Overwhelmed Sermon Series – #5:Unbreaking Our Hearts

This is another sermon in a series about how the world overwhelms us and how the Bible encourages to stay grounded in God’s love and grace.

SCRIPTURE – Romans 12:9-21 – Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. 10 Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves.11 Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. 12 Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. 13 Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.

14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position.[c] Do not be conceited.

17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,”[d] says the Lord. 20 On the contrary:

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
    if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”[e]

21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Overwhelmed Sermon Series
#5 – Unbreaking Our Hearts
Romans 12:9-21

I remember the first time I became aware that the world was larger than my universe, and that it was not nearly as safe and comfortable as I assumed. I was probably about five, watching TV and a commercial came on featuring Sally Struthers, who I only knew as Meathead’s wife on “All in the Family.” She talked for a few seconds, and then the commercial showed pictures of these children in Africa who were malnourished, who had open wounds, who had flies crawling around their faces. I had been threatened by my mom to eat all my Brussel sprouts and cottage cheese because there were kids starving in Africa, but I didn’t know there were REALLY kids starving in Africa. I watched the rest of the commercial in silence and disbelief. You mean there were people in the world who didn’t have it as good as me? What was my little five-year-old mind supposed to do with that?

Today we continue our sermon series called “Overwhelmed,” in which we’re wrestling with the ways life overwhelms us and how the Bible and our faith help us cope. We’ve talked about being overwhelmed by our busyness, by our stuff, by how much we are needed, and by the illusion that we should be perfect. Today, we’re talking about how we are overwhelmed by the need we see around us and how it can be almost paralyzing. In the face of such overwhelming need and suffering, what can we do? What difference can we make?

Just a few months after I started here at Crestwood, Haiti was hit with a devastating earthquake. Thousands were killed and millions of dollars of damage was done in this already impoverished country. A few months later, we did a Sunday School series called “God of the Earthquake,” in which we tried to make sense of why such things happen and where God was in the midst of it. I taught one of those classes, and I remember struggling with what to say that would provide answers in the face of such death and destruction. While people were suffering and dying, I was teaching a class. Was that enough? Was there more I should be doing?

It seems like we wrestle with this issue almost daily. Turn on the news or fire up your computer and you’re likely to read about something tragic that’s happened in another part of the world. Tornadoes in Louisiana, terrorist attacks in Tel Aviv, natural disasters, humanly-caused oppression and violence. The bad news is unavoidable. And that doesn’t even take into consideration the poverty, racism, and homelessness we drive by in our own community. Every day we are reminded of the amount of need there is around us.

This wasn’t as much of an issue in previous generations. World-wide suffering was relegated to a few column inches in a newspaper or 30 seconds on the local news. But once the size of the planet shrank, thanks to technology, suddenly AIDS-stricken villages in Africa and bullet-riddled schools in Sandy Hook felt like they were next door. These tragedies went from being abstract to very real, with images, faces, and body counts attached.

When confronted with this, we can’t helped but be moved. That’s not just a Christian response, that’s a human response. I’m still haunted by the image from Aleppo of the dust-covered little boy sitting in the back of an ambulance after his building was bombed. Or the body of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old refugee boy washed up on the beach in Turkey. When I think about those images, along with my sadness and anger, I feel guilt. I feel helpless. “I should do something. But what can I do? There’s nothing I can do.” It’s overwhelming.

My first reaction is to take it out on God, to shake my fist and scream to the heavens, “What are you doing? Where are you?” I don’t believe God causes all this stuff, but I still need to be mad at SOMEbody. Is it OK to get mad at God? Well, according to a source I read, not only is it OK, we are given permission. That source is the Bible. A good portion of the book of Psalms contain psalms of lament, which were written to express the emotions of anger and sadness felt across humanity. You can hear the anguish in the psalmist’s voice when we read, “Why, O Lord, do you stand far away?” “Why do you forget our affliction?” “Why have you forsaken me?” Author Jacqueline Bussie calls is “audacious why-asking,” and reminds us that God is big enough to take our anger and frustration. When we feel overwhelmed by the need around us, a good place to start is to pray these questions to God. Our prayers become our protests against the evil and injustice we see. “Why, God?”

Of course, that doesn’t mean we’re going to get an answer that satisfies us, if we get an answer at all. And in the absence of a good answer, we’ll make up a bad one, as if God is relying on us to explain what’s going on. God doesn’t need us to defend God, and when we do, we tend to slip into Christian clichés that are, at best, not helpful and, at worst, theologically irresponsible. Saying “Everything happens for a reason” or “God has a plan” in the face of starving children or mass genocide makes God look like an insensitive jerk who doesn’t really care about the life God is supposed to have created. We can’t explain why these things happen. We can’t understand. We won’t understand.

That can feel hopeless, but remember that in the midst of all the bad news, we have the gospel, which literally means “good news.” I believe our God knows what it means to grieve, so God feels what we feel in the face of the need around us. Let’s never forget that God watched God’s own son be arrested, beaten, and ultimately crucified on a cross. God watches over and over again as God’s beloved creation – that’s us – spew hatred, pass judgment, answer violence with violence. God knows what it’s like to be overwhelmed by the need around us.

And yet, God still loves us, in spite of all the stuff we’ve caused and we have to deal with. Frederick Buechner has an interesting quote about holy manure, two words I never expected to say together until this sermon. He says, “I’ll tell you about manure. If you don’t pile it up too thick in any one place, it makes the seeds grow. God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten son down into the manure with the rest of us so that something green could happen, something small and green and hopeful.”

In the midst of the need around us, God promises to work with the manure to bring forth something small and green and hopeful. And that starts with each one of us. We can choose to hold all of the manure the world throws at us, or we can choose to compost our sufferings. When we compost the pain and the grief and the need, we create within us a space where something can grow, something stronger and more resilient than the suffering of the world. We can cultivate hope, and it’s that hope that is going to save us, because that hope doesn’t come from us. That hope comes from God.

What does that look like in concrete terms? Let me tell you a story I read about Vlad-e-slaw Miss-e-una. During World War II, Vlad-e-slaw worked as an overseer in a German concentration camp, in charge of monitoring 30 young Jewish women. Despite his official duties, he was secretly so horrified at their health and living conditions that he started sneaking food to the women. One day, one of the women, Devora, fell seriously sick. She developed open lesions on her arms and wasn’t able to work in the camp. Vlad-e-slaw knew that if she didn’t work, she would die. He also knew that if she didn’t get treatment, she would die. And he knew that if the guards at the camp knew she was sick, they would kill her.

What do you do when the situation is hopeless? You compost your suffering and let something green grow. What Vlad-e-slaw did was this: he cut himself on purpose and rubbed his own wound up against Devora’s lesions, thus infecting himself with her sickness. He then went to the doctor, got medication, and gave half to himself and half to Devora. They both got better, and both survived the war. Paul says, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and mourn with those who mourn.” In our state of abundance and wealth and comfort, if we rub up against the ills of the world, we run the risk of getting infected. But we also create the conditions for healing to occur. God gave us the power to make a difference in this world, and you are never more powerful than when you share your power and you share in someone else’s weakness. That’s the condition in which something green and hopeful can grow.

By doing so, your faith, your actions, become acts of resistance, and resistance is the secret of hope. Refusing to accept things the way they are is the first step toward change. Jesus says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” What would it meant to resist having enemies. Does that sound silly? Resist treating anyone as an enemy. It’s our choice, right? What would it mean to resist hating someone? Doesn’t matter what they’ve done. Refuse to hate them. What would it meant to resist the lie that you can’t make a difference? You know, maybe you can’t do anything by yourself. But look around. Are you by yourself?

So what happens when you see something half a world away that breaks your heart? It would be really easy to change the channel or close the computer. Our hearts have been broken enough, haven’t they? Do we dare let them be broken one more time? God says, “In your weakness, I am made strong. Through the manure of this world, I can make things grow.”

So here’s how you can compost your pain, your suffering, your broken heart. When you see a story on the news that disturbs you, find someone around you to love. When you see the body of a child washed up on a foreign beach, donate to local shelter for abused women and children. When you are touched by the news of people starving, volunteer at a local food pantry. Does it bother you that people are forced to flee their homes because of oppression or violence? Help sponsor a refugee family. If you feel a group of people are being treated unfairly, find someone from that group and stand with them. You may not be able to help that person on the screen, but you can help someone. And hope starts with helping someone.

We are blessed, because we can put our hope in so many things – our education, our money, our stuff, our healthcare. But many, many people in this world don’t have those things. They can only put their hope in two things: God and other people. That’s you and me. My prayer is that are hearts are never unbroken, that we never grow numb to the need around us, that we take our pain to God, that we open ourselves to the suffering of others, that we compost our pain. “God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten son down into the manure with the rest of us so that something green could happen, something small and green and hopeful.”

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Overwhelmed sermon series – #4: Racing Toward Perfection

This is the fourth sermon (Trish, our associate, preached the third), in our series on being overwhelmed by life.

SCRIPTURE – Matthew 5:43-48 – “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters,[o] what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.


Overwhelmed Sermon Series
#4 – Racing Toward Perfection
Matthew 5:43-48

I read an amazing story recently about Tattoo the Basset hound. There was nothing particularly outstanding about Tattoo. He’s your typical Basset hound. Floppy ears, stubby legs. One day, while his owner was walking Tattoo, a friend pulled over in his car to talk. The owner leaned into the car while Tattoo patiently waited. As the friend began to pull away, Tattoo’s leash got caught on the side-view mirror, and Tattoo’s walk suddenly turned into a run. The car got up to about 20 miles an hour before the driver realized that Tattoo was still attached. To this day, Tattoo has never asked to be taken on another walk.

Do you ever feel like Tattoo? Do you ever feel like your leash is caught on the side-view mirror of an accelerating car, like your life is gaining speed and you’re having trouble keeping up? Today we continue our Overwhelmed sermon series, in which we are looking at the ways our lives can get the best of us and what the Bible says we can do to tap the brake and catch our breath. I told the story a few weeks ago about the South American tribe that paused on a long hike so that their souls could catch up with them. Have we left our souls in the dust for the sake of getting things done?

This break-neck speed of life was not the future that was predicted back when technology was in its infancy. A 1960s article in Time magazine prognosticated about all the new-fangled devices that were being invented, like computers and electric razors, and the enormous impact they would have on our lives. Work weeks would be cut from 40 hours to 20, people would retire at age 50, and everyone would have so much extra time in their lives that they wouldn’t know what to do with it. How’s that working out for us?

Kids, there used to be a time when, if you wanted fast food (that name alone is telling), you had to park the car, go inside, and place your order. Now, you can use the drive-thru and eat your dinner in the car, like nature intended. And remember when life was so rough that you had one bottle for shampoo and another bottle for conditioner? Now, they’re combined into one, so you can avoid all that time-consuming rinsing. Thanks to inventions like these, we have so much more time on our hands, don’t we?

As the apostle Paul would say, “By no means!” That’s the paradox, right? Our lives are filled with time-saving devices, things like microwaves and self-propelled lawn mowers, and yet we constantly complain about not having enough time. So, the end result is that we live in a state of perpetual hurry. We are the kings and queens of doing more than one thing at a time. We call that multi-tasking, because the other thing takes too long to say. We shorten our sentences to LOL and OMG so as to avoid wasting time using a subject and a verb. We are Tattoo, struggling to keep pace with the warp speed of the lives we have created.

This hurried living is more than just a way of life or a necessary evil. Pastor John Ortberg calls it a sickness, the great enemy of spiritual life in our day. There are a few tell-tale symptoms of Hurry Sickness. When you’re approaching a red light, and there is one car in each lane, do you try to guess which one will go faster based on the make and model of the car, and then get behind that one? You might have Hurry Sickness. When you are checking out at the grocery, do you try to guess which lane will move faster based on the number of items each person has in their cart? And then, once you choose a lane, do you watch the other lanes to see if you would have moved faster or slower? You might have Hurry Sickness. Do you complain about how long a red light is? Do you stare at the microwave, wondering if that burrito will EVER get done? You might have Hurry Sickness.

If you exhibit any of these symptoms, you may need a doctor. Not an internist or a surgeon, but the Great Physician. Hurry Sickness is a serious threat to our spiritual condition because it gradually erodes the groundedness of our faith. It eats away, one bite at a time, at our relationships with God and each other. Ortberg says, “The danger is not that we lose our faith. It is that we will become so distracted and rushed and preoccupied that we will settle for a mediocre version of it. We will just skim our lives instead of actually living them.” Do you ever feel like you’re just skimming your life instead of actually living it?

So here’s my question: Why? Why are we in such a hurry? What is the bottom line of all of this? What do we hope to gain? I’d say more time, but we all know better. I think the reason we are in a hurry is that we’ve bought into the illusion that if we can just get everything done, then we’ll have time to rest, relax, spend time with family. If we can get everything done, then life will be perfect.

We know people like that, don’t we? We see them on social media, folks who have clean houses, take relaxing vacations, exercise regularly, throw perfect birthday parties for their kids. We drool over their pictures and statuses and Pinterest boards because they have the life we want, they can somehow do all the things we have to do, but without running five minutes late and having a coffee stain on their shirt. We know perfection can be achieved if we just go a little faster, because we see it in others.

I saw a comic this week in which the wife says to her husband, “Derek, I don’t think we’re doing enough with our lives. When I look at everyone else’s Facebook and Twitter and Instagram pages, they’re full of people having fun all the time.” The husband says, “That’s how it looks, Kim, but it’s not real, it’s just marketing. Trust me, everyone else’s life is just as boring as ours.” I would amend that to say that everyone else’s life is just as imperfect as ours. There’s no such thing as perfection.

Then what are we to make of Jesus’s statement? “Be perfect, therefore, as your Father in heaven is perfect.” Oh, is that all we have to do? Well why didn’t you say so? If we interpret this passage as a call to keep trying harder, we’re missing Jesus’ point. My seminary professor told me, “Whenever the Bible says ‘therefore,’ you have to ask what it’s there for.” Jesus says, “Be perfect, therefore,” implying that what he’s said right before has a bearing on this call to be perfect.

Remember what he said? Love your enemies. Pray for them. Greet them. Go out of your way to interact with people different than you, to build relationships with people you wouldn’t otherwise spend time with. But that’s so hard! I barely have time to spend with the people I like, much less the people I don’t like, or don’t even know. But, if I’m going to believe Jesus, in doing so, he says we become perfect. Not by trying harder, but by relating better.

The idea that perfection comes through relationship-building is a real challenge to our hurriedness, because relationship-building takes time. I was in the drive-thru at Starbucks the other day (so I didn’t have to walk all the way inside), and my drink was taking a little longer than usual (almost as long as a red light in Lexington), so the barista leaned out the window and said, “So, what do you have going on today?” My first thought was, “None of your dang business! Just give me my Frappuccino!” But then I realized that this was a sliver of a moment to build a relationship, no matter how fleeting, with someone I didn’t know. We chatted a couple minutes, and I got my drink and drove away.

But the interaction stuck with me. “So, what do you have going on today?” A simple question, asked with innocent curiosity, which led to a most pleasant conversation that became one of the highlights of my day. I wonder how many opportunities I’ve missed to do that kind of relational work because I’ve been too focused on getting my stuff done. I wonder how many potential relationships I’ve sacrificed on the altar of expediency. It’s so much easier to objectify people and see them as a means to an end, because actually relating to them takes too much time.

The perfection Jesus invites us to seek has nothing to do with getting things right, or even getting things done. If we buy into that myth, then we might as well hitch our leash to a side-view mirror until we collapse from frustration and exhaustion. Why do we let the world make us think that perfection can be achieved through doing more stuff as quickly as possible? If you want to follow someone, you can’t go faster than the one who is leading. Jesus was never in a hurry. Why are we?

Listen to how the Bible translation the Message renders Jesus’ last line about perfection: “In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.” In this version, perfection is not about what you do, but how you live, how you live: generously and graciously toward others, just as God does the same for you.

We’ll always have the opportunity to be busy. And there will be times when our schedules force us to be in a hurry. That’s OK. That’s life. But don’t forget why you’re living it. It’s not to win a medal or cross the finish line first. God put us here to be in relationship with each other, and the more we do that, the more we begin to look like Christ. The more present you are with the person who is right in front of you – your spouse, your child, your friend, your barista, the person you don’t even know – the more present you are with them, the more perfect your life is at that moment. All the things on your to-do list can wait. They’ll still be there when you finish your conversation. But nothing is more important than the person standing right in front of you. Be present and you will be perfect. Perfection is not a destination we’ll reach when we finally get everything done; perfection is how we choose to live in every moment. If we live generously and graciously, then we are perfect, no matter how messy our house is.

There’s a world full of people out there that think God is vengeful, judgmental, exclusionary. They think God doesn’t love them, God can’t love someone like them. Some of them are people who know, but a lot of those people are nothing like us. Relating to them is going to take time, and there’s so much to do. Your chance to be perfect starts when you leave this sanctuary. So….what do you have going on today?


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Overwhelmed Sermon Series – #2:Name-Calling

SCRIPTURE – 1 Samuel 3:1-10 – Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread. At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. Then the Lord called, “Samuel! Samuel!”[a] and he said, “Here I am!” and ran to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he went and lay down. The Lord called again, “Samuel!” Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place. 10 Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

Overwhelmed Sermon Series
#2 – Name-Calling
1 Samuel 3:1-10

I did a wedding a few years ago in downtown Louisville. It was during the time that one of the bridges was closed and before the new bridges had been built, what local residents called “the Dark Ages.” To make sure I didn’t get caught in rush-hour bridge traffic I arrived a couple hours early. I had some time to kill, so I headed over to the Louisville Slugger museum. I’m a huge baseball fan but have had never been to the museum before, so I was excited to see it in person. It was a spiritual experience for me. I slowly moved around this baseball sanctuary in hushed reverence as I looked at the memorabilia from some of the game’s most legendary players.

And then I heard it. “Kory.” Plain as day. I got goosebumps! It was a real “Field of Dreams” moment for me. I thought at first that maybe I was imagining it, but then I heard it again. “Kory.” It was a loud whisper, but had a divine force behind it. I remember this story about Samuel, so I responded very quietly, “Yes, Lord?” And the voice said, “Kory…get your hands off the display case!” I said, “Lord, my hands aren’t on the display case!” That’s when I realized that the voice came from a parent who’s child – named Kory – was standing right behind me, drooling on one of the exhibits.

Have you ever had that happen to you? Have you ever heard your name being called, only to realize it wasn’t really you that was being called? Or on the flipside, have you ever NOT heard your name when it WAS being called? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been waiting for a table at a restaurant, and I’m so spaced out that they have to call my name three times – “table for Wilkerson….table for Wilkinson…table for Wilcoxson!” – before I realize they are talking to me.

Think about all the times our names are called during the course of a week. Our names are called at restaurants, at doctors’ offices, by our co-workers or students. We hear our names from friends, from family, from telemarketers, from Starbucks baristas. We see our names written on junk mail, on text messages, on Post-It notes. We can relate to the disciples’ plea to Jesus in our first scripture – “Everyone is looking for you!” If that feels like the case for us, then how do we distinguish God’s voice from all the other voices calling our name?

We continue our sermon series this week called “Overwhelmed,” in which we are seeking to learn how we can balance the busyness and demands of our lives with God’s call to us to be still, be present, pay attention. How do we find the time and mental capacity to listen to God when our ears are filled with so many other noises?

Our guide for today will be Samuel. Samuel will grow up to the Israel’s last judge and the person who anoints its first king, Saul. But before all of that, he was a young lad growing up in the local temple. Samuel’s mother Hannah promised that if God ended her barrenness and gave her a son, she would give him back to God. So as soon as he was weaned, Samuel was taken to the temple and left with Eli, the temple priest, who raised the boy to follow in his line of work.

In our passage today, Eli has grown old and weak, and the time has come for Samuel to hear God’s call and for him to assume his role in the priestly vocation. Except for one problem: there’s a disconnect between the transmitter and the receiver. If you’re trying to use a GPS around a lot of tall buildings or talk on a cell phone in the mountains, you know what I’m talking about. For communication to work, you have to have someone who’s sending the message and someone on the other end who’s receiving it. In the story, the message is sent by God but not received by Samuel.

Instead, Samuel thinks Eli is calling him, so we have this Laurel and Hardy routine where Samuel is called by God three times and all three times he goes to Samuel and says, “Here I am!” After the third time, Eli figures out what’s going on and instructs Samuel to pay attention to the source of the signal: “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”

Here’s my question: Why didn’t Samuel recognize God’s voice? Surely when God speaks it has a certainly Godly quality to it that distinguishes it from other voices, right? Like the James Earl Jones mixed with Yoda mixed with my grandmother. Or maybe not. Maybe the issue is that when God speaks, we don’t recognize God’s voice because we don’t know God. After the second time God calls to Samuel, we’re told, “Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.”

Wouldn’t it be nice if God spoke through burning bushes and pillars of fire these days? It sure would make our lives a whole lot easier. Remember the billboard ad campaigns a few years ago that had statements from God like, “Don’t make me come down there!” and “Let’s meet at my house Sunday before the game”? That’s how I want God to speak to me. But if we have to be slapped upside the head with a billboard in order to hear God’s voice, we may not be listening correctly.

In order to distinguish someone’s voice, you have to know them, to have a relationship with them. Before we opened our new wing a few weeks ago, our nursery was in the Mission Center near our adult Sunday School classes. In our Sunday school class for parents of young kids, we’d be in the middle of a discussion, and off in the distance we’d hear a baby’s cry, and all the moms would poke their head up like a deer who just heard a tree branch snap. And they’d look at each other and say, “Was that yours? I think it was mine. Was that mine?” They know the voice of their kids because they have a relationship with them.

As Samuel shows us, building that relationship and growing in our recognition of God’s voice is not a linear process. That’s especially true in our crazy busy lives when we barely have time for flesh-and-blood relationships, not to mention our relationship with God. Samuel moves from misunderstanding (“Yes, Eli?”) to recognition (“Oh, that wasn’t you?”) to response (“Speak, Lord”). Our journeys in faith aren’t marked by consistent steps forward, but are more like staggers, a step backward, two steps forward, a step off to the side. For many of us, we have to work our way through responses like “That can’t be God talking” and “Could that be God talking?” before we can get to, “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.”

And even when we do believe God is calling us, that doesn’t mean we always understand what God is saying. I may have told you before that I had a seminary colleague who was talking in our theology class about God’s call and how when God was truly calling him to do something he felt this restless movement deep down inside of him. And our crotchety theology professor peered over his glasses and said, “How do you know it’s not gas?” How do we know? How do we hear God’s voice in the midst of all the other voices calling our names?

There are two things Samuel did that are instructive. First, he asked for help. He went to Eli, who eventually helped Samuel recognize the voice that was calling his name. Samuel reached out to someone who could help him discern God’s voice. For me, that’s how it’s worked. I’ve never heard God speak to me through a blinding light or a flashing neon sign. It’s been through other people, people who were infinitely wiser and more attuned than me, people who said, “God is trying to say something to you. Are you listening?”

I think a key for our spiritual growth is to be in conversation with someone specifically about our faith. That’s not easy, I know. A lot of us feel embarrassed or guilty that we’re not spiritual enough or don’t know the Bible well enough or aren’t committed enough. Guess what? Just about everyone feels that way. Everyone struggles. Everyone doubts. And we grow stronger when we share these things together. Who’s someone you could invite to coffee and talk with about your faith journey? Who’s someone to whom you could give the authority to say to you, “This may be God speaking”?

The other thing Samuel did to hear God’s voice was to create a space for listening. Once Eli told him to pay attention, Samuel turned off his white noise machine, silenced his cell phone, put his clock radio on mute, and listened. Do you ever have time to do that? Do you ever sit in silence and just listen, or read scripture without distractions? Author Eric Sandras gives this advice: ““In the morning, or in the evening, take five minutes and refuse to turn on any noise-making device (that can include family members). The regular exercise of silence can flush our minds clean of unwanted noise,” which then makes space for God to speak. Author Tricia Rhodes calls this spiritual breathing. Mentally inhale the reality of God’s presence and exhale the noisy clamor inside of us. Inhale the peace of Christ and exhale the anxiety of the day. Just sit. Just be. Breathe. Listen. Be still. Look, the noise will still be waiting for you when you’re done. Everyone will still be looking for you. I promise. But for just a few moments, ground yourself in the reality that before you were even given a name for people to call, you were loved by God, who called you “Child.”

I’ve had many conversations with people who have yearned for God to speak to them. “If I only knew what God wanted me to do!” I don’t believe God pops in and out of our lives to give us messages, like some divine pizza delivery person. I believe God is ALWAYS with us, ALWAYS speaking to us, ALWAYS guiding us. Through scripture. Through silence. Through other people. Through voices at baseball museums? OK, maybe not. The issue is not if God is speaking; the issue is if we are listening. There’s a lot of noise out there, a lot of people calling your name. But only one of them is God. Are we listening?


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Overwhelmed Sermon Series – #1: Crazy Busy

overwhelmed-graphicOver-worked. Over-stressed. Over-needed. Over-scheduled. We are expected to live a certain kind of lifestyle, own the right things, have it all together. At some point, it’s just too much. We get overwhelmed. How do we step back from these demands? How do we ground ourselves in something other than society’s expectations? Starting with this sermon, we are taking a step back and see what the Bible tells us about living an authentic life centered on Christ’s love. Today’s story is about Mary and Martha. Are we too busy to hear God?

SCRIPTURE – Luke 10:38-42 – 38 Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39 She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 40 But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” 41 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42 there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

Overwhelmed Sermon Series
#1 – Crazy Busy
January 15, 2017

There’s an award that’s given out in baseball each year for the most outstanding relief pitcher. Even though her fastball isn’t quite 90 miles an hour, I’d like to nominate Trish Standifur to receive that award this year. I appreciate her willingness to bring a powerful word last week when I succumbed to the Crud that’s going around. She is definitely our MVP – Most Valuable Preacher.

As I was listening to her excellent sermon on our website, I was struck by something I heard in the scripture passage she read about the Wise Men. It said that when the Wise Men saw that the star they had been following stopped over Jesus’ house, “they were overwhelmed with joy.” The word “overwhelmed” jumped out at me, since I was preparing to preach a sermon series about being overwhelmed. Because when I think about being overwhelmed, it’s not joy that comes to mind.

Now that we’re a few weeks past the miracle of Christmas, are you still overwhelmed by the joy of the season? Or are you overwhelmed by other things – post-Christmas credit card bills; health issues brought on by the winter season; a schedule that pulls you in 10 different directions; the challenges of aging relatives or wayward children – or just children in general; the increasing violence and conflict in our world. There are a lot of things that overwhelm us, but they do not produce joy in us.

In this sermon series, we hope to address some of those things and how scripture calls us to respond to them. The old cliché is that God doesn’t give us more than we can handle, but I disagree with that for two reasons. First, I don’t think God gives us things – like cancer or broken transmissions or the Crud – and asks us to handle them; and second, sometimes we DO  have to deal with more than we can handle. Sometimes I pray to just be whelmed. Not underwhelmed, not overwhelmed. I just want to be whelmed. But even the word “whelmed” means “to be submerged or buried,” so it looks like there’s no winning with any of the “whelmed” choices.

Speaking of words, remember when the default answer to “How are you?” used to be “Fine. I’m fine.” Simple. To the point. No disclosure, but also no intrinsic value. “I’m fine.” But the usage of “fine” has been replaced. Not many people say “fine” anymore. Instead, the answer is, “Busy! I’m busy.” And if you’re really busy, you’re “crazy busy.”

A read an article recently that says being busy is a sickness, because it takes a physical, mental, and spiritual toll on us. We say we’re busy like it’s an albatross around our necks – “Ugh, I’m so busy!” – but if we’re honest with ourselves, we wear it more like a badge of honor. Because to be busy means you are needed, you have responsibility, you are the kind of person who gets things done. No one responds to “How are you?” with “I’m lazy.” It looks good to be busy.

Maybe that’s what fueled Martha’s actions in our scripture today. I have a bumper sticker on my filing cabinet at home that feeds into this approach to spirituality. It says, “Jesus is coming; look busy!” That was certainly Martha’s approach because Jesus really WAS coming, not for Judgment Day, but for supper. And he was bringing his disciples with him. That means that on very short notice, Martha had to prepare a meal for at least 14 guests, making sure to extend the proper hospitality that was the law of the land in those days. Oh, and by the way, one of your guests is the Son of God, so try not to burn the pot roast.

What do you cook for Jesus and his entourage? Martha wasn’t about to serve the Messiah peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem to be crucified; do you think it was OK to serve him boiled hotdogs and Kraft Mac N Cheese on paper plates? There was a feast to be cooked, fine china to be dusted off, sweeping and mopping and straightening to be done. Somebody’s gotta do it. Martha is crazy busy!

Martha probably expected her sister Mary to follow her, to lend a hand, to at least offer to hang up the disciples’ tunics or get them a drink. But when Martha peeks out from the kitchen, wondering where Mary is and why she hasn’t started setting the table, there’s Mary, sitting at teacher’s feet, which was a spot of learning exclusively reserved for male students like the disciples.

Can you understand Martha’s reaction? Can you feel her anger? Not only is Mary acting like a man, but there’s all that work still to be done, and Mary has yet to stir a pot. If you’ve ever been the only one cleaning up after a big meal, you know what Martha felt. No one likes to be left holding the dishtowel. So Martha boldly approaches Jesus and states her case: “Lord, don’t you care that I’m doing all the work by myself? Tell Mary to help me!”

It’s very tempting in this passage to want to cast Mary as the good guy and Martha as the bad guy. But to do so does a grave injustice to Martha and all those like her. She was Martha Stewart before Martha Stewart was Martha Stewart. Martha is the patron saint of multitasking, and this world simply would not exist without her spiritual brothers and sisters. She gets the job done, and the world needs men and women and boys and girls who get the job done. The world would come to a grinding halt without responsible people like Martha. Right now, you Martha types are making out your grocery lists in the margins of the bulletin.  Can you feel the pressure Martha feels? Meals to be made, a house to be cleaned, people to take care of, shopping to do. Who has time to sit still? What’s wrong with being a Martha? Why is Jesus so critical of her?

He is not, as I read it, criticizing Martha for being busy. He’s not saying to her that such work doesn’t have to be done; obviously it does. You can’t have a pitch-in supper unless someone pitches in. You can’t have a clean kitchen unless someone cleans. I believe under normal circumstances Jesus would applaud Martha’s efforts, lift her up as a shining example of hospitality, someone who walks the walk of a servant faith.

But these aren’t normal circumstances. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. He’s on his way to die on the cross. He may never be with Mary and Martha again. Mary recognized the significance of Jesus’ visit to her house, and she put her own agendas aside to make sure she spent time with him. The dishes would still be there after dinner; Jesus wouldn’t. When Jesus was hanging on the cross, would Martha regret that she didn’t get all the leftovers put away, or would she regret that she hadn’t spent more time with Jesus? According to Jesus, she doesn’t choose wisely. She makes the mistake of thinking that Jesus can wait. We are called to be both hearers and doers of the word. Martha was all do and no hear, and there are spiritual consequences for this.

Remember the line from the psalm we read? “Be still and know that I am God.” The implied antithesis is, “Don’t be still and forget that I am God.” Jesus says, “Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things.” The Message translation says, “You’re fussing far too much and getting yourself worked up over nothing.” The more we do without grounding ourselves at the feet of Jesus, the more we get distracted. The more we forget. The more church becomes just one among many options. The more we stop seeing the least of these around us. The more we become all do and no hear.

My friend Danny told me the story about an archaeologist who hired some native tribesmen to lead him to a dig site deep in the mountains. After they’d been moving for a while, the tribesmen stopped and insisted they could go no further. After sitting still for a while, the archaeologist got angry and impatient. “C’mon, we have things to do!” But the tribesmen didn’t move. Finally, without warning, they all picked up their gear and continued walking. The archaeologist caught up to the tribe leader and asked why they had stopped for so long. He said, “We had been moving too fast and had to wait for our souls to catch up.”

Have we outrun our souls? Has our busyness caused us to stray from the path that keeps us centered and grounded in God? Martha had so much to do, so many responsibilities, she missed the opportunity that was right in front of her. She was getting herself worked up over nothing, when in reality, as Jesus tells her, “there is need of only one thing.”

That is easy to say but so hard to do today in a world where “busy” is the new “fine,” and there’s simply too much going on to sit still. We want to say to Jesus, “One thing? But there are so MANY things!” My Apple Watch has an app on it called “Breathe.” Through little pulses, the watch will lead you through a breathing exercise for whatever time you set. Twice a day I get a pop-up reminder on my phone from that App to breathe. And twice a day I cancel that reminder, because who has time to breathe? “Next time,” I think. “Next time it pops up, I’ll breathe.”  But not now, because right now, there are things to be done. Breathing can wait.

You see, that’s the problem with Martha. In her mind, Jesus could wait. And we’re even more susceptible to that rationalization. For Martha, Jesus was on his way to the cross, so her time with him was limited. But for us, he’s already died, come back, and gone to Heaven. We’re told now that Jesus is always with us, so where’s the urgency to spend time with him? Jesus can wait. “As soon as I get my things done, then I’ll spend time with Jesus.” Of course, the problem is that either we’re so tired when we finish that Jesus gets our leftovers instead of full attention, or, which is more likely, we never get to our time with Jesus at all. There are so many things! And our souls are left panting, out of breath, trying to catch up to us.

Being still in our crazy busy world today is as much about our spirituality as it is our mobility. It’s important to physically be still, but it’s also important to let our soul rest, to ground it in an emailed daily devotion or a brief prayer of thanks or a good cup of coffee with a trusted friend. You may only have time for five minutes of stillness today, but that’s enough. What are you doing to be still, to remind yourself that you are not the only one bearing this yoke of responsibility, to be reminded that before you are all these roles you play, you are a loved and beloved child of God?  We have to let our souls catch up.

Jesus says, “There is need of only one thing.” What’s the one thing? I can’t answer that for you. Your one thing may not be my one thing. It could be starting a journal, or investing in a relationship, or silencing the technology around you. Whatever it is, I’m pretty sure it involves slowing down, sitting still, and listening. Do we have time for that? Do we have time to breathe? Or are we just too crazy busy? “Let me finish what I’ve got to do, Jesus, then I’ll be with you.” There are so many things! Be still and remember that God is God and you are not and there are indeed so many things, but really, there is one thing. Be still.


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Ghosts of Christmas Sermon Series – #3: The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come

SCRIPTURE – Luke 1:26-56 – In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35 The angel said to 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 Son of God. 36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

Mary Visits Elizabeth

39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42 and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

Mary’s Song of Praise

46 And Mary said,

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47     and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
    Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
    and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
    from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
    he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
    and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
    and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
    in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
    to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

56 And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.

The Ghosts of Christmas Sermon Series
#3 – The Ghosts of Christmas Yet to Come
Dec. 18, 2016

I remember when I was little, once of my favorite days of the year was the day the JC Penney’s catalog arrived in our mailbox. Kids, a catalog is a book of all the different things a store sells. Think of it as a paper version of Amazon.com. The Penney’s catalog had to weigh at least 20 pounds, and I would heave it up onto my lap and flip past all the boring parts like power tools and women’s underwear until I got to the toy section. Then, ball-point pen in hands, I would start circling the remote control cars and action figures that were on my wish list. I would envision all the creations I could build with those new Lego blocks or the explosions I could cause with a chemistry set. For me, the Penney’s catalog was a glimpse into a much-hoped-for future.

Ebenezer Scrooge also gets a glimpse into his future, but it’s not nearly as exciting as a chemistry set. Today, we conclude our “Ghosts of Christmas” sermon series, in which we’ve looked at the ghosts that visited Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas Eve in Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” The Ghost of Christmas Past reminded him of all the opportunities Scrooge had missed because of his greed, and the Ghost of Christmas Present showed him the joy he was missing out on this year. While both ghosts caused their share of consternation for Scrooge, it was the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come that really scared the Christmas into Scrooge.

Dickens describes this ghost as “a menacing figure clad in a black hooded robe.” Mochristmas-carol-ghost-of-christmas-future-wallpapers-1024x768.jpg (1024×768)vie adaptations usually show this figure as a sort of Grim Reaper. The ghosts takes Scrooge to several scenes involving death: a group of businessmen discussion the death of a rich man; some thieves attempting to pawn a dead man’s goods; a family relieved at the death of a wealthy man, to whom they owed money. The final stop is the Cratchit household, where they are mourning the death of their son, Tiny Tim. When Scrooge learns that he is the dead man in the first three scenes, he begs the phantom to undo these visions, promising to honor Christmas and live the lessons he’s learned this night. The phantom fades and Scrooge is left back in his bed on Christmas morning.

Wouldn’t we all like to know our future? I would have loved to know which of those toys from JC Penney’s I was getting. Actually, I usually DID know because I always peeked at my presents. Scrooge had the benefit of knowing what was coming, which gave him the opportunity to respond to it. But for most of us, we just don’t know. I always think of the comment my friend once made when we saw the local fortune teller had gone out of business. He said, “She should have seen that coming.” Do we know what’s going to happen? Do we want to know?

Mary knew. The angel comes to her and tells her that she is going to have a baby. That’s a little bit more significant than a chemistry set, but no less explosive. She listens to the angel flip through the pages of her future: she’ll be an unwed, pregnant, teenage mother, carrying within her womb the son of God. And she simply responds, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord.” One person told me, “If it were up to me, Jesus would have never been born, because I would have said, ‘NO!’” How would you respond?

Why doesn’t Mary say, “No”? I’d like to believe it’s because, even before she finds out she’s pregnant, that she is expecting. She knew the prophecies that talked about the coming of the Messiah, so she was expecting that God would fulfill God’s promises and send the Messiah to earth. She probably didn’t expect that she would be the delivery vehicle, but that news just solidifies her expectation.

Are you expecting this Christmas? Hold on, now, I’m not asking what you think I’m asking. The definition of “expectation” is “realization in advance.” My friend David Shirey says that when Mary agrees to give birth to Jesus, she is “running her fingers through the prospect of promises fulfilled.” What promises are you hoping will be fulfilled this Christmas? What are you expecting?

How we answer that question this year may be determined by how we voted in the election. To quote another Dickens’ book, depending on our candidate, this is either the best of times or the worst of times. And which of those it actually will be is yet to be determined. The future is still unknown. Nevertheless, we are a people of faith, and the book of Hebrews defines faith as “assurance of things hoped for.” Realization in advance. The prospect of promises fulfilled. What are you expecting? Are you expecting doom and gloom? Are you expecting prosperity? Is Jesus somewhere in those expectations?

Scrooge was not expecting what the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come showed him. He never considered that his life would end, and that his death would be a blessing to those around him. At that moment, he has an epiphany: he has the power to change the future. He asks the ghost, “Are these the shadows of the things that WILL be, or are they the shadows of the things that MAY be?” In other words, does our future have to be defined by our past and our present? What control do we have over what is yet to come?

Well, none and some. None, in that we can’t time travel forward and know what’s going to happen. We are helpless to control things that have yet to take places. But we DO have something: we have hope. We talked in our Advent small group this past week about the difference between a wish and a hope. We wish for things we know probably aren’t going to happen, but that we want to happen anyway. Or, more often, we wish for things that happened to not have happened. But when we hope for something, we believe in our hearts in can happen, even despite evidence to the contrary. There’s a big difference between “I wish I hadn’t run that stop sign” and “I hope this nice officer doesn’t give a ticket.”

When Mary goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth, she is full of hope. In fact, she is so full of hope, that she bursts into song, what could be considered the first one-person flash mob. Her song details God’s grace and mercy to her, and the promises God has made through the prophets. In fact, almost every word in Mary’s song is a biblical quotation from the Old Testament. Her song echoes the prophets with its theme of redemption, freedom, and justice.

I want you to notice something interesting about the Magnificat. She starts off in the present tense – “My soul magnifies the Lord” – but quickly shifts to the past tense – “He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.” These past-tense promises Mary sings about were believed to be fulfilled with the coming of the Messiah, who had yet to be born. What Mary is doing is singing about these promises in the past tense as if they have already happened. She’s running her fingers through the prospect of promises fulfilled. She is expecting.

To be expecting is one of the blessings of Advent. As we await Christ’s coming, we are all expecting, just like Mary. And our role in this story being told again is in some ways just as important. Listen to these words from medieval mystic Meister Eckhart: “We are all meant to be mothers of God. What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place each year but does not take place within myself? And what good is it to me that Mary is full of grace if I am not full of grace? What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to his son if I do not also give birth to him in my time and culture?”

That’s exactly the epiphany Scrooge receives from the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. While Christ isn’t explicitly mentioned, it’s clear that Scrooge is transformed into a bearer of God. When he awakens Christmas morning, still very much alive, he exclaims, “Hear me! I am not the man I was. I will not be the man I must have been. I will honor Christmas in my heart and try to keep it all the year.” That’s about as a good an answer as, “Here am I, a servant of the Lord.”

So let’s us take our place alongside Mary and Scrooge as God-bearers in this world. God has a plan to use each one of us to make God’s love known here on earth. He comes to each of us this Christmas and says, “Jesus Christ is inside you. Will you give birth to his love in your life? Will you share him with others? Will you share him with the world?” We may not know what’s going to happen in the future, but we do know that we have the power to shape that future to look like God’s kingdom, because we each bear Christ within us.

That can be tough for us to live out when we are in the midst of pain, in the midst of grieving, in the midst of worrying about what the future holds. If you look forward through a certain lens, you could say that we have a lot of reasons to be concerned. But I choose to believe we have a lot of reasons to be hopeful, as well. Real, tangible reasons. Christ’s coming is not some pie-in-the-sky wish that all will be well. It is a very real promise that God is at work in all things to bring about good for those whose hope is in God.

Are those promises true? I believe that is up to us. As God-bearers, as people called to bring the light of Christ into the world, it is up to us. Will God’s mercy extend to others? Will the humble be lifted up? Will the hungry be filled with good things? We can wait around for God to do these things, but I believe God would say, “I’ve already sent you everything you need. What are you waiting for?”

As we move forward into unstable times, may we remember the importance of stable time, time spent in the midst of the Christmas miracle, time invested in helping Christ be born again in our hearts and in this world. If Ebenezer Scrooge can undergo the transformation from greedy curmudgeon to generous philanthropist, might there be hope for us? Look into the future. What do you see? There’s a lot I don’t see. But I do see Jesus. I know Jesus will be there. And that’s enough. Enough to transform our hearts, our community, this world. We have what we need. So what are we waiting for?




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The Ghosts of Christmas Sermon Series – #2: The Ghost of Christmas Present

Sorry! Just realized I hadn’t posted this year. Here’s the second sermon in my series based on “A Christmas Carol.” Merry Christmas!

SCRIPTURE – LUke 2:8-20 – In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
    and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

The Ghosts of Christmas Sermon Series
#2 – The Ghost of Christmas Present
Dec. 4, 2016

I was working with some children at my last church during the season of Advent. I sat them in a circle criss-cross-applesauce and said, “I have a wonderful story to tell you about Christmas!” Their little faces got excited and they scooched forward. I started to read the Christmas story as it’s told in the gospel of Luke. Most of the kids listened intently to the story about Mary and the angels and the shepherds, but I noticed one little boy’s face started to droop and his smile morphed into a scowl. When I finished the story, he was clearly not happy. I said, “Sam, what’s wrong? Didn’t you like the story?” He said angrily, “Yeah, but that’s the same story you told last Christmas!”

Well, Sam is right. We DO tell the same story every year. That can be comforting, but it can also lull us into a sense of complacency. If we feel like we’re hearing the same story as last year, it’s easy not to listen to it, especially when so many other things are demanding our attention. What are we missing if we’re not paying attention to what is right in front of us?

We continue our sermon series today called “The Ghosts of Christmas,” based on Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” In that story, Ebenezer Scrooge is confronted by three ghosts that show him his past, present, and future, in hopes of turning him from his miserly ways and helping him catch the true Christmas spirit. During a season in which each of us are susceptible to becoming Scrooge-like, we may need to see some ghosts ourselves to turn our “Bah Humbug!” into a “Merry Christmas.”

Last week, we talked about how the Ghost of Christmas Past took Scrooge back to his childhood, his school days, his work apprenticeship. We learned how he lost his sweetheart Belle because he loved his money more than her. And we learned that Scrooge was never able to move past who he WAS to become who he COULD BE. He was stuck looking in the past instead of looking forward with hope.

After the Ghost of Christmas Past leaves, Scrooge is visited by his next spectral Image result for ghost of christmas presentguest, the Ghost of Christmas Present. Contrary to the mysterious appearance of the first Ghost, this one can’t be missed. Dickens describes him as a majestic giant in a green fur robe, maybe the original ugly Christmas outfit. The ghost shows Scrooge how Christmas will unfold that year. First, they stop by house of Bob Cratchit, Scrooge’s long-suffering employee. Scrooge sees their small home and their meager feast, and witnesses the innocence and joy of Tiny Tim, Cratchit’s crippled son. Their next stop is the home of Fred, Scrooge’s nephew. Scrooge turned down an invitation to dinner at Fred’s house, so Scrooge sees the party he is going to miss. He enjoys it so much he asks the Ghost to stay until the end of the festivities. Scrooge realizes all the things he will miss because his focus was on himself and his money.

One of the most damning lines about Scrooge is in the 1984 movie adaptation, when the Ghost of Christmas Present says to Scrooge, “You’ve gone through life not noticing a lot.” Ouch. Anyone else guilty of that? I think one of the biggest challenges to being faithful today is not the persistence of evil or the challenge of secularism. It’s the constant presence of distraction. We are a distracted culture, our attention dissected 100 different ways, unable to prioritize what’s important because we’re told everything is important, which means nothing is important. So the coming of the Christ child is just one event in a holiday buffet of events this month, and we’ll do our best to give it our full attention, but we’re just so busy and there’s just so much to do and I just got a text message and did I remember to order that thing I was gonna order? Distracted.

I’m sure glad the shepherds didn’t feel that way. Luke tells us they were living in the fields, so there probably weren’t a lot of shopping malls or Black Friday sales clamoring for their attention. They worked with sheep day and night, so they probably didn’t get invited to a lot of holiday parties or Secret Santa gift exchanges. They were just…living in a field. Something about that sounds pretty peaceful, doesn’t it?

Since the shepherds’ only focus was tending the sheep, they were primed to hear the good news the angel brought them. “Do not be afraid; for see I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” To you is born THIS day. Not tomorrow. Not yesterday. This day. And the shepherds are able to respond immediately to this good news.

I wonder if I would have the ability to respond with that urgency. “Today, Ms. Angel? Hmm. That’s really not good for me. I’ve got a 9 a.m. coffee, some Christmas shopping to do, I need to pick up my kid from school and run by the grocery. I’m free at 3 p.m. Wednesday. Can Jesus wait until then to be born? Do I have to see the Christ child NOW?” The distractions of this season keep us from being present to the miracles all around us every day. Do we go through Advent not noticing a lot?

I read a book recently in which the author compared attentiveness to God with birdwatching. He said that if you are walking through the woods, and your goal is to get from point A to point B, you’ll get from point A to point B. Sometimes the Christmas season feels that way. “Just get me to Dec. 26!” But, he said, if you are birdwatching, then when you walk through the woods, they come alive with robins and bluejays and whippoorwills and doves. The same woods that could be simply an obstacle to traverse instead overflow with life, each flap of the wings sounding like the whisper of angels. But it’s Christmas season; who has time to birdwatch?

Scrooge didn’t. Being present in the moment for him was a waste of time. His focus was either on the past and what didn’t get done or on the future and what needed to be done. His head was always in his ledger, his eyes on the bottom line, his employee simply a cog in the gear of Scrooge’s money-making machine. And, as the ghost showed him, Scrooge missed the overflow of life around him, the whispers of angels that got drowned out by his own greed.

What gets drowned out for us? What do we miss this season because of distraction? The easy answer is we miss the meaning of Christmas or the joy of being with family, but I think the real answer goes deeper. In the book, before the Ghost of Christmas Present departs, he shows two starved children, named Ignorance and Want, living in his coat. Before Scrooge can learn more, the Ghost departs.

One of the blessings of Christmas is that the giving spirit spurs people to be generous with their time and money, buying Angel Tree gifts and providing food for gift boxes. That’s amazing, and I’m so thankful we can offer people less fortunate than ourselves the chance to experience the joy of this season. We are certainly blessed, and it feels good to be a blessing to others, to share what we have with them.

But there’s a deeper need here that we often miss because of distractions. When the angel comes to the shepherds and announces Jesus’ birth, the angel doesn’t send them to a palace or a castle or the halls of power. Instead, angel directs them to a stable, a home for animals, no doubt dirty and smelly and unsanitary. And it is there, in the most unlikely of places, that they find the Christ child, the King of Kings, the Prince of Peace. The shepherds find this gift in the most miserable of places. Where would that be today? And what keeps us from going there? Distraction? Busyness? Fear?

Theologian Frederick Beuchner makes this point with a bit of an edge. He says, “God comes to us in the hungry people we do not have to feed, comes to us in the lonely people we do not have to comfort, comes to us in all the desperate human need of people everywhere that we are always free to turn our backs upon.” Scrooge was an expert at turning his back on the need around him. He went through life not noticing a lot. He probably thought that each need he saw represented a risk for him to lose some of his hard-earned money. He saw Bob Cratchit as a charity case. He saw his nephew Fred as an interruption.

But here’s the beauty of the Christmas story and the subversive way God works in our lives. We think God calls us to the muck and mire of the stables of today’s world because we have the power and influence and resources to bring God’s presence to “those poor souls.” But what if we are called there, not to bring God’s presence, but to FIND God’s presence? What if Christ is born this year in a homeless shelter, or a halfway house, or under a bridge? Will we have the courage to go there, to witness the gift of Christ in the faces of those who are completely unlike us in every way? Will we put our power and influences and resources to work for those who are marginalized, those who are threatened, those who are scared of the future? Or will we be too distracted?

I would like to submit to you that what we are most seeking in this world – peace – is the thing we are least likely to find if we keep doing things the same way. When we are distracted, we are not peaceful. God’s peace means we possess a calm, an assurance, a focus that only comes from meeting Christ where he is and knowing that he IS here, in the midst of forest fires and terrorism and political upheaval. He is here. Present. With us now. And he is there, in those places we are afraid to go, with those people who are faceless to us. Will we follow the shepherds leading us to the stable? If you are interested in going to those places, let Trish and me know. We’ll walk with you. Luke tells us, “When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about the child. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen.” They went to the stable, found God’s presence there in the lowest of places, and then returned to their fields and flocks, glorifying and praising God. So…what will we do?



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Ghosts of Christmas Sermon Series – #1: The Ghost of Christmas Past

SCRIPTURE – Matthew 1:18-25 – 18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah[i] took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

23 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
    and they shall name him Emmanuel,”

which means, “God is with us.” 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son;[j] and he named him Jesus.SERMON

The Ghosts of Christmas Sermon Series
#1 – The Ghosts of Christmas Past
Nov. 27, 2016

Here’s a trivia quiz for you. What do these actors have in common? James Earl Jones, Jim Carrey, Patrick Stewart, and Bill Murray? What if I add George C. Scott, Cicely Tyson, and Tom Hanks? Got it yet? Here’s one final hint, maybe the greatest actor of our generation: Scrooge McDuck. All of these outstanding thespians – and thespi-ducks – have had the honor of playing the role of Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.”

It’s probably the most famous Christmas story outside of the Bible, and it’s been Image result for ebenezer scroogeretold countless times because it’s a timeless story about the passing of time. In one fateful night, Scrooge is confronted by his past, his present, and his future, all for the purpose of helping him change his greedy ways and catch the Christmas spirit. And his companions for the journey are three ghosts, each with their own personalities and purposes. How’s your Christmas spirit doing so far? If you’re like me, this past election season and the oncoming rush of the holidays has me feeling a lot more Scrooge-ish than usual. Maybe we need to see some ghosts to help us open up our hearts to what is coming this Christmas.

For our Advent sermon series this year, we’re going to be spending some time with Scrooge as we peer into the past, ponder the present, and yearn for what is yet to come. As we know, the ghosts were able to help change Scrooge’s focus from the pull of materialism and money to the true spirit behind the coming of the Christ child. The ghosts did it for Scrooge in one night; do you think they can help us over the course of four weeks?

If you’re not familiar with the story, Ebenezer Scrooge is a miserly old man whose love of money has left him leading a lonely life. Dickens describes him this way: “He was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! A squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner!” To which I would add, “Bless his heart.” He mistreats his employee, Bob Cratchit, and dismisses an invitation to his nephew Fred’s Christmas party with a scowling, “Bah humbug!”

On Christmas Eve, Scrooge is visited by the ghost of his former partner, Jacob Marley. Scrooge learns that Marley has been condemned to walk the earth carrying heavy chains because of the greedy life he led. Marley warns Scrooge to avoid the same fate, and says that three ghosts will be visiting him that night. The first ghost to arrive is the Ghost of Christmas Past, a strange childlike phantom with a brightly glowing head. The spirit escorts Scrooge on a journey into the past to previous Christmases from the curmudgeon’s earlier years. Scrooge revisits his childhood school days, his apprenticeship with a jolly merchant named Fezziwig, and his engagement to Belle, a woman who leaves Scrooge because his love of money was greater than his love for her. Scrooge is moved to tears by both the joy and the regret he experiences.

We all probably feel the same way when we think about our past Christmases. There are memories that fill us with happiness and memories that would just as soon forget. Sometimes those memories are captured in our decorations themselves. We’ll put up our Christmas tree today, and each ornament carries a story with it. We have ornaments that were given to us when we were little by relatives no longer with us. We have ornaments marking rites of passage, like “Baby’s First Christmas” or handmade ornaments from our girls when they were little. I’ve collected a bunch of sports ornaments down through the years, but I’m not allowed to have them in the house, so they’re on a tree in my office. Just putting up the tree can be a trip down memory lane.

Of course, the good ol’ days of Christmas aren’t always good. My Poppy’s birthday was Christmas Eve, so each year that day is a reminder that he is gone. And each Christmas morning we used to gather at my PawPaw’s house for a huge Christmas breakfast. Although it’s been a decade since we have done that, I miss it every year. And when we get together with family at Christmas, I’m keenly aware of the people who are not there because of broken relationships. Like Scrooge, we can be moved to tears by both the joy and regret of the past.

That’s the kind of power our memories hold over us. Our past can shape how we perceive the present and how we move forward into the future. For Scrooge, his complex past shaped who he was and how he lived, as his love for money, developed at an early age, calcified his heart and his ability to love others. The past has the same power for Joseph in our scripture passage. He was committed to be married to Mary, only to find out when she returns from a trip that she is four months along in a pregnancy initiated by the Holy Spirit. Imagine that first conversation! “Honey, I’ve got some good news and I’ve got some bad news. The bad news is, I’m pregnant and you’re not the father. But the good news is, neither is anybody else!”  If you were Joseph, how do you respond to this? He wasn’t quite sure what happened with Mary, he only knew it had nothing to do with him.

So he faces a decision, one of the most important decisions faced by anyone in the Bible: what to do with Mary and her unborn child? We are told Joseph was a righteous man, which means in Jewish tradition that he was a faithful follower of God’s law, so the law gave him his options. He could follow what was laid out in Deuteronomy 22, which says, “If a man is found sleeping with another man’s wife, both the man who slept with her and the woman must die.” So one of Joseph’s options is to expose Mary’s apparent transgression and have her stoned to death.

But by New Testament times, that punishment was rarely meted out. So, the only other option Joseph faced, according to the law, was divorce. No matter how much he loved Mary, it was his religious obligation to end the relationship and severe the marriage contract. He could honor the shaming dictated by the law and expose Mary’s sin through a public divorce, humiliating her in front of her family and friends and leaving her future in question. Or he could divorce her quietly, with only a few witnesses, doing everything he could to keep both his and Mary’s reputation intact. But he simply couldn’t stay with her.

This is just a mess for Joseph. He would forever be defined by this transgression. From this point forward, he’ll be known as the guy whose soon-to-be wife got pregnant. It only took one split-second act to change his life for the worse, and he didn’t even have anything to do with it! I know a lot of people whose lives have been changed by one bad decision. I have a friend who’s lost his job, his home, and a lot of his friends, all because of one bad choice he made. That’s all it takes, right? We all have at least one thing in our past that we regret, a memory that haunts us, a decision we would give anything to undo. Even if we’ve survived the consequences of it, we still know what happened, and we can never go back and change it.

I’ll give you a trivial example. A few years ago, I was loading groceries in my trunk and had the cart sitting behind my car. Another driver was impatiently waiting to take my parking space, so I quickly loading my groceries and got in my car. I noticed the space in front of me was empty, so instead of backing out, I pulled forward, forgetting that I had left my shopping cart blocking the parking space so the other car couldn’t pull in. To this day, I want to find that person and explain that I’m not really a jerk, I just forgot my cart was there. I don’t know why, but I still feel horrible about that to this day. If it was one of you, I’m really sorry!

The power of the past. Scrooge weeps with regret when he realizes how his greed ruined his relationships. Joseph agonizes over what to do about his situation, whether to follow the laws of the past or trust what the angel is telling him about the future. Do we have to be who we’ve been? Are we beholden to the ways of the past? Christian rock group Relient K has a song called, “Who I Am Hates Who I’ve Been.” But there’s good news for us, just as there was for Scrooge and for Joseph. The God we worship is not only the God of the future and the God of the present. God is the God of the past, which means God’s forgiveness stretches backward, covering our past actions and altering how the shape our lives.

We are not who we were. We can choose to act like we are, to act as if the mistakes we have made still plague us, still define us. Or we can have hope. Hope that God can work through our past to redefine our present and open up our future. Hope that we are not limited to either staying the same or running from the past. Hope that God presents another option, to help us claim who we were as a part of becoming who God wants us to be. Yes, I left a shopping cart blocking a parking space. But I’ve also held doors for people and helped carry their grocery bags. So which person am I? The one who made the mistakes, or the one who tried to help others? I guess that depends on where I choose to put my focus. Yes, we have made mistakes, and those mistakes are a part of our story. But they don’t have to be the whole story. Scrooge let himself be defined by his past, but that’s only one part of his story. We can reframe our past regrets as a small part of a larger story of forgiveness and growth. God has something greater planned for us.

I liken our situation to driving a car. If you want to know what’s behind you, you have a couple of small mirrors you can use. The sideview and rearview mirrors give you a small glimpse of where you’ve been. I wish I had used mine before leaving that parking space! But if we spend too much time looking in our rear-view mirror, we miss what’s coming ahead. I think there’s a reason that the rear-view mirror is so tiny and the windshield is so spacious. It’s important to glimpse at the past every once in a while to know where we’ve been, but it’s much more important to stay focused on what’s in front of us. We were meant to spend most of our time looking ahead of us, not behind.

For Scrooge, the Ghost of Christmas Past reminded him of the pain his actions caused as a way of setting the stage for him to look forward. For Joseph, the angel shows him that this one action of Mary’s pregnancy, so condemned by society, doesn’t have to keep him from doing the right thing. For us, the birth of the Christ child brings with it the hope that our past doesn’t have to be our present, and that our future is pregnant with the possibilities God has for us.

For many of us, Christmas is a mixed bag of emotions. While the season is meant to be joyous and delightful, we are burdened by memories of loved ones no longer with us. We are weighed down by grief or guilt. We don’t know how we can move forward because of what we have done or what others have done to us. So what will Christmas bring us this year? More painful memories, more staring at the rear-view mirror? Or will we look ahead through the windshield at the hope the Christ child brings this year. Scrooge still has two more ghosts to go before his transformation is complete. But ours can start right now. Right now. You are not who you used to be. You don’t have to be a prisoner to the past. With God’s help, you can start writing your new story. Just look at all God has planned for you!



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