Tag Archives: Shema

Itch-Scratching Christianity

 

Text:  Mark 10:46-52                                                                                      

I’m sure you’ve seen the ad on TV where the elderly lady has fallen and is yelling “Help!  I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.”    It is an advertisement for a Life Line button and support system.    Many people laugh at the ad—-and it is a little over-acted—-but if you have been in that position you would not find it laughable

    The word “help” is one of the hardest words for Americans to voice.   Most people would rather crawl out into the street than call for help.   There are many reasons for this.  

  • We were never taught how to ask for help and have few role models to follow.
  • We love our independence and the “American Way” is to be a “rugged individualist”, taking care of our own problems.
  • We are afraid to ask as we’d rather die than have people think we can’t take care of ourselves.
  • We are afraid that we will “bother” people with our requests. I have been told many times by parishioners that “I didn’t want to bother you with my problem, as I know you are very busy.”   To which I always respond by saying—-if I’m ever too busy to stop and share people’s problems, then I should get out of the ministry!

Blind Bartimeaus had no such qualms about asking for help, and his story teaches us a lesson about asking for help and the meaning of faith and trust.    The greatest lesson he teaches us is that God’s healing should lead to discipleship. 

 Have you ever been completely unable to see?    Although I haven’t experienced it, it must be terrifying. To not be able to see is to be completely vulnerable.   To not be able to see means you have to trust others to help you and to look out for you.    In one of my courses in  Counseling Psychology, one of the exercises we did to experience the need for trust was a trust exercise where a person stood behind us and we closed our eyes and fell backward.   It required trust of the one who would catch you for otherwise you would end up with a very large bump on the back of your head.    Another exercise asked us to blindfold ourselves and let someone lead us through an unknown territory.    We were completely dependent on the person leading us to keep us from stumbling and falling over various obstacles in our path.   It gave me a glimpse of what blindness would be like.

  Blind people have much to teach us about trust and faith—-and the blind beggar Bartimeaeus teaches us about faith and trust through his story that we read in the Gospel of Mark today.

Bartimaeus was a blind beggar.    He had no choice of what to do, as begging was the only way to provide for himself.     He was sitting by the roadside as the crowd  of Jesus and his disciples  approached as they made  their way out of Jericho going up to Jerusalem.    When he heard that Jesus was about to pass by, without hesitation and without any sense of embarassment, Bartimaeus began to shout:   “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.”    The crowd around him may have thought that he was making a scene and tried to silence him,, but he continued to shout until Jesus asked that he be brought to him.   Bartimaeus was blind and the only way he could hope for a productive life was to regain his sight.   He knew his need, but notice that he didn’t lead with his need for sight, but rather his need to be seen by Jesus.  

He shouted “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me, a sinner”  and not “have mercy on me,   a blind man.”  Bartimaeus seemed to understand that his vision was not only clouded but that he needed spiritual healing as well.   He opened himself to the possibility that his healing might be physical or spiritual, with an outside chance that it might be both.  

 One of the first things I learned in counseling psychology was that people have a “presenting problem” and an underlying “real problem.”    Bartimaeus seemed to realize that while his “presenting problem” was blindness; his “real problem” might be more than physical blindness.   He cried “have mercy on me, a sinner!”  He realized that Jesus could do something about the things that bind him, as well as blind him.And Jesus responded by asking him:   “What do you want me to do for you.”?   And Bartimaeus responded by saying:  “My teacher, let me see again.”   (not “heal my blindness”)  and Jesus responded:  “Go, your faith has made you well.”   (The Greek word for “healing” can also be translated “saving”).   God’s healing saves us.  And immediately his sight was restored and he followed Jesus as a disciple on the Way to Jerusalem in grateful response.    He had more than his eyesight restored—-he was saved by the contact with Jesus.    God healed him through Jesus both physically and spiritually.

And this is where we have a problem today.    I fear that too many Christians are “healed” and then just go on their way and not on The Way of Jesus in discipleship. Once we have been healed we go the way that so many people in Jesus day went—on their own way,  not on the way of discipleship.  Think of all the people Jesus healed—-the leper in Galilee, the roof-destroying friends of the paralytic; the man with a withered hand, the Gerasene demoniac,  the 7 lepers (  only one of whom returned to thank Jesus); and so on and on.   They were healed and went their way and never are heard of again in scripture.    Blind Bartimaeus was different—-he followed Jesus as a disciple on the way to Jerusalem and death and resurrection.

       And this is the problem that we have in our present times.     The church as the body of Christ on earth has been turned into an “itch-scratcher”.     There is a church I read about with a large sign in front of it that illustrates my point.

      One week the advertisement was “Lonely?” then come to our church.  The next week the sign said:   “Depressed?”   Come to our church.   “Anxious?”    Come to our church.   Every week a different malady.   Every week the promise that Jesus could fix it. 

      This is what I call a “Where-does-it-itch” style of Christian ministry.   You tell us, the church, where you itch, what needs you have, the  church exists to scratch where you itch.   An example of this is given by preacher William Willimon, recalling a conference he was at where the speaker, a well known television evangelist said:   “God wants to meet every one of your needs in life.   Whatever your heart desires, bring it to the Lord in prayer”.   He then illustrated this conviction of divine beneficence by telling of a woman of his acquaintance who, when she had been unable to find a part of her favorite red shoes, prayed to God and….there were her shoes, right under her bed!

     Our church here wants to grow—-and it is tempting to do as one church grown consultant wrote:   “Go out into your neighborhood and find out what people need.   Child care?   Elder care?   After school programs?   Then begin those programs.   Churches who meet needs grow.”    

     And many of our churches do this and wonder why the people whose needs they provided for don’t become a part of their church.   Jesus could have asked the same question—-all of the people who Jesus helped—-where were they?    They went on their way—many times without saying thank you to Jesus.  

What churches need to do is not just “scratch the itch” but to make disciples of those whose needs they are trying to meet.   What people in the world today need is not “fixing” but transformation as they relate to God and follow the way that Jesus walked                                                                                                      

Persons who have been touched by Jesus healing and have a personal relationship with God through Jesus,  cannot just be “takers” but also need to be “givers”.    If you have truly been touched by the salvation and healing of God and have a personal relationship with God through Jesus, you will do the same thing that Bartimaeus did—–you will follow on the Way.   Bartimaeus alone among the other hurting, oppressed, victimized, suffering, hungry ones, became a disciple.   He had the ability to see, even when he couldn’t see, what Jesus was really about. 

The story of the healing and the response of Bartimaeus invites us to ask:   What do I want from Jesus?   We look at Jesus, and too many of us see him as a solution to all our problem, freedom from our aches and cares, a magic want waved over our lives to fix everything.  Too many of our churches begin with the selfish invitation to let Jesus fix our needs and never follow through with the selfless invitation to love and serve God and our neighbor as ourselves.   Jesus makes a claim on our lives.   This is the same Jesus that said:   “He who would be first must be the servant of all.”    This is the Jesus who said:   “He who would save his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it.”    This is the Jesus who said:   “If anyone would be my disciple, let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me.”   The way of Jesus is the way of the Cross.    It is the way of discipleship.

     The real questions here are:  Is Jesus our Lord, or our errand boy?   Are we his faithful followers or only his pestering clients?      A better question to ask is:   What does Jesus want from us.    And the answer Bartimaeus gives us—-follow Jesus on The Way.  

     What is “The Way”?    

It is the way of discipleship.    It is calling us to a life of service.    It is the way that Jesus walked when he was on earth.   It is the way of LOVE of God and neighbor and not just yourself.

     There is a great gap between meeting people’s needs and calling them to discipleship.   The churches that truly grow are the ones that invite people to discipleship—-to a transforming relationship with God through Christ.   Amen

                                                                               

 

 

                                                                                                       

 

What the World Needs Now is Love

“What the world needs now is love, sweet love;  it’s the only thing there is just too little of. What the world needs now is love, sweet love.  No, not just for some, but for everyone….”      Diana Ross sang this top selling record in 1965  as the nation was deep in the quagmire of Vietnam and  the nation was being ripped apart by internal disagreements over the war and the Civil Rights Movement.   This was the decade that saw the assassinations of  John F Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. It was a turbulent decade.   It was a violent decade.   It was much like the decade of which we are now a part.

I think about death a lot these days.   It seems it is always lurking around the corner and ready to pounce on me when I least expect it.  But I do not fear it because I believe in a loving God who will receive me as a father receives his child—with open arms and unconditional love.  In the Parable of the Prodigal  Son Jesus  told of this kind of love and in the Sermon on the Mount he tells how we need to love others unconditionally in the same way the Father (God) loved the Prodigal Son.  In the Sermon he says:

“You have heard that it was said ‘You shall love your neighbor and  hate your enemy’, but I say to you ‘ Love your enemies  and pray for those who persecute you that you may be children of your father in Heaven.'”   (Matthew 5:43-44)

In a world torn by hatred and violence; divided by LGBT gender issues; fearful of each othere to mass shootings and listening to the prophets of hatred and gloom;  where the rich grow richer at the expense of the poor; where children go to bed hungry every night while surrounded by plenty; torn by differences in religion and race—-the solution of love is the only solution.

The word ‘love’ in English can have many definitions.   The Greek and Hebrew languages do a much better job in defining a more precise meaning.   The  Hebrew word ‘hesed’ is always used to express God’s unconditional love for his children.  In Greek there are several words we translate in English as love.  

In Greek, eros is the word for physical love and sexual love.   philos is the Greek for love of brother and sister— love for family members.  The Greek word  agape is translated “love”  and is the Greek word for unconditional love—love that loves with no expectation of return.  This is unconditional love-— the love that loves us  regardless of any return of love by us.   This is the way God loves us and the way we are told by Jesus to love our neighbor in the Great Commandment:   You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul,mind and strength; and your neighbor as yourself.    

What we need in this fractured and torn world today is LOVE.   UNCONDITIONAL LOVE.    We have tried the other ways—power  as military  and economic might;   hatred;   exclusion by building walls to shut others out; arming everyone to carry guns. How have they worked for us?   Not well!    The only solution we have not tried is  Unconditional Love.  Such Love put into action is a mighty force.    Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahtma Ghandi, Nelson Mandela, Dorothy Day, St. Francis of Assissi and Jesus all lived by this kind of love and were a mighty force for change in their time.  They practiced agape love to the best of their ability.   Although severely and hurtfully opposed by the forces of power, in some cases jailed, beaten, and finally for King and Ghandi assassination and death—their lives and work remain a testament that love in action is a mighty force to change a fractured and torn world toward a more just and peaceful world.

Love is important!  It is what the dangerous, hurting, hatred and strife-turned world needs.   Have you ever considered what would happen if the United States used even half of the billions and billions spent on maintaining our military might and developing the means to kill our enemies to show  our love to them ?   Never underestimate the power of love to change enemies to friends.

What the world needs now is love, sweet love;

It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of. 

What the world needs now is love, sweet love

No, not just for some, but for everyone!!

GOP Convention: The Epitome of Hypocrisy

I believe that the epitome of hypocrisy was seen this past week when the GOP convention leaders asked Governor Kasich to  waive the open carry law in Ohio so that their national convention could be gun-free.   It appears that when it is their lives that are endangered by guns  they suddenly become gun control advocates while denying the same protection to others.  I was bemused that Kasich used their own G.O.P. position in replying  that current federal  law and the U.S. Constitution does not allow a governor to do so.

Their request for a ‘no-gun’ convention flies in the face of the GOP’s  current legislative position, which is to not even allow debate on any bill that would curb the right to bear arms–including any type of arms or ammunition such as AR-15s and  armor-piercing shells with extended magazines.   It is the epitome of hypocrisy that the G.O.P. convention goers do not want to operate under the rules they have set.

The G.O.P. and the “Trumpsters” are now reaping the results of what they have been sowing the past years after they took control of the legislative branch of government.  They have played the politics of fear to the hilt, they have sowed divisiveness and hatred.   They have refused compromise making governing almost impossible.   Now the country is reaping the results of their policies of negativity and advocacy of divisiveness.

In Donald Trump they have found a demagogue who will take their divisive and inflammatory causes to new heights and expose them to what happens.   Hand in hand with the NRA they have created a gun culture that leads to what we see is happening today in our country–an explosion of mass shootings in theaters, schools, malls, and other places that call for police protection which leads to calls for mass police intervention, which leads to further killing of police officers in ambush now these past two weeks. They have “sowed the wind” and are now “reaping the whirlwind.”

After each shooting event those in power say “This must stop!!”   but it doesn’t stop.   And it will not stop until there is a deep cultural change in this country away from the gun  culture and fear and disregard of human life to a culture that  values human life–that is inclusive of all and does not scapegoat  those who are different;  that sees all human life as sacred;  that practices respect for differences of opinion in politics and deals with difference of opinion without attacking the character of the one with whom we disagree;  in short; that lives the Great Commandment to love God and neighbor as we love ourselves.

The roots of the problem in America go far deeper than race relations to human relations.  If we continue to ‘sow the wind’  we will continue to “reap the whirlwind” as we are now experiencing! (Hosea 8:7)

Love God or Fear God?

I’m almost 80 years old and like most people my age I was taught by my church that I needed to fear God, in the usual meaning (as I interpreted it) of being scared of God.  God was described as King, Judge, and living in Heaven which was far from me in some uncertain place and above and apart from the earth.   God was surrounded by the “heavenly hosts” of angels who sang and worshipped him 24/7/365 and was often pictured as  just waiting for someone like me to do something wrong so he could punish them. God was “up there watching me” to make sure I was a good boy.    This entire picture reminds me of the song that was popular during the late 1900’s introduced by Stan Philips called “God is Watching You.”  It goes through many of life’s situations, always followed by the refrain “God is Watching You, God is watching you!  From a distance God is watching you.”   It also reminds me of the Bette Midler song:   From a Distance, God is watching you.”

How those who claim to follow Jesus have managed to twist and mangle the picture of God that Jesus brought!     The picture of God we get through the life and teachings of Jesus in the gospels is not one of a wrathful, vengeful person just waiting to punish us in the fires of Hell if we don’t behave, but it is a picture of a loving father as in the Parable of the Prodigal Son.    God is like the father in that parable who rushes out to hug and kiss and welcome home the wayward son who is broken in spirit and body.     God is a forgiving God.   God is a loving God.

“In Jesus, God was given a face and a heart.   God became someone we could love.” as Richard Rohr puts it in one of his daily devotions.    God is one  who desires relationship and to whom we can relate.    And this God is not far away in some place called heaven, but is around us and within us and beside us all the time.   We cannot, not live in the presence of God.  But as Jesus shows, living in God’s presence is a good thing.   And the Apostle Paul amplifies that in Romans when he says that nothing can separate us from God’s love.   And Jesus declares in the Gospel of John that “God is love.”

We have today, too often domesticated the Gospel and made it into a means of keeping social order and control.    A fear-inducing God is what is needed for control of society.   But a God of love is who we need if we are to be transformed and rise above all the hate and greed and cruelty that we see all around us.    Love is a greater motivator than fear any time.

The words I would give you today are these:     Do not fear God!    Love God!   Seek God’s presence.   Be aware that he is always there for you and will never abandon you.

So how do we love God?    The only way we can love God is to love what God loves!     And that is everything in creation;  everyone, including you and me.   It is as Jesus reminded the one who asked him how can I earn eternal life—-in the words of the Shema of ancient Israel:      “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, body and strength and your neighbor as yourself.”   We show our love for God as we show our love for others.    When we love our neighbor we love God.   Amen.

Milestones

Text:   Ruth 1:1-11

 Life is a Journey! That journey is described in very different ways.   For example, in Shakespeare’s play “King Lear”—-Lear defines the journey of life in this way:   “Life is a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing!” Jesus, on the other hand, told his disciples that He came to bring life and to bring it abundantly to those who follow him.

            The journey of life contains many hardships to endure as well as joys to celebrate.       It contains achievements that reward us for our journey as well as failures that cause us pain. All of these joys, hardships, failures, and successes are milestones that we leave for those who come after us as we go on the journey of life—-they are Milestones —-markers to guide oncoming generations and help them avoid our failures and achieve our successes.   Milestones are the legacy that we leave for those who follow after us to guide their way.

            In this journey of life we are either nomads or pilgrims. What is the difference?   A nomad is a wanderer.   Nomads pay no attention to the milestones and have no goals for where they are going—-and so they wander aimlessly.   They say “I don’t know where I am going, but I’ll get there because I am an individual and no one is going to tell me how to live my life.    A pilgrim follows milestones left by generations before to avoid problems and live a more abundant life.   They take note of the milestones left behind by previous pilgrims.  

That brings us to the story of Ruth that we read as our scripture text today. It is the story of a journey.   The journey begins with a family of Israelites facing a time of famine, and making the decision to move away from the little town of Bethlehem and journey to Moab.   When you think of this famine, think of the Great Depression of the 1930’s and the Dust Bowl.   The mother in the family was named Naomi and she traveled with her husband and two sons to the land of Moab to survive the famine.   Naomi’s husband died soon after they arrived in Moab, and eventually the two sons married Moabite women—Orpah and Ruth.   After about ten years of marriage the two sons died, leaving Ruth with only her two daughters-in-law.   Since there was no way Naomi could take care of herself and them in Moab, she decided to move back to Bethlehem where she would have the support of her extended family.   She began the journey with Orpah and Ruth, but on further thought, decided that Orpah and Ruth would have the best chance to re-marry if they stayed in Moab, as the Jewish people were quite prejudiced against Moabites. “Go back to your mother’s house” Naomi urged, “May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me.”    Naomi knew that her relatives in Bethlehem had a negative view of Moabite immigrants—you know—-they don’t pay their taxes, they bleed the welfare system dry, they take jobs away from the Jews, and so on as deeply entrenched prejudice always holds—-even today.  

            Orpah kissed her mother-in-law goodbye and returned to her family in Moab; but Ruth surprisingly clung to her mother-in-law and refused to go—-saying:   “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.   Where you die, I will die—there will I be buried……”

            To complete the story; God smiled on Ruth’s determination to movie in this new direction and in time Ruth met and married Boaz and they had a son named Obed.   Obed would become the father of Jesse who was the father of David, the greatest king Israel .   And David was the ancestor of the carpenter Joseph of Nazareth who took Mary as his wife and a son was born named Jesus—The Messiah— distantly related to Ruth.—-ALL OF THE ABOVE WERE MILESTONES USED BY GOD THAT POINTED TO JESUS THE CHRIST.!   THE LONG AWAITED MESSIAH!

            What we see in Ruth’s story were people on a journey.   Naomi and her family on a journey to Moab; Ruth on a journey with her mother-in-law to a place unknown to her called Bethlehem. All were milestones left along the way toward the destination of the coming of God to earth in the form of Jesus of Nazareth.

 What are milestones?   They are significant places and people through our journey through life who leave behind them a legacy of examples for us to live by.   The idea comes from the book of Joshua.   In the book of Joshua we read that when the entire Hebrew nation had crossed the Jordan River into the promised land, Joshua said:   “Select twelve men from the people, one from each tribe, and command them, “Take twelve stones from here out of the middle of the Jordan, from the place where the priest’s feet stood, carry them over with you, and lay them down in the place where you camp tonight.   …..When your children ask in time to come “What do those stones mean to you? “ then you shall tell them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off in front of the ark of the covenant of the Lord when it passed over the Jordan. So these stones shall be to the Israelites a memorial forever.” (Joshua 4) They were called “Milestones”.   And they marked a significant place in the history of the Jewish people’s journey from being slaves in Egypt, through the Wilderness; and finally to the Promised Land.

 On this All Saints Day we look back at the journeys of our loved ones that have departed the earth this past year.   Each of them, if we were to speak to their loved ones who remained behind have left milestones for us to follow.   They have left a legacy concerning how life should be lived.  And we, their loved ones have a share in that legacy and as we journey through life as pilgrims we also will leave milestones behind for those who follow after us. The legacy of a life well-lived.  

   I have only seen two of the legacies or milestones left for us in the person of Frances Campbell and Pop Warner, but all of those named today in our bulletin insert whom we remember in this service have left behind their milestones on their journey through life—their legacies , I am certain.   They are in the hearts and minds of their children, grandchildren, and fellow pilgrims trying to walk the way of Jesus.  

            And all of the saints who have gone before us at Christian and Congregational Church have left their milestones behind for us who follow in their footsteps.   Those who had a dream and founded this church.   Those saints that through the years supported this church and contributed to its impact on the community.   A long line of saints have gone before us in this church and we live today because of their contributions of their lives to their church which is now our church.  

The writer of the Book of Hebrews in the N.T. wrote about the legacy we are left by saints gone before us and the duty we have to follow in their steps:   “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith….”   (Heb. 12:1-2)

 An unknown poet points our duty as we follow the milestones of past saints in the present:

 Hold high the torch!

You did not light its glow—

‘Twas given you by other hands, you know.

‘Tis yours to keep it burning bright,

Yours to pass on when you no more need light

For there are other feet that we must guide,

And other forms go marching by our side;

Their eyes are watching every smile and tear

And efforts which we think are not worthwhile

Are sometimes just the very help  they need,

Actions to which their souls would give most heed;

So that in turn, they’ll hold it high

And say, “I watched someone else carry it this way.”

If brighter paths should beckon you to choose,

Would your small gain compare with all you’d lose?

 Hold high the torch!

You did not light its glow—-

‘Twas given you by other hands, you know.

I think it started down its pathway bright,

The day the Maker said: “Let there be light”

And He once said, who hung on Calvary’s tree—

You are the light of the world”…..Go!….. Shine for me!

 

    

 

Priest or Prophet?

 

Priests and Prophets aren’t usually very friendly toward each other.  In fact, they’ve been known to kill each other.   If you read the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) and the New Testament Bible that is a theme that runs through both.   While both think  of themselves as religious, that is about all they have in common.

Priests are administrators for institutions and their chief goal   is to maintain the institution.   They are big on celebrations and rites held in beautiful religious surroundings and on being intermediaries for God for the lay people that they lead.  Therefore, maintaining the beauty and the sanctimony of the rites and the buildings where they are held is their chief concern .     The perpetuation of the religious establishment is the raison d’etre for the priestly profession.

Prophets, on the other hand, are the critics of the religious establishment, rites and institutions.   They remind all of us that the rites and the buildings and the institutions are not the important things.   The important thing is to do God’s will in loving God and  being servants. This is a very different message.   Prophets are the ones that take us back to the basics.   Who remind us that “This is the Word of the Lord!”   They tell us as individuals and as corporate bodies that the raison d’etre for being Christians individually and as a church  is to serve God by loving God and our neighbors.   Listen to some of them speak:

The prophet Micah  speaks for God and asks:   “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high?   Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?   Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil?   Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has told you, O mortal, what is good and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”   Micah 6:5-8

And the prophet Amos thundered God’s word to Northern Israel:  “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.   Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon.   Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps.   But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”      (Amos 5:21-24)

And Jesus speaks with the same prophetic voice when he answers the man who asked him which commandment in the law is the greatest:   “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.   This is the greatest and first commandment.   And a second is like it:   “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.   On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”   (Matthew 22:36-40)

As Richard Rohr says:  “Prophets step in to disrupt the social consensus—“How wonderful our group is!” —and say, “It’s not entirely true!”  ….Prophets expose and topple each group’s idols and blind spots, very often showing that we make things into absolutes that are not absolutes in God’s eyes, and we relativize what in fact is central and important.   As Jesus so cleverly puts it, “You strain out gnats and you swallow camels)   Matt. 23:24)

I am not saying that priests are not important.     I am saying that when the voice of the priest is dominant in religion and the prophets are kicked out of the group—- that when the prophetic voice is missing in our religion, then in a short while the group will lose its sense of mission and will circle their wagons to perpetuate the status quo of the group, rather than thinking of others outside that circle.   We will turn inward as individuals and as a church and not carry out the mission that Jesus gave us as Christians and as a church.  Priests alone will focus on the rites and the establishment, and the church building,  and forgo the mission and the message that the church is commissioned to give about the good news of the Kingdom of God—the Gospel.   As Rohr says:   “Jesus and the prophets are speaking to every age, addressing universal themes of illusion and our universal capacity for self-serving religion.

We need the prophets to remind us what our role is as individual Christians and as a church.   Listen to the prophets in your midst!!

The Candles of Advent—Love

 

“Do We Really Want This Baby?

Text:  Luke 1:26-38

            Do We Really Want this Baby??    Due to the invention of the birth control pill and the legalization of abortion, that is a question often asked in our country these days.   Our discussions about abortion often generate a lot more heat than they do light on the subject.   Listening to the arguments, that can be vicious on either side of the question, you would think that in the U.S. children are very important!!

            I’m not saying that children are not important.  I am saying that sometimes we have mixed emotions in the United States as well as the rest of the world about children.

            On the one hand, we have couples who spend thousands of dollars at fertility clinics trying to have a child.  On the other hand, we have couples who want to abort their prospective children if they are the wrong sex, have some physical disability, or if they think they are “not ready yet.”   So what do we really think about having children.    In truth, when we look at it statistically in the U.S., Germany, and Japan we see a we see a baby bust, not a baby boom.   People are having fewer and fewer babies.   In the U.S., the total birth rate has dropped from 3.2 children per woman in 1920 to 2.1 children today.   In Europe, the birth rate is even more changed—from 2.8 children to 1.5 over the period of 1970 to 2000.  WHY?  Lots of “experts” give lots of reasons that vary from:

The cost of children in the U.S.—that exceeds $200,000 per child, not including college.

The fact that we have good retirement insurance and don’t need children to take care of us in our old age.

The shift from an agricultural/non-industrial culture which needed lots of children to help do the work and keep the family alive, to a technical/industrial culture which needs less children.

A world dominated by terrorism threats causes parents to hesitate to bring children into such a world.

Whatever the reason might be, these statistics raise the question as to whether we as a nation are less welcoming to children, less willing to bring them into the world than we once were.   

“Do we really want this baby?”   the sermon title asks.   That is a question that Mary might well have asked as we look at our text this morning.  In that text we heard how the angel Gabriel visited a young peasant woman named Mary, who was engaged to Joseph, a carpenter in her hometown of Nazareth.

            We often don’t realize how alarming what the angel said to Mary must have been to her!    “You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.”

            That wasn’t necessarily good news to a young woman getting ready for her wedding night to find out that she was going to be pregnant although she had not yet been with her husband Joseph.  !    Her first question was:   “How can this be?”   It might well have been  “What am I supposed to tell Joseph?”

            In  first century Jewish culture what she had just learned would be seen by her religious neighbors as adultery and was grounds for stoning and not just grounds for divorce or breaking the engagement!   An engagement or betrothal was as binding as marriage.   Mary’s life was endangered by this news!

            Mary questioned the news saying:  “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” and the angel answered her:  “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called the son of God.”   WOW!!  And the angel told her that the child’s name would be “Jesus”—the Greek form of the Hebrew word “Joshua” that means “He will save” in the Hebrew.   WOW!!!

            Mary could have said:  “No way, Gabriel!   I’m not going to touch this baby thing with a 10 foot pole!   Way too much at risk here—my marriage, my very life is at risk.   Sorry—find someone else.  I don’t need this kind of a burden at this time of my life!

            What Mary said was“Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word!”  In other words:  “Yes, Gabriel, I want this baby if that is God’s will for me!”

The same question comes to us this Advent Season as we read the announcement of the angel Gabriel– The question is:  Do we really want this baby Jesus? Are we really ready to birth and cradle this Christ child in our own lives?   Are we really ready to welcome the adult Jesus that he will grow into as a part of our world today?    Are we??

            Or are we more inclined upon hearing the claims and risks involved with accepting this Jesus into our world to hit the road and get outta town?   Because when we birth and cradle this Christ Child in our lives we will find that this baby grew up and that the Christ will challenges us to be transformed as a member of God’s kingdom on earth that he came to proclaim.  He will challenge us to also reach out our arms to others who will need our love and and the God of love that Christ proclaimed  in their lives.  And that might be inconvenient!   That might be risky!   That might we dangerous!  That might make demands on us we don’t want to meet!

            You see, if we truly welcome this Christ into our lives, our lives are going to be changed in a significant and total way, just as Mary’s life was changed significantly and totally!  

            It is significant that Mary said “yes” to the angel and to God and was willing to risk her reputation, her marriage, her very life, in order for the Son of God to enter the world.   She didn’t worry about her engagement, her social standing, her health, or her long-term financial security.   She didn’t spend a minute thinking about retirement benefits or whether she could use a child to take care of her in her old age.   Instead she said “yes” to a baby who would grow up to be called Jesus of Nazareth, and be called the Son of God who would proclaim the good news that God’s kingdom and rule had entered the world and who would reveal God to us in a new and wonderful way as a God of love.   Are we receptive to this rule of God in our lives?   Are we hearing the call of God through Jesus to be transformed?   Are we willing to embrace the Christ Child and the man, Jesus of Nazareth and allow his proclamation and his teachings and his example to make a difference in our lives?

            If we say “yes” to these questions,  we’ll find ourselves changed.   If our lives are not changed by saying “yes” then we really haven’t said it with honesty.   Because if we say “yes” then we will become a person who has Christ at the very center of who we are, just as Mary received the life of Jesus into the deepest and most intimate part of herself.   We’ll turn into a person who can say along with Mary:   “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your will!!   Are we willing to say that?

What we are talking about in this sermon is the word that we don’t find in the Bible but that the church invented to describe the mystery of Jesus’ birth—-INCARNATION.    John’s gospel tries to describe it as “the word became flesh and dwelt among us.”  The prophet Isaiah spoke of the word as “Immanuel”—God with us.”     The incarnation means that our God, who stands outside of time—who is infinite (without ending)—-becomes finite (ending).   The God who is all powerful becomes all-vulnerable.   The God who brought the world into being now is born of Mary’s womb to bear the good news of God’s love for the world.  

This is the gift of Christmas—the gift of God’s love for the world that came as a flesh and blood baby—Jesus.    This Jesus was not some glow-in-the-dark-Christ- Child        Jesus, the very God incarnate, was a real, live, ordinary, crying, cooing, sleeping, eating, wetting baby.   And just as with all babies, his greatest need was to be held in human arms, touched by human hands, soothed by human words of love and reassurance.              

He in turn, as we was brought up with love by Joseph and Mary, would reach out in love and show us that God was a God of love.   That God cares for us.   That God is with us at all times.   And that challenges us, because as God seeks us through the incarnation, God’s love demands that we answer this question:   DO WE WANT THIS JESUS IN OUR LIVES?

            If we do, we will be forever changed, just as Mary was forever changed—-and we, in turn, will reach out to others,   not just in this season of advent, but in all seasons, saying:   “HERE WE ARE, SERVANTS OF THE LORD.   LET IT BE ACCORDING TO YOUR WILL!    ARE WE WILLING TO DO THAT?

            Let me close with a story that took place during World War II:   

            A soldier was concluding sentry duty on Christmas morning outside London.  It had been his custom in other years to attend worship in his home church on Christmas Day, but here in the outlying areas of London it was not possible.   And so, with some of his buddies, the soldier walked down the road that led into the city just as dawn was breaking.    Soon the soldiers came upon an old greystone building over whose entrance was carved the words:   “Queen Anne’s Orphanage.”   They decided to check and see what kind of celebration was taking place inside.   In response to their knock, a matron came and explained that the children were war orphans whose parents had been killed in the London bombings.

            The soldiers went inside just as the children were tumbling out of their beds.   There was no Christmas Tree in the corner and no presents.   The soldiers moved around the room, wishing the children a Merry Christmas and giving as gifts whatever they had in their pockets; a stick of gum, a Life Saver, a nickel or a dime, a pencil, a knife, a good luck charm.   The soldier noticed a little fellow standing alone in the corner.   He looked a lot like his own nephew back home, so he approached and asked,  And you, little guy, what do you want for Christmas?   The boy replied,  “Will you hold me?”   The soldier, with tears in his eyes, picked up the boy, nestled him in his arms and held him close.” 

That’s what Emmanuel, God with us, means.   .  That’s what Jesus taught us:  God does not keep us at arms length, but reaches out lovingly to us and hold us as the soldier held the little boy.  

            IF CHRIST IS BORN IN US THIS CHRISTMAS, WE TOO WILL REACH OUT WITH OPEN AND LOVING ARMS TO THOSE IN NEED—WE TOO WILL HAVE A HANDS-ON LOVING RELATIONSHIP WITH ALL AROUND US.   WE WILL SHOW BY OUR CHANGED LIVES THAT WE REALLY DO WANT THIS BABY JESUS!   Amen.

          Today we light the 4th Candle of Advent—the Candle of Love. And the birth of Jesus tells us:    IT’S ALL ABOUT LOVE!!    God so loved the world that he sent his only Son!    Jesus—that Son, told us that all the law and commandments and the prophets were summed up in this simple yet profound statement—-“You shall love the Lord Your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength—-and your neighbor as yourself!”   

Jesus  didn’t say just at Christmas time!    He didn’t put any limits on how much or how often!   And when he said “love”  he said  “love as I have loved you!”    Amen.