilie said, “I came back (Butler, Amy, “And Hear the Angels Sing,” Journal for Preachers, Advent 2018, Vol. XLII No. 1, p. 9).

You see?  To be loved fills us with hope for a promise of new life. God’s glory is revealed when we love.  God’s glory is revealed when God comes near. God’s glory is revealed tonight.  Love is born. It’s here. 24/7.  Amen.

 

God Comes Near - Birth and Renewal

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

Titus 3: 4-7       December 24, 2018

He saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.”

Prayer:  Holy One, Holy Child, come near to us.  Be born in us today.  Amen.

Did you know that the first recorded Christmas was in the year 336 A.D. (Anno Dei, which is Latin for ‘Year of the Lord)?  The first Christmas happened as the Roman Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire.  The date of December 25th was already dedicated for celebrations of pagan Roman holidays, so it was convenient to make the shift to the celebration of Christ’s birth, or Christ’s Mass as it used to be known.  That’s why we call it Christmas.

Tonight we lit candles, we sang Christmas carols, we’ve offered lots of wonderful music and gifts, we’ve prayed prayers of praise and thanksgiving, all celebrating what we’ve said all along… that God comes near in the birth of Christ.  It is good and wonderful and right that we do this.

In a deeper sense, however, all our sacred practices mixed in with our secular ones mixed in with our colossal “to-do” list and our marathon baking and cooking sessions cannot measure up to the power of the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  The scriptures do that beautifully all by themselves.  Listen to what our faith affirms as God comes near in Jesus’ birth:

¨ That Christ Jesus saved us as a human race from our own spiritual death and destruction… his birth begins that saving grace.  This means that your inner spirit is never lost to death.  Ever. Amazing, right? That alone is worth celebrating, right?

¨ We affirm that we receive this incredible gift of saving grace not because we earn it, not because of what good things we’ve done, but because of what good thing God has done… because of the extravagant tender mercy God has for humanity.  This means that you can always receive God’s gift.  You never DO something to receive it.  Just believe that it’s given because it’s in God’s nature to give it to all of us.  And everyone else.  Maybe that thought can give you hope that no matter who you are or what you’ve done, you are gifted with God’s saving grace.  Hmm?

¨ We affirm that by our belief in God’s saving grace, God is justified in giving us a new life through the waters of baptism, and we continue to get renewed in that new life through the gift of the Holy Spirit.  This means that God knows you.  God claims you.  And God says, “You are mine.  My life is in you.  Know who you are.  And, remember whose you are.  Receive my gift of new life.  New hope.”  Whew! That’s the Mother of all Christmas gifts!

Now, you won’t remember much of what I’ve said here tonight, but never forget what God did through Jesus Christ way before 336 A.D.  It’s an age-old story that’s as old as the hills.  A story whose ending never changes.  Maybe it is for us to be so dedicated to the power of God’s gospel in Jesus Christ’s story that our lives start to change.  Our hope while we live deepens.  Our relationships have more meaning.  We develop faithful responses to the world and its issues around us.  And maybe, little by little, our world around us changes, too.

Because God comes near.  In our lives.  In our circumstances.  In our world.  Let’s receive his birth and be renewed tonight and all days and nights going forward.  Amen.

 

God Comes Near - In the Smallest and the Least

Luke 3: 7-18     Rev. Dr. Galen E. Russell III

Micah 5: 2-5a   December 23, 2018

But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient of days.”

Prayer:  Holy God, please draw near to us in many different ways so that we may be ready for your coming.  Amen.

This past fall, most every other Sunday, after worship, our Confirmation youth and I get together for a “learning-the-faith” experience for about an hour and a half.  As we eat lunch together, I ask them, “OK, what was your God moment this past week?”  I want them to think back and recall when they felt God’s presence in something they did, or something that happened, or some meaningful moment.  I love hearing their responses.  One by one they say things like, “God helped me with my test on Wednesday.”  Or, “I felt God when I was a flag bearer in the band.”  Or, “A teacher helped me do my math problem.”  “I saw a tree with lots of flowers around it.”  “The coach helped me in basketball.”  “I played well in football.”

It struck me that the most basic, seemingly normal, insignificant things were speaking to our youth, and maybe, just maybe, a little bit of God coming near them was happening.  A little bit of God’s presence is coming through to them in ways they can recognize.

Of course, you already know that I think that is true for all of us.  Everywhere we look, if we look carefully enough through eyes of faith, might we discern God coming near, God speaking, God sending messages to us through our normal circumstances?  Perhaps we can see traces of God—call them God Moments, happening in the world around us?

When we discipline ourselves to discover God coming near, we start to see and detect them, I think.  Moments such as simply watering plants may become a mini God moment.  Barb and I have two ferns that we hang outside in the summer that I’m keeping alive in the basement over the winter.  Just watering them reminds me that just as their roots get soaked in life-giving water in the midst of a dormant season, so can we soak in the Spirit of God and find life-giving spiritual nutrients in the midst of life’s down moments.

Or, just as I work on the computer and make a mistake, I can fix it by hitting the “undo” button.  As I do this, I’m reminded that with God, my errors do not have to be permanent.  With God, we understand that the holy forgiveness God provides is a little bit like a spiritual “undo” button, and grace enables us to come back to healthy relationship, to learn from our mistakes, to get up when we’ve fallen, to start again believing that God restores us to us a new relationship to a new hope.

As we face the last days of Christmas prep, perhaps we would do well to ask, “In what seemingly small ways is God coming near?”  Where might we find God’s presence inspiring us in what could be the least of circumstances? Amid wrapping presents- is it a God moment? Visiting a lonely person - A God moment? Sending a Christmas card?  I invite you to look with insight and depth to see how God comes near in the smallest and the least things and moments.

Because that is exactly how God came into the world with Jesus.  God’s pattern of using the most unlikely, the smallest, the least to bring about the most significant is all throughout scripture. Abraham and Sarah were childless and elderly - God said, “From you I will build my people a nation.” Joseph was left for dead by his brothers, and yet it was through Joseph that his family survived famine andfound help and comfort and got established in Egypt.  Moses was an abandoned baby, but was found and became the great Liberator taking the Hebrews out of the bondage of Egypt.  David was the least among his brothers and was out in the field shepherding the sheep, but God knew this scrawny little shepherd he would be the great King of Israel.

Mary, this just barely teenage girl was chosen by God to give birth to Messiah for the world.  God came near humanity when Jesus was born. Quite unnoticed by the powerful.  God slipped into the world quietly, in Bethlehem, this tiny insignificant little town of Judea.  From Bethlehem would come the One to redeem, not just Israel, but all humanity. This One who would teach us about God’s holy love and God’s desire to be in healthy covenantal relationship with us. 

This One would not come to shift things around and make the rich poor and the poor rich.  He doesn’t come to make the powerful without power and the powerless powerful.  That doesn’t help anything.  Because being rich is not bad.  Being powerful is not sinful.  It’s how you use riches and power that matters.

What is sinful is when those who have resources and are rich don’t use these resources for the benefit and care of those who are the smallest and the least in our society.  What God despises is when those in power don’t remember the underprivileged and continue in complicit practices that keep them subjugated.

Instead the coming Messiah will proclaim that those who are rich should be mindful and advocate for the well-being of the poor. and deliberately attempt to address the systemic injustice that keeps people less empowered to live life fully.  Those who are powerful should wield their power in ways that show justice and care for those not in power.  Because God always has a soft spot for those poor folks caught up in the political power plays.  God always calls for tenderness and care given for those who are immigrants and sojourners, and desire a new life but can’t have it because of the established barriers and walls and a heightened sense of nationalism.  The coming Messiah ushers in God’s world where everyone lives securely, where everyone has enough food and water where, everyone can live well, where everyone can embrace God’s saving grace and live a new life.

This Messiah would die for that cause, but would redeem the world, through his death.  God came near in the smallest and in the least of circumstances and brought forth God’s great saving grace which gives all of us new hope.  His birth makes all the difference.

So now just two days before Christmas, the political chaos is loud, drowning out the word of God’s arrival.  The social turmoil is devastating, overwhelming the power of God’s grace.

But, even in the midst of such social and political unrest, remember that this little baby, who was born from one of the little clans of Judah, dethroned the power of death.  Such a great gift came from a small family in such an out of the way place like Bethlehem.

But, this small baby grew up and overcame the world’s earthly powers.  This small baby grew up and became the Word of God in the flesh who refused to recognize the power of death, who faced down the political powers of injustice, and rose in resurrection power of life.

And this message of life over death insists on showing up in our ordinary circumstances and in our larger societal , cultural situations.  Only by believing that God comes near us in his birth do we dare to walk in hope and confidence that life and love always overwhelm death and despair every where. Every time.  If we left it. Just look for  those little God moments all around us.  You’ll see.  God is Stillspeaking,  God is still birthing.  God is still coming near. Amen.

 

God Comes Near - Renewed in Love

Luke 3: 7-18     Rev. Dr. Galen E. Russell III

Zephaniah 3: 14-20              December 16, 2018

“[God] will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing, as on a day of festival.”

Prayer:  Come near to us once again, O God, and may we feel jour joy and your love.  Amen.

Last October, Barb and I went to Reading to enjoy an evening at the Reading October Fest at the Liederkranz.  Lo and behold, I recognized a young woman who was I think ten years old when I began as the Pastor at Community UCC.  When I left she was twenty.  Now, she’s a thirty-eight year old mom with teen aged children of her own.  Wow, am I getting old!  Seeing her, I remembered a conversation she and I had when she was in the youth group as a teenager with me.  Back then, it was mid-December, and I told her that I had been singing Christmas carols for a couple of weeks now—any chance I got.  While driving… in the shower… walking the dog, etc.  She said to me back then, “I love to do that!  I’ve been singing them ever since the beginning of November!”

So, seeing her this past October, I asked her if she still sings Christmas carols ahead of time.  She said, “Oh yes!  It always helps me feel the spirit of Christmas.”  That it does.

But, I think there’s another reason to sing Christmas carols ahead of time.  It’s because we know the outcome of the story.  We know how it turns out… not just the events of Mary and Joseph and the shepherds, but we know the real meaning of Christmas.  We know that the carols are about the joy the world has because God came near in the form of a baby.  We know that we come and adore the Christ-child because God fulfilled the plan of salvation!  That our Savior is born.  We sing ahead of time because we know the reason for the season!

Two things that that stood out for me as I read once again this passage from Zephaniah.  One was that Zephaniah told the people to sing ahead of time because he knew what good thing God decided to do before it had happened.  In this case, he knew that God decided to bring them home, out of Babylon where they were held in exile.  What great news!  Zephaniah, like most prophets had the gift of seeing ahead of time what was coming down the road—changes that were for their benefit.  Changes like God deciding to take away the judgments held against them.  That’s pretty awesome.  Changes like God had turned their enemies away.  That’s amazing!

The second thing I noticed was that Zephaniah says God also will sing ahead of time!  God will rejoice over the people.  God will renew them in holy love.  It’s almost as if God is giddy with delight in anticipation of the saving act God is about to do.  God sees the larger picture and can’t wait to bring this new life into reality.

Kind of like the feeling you get when you decide to do something you know another person will love, and you can’t wait to do it!  You can almost see into the future of how things will turn out, how that person will react.  It’s like, “I can’t wait to see the look on their face!”  And you smile, and you hum a tune, or you sing with delight in anticipation.  You rejoice with gladness ahead of time..  Because you know  that they and you will be renewed in love.

As Christians we read Zephaniah’s foretelling of God’s plan to bring the exiles back home, and we see it as a foretelling of God’s great plan of salvation in the birth of Jesus Christ. To bring us and all people out of the exile of a dead-end relationship with God and back home into a new, restored, loving relationship with God.  A relationship where God comes near and we are renewed in God’s love.

And God, Zephaniah says, is giddy with delight promising to love and care for us, no matter what.  God promises that devastating circumstance that are wrecking us at the moment are not permanent.  God sees the bigger picture and says, “I am coming near.  I will renew you in my love.”

That’s what Advent’s about, friends. A future with hope.  Hope of love being renewed.  Hope that sees the bigger picture. Sometimes the bigger picture that God sees comes quickly, and we know it right away.  Other times, it’s a long time in coming, and we can doubt that God even cares.  But, God does care… about each of us. Deeply. About the lives we love.  About our circumstances.  If you believe, God is in them. 

Janet Boyd lives in Elkhart, Indiana.  Fifty years ago, she gave up her only child for adoption at birth.  In the late 60’s, being unmarried and pregnant was a thing of shame.  Janet’s parents sent her out of state to live with relatives because of the shame under the guise that she could move on with her life as if the whole ordeal never happened.  Janet wrote that she denied the existence of her son thousands of times when people asked about her family.  Shame is a powerful silencer.

Decades later, a social media post about adoption searches caught her attention.  After much consideration, she followed up and made a contact that led to a reunion with her 47 year old son.  She wrote, “I’ve had the joy of getting to know him, seeing my blue eyes in his.  I’ve spent treasured moments with his family and with my five year old grandson, in whom I savor the little boy antics I never knew with my son.  After all the years of shame and secrecy, reuniting with my long lost child has been for me a sure sign of redemption, resurrection, and a return to wholeness” (Boyd, Janet, “Return,” Christian Century, November21, 2018, p. 26).  I have a feeling…I have hope that God was giddy with delight knowing that the plan of redemption, resurrection, reconciliation, and a return to wholeness Janet Boyd experienced was in the works.

John the Baptist knows that God’s plan of salvation is in the works.  Underneath the rough and gruffness of John’s words is the powerful vision of a world that God sings about ahead of time.  A type of world where those with abundance share with those who have a little.  Where those who are in positions of power deal justly with those not in power.  A type of world where people are renewed in God’s love.  John says that we can find the right path, change direction, and share in the joy of God’s renewing love, for God comes near when love is born.  And God sings with joy in anticipation! I sing in anticipation of a new ONA Covenant coming your way.  Consistory approved that the covenant be on the January 27th congregational meeting agenda.

I sing with anticipation of eight new people joining our congregation today!  Praise God for what God has in the works because of how the gifts the people bring by joining us in ministry!  Praise God for how they help at becoming an all-inclusive church.  About how they will discover new ways to use the gifts they bring in making God’s world become a reality.

Can you see it?  Can you rejoice in anticipation?  Knowing what we know, can we see the world that God sees?  Knowing what we know about the reason for Christmas, can we share in the singing with God?  Can we sing because we can celebrate the vison of wholeness coming to our fragmented world?  Can we sing because we are renewed in God’s love?

We are the ones God can use to help bring about god’s world. And we get renewed in love as we help bring it. Let us joyfully take sheer delight in God’s renewing love as God comes near in our Savior’s birth.  Amen.