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.

 

God Comes Near - Remembering the Covenant

Philippians 1: 3-11       Rev. Dr. Galen E. Russell III

Luke 1: 68-79   December 9, 2018

“Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant.”

Prayer:  As you draw near, O God, let us remember your promises.  Amen.

A couple of weeks ago, I told stories of Allen Myer and Sandy Spayd as we remembered their lives and asked everyone to remember and continue telling their stories.

And, last week, many people remembered “41,” the late President George Hebert Walker Bush as his stories were told even though not one story about his shortcoming was told. I’m sure they were there.  We all have them.  I didn’t always agree with him politically, but certainly, after hearing the speeches, eulogies, testimonies, and stories, I had a deeper appreciation for him.

Memories help keep loved ones alive in our consciousness—in our heart and soul.  To remember their stories, we become mindful of them again, and we keep their spirit, their life, their loves alive in us.

In a similar way, the gift of memory also helps keep God’s word alive in our hearts and minds.  That’s what helps keep the spirit, the life, the power of God’s covenant alive in us.

Let’s see what this covenant is all about.  A covenant is a promised-based relationship, one which God promises to be our God, and we promise to be God’s people.  Both sides promise to live with each other and with one another showing values of a healthy relationship—both practice justice, righteousness, steadfast love, faithfulness, and compassion.  These are the values that God loves and delights in.  And, God is always faithful to the covenant.

People, on the other hand, sometimes are not. Because of that,  all through the Hebrew scriptures, God renews the covenant with people, even though they blow it perpetually. 

And, living in today’s world, our lives are inundated with values of a different sort causing many in of us to blow it perpetually, too.  In contrast to the values God delights in, we constantly see and hear worldly values of national greatness, wealth, imperialism, security, and strength through power and violence.  As a result, it’s always a challenge  for us, as people of faith, to keep at bay the worldly values and to remember and to align ourselves with the values God delights in.

For God’s part of covenant keeping, several hundred years before Jesus was born, God made a covenant with King David and the Israelite nation that there would always be someone from David’s lineage on the throne.  Prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah all foretold the birth of one who would usher in a new era of peace and safety from enemies.  This heir to the throne would have the marks of what God loves and delights in.  The coming Messiah would be merciful, just, righteous, have steadfast love, faithfulness, and compassion.  The One coming would save the people from their bondage, their oppression, their enemies.

So, the people over the centuries, were waiting for the fulfillment of that promise.  They waited, and waited and waited.  Meanwhile, the Roman government continually grew more powerful and impoverished them and oppressed them all the more.  The Jews were the minority, the under-privileged.  Some didn’t believe the coming Messiah would even come. But, some remembered God’s covenant.  A few kept it alive in their consciousness—in their heart and soul.

That’s what’s going on in the first chapter of Luke’s gospel.  About that time, the old priest Zechariah, John the Baptist’s father, is visited by the angel Gabriel.  Gabriel tells Zechariah that his wife Elizabeth will give birth to a boy, and his name is to be John.  He will be great in God’s sight.  He will be filled with the Holy Spirit.  He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God.  And, he will make ready a people prepared for the Lord.

Ol’ Zac has a hard time believing the angel because he and Elizabeth are well past child-bearing years.  And Gabriel doesn’t take Zechariah’s disbelief lightly.  He immediately renders Zac mute.  And, he stays that way until the day of John’s birth.  When the baby was born, the people helping Elizabeth encouraged her to name the child Zechariah, after her husband.  But, she said, “No, he is to be called John.”  They said, “But, no one in your family has that name.”  So, they asked Zechariah what name he wanted the baby to have.  With a tablet, Zechariah wrote, “His name is John.”  And, immediately Zechariah could talk!  He was filled with the Holy Spirit, praised God, and spoke the words of his prophecy we heard today (see Luke 1: 5-25, 57-79).

Perhaps Zechariah is reminded of Gabriel’s words, but he mostly seems to remember the covenant God made long ago with his ancestors, a covenant he and most of Israel wanted fulfilled and were waiting for.  That God’s realm is coming near.  A mighty savior is coming to save them from enemies and from all who hate them.  And, they would be able to worship God and serve God in peace and in safety.  Thus God showed the mercy promised to their ancestors and remembered the covenant made long ago.

As Christians, we believe and understand that God renews the covenant again—a new covenant is made through Jesus Christ.  That covenant is God’s promise to fulfill the old covenant by granting salvation, to give us abundant, holy love, to always be present, and to free us from the consequences of sin—which is death of our inner spirit and to have Christ Jesus forever our Lord and our God—that covenant is still active today.  It’s still at work today.  That covenant begins with the birth of Jesus Christ.

As we get ready for Christmas, as we shop, as we decorate, as we have holiday get-togethers, for our part of covenant-keeping, I encourage us to keep in our minds that God faithfully remembers the covenant made to humanity… God comes near us in the birth of Jesus Christ.  God comes near us now, right where we are, in our circumstances in our adversities, and in our joyous moments.

Now, it’s not enough that we are mindful that God remembers the covenant with us.  We have to remember our responsibility to the covenant, as well.  We can use God’s faithfulness to the covenant as a role model for our faithfulness to the covenant to God and with each other.

And yes, I think God comes near as we remember the covenant.  When we live it, when we let love overflow, when we grow in knowledge and insight, then we realize God comes near.  We become the harvest of righteousness for someone else, God comes near. When another person experiences the beauty and holiness of God’s covenant because we’re living  it our, God comes near.

A chaplain named Jeanne Olsen was forewarned by the nurses not to go into a hospital room because Butch, the patient was an angry, obnoxious, rude man who loved Harley Davidson motorcycles.  “So be it,” Chaplain Jeanne said.  “I’ll be the next one booted out, or not.”  She went in.  She saw Butch was wearing a Harley T-shirt and started talking with Butch about motorcycles.  About the annual Harley gathering.  She made the connection with him.  In conversation, she found out he had AIDS, how he got it, why he is angry about it.  At the end of the visit, Chaplain Jeanne said, “I’ll check back tomorrow.  If you want me to come in, say yes.  If not, say no.”  He said, “You can come back.”  She did, for several days.

One day, Butch asked, “Do you know what I do when the pain is so bad I can hardly stand it?  I turn to him,” he said pointing at a crucifix.  “I didn’t know you knew him,” Chaplain Jeanne said.  “Oh yes,  I went to Sunday school as a kid.  He comforts me.  He does.  I guess I’m returning to my childhood faith.”  “Yes, Butch,” she said as she put her hand on his very thin arm.  He died two days later.  A nurse said that his last expression was a smile (Olsen, Jeanne, Christian Century, November 21, 2018, p. 24).  Butch was remembering the covenant.  So was Chaplain Jeanne.  And God came near.  Right there.  In that hospital room.

Friends, we have the basics of a covenantal faith, one that we’re invited to remember, to practice to live out.  I close with one last acknowledgement of the late President George H. W. Bush.  When he began is presidency, a the beginning of his inauguration speech, he began with a prayer.  I totally forgot that!  President Bush’s prayer thanked God for God’s love.  He asked for God’s help in keeping peace through faith, to do God’s work and will, and to use power not for our own purposes, but for the purpose of helping and serving people.  At the end he prayed, “Help us remember, Lord.”

Let us be quiet and remember the covenant.

Amen.

 

God Comes Near - Seeing the Signs

Jeremiah 33: 14-16       Rev. Dr. Galen E. Russell III

Luke 21: 25-36              Decembe 2, 2018

“So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.”

Prayer:  God of all things seen and unseen, please open our hearts and minds so that we may prepare for when you come near to us, in every one of our circumstances.  Amen.

This Bible text from Luke and others like it on the first Sunday of Advent always remind me of the Doomsday prognosticators.  I picture the older man in a worn-out trench coat from Bruce Almighty standing on the street holding a sign that says, “Repent!  The end is near!”  Over the years, we certainly have had our share of doomsday forecasters and conspiracy theorists who predict when the end of all things will come.  Remember the doomsday forecast with the Y2K event in 2000?  Everything was to go haywire with the changing from midnight 1999 to 2000.  One minute into 2000 the world wide web was to blackout. Didn’t happen.  Or, think of the now deceased Harold Camping who predicted the exact date when the rapture would take place and the world would end… he predicted it… again and again, each time saying he made a mistake in his previous calculations and needed to revise.  He eventually gave up and focused on the Bible verse quoting Jesus as saying basically that no one knows the day or the time, not even the angels, only God knows (see Matthew 24:36 and Mark 13: 32).

Those prognosticators and doomsday prophets tend to be fear mongers.  They cause the general public a fair bit of anxiety and unrest.  Some folks who take the Bible literally say that these are the end times that we’re living in.  They say everything in scripture matches up with what we’re seeing.  Big earthquakes, like the one Friday in Alaska.  Tsunamis, like the one that devastated Indonesia a few months ago. Fires, like the ones in California.

However, I invite us to remember that Jesus first of all, reminds his disciples and us that there will be days like these.  They’ve occurred since the dawn of time.  And yes... it’s possible a cataclysmic event could change weather patterns.  And some cosmic event could cause signs in the skies.

Remember, too, that Luke uses Jesus’ words in metaphorical and allegorical ways.  The roaring of the sea and waves in biblical writings often represent the primordial chaos of creation.  And, the powers of heaven being shaken is thought to allude to Rome conquering Jerusalem, which already happened by the time Luke wrote down Jesus’ words and his gospel.

So, with that in mind, Jesus’ words I think suggest an alternative to doom—a shift of emphasis.  The message of the fig tree is about seeing signs of forthcoming events.  But, I sense that Jesus invites deep faithfulness to God as those events unfold.  Not going deeper in fear as those events unfold.

Jesus says stand up when these things take place.  Raise our heads.  Basically, that means take heart.  Because when we see these things taking place, we don’t zero in on the anxiety and fear, but rather, we zero in on faith.  We center in on God.  Then our choices, commitments, decisions, attitudes stem from that center.  We live in the present and into the future from the inside out.  Based on who we are, and who God is with us.  From an internal relationship with our divine Holy God.  In response to crises. That’s when God comes near.

If there is no internal center with God in faith, then there is no outer perimeter in daily life, either.  If we move God to the margins of our life, we easily can drift around, fearing every sign of doom, every prognosticator’s forewarning, struggling with every moment of crisis. I sometimes get all worked up with our societal woes.  Then I read this passage.

Take heart, because, with God in the center, we get our spiritual bearings, our footing.   We are able to stand up and respond to the turbulence of our day in faith, not fear.  I believe God works with us.  In our circumstances.  Good and bad. Working together, we are guided toward the best possible outcomes in the future.  And God comes near.

I took heart in at least one response to the crisis of the recent mass shooting at the Jewish synagogue in Pittsburgh.  Did you hear about this?  A crowdfunding campaign begun by two Muslim groups raised over $55,000 for the Jewish victims’ families after the October 27th shooting.  The Muslim organizations are partnering with the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh to distribute the funds, which are intended to help defray medical and burial costs.  The sponsoring organizations said they are sending a message from the Muslim community that there is no place for this kind of hatred and violence in America (The Hill, October 28, from “Century Marks,” Christian Century, November 21, 2018, p. 8).  God’s realm comes near.

So, take heart.  When you see the signs of these things taking place, we know that God’s realm is on its way.  God comes near, and is coming near.  Jesus’ birth signifies God’s righteous branch is springing up.  God’s new era will emerge out of the calamity, out of the natural disasters, out of the political chaos and societal turbulence because God lives in us.  God works in people who dare to become centered in God and resist the fears of a hopeless future.

That means...se are the signs for others to see.  Think of the calamities and disasters  as a great opportunity to demonstrate the opposite of anxiety to all those stressed-out folks around you.  Teach them by your example to go down deep in faith in God, not fear.

So, trust that God comes near and is coming near.  Have faith that our redemption has come and  is coming.  Be alert.  Pray.  Together with God, we can tip the balance toward health and wholeness, and open the door to greater influx of God’s divine activity bringing to reality beauty of God’s world, the justice God calls for, and living in safety that we and all the earth craves.  Amen.

 

Not the Love of Power But The Power of Love

John 18:33-37            Pastor Laura Ramsey

2 Samuel 23:1-7            November 25, 2018

“One who rules over people justly, ruling in the fear of God, is like the light of morning, like the sun rising on a cloudless morning, gleaming from the rain on the grassy land.”

Prayer:  Grace and peace be unto you. From the one who is, who was, and who is to come.  Amen.

 

It is truly a joy for me to be preaching today for the first time as a called pastor here at Christ church! This Thanksgiving weekend I have been very reflective of all of the blessings in my life and being here is certainly one of the things I am most grateful for.

 

So we are just coming out of this Thanksgiving weekend where we take time to be thankful for the relationships and blessings in our lives, but before we can catch our breath, things are already in full swing to be celebrating Christmas. Christmas carols have been on the radio for weeks now and we are fully into the flurry of buying gifts, decorating our homes and getting ready for the many December activities and get-togethers.

 

But wait,  in our church calendar it’s not quite Advent yet. We still have today – this one Sunday yet before Advent. Today is the last day of our church year and it is called Reign of Christ Sunday.

 

I like to think of this Sunday as a moment to actually stop, catch our breath, and be reflective on what it means to have a coming king before we really jump full force into the season of Advent, a new church year and preparing for the birth of this king.

 

We get two Bible passages today to reflect on the coming Reign of Christ: the last words of David and the exchange between Pilate and Jesus.

In the Old Testament we read that the people wanted a king. They were warned that a king would be partial and corrupt. But they persisted and got Saul, who was indeed partial and corrupt.

 

David succeeded him, and despite his human flaws, became for the Jews of his time and thereafter the example of a good, wise and heroic king – anointed by God. It is no accident that Jesus was from the House of David.

 

As David nears the end of his life, he is thinking back over his life and time as king. Today’s passage highlights some of his last words. I want to be clear that even though this passage is called David’s last words, they aren’t his final words. David still speaks a few times after these words, but I think these words are lifted up as, let’s call them, – David’s last important words that he would actually want to share publicly.

 

His words are a metaphor for what it means to be a good ruler. He says, “One who rules over people justly, ruling in the fear of God, is like the light of morning, like the sun rising on a cloudless morning, gleaming from the rain on the grassy land.”

 

He is basically saying that a just ruler is a great blessing to their people. In the semi- arid land of Israel, a good soaking rain that would leave the sun gleaming off of the grass in the morning, would have been a life-giving blessing. Another way to interpret David’s words would be to say that a just ruler is one that enables life to flourish.

Let that sink in for a moment. A good ruler enables life to flourish. In other words, a good leader doesn’t turn away the vulnerable, the weak or the powerless.

A good ruler is just.

 

OK David. So what does it mean to be a good king that rules justly?  What is justice?  I think this is a relevant question for us today. What is justice?

We talk about it all the time. We are working toward social justice or environmental justice. We talk about criminal justice.

 

We talk about justice, but different people can understand justice differently. So what exactly is justice?

 

I’d like to take a moment and go back to one of the ancient philosophers.  In the book, Plato’s Republic, Socrates is asking another philosopher, Polymarcus, questions about what justice is. The questioning has already gone on for a few lines when Polymarcus responds, “If we are to follow the previous answers, Socrates, it [justice] gives benefit to friends and harm to enemies.” (Plato’s Republic. Stanza 332D5. pg. 7).

 

If we are honest, isn’t that what we think of when we say justice? At least some of the time?

 

If someone wrongs us, don’t we expect justice?

So in following with this logic, to rule justly must mean to give benefit to friends or allies and harm to enemies?

Hold that thought for a minute.

 

The other text we have for today is the exchange between Pilate and Jesus.

 

Pilate is questioning Jesus about whether he is the “King of the Jews” and Jesus doesn’t give him a straight answer. Jesus responds, “my Kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”

 

I love this exchange. It can seem when reading this like Jesus is just evading the questions, but that isn’t really the case at all.

In reality, Pilate’s questions aren’t the right questions.

When Pilate asks, “are you the king of the Jews”, what choices does Jesus have in answering?

If Jesus’ kingdom were a typical kingdom, Jesus might be tempted to fight back against those handing him over. There might be an uprising against the current powers that Jesus would be leading. But instead, Jesus’s kingdom operates off of different norms of what power looks like.

 

By not answering Pilate’s questions directly, Jesus is basically saying, yes I’m a King, but you wouldn’t understand my kingdom or the type of king that I am. Jesus is essentially redefining everything.

 Jesus’ kingdom contradicts Herod’s or really any other kingdom we can think of.

 

Jesus even redefines justice. The people in Jesus’ day would have had the understanding of justice that Socrates had: that justice gives benefit to friends and harm to enemies.

I love this excerpt from Pastor Nadia Boltz Weber’s blog on Reign of Christ Sunday:

 

“Well, no kidding Jesus. I mean, nothing personal, but you’re a joke of a king.

I mean, if we are going to celebrate a king here today at least it could be one who will wipe out all the racists and those who do violence to women and those who hurt children and everyone who is more interested in protecting the wealth of the rich than protecting the wellbeing of the poor. If Christ is my king he’s doing a lousy job of smiting my enemies.” (Nadia Bolz–Weber. Sarcastic Lutheran Blog post from December 1, 2015. Accessed November 21, 2018.)

 

But the problem is that when that vengeance seeking and violent part of me calls out to have a king who would destroy my enemies, I inevitably would be the one that same king would have to destroy. Since God is the God of all and I too am someone’s enemy. And where does that leave us? So, given the way I benefit from violence, given the fact that I too want my enemies to be destroyed, what I need, what we need, what this broken world needs is not a king with the greatest arsenal – we don’t need a czar who knows how to keep everyone under control and doing his bidding. We don’t need a Kaiser who wins the violence and retribution cycle, or a CEO who can protect our wealth.

We need a Lord who saves us by refusing to play that game at all.

So by Jesus refusing to play the game by answering Pilate, he redefines everything – even what justice means.

 

You see, in Jesus’ kingdom, justice isn’t about smiting enemies or about giving benefit to friends and harm to enemies. Justice is about loving everyone unconditionally.

 

I recently saw a bumper sticker that made my eyes pop – it read: ”if Jesus had had a gun, he wouldn’t have died.”

My, oh my. There is so much wrong with that statement.

Obviously, the person who wrote that twisted something from the Bible to make it fit today.

As we’ve heard today, Jesus would not have taken up arms, or even led a rebellion, but he wasn’t simply a passivist either. Jesus was redefining everything and refusing to make it an either/ or choice.

There is a different way in the kingdom of God.

Jesus loves unconditionally and there is no need for gun holding.

 

I’d like to propose a new bumper sticker…”it’s not about power, but the power of love.”

Jesus isn’t focused on revenge and smiting enemies. There is no need for guns or violence. There is no need for power, control or aggression in the kingdom of Jesus.

 

When we find ourselves tempted by power, greed or need for revenge, we are not living in the loving realm of God.

When any leader whether it is a king from the Bible, Donald Trump, or any other leader today leads in a way that tears down the lowly, targets the vulnerable, or harms another out of revenge, they are not leading in the kingdom of God.

 

Jesus’s kingdom is one of love and relationships.

Jesus is the type of king that will die on a cross out of the love for his people and not send them into battle on his behalf.

Jesus is the kind of king David was describing as a just ruler. Jesus is the king that allows life to flourish – not tear down.

In Jesus’ kingdom, work is done for the common good – not for selfish gain.

We can see glimpses of Jesus’ kingdom here on earth when we see true, unconditional love in action. There is power in that kind of love.

 

We are called to work toward establishing Jesus’ kingdom here on earth.

 

God reigns in the midst of pain, death, chaos, and when things feel out of control. God exercises God’s rule in unlikely and unexpected places.

 

God’s reign is not about power. God rules through weakness, vulnerability and mercy.

Christ even rules despite of and amidst corrupt leaders and human brokenness.

In Christ’s kingdom, it’s not about the love of power, but the power of love!

 

Christ’s reign is all about redefining our existing understandings of what it means to have just rule and a good leader.

In the Bible, the ending of David’s reign literally makes way for fulfilling of the future promise in coming Jesus.

 

Today, we celebrate our endings in order to make way for Christ’s coming.

 

We are about to enter into the memorial portion of our worship where we remember those who have died this past year in our congregation. In what ways can we celebrate their lives and thank them for teaching us the things that they did? In what ways did they bring about God’s kingdom and justice?

 

It’s also the ending of our church year. What lies ahead for us?

What decisions and actions would you hold up as examples of hope and love in ministry? What mistakes would you want to learn from, but not repeat?

 

In what ways are we stuck in our notion of human justice and wanting revenge and not God’s justice?

 

As we enter into Advent, we are called to work toward establishing God’s kingdom here on earth. This means loving unconditionally and harnessing the power of love and not the love of power.

Amen.

 

 

Wait N Faith

Mark 13: 1-8    Rev. Dr. Galen E. Russell III

1 Samuel 1: 4-20              November 18, 2018

“… I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord.”

Prayer:  With gratitude we come to you, O God, because your steadfast love endures forever.  We pour out ourselves to you in faith.  Amen.

It’s Thanksgiving!  Christmas is only five weeks away!  That’s unbelievable!  It will be here before we know it!  We get to prepare all over again for the birth of Jesus Christ.

I don’t know about you, but I sometimes think that the way much of our society lives and acts, you wonder if Christ was born at all!  I don’t know if I can wait until Christmas for us to celebrate Christ’s birth!  Let Jesus be born again NOW!  Please be born in this toxic political environment.  Come, Lord Jesus!  We need your birth in the ongoing rash of mass shootings.  Come Lord Jesus.  Please be born into the lives of those suffering from the fires.  Come, Lord Jesus.  Be born in those abused or shamed or harmed.  Come, Lord Jesus!  Come!

Like Hannah, in the face of huge struggles, seemingly insurmountable odds, long, long, long periods of waiting, we pour out our souls before God.  Like Hannah, such circumstances may seem to be permanent.  Like Hannah, in faith, we wait.  With tears and prayers for a healthier world, in faith, we wait.  With hopes for new birth of God’s life in the middle of our lives, in faith, we wait.

Because just when you think that something’s permanent, turns out, with God, it isn’t.  Hannah’s feelings of insignificance and physical infertility ended up being temporary.  Jesus bursts the disciple’s bubble when he says that even though the temple has been there in Jerusalem for a thousand years, it will not be so permanently.  Even though the disciple’s wanted Jesus to become the Messiah, the Anointed One, to take his place as the new king at that very temple, Jesus says, Nope.  The center of God’s work in him will not be in Jerusalem, but it will be in the human heart.  And, it will be not a work that is done once but is done again and again.

It is sad to say, but more and more, we’re getting used to our societal problems.  Some things just keep happening over and over in our society that we become more and more desensitized to their severity each day.  Jesus’ words show us that, unfortunately, war, natural disasters, and anguish of all sorts have occurred before.  Mass shootings happen again and again.  They’re becoming the norm.  They are nothing new.

But, what is new, is us!  We are new!  In Christ, each one of us is made new.  We are the change agents!  With faith and hope, we cling to the idea that our situations, our struggles, our toxicity are not permanent.  God IS born in us NOW, and I believe God wants us to pour out our souls to God.  We place our deepest faith and trust in God and the plans God laid—plans for our individual lives, plans for our church, our society—plans that are for good and not destruction.

But, in the waiting, we are very active.  Because faith in God is always tried in life.  Life’s circumstances always create opportunities for faith to become real.  We engage in life that reflects the life God wants us to live.

I encourage us to have faith that God is bringing something to birth, even in the midst of difficult or challenging circumstances.  God likely does not cause all these, but I do believe that God’s purpose in every circumstance is to see that faith can grows in us.

Today is our congregational meeting.  We have several agenda items that are challenging.  We will wrestle with an unbalanced Ministry Spending plan.  We will discuss whether or not to replace our HVAC system.  We will discern the cause for justice in creation.  Let’s pour out our souls to God about each one of these items, difficult as they might be.  Because these make our faith real.  God is birthing something new in our ministry.  Our faith in God for each of them is necessary.

And beyond today’s agenda we have challenging ministry and mission projects that will likely be on a future agenda for us as a congregation.  We’re exploring what it means to be an All-Inclusive Church.  One part of that exploration includes finding out what it means to be an Open and Affirming church that officially welcomes people who are under-represented in our society.  Another part of that exploration means addressing how our building and facility can be made accessible to all in every area—downstairs, upstairs, outside—everywhere.

As scripture says, “We know that all things work together for good.”  That means that no matter what happens,
God’s providence transfigures our faith into reality.  So, we pour our souls out before the Lord—in faith.  And we actively wait, practicing our faith into reality, believing that God is birthing in us a new vision of ministry.  We believe that God hears our prayers, does not abandon us, but strengthens us as we stand on the firm foundation made in Christ.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

 

Intimate Caring

Intimate caring: Ruth as a story of peacebuilding

Kevin Shorner-Johnson

If you know me, you know I am a nerd. I study music, ethics, and time orientations through the lens of educational policy, 17th century Puritan theology, and multicultural peacebuilding practice. That’s a whole lot of nerd. And from my Episcopalian background with a side of Catholic and Baptist bible study, I am also a nerd for studying lectionary and coming to know scripture more deeply. Please humor me as I take you on my passion for philosophy, theology, and peacebuilding.

I love Ruth, because Ruth is a beautiful story of moving toward each other in sacred moments of humble but audacious love. It is also a remarkable book because it is the only story that explores feminine relationship with great depth, and along with Esther, it is one of the few stories that is told from the point of view of a woman.1 Ruth is not a story of the powerful and famous, but is the story of two, ordinary people on a threshing floor doing extraordinary work of love. Because I am passionate about research in peacebuilding, I want to look at this story from a peacebuilding lens and the language of closeness, argument, and grace.

# Closeness

I wonder if Ruth is a story of what happens when we move closer to each other. While Ruth was a widowed woman in a distant land, she was an object of despair. Refugees and migrants today generate sympathy because they are distant objects of despair. Hearing their story might cause me to feel sympathy for their distant, “third world” plight – maybe generating a donation? But then, Ruth and Naomi begin their migrant journey toward economic security and acceptance - Something that was very difficult to achieve in the violent masculine-powered society at the end of Judges. Ruth arrives, and as she moves closer to Boaz, Boaz is convicted of his need to offer a little more. He leaves larger amounts of grain in the fields and commands field hands to leave her unmolested and unharmed.

Moving closer still, Boaz joins her for dinner.

Boaz clearly has done great acts of kindness and compassion for a destitute woman. But . . . this is not enough, because Ruth moves closer yet, creating new ethical dilemmas as she moves closer and closer. Ruth is not content to be an object of sympathy - she wants more, she wants the security of food, shelter, and safety.

{Carol Meyers, "‘Women of the Neighborhood’ (Ruth 4.17): Informal Female Networks in

Ancient Israel," in Ruth and Esther: A Feminist Companion to the Bible, (Sheffield, England:

Sheffield Academic Press, 1999), 110-127. }

So she shares an intimate relational space with Boaz on the threshing floor. When Boaz awakes, he sees the intimate humanness of Ruth. Suddenly, leaving leftover grain doesn't feel like enough. Boaz leans into the shared love of marriage, pledging in a public covenant to care for Ruth.

As we move closer to each other, we realize that what we thought was enough care, enough donations, enough love, was not enough -- and we uncover our unending capacity to love more deeply.

My godparents had a cozy dining table. They say it is the table where the late Reverend Billy Graham spent many hours in food and conversation. When we sat there with my godparents, that table is just a little bit sacred – not just for Billy Graham but also for the loving presence of my godparents. Having sat at many cozy dining tables with friends and family, I understand the sacredness of a good, cozy table. Tables are where we draw closer to each other, binding our souls and spirits through food and conversation. We probably all remember moments where we draw closer, with deep friends at the sacred site of a good dining table.

As someone who is passionate about ethics and peacebuilding, I am deeply interested in how we come to care for each other and the natural world. In our capacity for empathy and loving intentions, we practice our choreography of love – responding to each other and living closer. As Ruth and Boaz choreograph a closer dance, we, like Naomi, know that good things are bound to happen.

Jewish philosopher Martin Buber wrote that God might be the in-between space of sacred relationship. Deep relationship is the opposite of disconnection.2 Disconnection is the fundamental fuel of destructive addictions that lead us to violence toward self, the environment, and others. Our work as peacebuilders is to follow footsteps of Ruth, Naomi, and Boaz, building sacred moments where we are fully present to one another.

# Argument

On its surface the book of Ruth doesn't look like much of an argument. Everyone gets along, individuals increasingly care for one another, and the story, unlike so many, actually has a happy ending. However, I want to play with the idea that when this book is set against passages from Genesis, Deuteronomy, Numbers, Nehemiah, and Ezra, Ruth is a radical argument for love and care over unfeeling interpretation of law and principle. Prior to Ruth, Jewish cultural norms seem to be pretty clear about what to do with a Moabite woman. The writers of Genesis describe Moabites as coming from the sinful union of Lot and his first-born daughter. Ezra tears his garments at hearing that Moabite women have joined with Jewish men. Nehemiah 13 calls for separation with foreigners, particularly those Moabites.

{2 Martin Buber, I and thou. (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1970)}.

This story in Ruth seems to repeat at every possible paragraph that Ruth is a Moabite, making the argument more and more pointed.

Why would a story about a Moabite woman, who seemingly breaks every prohibition be placed alongside texts that are explicitly clear about Moabite women? Ruth and Naomi seem to be persistent troublemakers, walking across borders and breaking rules of contact.

Whether it be Job or Jacob, so many characters within the Jewish tradition wrestle and argue with God. The Rabbi Jonathan Sacks emphasizes the Jewish notion of "Mahloket l'shem shamayim" – translated “argument for the sake of heaven” or that the process of arguing leads us into deeper relationship with God.

3 What if Ruth is an argument of love and care against rules about Moabites in Ezra, Nehemiah, Numbers, and Deuteronomy? In many ways, Jesus lived out similar arguments as his care for children, widows, the sick, the lame, the tax collector, and the prostitute challenged the rules of the powerful. Jesus breathes life into hardened laws through love and care.

My educational hero, Nel Noddings advocates that a teacher’s most important job is to enter into caring relationships with students. Care is often at odds with unchanging principle and distanced, objective rule.4 We know that our deep love and care for children, spouses, parents, friends, and neighbors forever changes who we are. Our ability to change enlarges our care.

Maybe our work as Christians is moving closer to love, pain and joy, because when we know and are known through intimate love, we are all changed. Ruth’s close presence is an argument for her humanity. Naomi accurately predicts that once Ruth has moved that close to Baoz, he will be forever changed.

I wonder if the Widow at the offering plate in Mark 12 is a similar argument. The rich people are following principles of rational giving. They are also part of an economic system that leaves a widow with 1/64 of a typical day’s wages.5 But as the widow moves close to the collection plate, she gives all that she has. This feminine act of whole-hearted giving is an argument against rule and unjust difference. What a risk and a challenge to our well-ordered lives.

Can I accept the risk that I might be changed within arguments for love?

{3 Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen, “Jewish women in peacebuilding: Embracing disagreement in the pursuit of ‘Shalom’,” in Women, Religion, and Peacebuilding: Illuminating the Unseen, ed.

Susan Hayward and Katherine Marshall (Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace Press,2015), 113-126.

4 Nel Noddings, Caring: A relational approach to ethics and moral education. (Berkeley, CA:

University of California Press, 2013).

5 https://politicaltheology.com/a-widows-presence-mark-1238-44/

4# Sin and grace}

The Hebrew word of ḥesed lies at the heart of understanding the book of Ruth. ḥesed is steadfast “lovingkindness” that goes beyond the expected. It is a form of kindness that sets off a chain of good deeds. ḥesed is explicitly used three times in Ruth and is the implicit glue that holds the story together.

6 Ruth’s ḥesed is a “cumulative force” of kindness that brings restoration to two women who have lost a secure future. My favorite Irish poet, John O’Donohue personifies radical kindness as having “gracious eyes” and transforming vulnerability into “occasion[s] for dignity and empathy.” “Kindness,” he says “casts a different light, an evening light that has the depth of color and patience to illuminate what is complex and rich in difference.”7 The rich difference of Moabite and Israelite may be a prism of color fed by the evening light of shared love.

I believe that when I toss pebbles of ḥesed into our reflecting pool, these intentions set ripples of lovingkindness across space and time. When this is done in community, like the community of Ruth-Boaz-Naomi, ripples become waves, collectively transforming scarcity to abundance …. fear to love.

When I was at the Alliance for Peacebuilding conference two weeks ago, I entered the deep hope and grace within the amazing women and men who courageously build out love and care in Colombia, Syria, Yemen, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, the US, and Mexico. While we lament stories of hate, violence and fear, we believe there is always a larger community of ripplemakers than we realize.

Maybe Grace is moving closer. Maybe Grace is being embraced in the close and steadfast lovingkindness of ḥesed. And just like Ruth and Boaz, each move closer demands even more of us. Leaving out leftover grain becomes not enough, until we can do nothing less than give our whole selves.

If Sin is missing the mark, notice how the mark moves higher as we move closer. Sin needs intimate grace to set the bar higher.8 Sometimes I move closer, becoming intentional and vulnerable. Sometimes I move farther away through distraction or avoidance. How is our loving presence an “argument” against forces of hate, violence and exclusion? If Ruth, a destitute, widowed woman in a masculine world could transform the world this much and teach us this much about love, what can we do with the power of our intentions?

{6 Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Tikva Frymer-Kensky, The JPS Bible Commentary: Ruth. (Philadelphia, PA: The Jewish Publication Society, 2011). 7 John O’Donohue, To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings. (New York, NY: Convergent Books, 2008). 8 Shannon Craigo-Snell and Christopher J. Doucot, No Innocent Bystanders: Becoming An Ally in the Struggle for Justice. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017).}

Ruth and the widow at the treasury are stories of loving acts in a sea of strangers and unfeeling rules. These stories illuminate Grace and love like a beacon in the night. On this 100th anniversary of armistice day, when we acknowledge the essential possibility of peace, acts of intimate caring illumine the best parts of ourselves, casting out fear of the stranger and turning every Moabite into a neighbor. Intimate ḥesed gives me hope. And because of faith, I choose to live in that hope. This is a beacon of light, the gathering strength of waves, the life-giving embrace of covenant, and the clink of an ordinary coin becoming a whole-hearted gesture.

Amen.

Blessing:

Hear the blessing within Irish verse of John O’Donohue:9

Awaken to the mystery of being

Enter the quiet immensity of your own presence

May intimacy journey you to that place where love, warmth, and feeling change us;

Respond to the call of your gift and the courage to follow its path;

Take time to celebrate the quiet miracles that seek no attention;

May there be kindness in your gaze when you look within;

May you be embraced by God in whom dawn and twilight are one;

May you experience each day as a sacred gift woven around the heart of wonder.

9 O’Donohue, To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings.

Seeing Again For the First Time

Hebrews 7: 23-28         Rev. Dr. Galen E. Russell III

Mark 10: 46-52              October 28, 2018

Then Jesus said to  him, “What do you want me to do for you?”  The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.”

Prayer:  Open our eyes, Lord that we may see, visions of truth you have for us.  Amen.

 I think we all have vision issues, of some sort, don’t you think?  Some more than others.  Just look around you.  Lots and lots of people wear glasses, and if they don’t, they wear contact lenses.  Some have color blindness—I know I have a mild case of red/green colorblindness, although Barb would beg to differ with me on ‘mild case’ part.  I’m just saying…  I tell her.  I say, “I see all the colors; I just don’t know their names!”  Yeah right.  Ask me later how that’s going for me!

But, she and I, and I suspect many of you who may be older…  we have what’s called ‘presbyopia.’  No, it’s not something only Presbyterians get… “presby” is Greek for elder/older, and “opia” is Greek for eye/sight.  So, presbyopia is when our vision slowly gets fuzzy as soon as we hit 40 or 50, and our arms get too short, and people make fun of us saying that they’ll hold the paper 10 feet away so we can read it!  You know you have presbyopia when your reading glasses are stashed all over the place—at home, at work, in the car, anywhere you read or need close up vision.

One thing I found though, is that in well-lit conditions, I can see clearly, close-up without my readers.  And, I got to thinking about that!  I love this idea!  Lots of light helps sharpen my vision and my focus.  It’s great for my vision.

 And catch this—lots of light—God’s light—is also great, metaphorically speaking, for sharper vision on our faith journeys.  Because the light of Christ, the presence and influence of God, the impact of the way of love—these points of God’s light help us see life clearly.  These help us grow out of whatever blindness we may have.  With the light of Christ, we can see our world, our lives, our contemporary issues in new ways.  We’re seeing again, fresh, as if for the first time.

With regards to our contemporary concerns, I invite you to consider Jesus’ question: “What do you want me to do for you?”  If Jesus were to ask us that question today, what would we answer?

As I said, we all have vision issues, more or less, I think.  We have different types of short-sightedness.  Obstinacy can make us short-sighted.  So can intolerance.  Narrowmindedness is a form of blindness.  One-sided thinking—“My way is the only way” mentality.  All are forms of vision issues.  We can’t see clearly when we have these. If Jesus were to ask us “What do you want me to do for you?”  could we say, “My teacher, let us see again?”  Could we persistently say, “O God, have mercy on us, for we do not see as you see.”

Funny thing about these kinds of blindness; we often don’t know that we have them.  We can get so used to our familiar ways, so used to life in our own little world, so comfortable with our privilege that when someone like a þ Bartimaeus shouts out, crying for God’s mercy, begging to “see” like everyone else sees, wanting to have a life that everyone else has—that person is sternly rebuked.  Oftentold to be quiet.  The crowd tried to put Bartimaeus back in his place on the socioeconomic sidelines.   I Call it socioecopia.  And, Bartimaeus cried out all the more when the crowd tried to silence him.

 In our day, the migrating group of thousands of people, heading north from Honduras through Mexico in search of a better life, fleeing a life of poverty, guerillas, gangs, and drug cartels, are told to turn back.  And, if they don’t, they will be met with military force.  When will we have an effective immigration policy?   I call this blindness borderopia.  And the voices of immigrants will cry out all the more.  Are people of faith in our nation’s leadership listening?

 In our day, we know we’ve got blindness because of the wide polarity in our public discourse.  We’ve lost the ability to engage in discourse that respects critical thinking and opposing points of view and dialogues and learns from them.   Instead, pipe bombs are made by somebody and mailed to people who disagree, effectively saying, “Silence your criticism, and if you don’t, you will be blown up. You will lose your life.”  I call this form of blindness critiqueopia.  And the voices of those wanting healthy dialogue in the public square are crying out!  Is anyone listening?

In our day, there are people living on the church’s margins—people of the LGBTQ community, people of different races and ethnicities, people of different socioeconomic status and backgrounds, all seeking a place to worship safely, wanting to love and be loved without judgement, needing to forgive and be forgiven, desperately craving to be who they are, crying out to God and praying that God’s representative on earth, the Church, would welcome them, would affirm them.  Only to be told in many churches, you must change in order to be here, you must not speak about “your cause”, or your problem. You must fit in the way we are.   I Call this blindness churchopia.  And the voices of those on the margins of church life cry out all the more! I encourage us at Christ Church, keep explaining what it means to be an all inclusive church. Let us keep listening!

 In our day, after years of searching archaeologists may have found the ruins of Nicaea, the famed, but lost city where the first Council of Nicaea met in 325 A.D to hammer out the Nicene Creed which declared that God and Jesus were both God, and also set the formula for Easter Sunday.  It’s going to be difficult to excavate because it’s under about 9 feet of water.

 And, similarly, in North Carolina, back in 2012, North Carolina’s own Coastal Resources Commission predicted that sea levels could rise as much as 39 inches in a century.  So, coastal developers, concerned that this prediction would hurt real estate values and drive up the cost of insurance, successfully lobbied the state legislature to pass a law that bans all policies based on that prediction.  Talk about blinders! I   call it climate-change-opia (https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/sep/12/north-carolina-didnt-like-science-on-sea-levels-so-passed-a-law-against-it, retrieved October 27, 2018).  And the voice of our planet earth is crying out all the more.  Are we listening?

And the list goes on...this mass shooting in Pittsburgh reveals, again, a gun control-opia. A blindness we have.

These I think are some examples of short-sightedness and blindness in our day, and  God never nurses them along.  God never encourages us to hold on to our prejudices, our blindspots, or our short-sightedness.  Instead I think God wants those to die out in us.  And, in their place, God wants the living Holy Spirit to live in us.  That’s God’s holy life, love, and values living in us, giving us new sight on all our contemporary issues and concerns.  Nothing of the old life, the old ways of seeing remain.  With new sight and new insight, we, like Bartimaeus, are encouraged to follow Jesus on “the way.”  God’s way.

So, when we hear of people crying out for the same privileges, the same access, the same way of life that many others share, I encourage us not to silence their voices, not to push them off, but to listen and dialogue with them.

 And, to do so with a persistent faith that God has the ability to make a difference in our blindness, to shed light into our lives helping us see again, maybe for the first time, the kind of life God desires all humanity to have.  It takes exactly that kind of faith to walk in the way, to see all of life again, always influenced by God’s light in us, always having our consciences stirred, to bring wholeness to ourselves, to those we love, and to our world.   Amen.

 

Servant Leadership

 Hebrews 5: 1-10          Rev. Dr. Galen E. Russell III

 Mark 10: 35-45              October 21, 2018

“But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant.”

Prayer: Help us become great in your realm, O God.  Amen.

 To begin, I invite your responses to this question: Who said this?  “I want everyone to bear witness, I am the greatest!  I’m the greatest thing that ever lived.  I don’t have a mark on my face, and I upset Sonny Liston, and I just turned twenty-two years old.  I must be the greatest.  I showed the world.  I talk to God everyday.  I know the real God.  I shook up the world; I’m the king of the world.  You must listen to me.  I am the greatest!  I can’t be beat!”

OK?  Who said that?  Anyone?  Yes!   Muhammed Ali!  One of the world’s greatest boxers who ever lived!  Excellent!  That was pretty easy, huh?

 OK.  Who said this?  “Wouldn’t it be a beautiful world if just 10 percent of the people who believe in the power of love would compete with one another to see who could do the most good for the most people?”

OK?  Who said that?  Anyone?  The two statements could hardly be more different, could they?  As I said, the first quote is Ali’s boyish bluster from 1964, just after he defeated Sonny Liston for the first time.  The second quote—is also from  Muhammed Ali, something he wrote in his autobiography, The Soul of a Butterfly, in 2004, forty years later (https://www.homileticsonline.com/subscriber/illustrations_for_installment.asp?installment_id=93040705, retrieved October 19, 2018).  Nice to know that some perspectives changed for Muhammed Ali over time.  I think Jesus was hopeful that the perspectives of the disciples would change, too… after all; it’s been quite some time since they dropped everything and began to follow him.  And, Jesus faithfully kept teaching them about God’s realm, about God’s ways that are often opposite to the ways of human beings.  Prior to this passage, Jesus just got done teaching them that the greatest in the kingdom of God were people who become like little children.  But, were they getting it?

 Evidently not.  Because when James and John approached Jesus, they still seemed to be holding onto old ideas about greatness, about having power, about having privilege and entitlement.  They wanted Jesus to do for them whatever they wanted, and in this case, their request was that they would have the top two spots in the eternal realm of glory after Jesus triumphed in victory and conquered the existing powers that be here on earth.

Wow!  There is so much that is off base with their request that Jesus remarks that they really don’t know what they’re asking.  After asking a few more questions about how willing they really were to follow him to Jerusalem and the inevitable, and after observing the anger from the other ten for James’ and John’s arrogance, Jesus takes advantage of the moment.  He calls them together, and once again, teaches them that glory in God’s kingdom doesn’t look like glory in the kingdoms of our world.  As his disciples, they are not to be like all other powers they know… with lording it over others, their prestige and position and the bullying that comes with all that.  Nope, they are to “transform the world, not from the top down, but from the bottom up.” (Taylor, Barbara Brown, Bread of Angels, “Trickle Up Effect,” Cowley Publications, 1997,  p. 45)  They are to become servants of all—servants of others are the greatest in God’s kingdom.

 

 Sing: If you want to be great in God’s kingdom, learn to be a servant of all.  If you want to be great in God’s kingdom, learn to be a servant of all.

The trouble is, we over-expect the greatness that comes from our present practices of privilege, power, and entitlement, and under-expect the greatness that comes from God’s grace found in servant leadership.  The political culture these days has totally lost sight of what greatness is from God’s point of view.  God’s sovereign grace is underestimated in its power to transform, to bring peace, to cultivate new leaders.

 What do servant-leaders look like?  They are people who  embrace both concepts of serving others by serving Someone greater and beyond themselves.  In a spiritual community, no leader gets privilege, no leader cuts the line; no leader gets in first or takes the best seat.  Whoever wants to be a leader must be a servant to all the rest.  A true spiritual leader serves first, and by serving leads... through example.  They are people who understand the importance of awareness, listening, empathy and building community.  They understand that it isn’t about me; it’s about you.

 William Cohen, a researcher in business is quoted as saying, “My research debunks the myth that many people seem to have ... that you become a leader by fighting your way to the top.  Rather, you become a leader by helping others to the top (Cohen, William: The stuff of Heroes: The Eight Universal Laws of Leadership, quoted on the Trinity Western University Web site, twu.ca/Leadership/sl_quotes.asp. Retrieved April 9, 2003, https://www.homileticsonline.com/subscriber/illustrations_for_installment.asp?installment_id=3201, retrieved October 19, 2018).

 So, I wonder if this becomes our chance to discover our true humanity, by serving others promoting their greatness.  “Servant leadership I think means we have an ability to relate, cooperate, combine and create with God, with one another, and ourselves.  This requires us to understand one another, empathize with one another, seek the well-being of one another and love one another as we love ourselves” (Wells, Sam, Faith Matters, “An Economist Bears Witness,” Christian Century, October 10, 2018, p. 35).  Such is the way to be fully human.  Such is the way to be fully in the seat of glory.  Such is the way to transform lives.

I want to affirm our Servant Leaders in our congregation and in our community.  There are way to many to list, and it wouldn’t be appropriate to call out names.  But, let me say that many of you servant leaders come to our church on any given day; you come here to do ministry.

 You come here to worship, to sing praise, to help others lift their voices in song, to practice faith, writing liturgy, using gifts and talents.   You don’t do this for personal praise, but instead for the One who is worthy of our praise.  I praise God for your servant leadership.When you come here and lead others in worship.

 You come here and teach our kids and youth.  You help form faith.  You teach, you coach, you mentor, you cheer lead, you socialize.  you love without fanfare, without seeking glory, without demanding payment.  I praise God for your servant leadership in forming faith in all our people.

 You come here doing mission and outreach, gathering and sorting diapers for needy children.  You volunteer at the winter shelter, sometimes staying overnight assisting homeless people.   You put soup together for hungry people who come here in need.  Or meals together for those in Lancaster.  You go to parts of our nation devastated by disasters.  Or internationally to assist with orphans and children.  There is no “look at me, I’m doing this ministry” attitude.  Nope.  You just serve God by serving others.  You lift others up.  You strengthen the community.  You do it without calling attention to yourself. praise God for your servant leadership in mission and outreach.

You come here to work on our property and tend to our building concerns.  You come here to beautify our grounds, to wash our windows, to repair our dings and scratches.  No one seeks out recognition, but know this, all your ministry is appreciated.  I praise God for your servant leadership in our building, facilities, and our grounds.

 You come here to work on administrative details, handling money, raising and managing our financial resources, making policy decisions, working with our staff, working with me.  You come here and do this ministry without expectations of glory, without wanting to sit at the top spots. I praise God for your servant leadership in the administration of our ministry.

You come here with open hearts and open minds, welcoming all with a deep sense of hospitality.  You see someone you don’t know and you introduce yourselves.  You publicly practice our motto  “No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here!”  Because of you, the person seeking a safe place to worship, a place to grow in faith, a place to practice God’s extravagant love, a place to be loved extravagantly, a place of community without judgment—because of you that seeking person IS here.  That person is welcomed here, that person is loved here.  I thank God for your servant leadership in the ministry of hospitality.

 And you do all this not because you want to earn a place in Jesus’ glory, but because Jesus already earned that place for you.  Because his work of giving his life has touched your heart.  Because Jesus made you his.  He came not to be served as the Messiah, but as the Messiah, he came to serve, to give his life that we would know greatness in the realm of God.  I praise God for your servant leadership and I praise God for Jesus’ servant leadership.

 Sing with me... If you want to be great in God’s kingdom, learn to be the servant of all.  If you want to be great in God’s kingdom, learn to be the servant of all.  Amen.

 

Seeing Deeply

Mark 10: 13-16            Rev. Dr. Galen E. Russell III

 Hebrews 1: 1-4, 2: 5-12             October 7, 2018

“God… in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through suffering.”

Prayer:  Holy God, may your word through scripture and through our consciences reveal deeper truths to us today.  Amen.

 Eighty-five years ago, in 1933, Rev. Dr. Hugh Thomson Kerr, pastor at Shadyside Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, PA had the idea of World Communion Sunday.  It was Dr. Kerr and the Shadyside congregation’s attempt to bring churches together in a service of Christian unity—one in which everyone might receive both inspiration and information—about how each person is in a relationship with God, how each person carries the image of God within, and to know how important the Church of Jesus Christ is globally, how each congregation is interconnected, one with another.  In 1936, the whole US Presbyterian Church adopted the practice of celebrating World Communion,  and in 1940, the Federal Council of Churches (now the National Council of Churches) endorsed World Communion Sunday as the 1st Sunday in October and began to promote it to Christian churches worldwide (see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_Communion_Sunday, and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shadyside_Presbyterian_Church, retrieved October 5, 2018).

 Sounds like those purposes for World Communion Sunday could be applied to  Jesus’s ministry, don’t you think?  Jesus wanted to have every person know and cherish  a personal relationship with God.  He recognized how each person carried the image of God within.  And, he wanted the people of his faith community to know how interconnected they were—interconnected by a fierce, holy and divine love that God had for every one of them.  Jesus knew God loves each person, the way a child is loved by a parent.   And, he would suffer and die to make that point real, and save us from ourselves and from having a life without God’s grace in it.

 So, as he ministered to the people of his day, Jesus stood up for those whom his society tended to disregard, those who were disempowered.  He reached out to them, touched them, healed them, ate with them.  Because these were people whom society did not affirm.  They were not treated as children made in God’s image, or made a little lower than the angels.  These were people whom society did not care to be interconnected with because they were not among the powerful, the privileged, not among the widely accepted. But Jesus knew they were divinely accepted and loved by God.

 Take children, for example.  In Jesus’ day, children had limited rights and no voice.  They were property.  Take women, for another example.   Women had limited rights and limited voice compared to most adult men.  The passage immediately prior to this one is about divorce—in Jesus’ day, divorced women could simply be cast aside by the men as they would a discard piece of property.  The women were often left on their own, without resources and were outcasts.

 Jesus also reached to other marginalized people—prostitutes, tax collectors, those mentally ill and physically disabled or inured.  All of these people were not interconnected with the mainstream, their humanity unseen, to say nothing of God’s image seen in them.  But, they were all children of God.

 Now, more than two thousand years later, we are in a cultural crisis that challenges whether or not the beliefs of world Communion Sunday and Jesus’ ministry can continue and be sustained.

 It’s good we worship God in Christ affirming the belief that all people are made in God’s image.  It’s good to honor that all people are children of God interconnected, one with another, by a holy, divine love of God, and, yes, it is important that we share Christ’s meal today with this in mind.

 And yet, these beliefs are challenged because in our day, children still are being separated from their parents at the southern border of our nation.  In our day, in cities and towns, people are shot each and every day.  In our day, those on society’s periphery are told by the powerful to be quiet.   In our day, people of the #MeToo movement are told to bury the abuse and mistreatment, and just go along.  If a person claiming abuse does speak up, there is disbelief, mocking, or they’re told to grow up.  In our day, people of the “Black Lives Matter” movement are told that “all lives matter,” which is true, but “all lives matter” has not been practiced for centuries, nor is it practiced now.

 I suggest that while today’s recognition of Christians around the world is good, and our affirmation that all are made in God’s image is wonderful, and we are interconnected with each other is powerful—I suggest that  the strength of our words today pales in comparison with the strength of those whose suffering has spurred them into action.  Those who are fighting in the trenches for equality and for justice.  Those vulnerable to the ridicule and non-acceptance—these are the ones whose efforts magnify our beliefs.  They are the ones who put actions on the words of faith.  Their suffering in the hard work of seeking justice mirrors the One who suffered through his hard work of perfecting salvation, the One whom God made as the Savior for all God’s children, the pioneer of our salvation, whose suffering made perfect the plan of God that all the children of God are to be in the center of God’s realm both here on earth and in the world to come.

I think it is for us then to take from those who suffer, indeed from Christ himself, a new and dedicated resolve to stop practicing customs and traditions that oppress and disempower, and start living the truth in love and faithful living, so that this faith and these beliefs shown in the foundations of Jesus’ ministry and in the origins of World Communion Sunday would never end.  May God help us. Amen.

 

The Children's Savior

Mark 10: 13-16            Rev. Dr. Galen E. Russell III

 Hebrews 1: 1-4, 2: 5-12             October 7, 2018

“God… in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through suffering.”

Prayer:  Holy God, may your word through scripture and through our consciences reveal deeper truths to us today.  Amen.

 Eighty-five years ago, in 1933, Rev. Dr. Hugh Thomson Kerr, pastor at Shadyside Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, PA had the idea of World Communion Sunday.  It was Dr. Kerr and the Shadyside congregation’s attempt to bring churches together in a service of Christian unity—one in which everyone might receive both inspiration and information—about how each person is in a relationship with God, how each person carries the image of God within, and to know how important the Church of Jesus Christ is globally, how each congregation is interconnected, one with another.  In 1936, the whole US Presbyterian Church adopted the practice of celebrating World Communion,  and in 1940, the Federal Council of Churches (now the National Council of Churches) endorsed World Communion Sunday as the 1st Sunday in October and began to promote it to Christian churches worldwide (see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_Communion_Sunday, and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shadyside_Presbyterian_Church, retrieved October 5, 2018).

 Sounds like those purposes for World Communion Sunday could be applied to  Jesus’s ministry, don’t you think?  Jesus wanted to have every person know and cherish  a personal relationship with God.  He recognized how each person carried the image of God within.  And, he wanted the people of his faith community to know how interconnected they were—interconnected by a fierce, holy and divine love that God had for every one of them.  Jesus knew God loves each person, the way a child is loved by a parent.   And, he would suffer and die to make that point real, and save us from ourselves and from having a life without God’s grace in it.

 So, as he ministered to the people of his day, Jesus stood up for those whom his society tended to disregard, those who were disempowered.  He reached out to them, touched them, healed them, ate with them.  Because these were people whom society did not affirm.  They were not treated as children made in God’s image, or made a little lower than the angels.  These were people whom society did not care to be interconnected with because they were not among the powerful, the privileged, not among the widely accepted. But Jesus knew they were divinely accepted and loved by God.

 Take children, for example.  In Jesus’ day, children had limited rights and no voice.  They were property.  Take women, for another example.   Women had limited rights and limited voice compared to most adult men.  The passage immediately prior to this one is about divorce—in Jesus’ day, divorced women could simply be cast aside by the men as they would a discard piece of property.  The women were often left on their own, without resources and were outcasts.

 Jesus also reached to other marginalized people—prostitutes, tax collectors, those mentally ill and physically disabled or inured.  All of these people were not interconnected with the mainstream, their humanity unseen, to say nothing of God’s image seen in them.  But, they were all children of God.

 Now, more than two thousand years later, we are in a cultural crisis that challenges whether or not the beliefs of world Communion Sunday and Jesus’ ministry can continue and be sustained.

 It’s good we worship God in Christ affirming the belief that all people are made in God’s image.  It’s good to honor that all people are children of God interconnected, one with another, by a holy, divine love of God, and, yes, it is important that we share Christ’s meal today with this in mind.

 And yet, these beliefs are challenged because in our day, children still are being separated from their parents at the southern border of our nation.  In our day, in cities and towns, people are shot each and every day.  In our day, those on society’s periphery are told by the powerful to be quiet.   In our day, people of the #MeToo movement are told to bury the abuse and mistreatment, and just go along.  If a person claiming abuse does speak up, there is disbelief, mocking, or they’re told to grow up.  In our day, people of the “Black Lives Matter” movement are told that “all lives matter,” which is true, but “all lives matter” has not been practiced for centuries, nor is it practiced now.

 I suggest that while today’s recognition of Christians around the world is good, and our affirmation that all are made in God’s image is wonderful, and we are interconnected with each other is powerful—I suggest that  the strength of our words today pales in comparison with the strength of those whose suffering has spurred them into action.  Those who are fighting in the trenches for equality and for justice.  Those vulnerable to the ridicule and non-acceptance—these are the ones whose efforts magnify our beliefs.  They are the ones who put actions on the words of faith.  Their suffering in the hard work of seeking justice mirrors the One who suffered through his hard work of perfecting salvation, the One whom God made as the Savior for all God’s children, the pioneer of our salvation, whose suffering made perfect the plan of God that all the children of God are to be in the center of God’s realm both here on earth and in the world to come.

I think it is for us then to take from those who suffer, indeed from Christ himself, a new and dedicated resolve to stop practicing customs and traditions that oppress and disempower, and start living the truth in love and faithful living, so that this faith and these beliefs shown in the foundations of Jesus’ ministry and in the origins of World Communion Sunday would never end.  May God help us. Amen.

 

Faith Growing Pains

James 5: 13-20             Rev. Dr. Galen E. Russell III

Mark 9: 38-50  September 30, 2018

“If any of you put a stumbling block...”

Prayer:  Holy One, may your word enlighten us with your wisdom and clarity for our faith journeys.  Amen.

Sometimes life throws moments at us when we have to choose between two difficult choices.  This past week all of America was subject to the difficult choice the US Senate Judiciary committee has to make, namely whether Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court should go to the Senate floor for a confirmation vote or not.  It’s difficult because on the one hand, he’s had a stellar judicial career which some say make him fit to be a justice on the Supreme Court.  But on the other hand, serious accusations of sexual misconduct from thirty years ago from Dr. Christine Blasey Ford have surfaced without corroboration that not only question the judge’s fitness as a Supreme Court Justice, but if they are true and he’s lying about them, the lying by itself many say, makes him unfit to serve on our highest court in the land.

Now, an FBI probe supposedly is started, and we might get to the bottom of it, but honestly, I think we, the American public will never know what really happened way back then.  So, the choice is to have a good judge on the Supreme Court with his reputation ruined and his credibility in question, or to have a bad judge on the Court who looks good on the surface, but has lied his way to the top.  Or, go back to the drawing board.  Some choices, huh?  Either way, it feels like a choice between having chronic lung disease or chronic heart disease, and we, as Americans, are poorer for it.

Our scripture from Mark has Jesus teaching about making difficult choices regarding certain stumbling blocks to our faith growth or to the faith growth in others.   Sometimes we have affinities, interests, even good things in our lives that can cause us to stumble or could cause others to stumble.  Jesus says, “Cut those things off.”  Our hands, feet, eyes… all good things.  But, Jesus says, if they lead you or another person to a shortage of faith, or life without God, cut them off!  If they lead you to spiritual unhealthiness, cut it out.  Some choice, huh?  Cutting off good things, which can bevery painful, or a hellish life without God.

Of course, Jesus does not mean we should be into self-mutilation. It’s metaphorical! He is talking about the hard, painful emotional and intellectual work of detaching ourselves from anything we’ve grown so accustomed to but can be stumbling blocks to faith growth.  These might need emotional and intellectual surgery.  Work done in the head and heart.

 He gives some examples which have applicability for us.  Like when Jesus’ disciples were being exclusive.  They tried to stop someone casting out demons in Jesus’ name because this exorcist was not part of their exclusive little group.  Jesus rebukes them saying “Don’t stop the healer!  Whoever is not against us is for us.”  The disciple’s exclusivism was an obstacle. It got in the way of the healer and those being healed from finding and having God in their lives.  Jesus essentially said, “Cut off your exclusivism.  It’s starving the power of my name in them.” That is one powerful reason why I am so encouraging of us becoming an all-inclusive church.

If someone from another ethnicity, another sexual orientation, or level of intelligence, or level of privilege, or another country, or another race comes here starving for God, is filled with anxiety and fear of not being accepted, has a faith that is barely hanging on, if someone like that comes through our doors and gets the feeling that our church is exclusively for the majority of participants here and not for them, Jesus says basically that it is better for us if we didn’t exist at all.  Exclusivity in a church can be a serious stumbling block for someone else’s faith growth.

 Change is not easy, especially if you’ve been loyal to the exclusive ways all your life.  If you’ve been allegiant to purity and orthodoxy in practice, changing can be struggle.  Old habits die hard.  Even when you want to change, and you try to change, and old way crops back up, it’s painful.

I praise God that we are working hard to emotionally and intellectually cut off whatever exclusive attitudes and perceptions, whatever narrowmindedness and limited understanding we grew accustomed to over the generations, and grow more deeply in our inclusivity in every way possible.  In our attitudes, our words, our perceptions.

Maybe that’s what Jesus means by the statement “If your eye causes you to stumble…”   If the way you see life, if your perception takes you to an unhealthy place, maybe your eye-perspective needs to be cut out.  If you see yourself as a victim all the time, for example.  Or, if we get caught up in societal form of justice as punitive only, so much so that forgiveness doesn’t stand a chance.  Or, if your perspective on life takes you to deep cynicism, or deep hatred, maybe all those should be torn out.  Because if we’re swept up in this thing called the gospel of Jesus Christ, might our perspectives have to change accordingly? Might open an emotional and intellectual surgery in us?

 Last summer a man by the name of Ken Parker participated in that infamous “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville.  A former grand dragon of the KKK, he had joined a Nazi group after concluding that the KKK wasn’t hateful enough.  Can you imagine?  But, over the past year, his perspectives got torn out and started to change as he got to know his African American neighbor, Rev. William McKinnon III, pastor at All Saints Holiness Church in Jacksonville, Florida.  And guess what?  In early August, one year later,  Pastor McKinnon baptized Ken Parker in All Saints Holiness Church (Century Marks, The Christian Century, September 12, 2018, p. 8). Ken Parker’s old perspective was torn out.  A new life spirit was growing in its place.  Thank God.

 Of course, we can examine other things in our personal lives that actually starve the life of God’s spirit in us.  Addictions to alcohol, drugs, power, sex, money, illicit relationships, even co-dependency (which is an addiction to helping others) can cause sinful behavior by those things influencing our behaviors so much that we secretly make them god with a little “g.”  And, they actually tear apart our relationship with the real God and starve the life of God in us as well as in others around us.  Jesus says, “Cut them off.  It is painful to cut off that which you love, but it’s better to have the life of God nourished and thriving in you without those things than to have those things and be dead on the inside.

The process isn’t usually a pleasant one.  It hurts to have things torn from us, to have the bottle taken out of our hands, to have bad relationships come  to an end, to have the way we see ourselves and the our church and world change.  God’s spirit brings to our consciousness the places where we need to cut, not to exercise power over us or to punish us with the pain, …but to free us.

When we go through the sometimes painful faith growth, the good news of the gospel is that God’s grace comes every time we “cut off’ that which takes us away from God, or that which harms healthy relationships with each other.  Some alcoholics have said that they feared cutting off the alcohol thinking they would surely die without it, when in fact,  cutting it our and going without is exactly what freed them. That’s what gave them new life!  That’s God’s grace.

Facing the person who has wronged you, or if you’ve wronged someone, seeking reconciliation, restoration, and forgiveness may be painful, it may have far-reaching consequences out of your control, but that’s the beginning of freedom, of healing and grace, of restoration.  You start to feel free from the pain, or free from the guilt, or from the burden on your shoulders.

Which takes me back to the Senate Judiciary hearings.  I can’t help but wonder… if the events of thirty years ago are true, what would happened if Judge Kavanaugh upon hearing  the accusations, privately, and publicly, went immediately to Dr. Ford and said, “I need to tell you, I’m very sorry for the way I treated you back in college.  My actions were disrespectful and intolerable.  Please forgive me.  I take full responsibility for my actions.  And if I am not voted in on the Supreme Court because of it, so be it.”  And what if, upon hearing that apology Dr. Ford said, “I forgive you and am thankful for your apology.”  What would happen if that kind of conversation would have taken place? I’m not so naive to think that would ever happen in our society.

I don’t know about you, but I would rather have a person on the Supreme Court that is not perfect, but has developed integrity through the painful, difficult work of confession, repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation and restoration.

Or, if the events are not true, and the whole incident 30 years ago is either a hoax or case of mistaken identity, what would it be like if Dr. Ford fessed up and said, “I’m sorry, I have my facts mixed up.  I take full responsibility for my error.”  And what if Judge Kavanaugh accepted such an apology?  That too, would be a place for new life, new grace, reconciliation and restoration to take place. Again I’m not so naïve to think that would ever happen in our day and age.

Here’s what makes sense to me.  Faith growth sometimes is painful.  But God’s grace is always present.  Being a Christian doesn’t mean being squeaky clean.  It does mean that some things we hang on to actually do us and others harm.  But, with wisdom, power and love, God will speak through the spirit in our spirit, in our conscience, with our moral compass to help us know what things need to be cut out.  And, God will work into us the grace that heals and restores and frees us.  And, we may have scars, but we’re healed.  We do not live with the illusion of perfection, but  we live with real life, with God’s life living in us. And, we will be much better for it.

Amen.

 

The Divine Journey

Psalm 1             Rev. Dr. Galen E. Russell III

Jeremiah 11: 18-20             September 23, 2018

Mark 9: 30-.37

“The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.”

Prayer:  God, on this journey of faith, may we be deeply in touch with you always.  Amen.

 This past week my brother in Illinois called in.  We chatted mostly about his job as a police officer.  He painted me a frightening picture that made pray for him and all cops working in the world of drug enforcement.  In his little small town in Illinois, he and his officers put themselves in harm’s way all the time.  They have undercover officers trying to buy and sell drugs in order to infiltrate the underground world of drug sales.  He told me about different levels of undercover police activity that he and his fellow officers engage in—(and what I’m telling you is only the tip of the iceberg—he told me so much!).  It starts with what’s called a “buy/walk” which means an undercover officer goes to a drug dealer intending to buy the drugs (crystal meth) and walk out with no further action.  It helps to gain the trust of the drug dealers.  One transaction. No arrest. They do that a few times until they’re ready to go the next step which is to arrest the dealer and go to jail, or become a “CS” or a “confidential source.”  As a CS, a person starts working for the police taking them to another dealer, distributors, etc. trying to gain more and more undercover access, going to higher and higher levels, each one becoming more dangerous.  Eventually, through several steps, the DEA gets involved on the higher levels, and officers get closer to the head of the snake, the cartels, where sometimes big “sting” operations may take place.

It’s a dangerous business.  A terrifying world.  A bunch of guys going down the dangerous path in order to get the upside, the good of making the world a safer, healthier place.  Our chat made me much more appreciate the work he does and the work of tens of thousands of police officers everywhere.

 Our chat also reminded me that in the world of faith growth, on our spiritual journeys the concept is often true. The way down is often the way up. 

All three of our biblical texts give us food to ponder on this idea.   Psalm 1 identifies the path of righteousness compared with the path of wickedness.  On our journeys, we’re invited to ground ourselves in God and be like trees planted by a stream of water.  Have faith that God watches over us on our journey of righteousness.

 Jeremiah goes a step further.  He says that grounded in way of righteousness sometimes will mean doing the righteous thing in God’s eyes which may be totally crazy in our eyes.  The servant of God, referencing the Messiah, will go on God’s journey, out of comfort zones, facing devised schemes, facing danger, “like a lamb led to slaughter,”… but, the servant goes with commitment to God, knowing God is present… knowing God has a divine purpose…  knowing that sometimes God’s path down is the way up.

Of course, we as Christians read the gospels and believe that Jeremiah’s depiction of the Servant Messiah now comes true in Jesus.  þ Jesus, walking and talking with his disciples tells them for the second time that his journey takes him down the path of betrayal and death.  But paradoxically, that is the way up, because after three days, there will be resurrection.  After three days, new life.  Not just for Jesus, but his death and resurrection magnifies much more profoundly the resurrection power God always had, but now becomes much more real.  Much more tangible.

So, Jesus’ way down into betrayal and death leads to our way up—salvation and life.  This is the divine journey.  It leads to new life, new hope as we face our problems.  It can lead to an energized, determined spirit that responds to injustice, or sparks a righteous defiance of evil in the world.

 In 1970, Yale University held a gathering of leading black jazz musicians raising money for a department of African-American music.  Musicians such as Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus, Mary Lou Williams, and others gathered for three days.  During a performance, some  person unhappy with their presence, called in a bomb threat.  Police attempted to clear the building, but Charles Mingus refused to leave, remaining onstage with his big string bass.  He said, “Racism planted that bomb, but racism ain’t strong enough to kill this music.  If I’m going to die, I’m ready.  But I’m going out playing ‘Sophisticated lady!’  And Mingus’ defiant music filled the space with passion and protest, and hope and life  in the face of danger and evil. (Ramsey, Mark, “What if Jesus Meant All This Stuff?” Journal for Preachers, vol. XLI, No. 4, Pentecost 2018, p. 23).

 The journey of righteousness that goes through the struggle but has a purpose of revealing God’s resurrection power is a divine journey.  It can create for us a new positive attitude based on trusting God, no matter what the “out of comfort zones’ God may take us to.  It leads us to a transformation of heart, mind, and spirit, which takes us to care for the under-privileged, the under-represented, the under-included, the under-accepted.

 I like the story Dr. Wil Willimon tells (he’s the former chaplain for Duke University and bishop in the United Methodist Church).  When he was a bishop of several UMC churches in Alabama, he went to one of the churches that served breakfast to homeless people every morning.   He recognized a man in the kitchen washing dishes, up to his elbows in dishwater.  He was a lawyer and a member of the largest, most affluent congregation in the city.  Willimon said to the lawyer, “I think it’s wonderful you are here washing dishes for the homeless.”  “Good for you,” he mumbled not looking up from his work.  “Have you always enjoyed ministry with the homeless?”  “Who told you I enjoyed working with the homeless?  Have you met any of the homeless out there?  Most of them are crazy, or so addicted, or messed up; that nobody, not even their family wants them home.”  Willimon stuttered a bit, “Well, I, uh, er, I… that’s all the more remarkable what you are here doing.  How did you get here?” The man looked up from the dishwasher and said, “I’m here because Jesus put me here.  How did you get here” (Ramsey, Mark, “What if Jesus Meant All This Stuff?” Journal for Preachers, vol. XLI, No. 4, Pentecost 2018, p. 23)?

That’s a good question for each of us, I think.  Because if we’re on the divine journey, it’s a God-centered journey.  And, we got here because God calls us here.  God’s purposes are enacted through us…

And, Jesus’ call to care for the least of these puts us at places like dishwasher sinks, like the serving tables at First Reformed Church in Lancaster.  Those of you going to First Reformed Church Tuesday, know that you’re going not to win points with God but you’re going because Jesus’ call puts you there.  You’re on a divine, God-centered journey of faith.

þ And Jesus’ call to those joining our church today or if you’re considering joining us in the future, know that we’re a church that strives to be on this divine journey.  It sometimes takes us to a defiant righteousness against evil and wrong.  It sometimes takes out of our comfort zones and into places where there is great need, and even possibly into danger sometimes.

But, we’re committed to God’s cause, God’s ministry in this place.  And believe me, the divine journey always takes us closer to God’s heart. It always takes us to a deeper relationship with God.  And it always gives us wonderful opportunities to see God’s resurrection power at work, even if it means going through the ringer sometimes to see it!  Thanks be to God!

Let us be quiet and reflect upon this message.

Amen.

 

Source of Wisdom

 Mark 8: 27-38             Rev. Dr. Galen E. Russell III

 Isaiah 50: 4-9a             September 16, 2018

“The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word.  Morning by morning he wakens—wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught.  The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward.”

Prayer:  Lord, this is my desire, to honor you.  So, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.  Amen.

 I love Children’s Moments during worship, don’t you?  So many times, the kids are just totally themselves.  One time, years ago, a pastor was leading the Children’s Moment, and he asked the question, “What’s brown, has a bushy tail, eats nuts, and lives in the trees?”  Hands shot up, and the pastor called on a little guy near the back of the group.  He said, “I think the answer’s a squirrel, but I’m going to say, ‘Jesus!’” (https://www.homileticsonline.com/subscriber/btl_display.asp?installment_id=93040593, retrieved September 14,2018).  Well-trained!  God, Jesus, Love, all standard Children’s Moment answers!

 And, of course, if I ask you, “What’s the greatest source of wisdom you have in your lives?” your standard answer is going to be God, Jesus, Love, right?  Right!

Because it’s true.  God’s wisdom is found in Proverbs.  The Psalms.  The Prophets.  All throughout the Bible.  Jesus is God’s wisdom in the flesh.  His words were God’s wisdom spoken.  His life was God’s wisdom lived out.

Love is God’s wisdom in verbal and action form.  Remember what Rev. Emily Heath said (I shared this with you a few Sundays ago…) “As we move forward [in life], we must choose our own next right steps.  The greatest commandment becomes our guide, even in the scariest of [moments].   When you are unsure, remember this: if the next step you take is done in love—love of God, love of neighbor, love of self—it will always be the right one” (Heath, Emily, Courageous Faith: How to Rise and Resist in a Time of Fear, Pilgrim Press, 2017, p. 146). Good wisdom!

But, sometimes we have trouble accessing the greatest source of wisdom in our lives.  Often, prior to going to God, Jesus, or Love, we turn to what society says.  What culture says.  What common sense says.  What is trending.  What’s in favor, what’s not.  What the general consensus is.

 When Jesus asks the question, “Who do people say that I am?” he’s asking what people are believing about him.  Are the people believing the rumors in the community that he is John the Baptist returned from the dead?  Or, Elijah reincarnated?  Or one of the prophets? Many are saying, “yeah.”

It’s easy to go along with what the general public says, isn’t it?  We see that in our world all the time.  Ever since 9/11, we saw a large rise in society’s belief that all Muslims are terrorists.  Thankfully, I think that has settled back a bit, but make no mistake, it’s still there.

 But, when Jesus asks “Who do YOU say that I am?” it’s a question of whether or not the disciples have chosen to turn to him.  Turning to him means not turning to the culture’s belief.  Not trusting a reputation, not putting faith in the rumors.   All those are resources, not THE source.  He’s asking whether or not they are choosing to listen to THE source of wisdom—God’s Spirit within their hearts, or to something else?

Peter is the first one to answer— “You are the Messiah!”  Matthew’s version has Jesus responding saying, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah!  For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven! (Matthew 16:17).  Jesus saw Peter not relying on worldly sentiments, but on the source of holy wisdom coming from the Spirit’s work being done in him.

But, even so, divine wisdom often will contrast worldly values.  Contrary to our liking, God will sometimes take us to places where we don’t want to go.   When Jesus begins to teach that he will soon face suffering, Peter can’t stand it.  “God forbid it, Lord!” he says to Jesus in Matthew’s version.  “This must never happen to you!” (Matthew 16:22).  One moment Peter’s connected to God’s wisdom, the next, not so much.  Isn’t that true for all of us at times?

But, Jesus, perceiving that his disciples were watching and learning from him, calls Peter on this, telling him that he is an Adversary (Satana) to God’s wisdom, that he has set his mind on human thinking, and to get behind him.  Take note—the verb in Greek for “behind” is the same word as “follow” in the next verse ὀπίσω: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross and [get behind and] follow me, or come after me.”

In other words, Peter is encouraged not so much to get behind and out of Christ’s way, but more to get behind him, get in step with him, and follow after him. Jesus tells the disciples to take up their cross and go with what he is teaching and doing. 

We are encouraged to do the same—take up our cross and get behind, get in step,  and follow in Christ’s wisdom. These words are by Christ who has been given the tongue of a teacher.

 Christians believe that Isaiah’s words foretell the coming of Christ.  The words predict the Messiah to be a faithful servant who is nurtured by God, taught by God, gifted by God, whose source of wisdom is God and is continuously learning from God.  And, the faithful servant doesn’t turn away from following God’s will, even if adverse.

Isaiah’s words can be our words.   God is our source of wisdom.  We are encouraged us to turn to God—morning by morning.  Each day, we are encouraged to let God teach us.  Day by day we can let God open our ears of understanding.  Can we let God take us to places that, with our inner consciousness stirred by the Spirit, we would not turn away, but we would act in that moment, tapping into our source of wisdom, which is believing in the power of the gospel?   The wisdom of the gospel is that it has the power to identify life’s brokenness, invite change and restoration, and foster forgiveness and joy, and creates a freeing, deeper communion with God, with new life, even if it brings adversity at times… because we follow Christ and his wisdom.

 I was intrigued by an event that happened in Washington D.C. last month on the anniversary of that horrific marchon Charlotte.  Apparently, the D. C. Metro system planned to provide special trains to get white supremacists to a Unite the Right rally on the Mall.  The Metro said it was trying to avoid trouble on the trains.  But, the Metro’s largest union objected strongly to the plan, whose members were mostly people of color.  The union president of Local 689 Jackie Jeter said, “Local 689 is proud to provide transit to everyone for the many events we have in D.C.  We draw the line at giving special accommodation to hate groups and hate speech.”  The pressure grew from there and became strong enough that the Metro canceled its plans for separate trains (Century Marks, The Christian Century, August 29, 2018, p. 8). And, only a handful of white supremacists gathered for the rally.

Do you think that was a moment when the inner conscience of the union president was stirred?  She invited change and restoration by facing an example of life’s brokenness.  And acting on behalf of others, she did not turn away from the moment.  I believe in that moment, an opportunity for many people to have a deeper communion with God occurred because when something right occurs, God is in it.  When new life occurs, God is in it.   That’s the power of the gospel, the power of new life happening outside the church, no less.

 The power of the gospel to lead people to new life through repentance, grace, forgiveness, acceptance and love has to be learned and practiced in our homes and inside our church first, though… these are the workshops where we learn where our source of wisdom is.  God in Christ as our source of wisdom occurs when we say grace around our dining room tables.  when night when saying prayers with our kids.   And, right here, within our sanctuary, within our Faith Formation rooms, within our Consistory, commission, and committee meetings and the ministry we do— these places are where we learn to practice our faith so that all can live in the gospel’s wisdom of truth and hope and redeeming love.

 In a few moments, we are going to install our Faith Formation teachers and shepherds and Commission members into their respective ministries as part of our Faith Formation program.  This calling to serve our children, youth, and adults, to help them to know where their source of wisdom is, to help them increase the love of God and neighbor, to help them have open ears and hearts, to help them live in the truth of God’s power of the gospel for new life—this calling is a most profound calling.  Our teachers, our shepherds, our youth advisors, our helpers, all have the tongue of a teacher… all can sustain those of us who are learners, those who are weary, those of us who choose to tap into our source of wisdom.  All know where the source of their wisdom is.  And like any good teacher, all know that they are also learners, too.   God awakens each one of them in ways unique to them, helping them to learn more, helping them to discern how they will teach and form faith in others.  How they will inspire learners to reach out and practice the gospel alongside them.

So, let’s pray for our Faith Formation people… every one of them.  Let’s pray that they will help us to form deeper faith, to help us navigate the waters of life.  Let’s pray that they will forever inspire us to turn to God, Jesus, and Love as our best and only sources of real wisdom.  Let us pray that they might lead us to practice our faith so that, as we read and hear the news, as we see life and death occurring all around us, we might not turn away from the moment, but instead will be the people who trust in God, who speak words of the truth of the gospel, who invite people to move out of comfort zones, and witness to the power and the love of Christ.  Thanks be to God! Amen.

 

275th Anniversary Sermon

James 2: 1-10, 14-17    Rev. Dr. Galen E. Russell III

Mark 7: 31-37  September 9, 2018

Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.”  And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.

Prayer:  God of all our years, God of our present day, God of our future, may the richness of our legacy handed to us inspire our faith in you.  In Christ we pray, Amen.

I say again… Happy Anniversary, Christ Church! We celebrate 275 years of ministry!  275 years of sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ.  275 years of amplifying, magnifying, evangelizing, revitalizing God’s Good News for all, God’s resurrection power, God’s redemptive work, God’s love and grace—For ALL!   For 275 years we sought to live out the purpose of the Christian Church, which is to increase the love of God and neighbors and ourselves.  What a legacy!  So, we celebrate! Yay!

That word ‘legacy’ should have new meaning for us today.  It first of all implies our “past” heritage.  Indeed, in the first part of our worship today was about “Remembering our Past.”  We heard music from centuries ago.  We spoke ancient liturgy from scripture.  We sang hymns written even long before the beginnings of Christ Church.  It all reminds us of what ministry we’ve done, where we’ve been, what gifts we’ve left behind for others to use, and what gifts we’ve brought so that God’s love is increased.

Let me remind us again that the voices of Christ Church’s past gift-givers are Stillspeaking to us today when we use their gifts… for example, when we spent money on this year’s summer concert series, when we look at our choirs with beautiful robes, when we hear the bells of our Carillon choir, we are really hearing the voice of Martha Seibert who wanted her gift to be spent on music that gives glory to God right here at Christ Church.

When we hear Justin play the organ, or Ray, or Nancy, we are really hearing the voices of Edna and Jeannette Barnes because they gifted Christ Church with this instrument.  We also know it’s improved and maintained by money given by Jeannette.  The voices of these two women continue to speak of their love of God, music, and Christ Church.

When we support our seminarian Dan Dorsey through the Seminary Fund, we are really hearing the voice of Earl “Beanie” Kaufman from the past who donated a gift designated to assist people discerning a call into ministry and support their education for that purpose. And there are many more voices who continue to speak to us.

It is wonderful that we hear the voices of past Christ Church members that are still speaking to us.

It’s their voices that inspire us to create a new legacy of faith for the future with joy.  It’s their voices that remind us that just as they handed this church and its legacy to us and we engaged in ministry with them, we also hand it to our children and our youth, and invite our kids to engage in ministry with us.

I think it’s important for us to ask what kind of church do we want to give to our kids?  What will our very youngest receive from us? What kind of church will the kids in our nursery right now receive? Will they receive a new legacy of God’s grace? Will they get a church that practices love others? Will they receive a church mirroring God’s all-inclusive nature?  Can we give our kids a church that has deliberately says, “Yes God, please open our ears to the voices our society has grown deaf to?”  Can we give them a church that, with its tongue released by God, intentionally speaks words and practices full welcome and full participation to any person marginalized by society and other churches?  Can we give our children a church that is committed to practicing this type of ongoing faithfulness to God?

It is for us, I believe, to dedicate ourselves to the ongoing task of inspiring this legacy of faith for us and for our children.  We will be amazed to see how God will use us to touch the lives of those who need God’s good news of resurrection power, of incessant love and redeeming grace.

It is fitting, I think, that we were under a tent last night with no sides.  In some ways, I think that a side-less tent is a metaphor for our church as we create a lasting legacy for our future.  Might we think of Christ Church, as literally Jesus Christ’s own church?  A church without walls.  A church that desires to be bearers of God’s love and light in the world.  A church that is on the move spiritually… so that those who have gone before us will not have gone on in vain… so that our church, in partnership with God, may have a new resurgence of life… a resurgence of covenant and that the purpose of increasing the love of God among men, women, youth, and children shall never end for the next 275 years.  Amen.

 

Better Done Than Heard

Mark 7: 1-8, 14-15, 21-23             Rev. Dr. Galen E. Russell III

James 1: 17-27             September 2, 2018

 “But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.”

Prayer:  Holy God, you gift us with tender mercy and saving grace, holy presence and spiritual empowerment.  May we let such gifts inspire us to live our lives, right by you.  Amen.

There are two upcoming weddings in our family next year.  Our son Mark and his fiancée Megan are getting married at the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in the Reading area in June.  And, my brother’s son Michael and his fiancée Jenna are getting married in May in what’s called a “destination wedding” in Branson, Missouri, over Memorial Day weekend.   They are getting married at a place called Stonegate Glass Chapel.

 It’s interesting to me that one wedding is in a church with a practicing congregation, and the other is in a chapel without a congregation that is designed primarily for weddings. 

I’ve done weddings, in all kinds of places.  I’ve done them in barns, outside backyards, in tents, on the mountain top, at beaches, wineries, resorts, hotels, and parks; I did one in Canada and one in Aruba.  Talk about a “destination wedding!”

Weddings in actual churches are rare these days.  I’ve been among you for almost four years now and only officiated at, I believe, three weddings here - all church members.

Much effort goes into the planning of the wedding, as it should.  But, in the premarital sessions I have with couples, we don’t talk about “the wedding” until the very end.  We first talk about life.  We talk about relationship… about communication… about marriage and what it means to them.  We talk about God’s involvement in life, and relationship in communication, and in marriage.  I often say that the wedding is for a day; marriage is for a lifetime.

But, what we talk about in those premarital sessions is much better done than heard.  It’s much better practiced than simply talked about.  In the actual wedding ceremony itself, if the couple wants me to search a message, again, what I offer is usually better done in marriage than heard on th4e wedding day.  Wedding vows…?  Always better done than heard.  And at wedding receptions?  The Chicken Dance, always better heard than done… possibly best not heard at all!  I’m just sayin’!

 There’s a lot in the Christian faith that is better done than heard.  We can come to church and hear messages about God’s love and saving grace for everyone and all creation.  We can sit here and listen to God’s word about the power of God’s mercy and forgiveness that frees us and supports us.  We can absorb the significance of God living in others as well as in me.

 We can even, to use a well-worn phrase, “talk the talk…” but, can we “Walk the walk?”  Jesus quotes Isaiah when he was frustrated with the religious leaders.  “These people honor me with their lips…” They talk the talk.  “But, their hearts are far from me…”  They don’t “walk the walk.”

 James’ message is similar.  “Be doers of the word, not just hearers only.”  In other words, walking the walk shows you’re a person of God, touched by God, changed into a new creation by the Holy Spirit.  Only hearing the word just isn’t going to cut it.  Just as sitting in a garage doesn’t make you a car, or sitting in the chicken house doesn’t make you a chicken, so sitting in church doesn’t make you a Christian!  Likewise, making tradition, or the laws found in the Bible the “end all” doesn’t make you faithful to God either.

Part of what makes us Christians is that we can hear messages of faith in our worship, or can we listen to them.

 Have you ever wondered if there’s a difference between listening and hearing?  I think there is.  Hearing a message is when words enter in.  We hear it.  The sounds waves turn into electrical impulses and enter our brains.

 Listening is when we hear and absorb. We are moved internally by what we hear.  That movement could be acceptance or disagreement of the message.  It could be critical questioning.  It could be inspiration to do something based on what we’ve just heard.  Listeningto God’s messages of faith, I think opens the way for the Holy Spirit to move us spiritually, and encourages us to live out that message.  Or even more profoundly, to BE that message.

And, then we realize that lots of messages of faith are better done than heard.  The ‘listened to’ message about God’s love for every person means that we can BE God’s love for all.  The message that God actually lives in other people means that we can be God’s acceptance of others. We cannot choose who else is our spiritual brother or sister, which helps us honor the sanctity of each person.  Messages of faith are best when they are lived out as examples of faithfulness in our everyday lives.

 A woman named Martha Heft is 99 years old living in Clearwater, Florida.  Martha started sewing when she was five years old.  After Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico, Martha decided to make dresses of all sizes for people who lost everything.   The colorful dresses, made out of donated patterned pillowcases, made their way to Regraso de Paz, an orphanage in Aguadilla, which houses children who are up to 10 years old.  Each dress has sewn in it a unique note—one of which read, “Smile because we love you.”   Martha’s crafts, including quilts and blankets, have not only been donated on Puerto Rico, but have been disbursed in Haiti as well (https://www.miamiherald.com/news/state/florida/article212920329.html#storylink=cpy, retrieved, August 31, 2018).

I’ll give you three guesses as to where Martha does her sewing, and the first two don’t count!  Yep!  She does it at church!  She and a bunch of ladies get together and sew these dresses, quilts, and blankets at First United Methodist Church of Clearwater.  Something tells me that she and her friends do this generous act of giving as an emulation of God’s love.  Something tells me those ladies are doers of the word, not just hearers only.  Some things are better done than heard.  She made the comment, “As long as God grants me life and health, I’m happy to do this.   I just wish I had a little bit more speed.”  God love her!

Now, as CollectiveSpirit comes back and gets ready to lead us in the conclusion of our worship today, let me say one more thing…  when we listen and are changed by God to practice our faith, God’s power sustains us.  We are people, doing the word of God, not just hearing it.  We are sustained by the Holy Spirit that lives in and among us and goes out from us.  It is the very life Spirit of Christ that lives in us and sustains us.

Doing the word and not just hearing it, I think nourishes the life Spirit of Christ within us.  We, as people of faith, can trust in the promise that Christ is alive in us, and Christ sustains us.  We are meant not just to survive, but to thrive in this world with his life Spirit in us.  Be a doer of God’s word!  Let us stand and sing!  Amen!