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.

SERMON
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.

SERMON
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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This Week’s Sermon – Who’s in Charge?

SCRIPTURE – Colossians 1:15-20 – 15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 16 for in[h] him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He himself is before all things, and in[i] him all things hold together. 18 He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

SERMON
Who’s in Charge?
Colossians 1:15-20
Nov. 20, 2016

OK, show of hands, who’s tired of hearing about politics? Feel free to raise both hands if you’d like. It’s hard to believe the election was less than two weeks ago. I understand there are a wide range of emotions across this country, and even in this church. Some of us are hopeful and excited; some of us are angry and scared; and some of us are in the middle, from cautiously optimistic to hesitantly skeptical. But I’m pretty sure almost all of us are one thing: tired of it.

So I promise you this morning that, after six weeks of preaching sermons that had something to do with politics, I will not be talking about politics from the pulpit. Because…I have a solution! I know how to fix this whole mess. Can we admit that this experiment was a failure? Sure, it sounded good 240 years ago: sail to a new land, start our own country, install our own form of government based on an ancient Greek political system called democracy. Our first clue that it wouldn’t work is the fact that there are no ancient Greeks around anymore, so obviously it didn’t work for them. Democracy certainly has its good points – like voting and stuff – but for the most part, all it has accomplished is create division, conflict, friction among the people. Every four years, it seems like half the country is angry at the other half of the country.

So here’s what we should do. Let’s go back to a monarchy. Seriously! Our country is already set up to return to this rule, and our eating establishments are leading the way. Think about it: we have a Burger King, a Dairy Queen, and a White Castle. If we had a monarchy, everyone would know who’s in charge, there would be no squabbling over an electoral college, and anyone considering a protest would be strongly dissuaded by all the dead protesters from previous protests. The transition would go like this: “Son, you’re the next king.” So much easier!

OK, maybe a monarchy isn’t such a good idea. After all, that’s what we hopped on the Mayflower to get away from in the first place. Those first immigrants from the motherland of England really blazed a trail for us. I’m sure you remember their slogan: “Make America Great for the First Time.” America is here specifically because we didn’t like the idea of having some tyrant an ocean away telling us what to do. Unless your name is Elvis or Michael Jackson, we don’t take too kindly to kings around here.

So then, what are we to do with this Sunday?  This Sunday is not only Thanksgiving Sunday; it also plays another important role in the life of the church. This is the last Sunday in the church liturgical year, which begins anew next week with the first Sunday of Advent. If the year starts with the anticipation of the birth of sweet little baby Jesus, how does it end? Today we celebrate the culmination of all that Jesus is, was and ever shall be. Today is what is known as Christ the King Sunday. This day serves as an important reminder of the supremacy and majesty of Christ, so that we don’t forget that the helpless infant born on Dec. 25 signifies something infinitely greater.

We don’t hear much about Christ the King Sunday, do we? In more recent times, this day has been called Reign of Christ Sunday instead of Christ the King as a way of combating male-dominated language used to describe Jesus. But another reason for that change in title has nothing to do with gender, but with government. Is it appropriate for Christians committed to democratic forms of government to refer to God as a reigning monarch? In other words, does the title “Christ the King” mean anything to us in 2016?

As I mentioned, we don’t have a lot of positive memories of kings in this country. And that ambivalence toward monarchs extends all the way back to biblical times. In the Old Testament book of 1 Samuel, the Israelites, wanted a king so they could be like all the other nations. God said, “What? Am I not good enough?” But the people persisted, so God gave them a king while warning them it wouldn’t go well, because when you give a person that much power, they’ll find 101 ways to mess things up. And for the most part, that’s exactly what happened. There were a few good apples thrown in there: even though they had their moral failings, King David and King Solomon are fondly remembered. But most of the kings were bonafide stinkers, like King Jehoram, who made sure there would be no contest to his reign by killing his six brothers.  By the time we get to Jesus, the Romans are in charge, and the idea of a true king of Israel was only a hoped-for fantasy. During this time, there was only one king, and that was the emperor.

Since that time, our world has seen all kinds of kings, but very few that have left positive legacies. Today the language of kingship is not only outdated, it’s also offensive. History shows that kings reigned with iron fists and used their power to oppress, torture, and kill their opponents. So what are we supposed to do with the fact that one of the dominant metaphors in the Bible for Jesus is king? In various places Jesus is called King Eternal, King of Israel, King of the Jews, King of Kings, King of the Ages, and Ruler of the Kings of the Earth. While those titles convey a certain majesty and power, they really don’t speak to our modern understanding of authority. They don’t meaning anything to us in the practical sense. In Jesus’ time, to say he was king was a courageous statement, because it meant that you were denouncing the emperor’s claim to being the king. But when we call Jesus “king” today, who are we denouncing? The Burger King? It just doesn’t fit.

To understand the power of Jesus as King, we have to understand what kind of king he was. At the time, when the emperor ruled as a patriarchal, domineering king, here comes Jesus, this itinerant rabbi and rabble-rouser, who is eventually mocked and beaten and given a crown of thorns and slapped with the condescending label of “King of the Jews.” No one realized the truth of that statement until a few days after the crucifixion, when the tomb was found to be empty. And from that moment forward Christians dared to go against Caesar and pledge their allegiance to a different king, one who ruled in their hearts, not in their precinct or district.

To do so was a life-threatening act of faith for early Christians. Failure to renounce their faith in Christ the King and genuflect to the earthly king led to all kinds of torture and death. It wasn’t safe to call Jesus your king. You were inviting persecution and martyrdom. But Christians continued to do it, trumpeting their counter-cultural call of Jesus as sacrificial King over all earthly kings and compassionate Lord above all earthly lords.

But what about today? If you dare to call Jesus King of Kings and Lord of Lords, about the only thing that will get you is a place in the choir during Handel’s “Messiah.” There’s no risk in calling Christ our King, and there’s very little meaning in it, as well. That’s one of the challenges of being a Christian in a democracy; there just aren’t a lot of good governmental titles we can co-opt and use for Jesus. Jesus as our president? Jesus as our mayor? I don’t find a lot of meaning in proclaiming Jesus my personal Speaker of the House. If possible, those are even more meaningless to us than Jesus our king, because calling Jesus our king means we totally submit to him, and there’s no leader on earth about which we could say the same.

So we can no longer look to government for our Jesus metaphors. But the danger of not finding a culturally-relevant metaphor for Jesus is that he then becomes for us either some shapeless spiritual ambiguity or a personal salvation attendant. Both of those might speak to our individual relationship with Christ, but not to the Christ who, as Paul says, “is far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age and the age to come.” That’s Christ the King, who speaks not only to our hearts but to our world, who has something more to offer than the powers and principalities that rule over us. If we can’t proclaim Christ as the king in our world, we won’t find much traction with Christ as the Lord of our lives, because we have to live our lives in the world. We can’t just proclaim Christ in here; we also have to do it out there.

One promising metaphor I heard recently from author Christine Chakoian is Christ as our Chief Executive Officer. At first the idea of Jesus as CEO might sound a bit business-y, but it takes on a different meaning when you realize that the word “corporation” comes from the Latin root “corpus,” as in Corpus Christi, the body of Christ.

What would it mean for Jesus to be our CEO? It means that we must constantly evaluate whether the mission of the corporation, the body, is being accomplished through us. What is that mission? I’d start with what Jesus says in Luke 4: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free,  to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor..” That’s a pretty easy one to remember. Are we fulfilling the mission? Are we following the Boss’ lead? Are we having a positive impact on the bottom line, not revenue but changed lives?

Ok, so this metaphor isn’t perfect and we can name all kinds of ways that human CEOs aren’t like Jesus, just like human kings aren’t like the King of Kings. But Chakoian says if we’re willing to run with the CEO metaphor, we might find a more culturally relevant way to talk about Jesus on this Christ the King Sunday. For example, it might humble us to be reminded that God cared so much that he left the comfort of the corner office to come down and hang around his staff. We might be encouraged that Christ knows our frustration with working alongside those who don’t carry their weight or are consistently annoying. We might be strengthened to remember Jesus the CEO rolled up his sleeves in the muck of the factory and field, the hospital and kitchen, the halls of power and the temple of worship. We might find reassurance in the fact that our Boss has compassion for those of us who, out of exhaustion or discouragement, are tempted to cut corners or even walk away from the job.

Ultimately, any metaphor we use for Christ will fall short. You can’t describe what is indescribable. But whether Christ is the King or the CEO or Good Shepherd or the Prince of Peace, it’s important that we, as followers of Christ, live out our faith in a way that honors Christ’s rule in our hearts. We can do that no matter who is president, or governor, or mayor. If our leaders are acting in a way that honors Jesus’ mission statement, we can support them. If they are acting in a way that doesn’t honor it, we can oppose them and then work in our own lives to make that statement real. So here’s my one political statement today: If you supported our president-elect, then live your life in such a way that honors God and helps other people see God’s kingdom through you. If you didn’t support our president-elect, then live your life in such a way that honors God and helps other people see God’s kingdom through you. Who’s in charge? Well, I guess that depends on how you live your life.

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This Week’s Sermon – How to Vote

SCRIPTURE – Psalm 146

Praise for God’s Help

Praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord, O my soul!
I will praise the Lord as long as I live;
    I will sing praises to my God all my life long.

Do not put your trust in princes,
    in mortals, in whom there is no help.
When their breath departs, they return to the earth;
    on that very day their plans perish.

Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
    whose hope is in the Lord their God,
who made heaven and earth,
    the sea, and all that is in them;
who keeps faith forever;
    who executes justice for the oppressed;
    who gives food to the hungry.

The Lord sets the prisoners free;
    the Lord opens the eyes of the blind.
The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;
    the Lord loves the righteous.
The Lord watches over the strangers;
    he upholds the orphan and the widow,
    but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.

10 The Lord will reign forever,
    your God, O Zion, for all generations.
Praise the Lord!

SERMON
How to Vote
Psalm 146
Nov. 6, 2016

            We cut our connection with cable about a year ago, so for that period of time I’ve not watched one single network show. In fact, the first time I tuned into a network was few weeks ago when the baseball playoffs started. And during the first commercial break, I was reminded of why I enjoyed not watching TV – I saw my first political ad of the season. Of course, the more baseball I watched, the more ads I had to sit through. It’s like putting up with the pain of a tetanus shot in order to get a lollipop, except I rather have a tetanus shot than the commercials.election-day

Blessedly, we’re almost at the end of this political season. On Tuesday, we’ll go to the polls and pull our levers or darken our circles or punch our chads and we’ll elect our leaders, including our new president – which may make some of us want to punch something else besides our ballot. For the last few weeks, we’ve been looking at some the promises our candidates have made, like the promise of security, clarity, respect, and authority, and we’ve talked about how only God can truly fulfill those promises.

Now, on this Sunday before Election Day, what should we talk about? There’s probably a good portion of you that think the last thing we should talk about is politics. As I heard one congregation member say this week when they read the sermon title, “I already know how to vote, so I guess I don’t have to come on Sunday!” A few notable examples aside, most pastors and churches make it their business NOT to be political, sticking to the things of God’s realm and leaving the politics to the experts. That assumes, of course, that politics are outside of God’s realm. But as author Phillip Gulley wrote, “The questions is not whether we should mix Christianity and politics. To follow Jesus is to be political.” Every contentious issue and disputed policy is a part of God’s realm, and our faith should inform every corner of our lives, including our politics, so we can’t get away with ignoring it.

By connecting our faith and our politics, we’re simply following the lead of Jesus, who very much engaged the political leaders of his time, standing up to the ruling powers like King Herod, Pontius Pilate, even the emperor. After Jesus’ death, his followers picked up the mantle, continuing to be a subversive presence, a thorn in the side of the powers-that-be. Imagine, a group of rag-tag people, mostly women and slaves, going up against the Roman Empire. Pretty easy to figure out which horse to bet on, right? But as author John Ortberg says, “Today we give our kids biblical names and we call our dogs Caesar and Nero.” There’s no Roman Empire in sight, but that rag-tag band of followers is still going strong, and is still called to engage their faith in the midst of the political process.

The word “politics” has taken on a decidedly negative meaning in our culture today, but the root word “polis” simply means “pertaining to a city.” Politics is the way in which humans organize themselves into a cohesive social unit. One writer said, “There is a process by which a group of people decides how to organize themselves, how to distribute power and resources, how to make decisions, how to live together harmoniously. That process is called ‘politics’.”

Wait! How to live together harmoniously? Did this writer even watch the debates? “Politics” and “harmony” have become polar opposites of each other in our modern culture. It seems as if the topic of politics has become a wedge, dividing people into different ideological camps. Politics turns neighbors into red-faced enemies. It divides towns and families and churches. It makes otherwise decent people say terrible things about others who have different opinions. It makes people demonize the candidate of the opposing party. It makes people un-friend each other on Facebook. And, I believe, politics presents a real challenge for us as we try to be Christians first in this world. After all, how do live out the commandment to love your neighbor when they have that other candidate’s sign in their yard?

So the question we face as Christians this first week of November is, “How to vote?”  Notice, the question is not “Who do we vote for?” That’s not my business to tell you the answer to that question. As Disciples of Christ, we believe everyone is able to figure out for themselves who to vote for, and we can still ride our elephants and donkeys right up to the communion table and share a meal together in Jesus’ name. No, the question before us is, “How do I vote?” What I mean is, “In what spirit should we approach this civic responsibility?”

As we should always do when faced with social, moral, or ethical conundrums, we turn to scripture, not for black-and-white answers, but for guidance. Our psalm today says, “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help. When their breath departs they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish. Happy are those whose hope is in the Lord their God.” But hope seems to be a scarce commodity these days. I hear more about people moving to Canada or taking up arms than I do about hope for the future. And yet, as followers of Christ, we are called to be a light to the darkness of this world, to shine our beacon of hope into the blackness of despair.

So how do we witness to our hope as we live out our political passion? How do our faith and our politics inform each other? When you get right down to it, it’s a question of integrity. It’s quite telling when one of the first people on the TV screen after a debate is a fact-checker who’s going to tell us which candidate told the most lies. And then our fact-checkers get fact-checked! TV ads paint candidates in the most negative of lights. We cheer when the opposition stumbles, making caricatures out of failed attempts to do good or even innocent slips of the tongue. I believe we can get so zealous in our desire for victory, we can become so passionate in support of our candidate, that we succumb to the some of the very evils we as Christians would otherwise deplore. W.C. Fields said, “I never vote for anybody, I always vote against,” and that seems to be a dominant theme of this year’s presidential campaign. There’s a big difference between being saying, “I’m for my candidate” and “I’m against that other candidate.”

If we can’t fully trust what our candidates tell us, if we aren’t quite sure of the proper criteria to use when evaluating our choices, it might be helpful to ask, “What does God have to say about all this?” Can scripture give us some illumination on how to vote? Psalm 146 says, “The Lord sets the prisoners free; the Lord opens the eyes of the blind. The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous. The Lord watches over the strangers, he upholds the orphan and the widow.” Abraham Lincoln is quoted as saying, “my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side, for God is always right.” As we employ our faith to help us make wise choices at the polls, maybe that’s a place to start, to strive to be on God’s side.

I once posed the question on Facebook about what a sermon on voting should and shouldn’t say, and got some very interesting responses, including this one: “I would hope a sermon on voting would say, “Don’t vote for the person who will most help you; vote for the person who will most help everyone’.” Now, the joy of this whole process is that we all have some widely varying opinions about which candidates can be the most help. That’s the beauty of living in a free country. But I think that’s a great place to start, because it mirrors for me what God’s kingdom looks like: a place where everyone belongs, everyone is welcomed, and no one lacks for what they need. Is that possible here on earth? Maybe. But it takes us working together, not tearing each other down or judging each other based on our political choice.

While visiting America from France, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, “America is great because America is good. And if America ever ceases to be good, it will cease being great.” That was written in the 1830s, just a few years before Donald Trump chose “Make America Great Again” as his campaign slogan. Now, we could argue whether or not America is still great, was ever great, or ever stopped being great. But I’d rather expend my energy on making America good. And that doesn’t start with Trump or Hillary Clinton. That starts with you and me.

So today, a few days before the election, let’s begin here. Some of us are blue, some of us are red. This has nothing to do with basketball; I’m not sure even God can bridge that divide. On Tuesday, one of those groups – either red or blue – is going to win and one of those groups is going to lose, and there is the potential for our country to become more divided than ever. And for me, that is far scarier than either of the candidates becoming president. Will we be red or blue?

You know what happens when you mix red and blue? You get purple. Purple is an interesting color, and very spiritual. Liturgically, purple is the color of royalty, symbolizing God’s reign. Purple is also the color for the season of Lent, a color of repentance and the acknowledgement that we are only human. And in just a few weeks, we’ll put up the purple paraments for the season of Advent, a season that is marked by the hope brought to us by the birth of Christ.

So, on Wednesday, I believe we should all commit to stop being red or blue, and instead become purple people. Not purple people eaters, but purple people. We should erase the lines that divide us and commit to working together to make America good again, or more good than it already is. Let’s not take to Facebook or take to the streets or move to Canada. Instead, let’s accept the country’s choice for its leaders and commit to doing everything in our power to change this world for the better. Let’s blend our red and blue differences into a radiant purple that reflects God’s reign, that honors each other’s humanity, that rekindles the hope the Christ child brings, and that shows our world that we serve someone far greater than the princes and princesses of this world.

On Tuesday, let’s vote for the people we believe will do the best job of leading our country. And then on Wednesday, let’s take all the passion and fervor and energy that we’ve been putting into either rooting for someone, rooting against someone, or complaining about the whole process in general, and put it to use in serving the kingdom of God. How should you vote? You should vote with the hopes of making this country and better place. And then you should go out and do your part to make that happen. Let’s be purple people.

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Promises Promises Sermon Series – #4: The Promise of Authority

SCRIPTURE – Mark 4:35-41 – 35 On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” 36 And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. 37 A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. 38 But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” 39 He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. 40 He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” 41 And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

SERMON
Promises, Promises Sermon Series
#4 – The Promise of Authority
October 30, 2016

We finish up our “Promises, Promises” sermon series today. We’ve been looking at the kinds of promises our political candidates make to us, and how the unreliability of those promises is no comparison to the dependability of the promises God makes to us. So far, we’ve look at the promise of security, the promise of clarity, and the promise of respect. Today, we deal with the promise of authority.

What is authority? Here’s how I would define it. I remember when I was a kid, my family and I were eating dinner at a restaurant in Louisville. While we were in there, a giant ripsnorter of a storm ambushed us. The thunder was shaking the lights, the rain was deafening, I thought I saw the Wicked Witched of the West go by on a bicycle. I was scared to death, and said so more than once. Finally, my stepfather looked at me and said in a calm voice that exuded strength, “I’ll make you a deal. When I get scared, you can get scared. I’m not scared yet, so don’t be afraid.” My fear subsided, and so did the storm.

According to Dictionary.com, authority is “the power or right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience.” So when we talk about authority, we usually mean some’s power or influence over something or someone else. For example, parents have authority over their children to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience. Ha! I almost made it through the whole sentence with a straight face. But on the surface, it’s true. Those in power have authority, and our candidates work hard to convey an air of authority and to promise us how they will exercise that authority in leading our country, even in a democratic government which severely limits the president’s authority.

But that doesn’t stop our candidates from making authority-based promises, does it? They lead us to believe they will give orders about who gets admitted in the country; they will make decisions about who pays for college tuition; they will enforce obedience to gun laws or tax regulations. But we all know that none of that may actually happen. And yet, the promises of authority have a powerful influence over our vote. Who looks more presidential? Who acts more presidential? Whose promises carry the most weight? When our world seems out of control, when we are anxious or fearful, we’ll put our support behind anyone who promises to make things better, who stands up at the front of the boat and says, “Do not be afraid.”

“Do not be afraid.” Now, where have I heard that before? Oh yeah, in the Bible, about a zillion times. In our story today, Jesus addresses the disciples’ fear with a different kind of authority, one that is exponentially more powerful than anything an earthly leader has to offer. Clinton and Trump have promised to use their authority to solve our problems for us; Jesus promises to use his authority to show us the power we have over our problems.

Jesus and his disciples were crossing over the Sea of Galilee. Jesus was worn out from doing ministry all day, so he fell asleep. I get that. In the meantime, a nasty storm rolls in, threatening to capsize the boat. The disciples, who were experienced fishermen, start rowing and bailing, and then call out to Jesus for some help.

I’m curious to know what the disciples expected Jesus to actually do when he woke up. Maybe they hoped he would pray for them, because they knew he had some sort of hotline to God. Maybe they thought he would grab a bucket and help them bail. Or maybe they just wanted to know they weren’t alone in the midst of their storm. I’m pretty certain they didn’t expect him to do what he did, or else they wouldn’t have responded with such astonishment.

So Jesus woke up, assessed the situation, and said three words: “Peace! Be Still!” We’re told that immediately the wind ceased and there was a dead calm. I like how the biblical translation The Message says it: “Then the wind ran out of breath.” There are a lot of people in this campaign that I wish would run out of breath. Jesus, where are you when we really need you? With three words, Jesus calms the storm that threatens the disciples’ lives.

How do you hear Jesus when he says these words? I don’t know about you, but so often when I picture Jesus I see the soft, gentle, flowing-haired hippie, holding a little lamb or bouncing a child on his knee. I see him gently touching a leper or speaking softly to a beggar. It’s like he’s a walking lava lamp. “Hey, I’m Jesus. Peace be with you.” I like this Jesus, I can relate to this Jesus, but, honestly, this Jesus doesn’t carry much authority in my book.

But in this story, I don’t think Jesus was whispering sweet nothings. When my daughter Molly was little, my family and I were out to dinner and she was playing in the children’s area with some other kids. At one point she came running over to us crying. We tried to find out what was going on and she told us in between the sobs that a little boy wasn’t playing very nicely with her. “What happened?” we asked. “Well, I had this ball, and he came over and he said he wanted it, and then he…STOLE…MY…BALL!” The way she said those words made all of us lean back in our chairs. It’s as if she were suddenly possessed by the Demon of Wronged Toddlers. Her nostrils flared, her eyes got fiery red, her head spin completely around. I started throwing holy water on her to cool her off. The voice with which she spoke was not her own.

That’s how I hear Jesus in this story. When he spoke these words to the storm, he did so in a voice the disciples had never heard before. He literally commands the wind and the waves to be still, and they do. Up until this point in Mark’s gospel, the disciples have seen Jesus heal people, they’ve heard him teach on a variety of topics and tell his parables, but they haven’t seen anything like this. This is the first of Jesus’ nature-related miracles, and it is a game-changer. Other rabbis could preach great sermons or teach important lessons. There were even some folks who could do miraculous healings. But speaking with the authority of God? Remember, God spoke at creation and brought order to the chaos of the waters. And now Jesus speaks and brings order to the chaos of storm. This ain’t your ordinary kid-loving, flowing-haired rabbi. He speaks and storms stop. That’s a whole new game.

That’s an interesting contrast to the kind of speaking we’ve become accustomed to during this political season. Starting way back in the primaries, the candidates were jockeying for position and attention, and the only way to do that was to speak LOUDLY and over top of someone else who was speaking. Never mind if they actually had anything to say. “It is a tale of an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” said Shakespeare, presumably after watching one of the debates. Just because you raise your voice and talk over another person and speak with authority doesn’t give you authority. What gives you authority is the response to your words, the trust instilled in you by those who hear you.

When we put our trust in someone who is trustworthy, our storms lose their power over us. I remember when I was little sitting on my PawPaw’s lap as he attempted to extract a dangling loose tooth from my mouth. I was scared because I was sure it would hurt, so I refused to open my mouth. He moved his fingers close and said, “What are you afraid of?” and I said, “If you pull my tooth it will hurt!” He said, “I promise it won’t hurt.” I said, “You promise?” He  said, “Yes, I promise.” I said, “All right, go ahead.” And he held up the tooth and said, “I already pulled it a few seconds ago when you opened your mouth the first time.” My fear of the pain was so much greater than the pain itself, because I was in good hands.

Jesus promises us that we are in his good, strong hands, and that he is worthy of our trust. This Jesus isn’t cute and cuddly. I don’t know that I could ever snuggle up to this Jesus. But I do know that when I am overcome by a storm that threatens to sink my ship, when it feels like God is asleep and I want to cry out, “Don’t you care that I’m perishing?” I can call on THIS Jesus, the One who speaks with the voice of God, who has the authority to calm the fear and panic inside me that my storms cause.

We have to be careful here for two reasons. First, it would be tempting to extrapolate this story to modern conditions. If Jesus stilled that storm, why doesn’t Jesus bring order to hurricanes and tornadoes and floods? That’s not Mark’s point here, as much as we might like it to be. Mark’s point is that Jesus is with us in the midst of our storms, the literal ones and the metaphorical ones, working to bring order out of the chaos of our crises, speaking to us words of comfort and calm when our boats are rocking. Jesus doesn’t promise to speak peace to all our storms, but Jesus promises to speak peace to us in the midst of our storms.

The second reason to be careful is that this story is like a stick of dynamite. With all our modern sensibilities and intelligence, we are often tempted to spiritualize Jesus’ power, to turn stories like this into metaphors. “He didn’t really still the storm, he just calmed the disciples.” “He didn’t really feed five thousand people.” “He didn’t realize rise from the dead.” Yes, yes he did, and if we forget that, then we lose the power of his authority in our own lives. Annie Dillard asks, “Do we have the foggiest idea of what sort of power we blithely invoke?” When we call on the name of Jesus, we are calling on God. This God can’t be manipulated or bought. This God doesn’t bow to special interest groups or lobbyists. If we truly believe God is the authority of our lives, then our decisions and actions should reflect that. Jesus says, “When I get scared, you can get scared.” But we still live like we’re scared: scared of the future, scared of those not like us, scared of the things that threaten our comfortable existence. Do we forget on whose name we call when we pray? Do we know whose power we’re invoking?

We’ve always had storms. We’ll always have storms. No matter who’s elected, there will be chaos in need of order. Neither candidate will be able to provide that, especially if they have a congress led by a different party. Their power will be constantly challenged, their authority constantly usurped. That’s the nature of a democracy. By design, there will be disagreement and lack of order, decisions to complain about, and disobedience.

So let’s promise to put our authority in the One who promises to be with us through our storms. Let’s steer our rudder toward our God, who is fierce and fiercely loving of us. Let us follow the one who says, “I’ll make you a deal. When I get scared, then you can get scared.” If we give God the authority in our lives, if we put our trust in Jesus, we may find our storms aren’t as big as we thought they were. Do not be afraid.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Promises, Promises Sermon Series – #2: The Promise of Clarity

This is the second sermon in a series on the promises that are made to us during this political season. This Sunday, we talked about the promise of clarity, which is meant to calm our fear of the future.

SCRIPTURE – Matthew 6:25:34 – 25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?27 And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? 28 And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31 Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ 32 For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

SERMON
Promises, Promises Sermon Series
#2 – The Promise of Clarity
October 16, 2016
Rev. Kory Wilcoxson

We continue our sermon series today on the power of promises, something that carries a lot of weight during this political season. This sermon series actually came from a leadership book I read on sabbatical called The One Thing You Need to Know by Marcus Buckingham. Now, don’t be put off by the fact that it takes Buckingham 289 pages to tell you the one thing you need to know. He’s actually a pretty brilliant guy. In one chapter, he writes about the search for universals in human nature. Are there things we as human beings share across cultural boundaries? Anthropologist David Brown spent time analyzing the research on every society ever studied. And I thought my college research projects were time-consuming! From this work, he compiled a list of 273 human universals that transcend boundaries.

For example, tickling, joking, and baby-talk are universal. People from every society overestimate their objectivity. We all show a preference for sweets. Every society has a word for “pain” and for “string.” All societies share a fear of snakes among some of their people. And every society includes some form of toilet training in the education of their children. I would bet it’s a universal that some children learn it better than others.

In some ways, Brown’s list is depressing. Every society has weapons, rape, and murder. But every society also has trade, toys, and the concept of taking turns. This list proves that we, as human beings, share things in common, regardless of our cultural context and societal influences. There were several fears that Brown identified as transcending cultures, to which he attached corresponding needs. That’s where the subject of this sermon series came from. Last week we look at the need for security and the promises made to us to address that need. This week, we’re talking about our fear of the future and our need for clarity about what’s going to happen.

If any of the candidates could adequately address this fear, they’d win in a landslide. We know that no one can know the future, but that doesn’t stop politicians from assuring us that they not only know what’s going to happen, they promise that they’ll make it happen. When he was elected in 1904, Teddy Roosevelt promised to never run for the presidency again. He ran again in 1908. Herbert Hoover promised a chicken in every pot. Harry Truman promised healthcare for everyone. Lyndon Johnson promised not to send troops to Vietnam. George Bush asked you to read his lips when he promised no new taxes. Bill Clinton promised the era of big government was over. And a shout-out to my fellow Hoosier and vice president, Dan Quayle, who promised the future would get better tomorrow.

Our political leaders can make all kinds of promises about what they’re going to do and how it’s going to make your life better. Or, in the case of this election, they can promise how the other candidate is going to make your life worse. What they’re promising is clarity about the future, a universal need for all of us. But let’s all take a lesson about knowing the future from the newspaper ad that stated, “The Clairvoyance Society of Greater London will not meet today due to unforeseen circumstances.” If they can’t know the future, who can?

Why is this clarity a need for us? Because in the absence of knowing for sure what’s going to happen, we’ll worry about what’s going to happen. And aren’t the candidates tapping into that fear? If you elect this person, your personal freedoms will be threatened. If you elect that person, our country’s safety will be at risk. Politicians know how to tap into this fear of the future, how to stoke our anxiety about what the other candidate might do and how to calm our worries with their own promises about the future that they know may never be kept.

I think this propensity to worry is universal across cultures because it’s built into our DNA. Pastor John Ortberg talked about a New York Times Magazine article that said worrying could actually be genetic. Geneticists have identified a certain gene that has both a short and a long version. People with the short version are more prone to fear and anxiety. People with the long version seem to not worry as much. Now, are you worrying that you have the shorter version?

In our passage today, Jesus provides us with reasons not to worry. Look at the flowers in the field, the birds in the air. Doesn’t God care for them? But I’ve accidentally weed-whacked enough flowers and hit enough birds with my car to know that not all of them live to their fullest potential. So how can we, people facing a momentous choice and an uncertain future, take Jesus seriously when he says, “Do not worry”?

For me, this need for clarity comes back to one of my biggest spiritual blind spots, which is the issue of control. As I’ve told you before, I’m a control connoisseur because “freak” just sounds so negative. As human beings with free will, there’s a lot in our lives we can control. We control which bills get paid, what food goes into our bodies, and how we react to certain situations. We control the temperature of our house, unless we have a spouse; which channel the TV is on, unless we have kids; and the position of our seat in the car, unless we have kids that drive. Especially for us, who are abundantly blessed, there are a lot of things we control.

But there are a lot more things over which we don’t have control. We don’t have control over the aging of our bodies, not matter how much we exercise and take pills and replace joints. We don’t have control over the economy or the price of gasoline. And we don’t have control over what other people think and do. When we don’t have control, we worry. And there’s nothing we have less control over than the future. If a candidate can convince us that he or she can control the future, can provide that clarity, we put our faith in them…and then complain when they don’t deliver on their promises.

Maybe our faith in clarifying the future is misplaced. Maybe instead of trusting in our leaders, we should trust in the One who holds the future – and the past and the present – in very loving, gracious hands. Jesus reminds us that if God cares for a bird, if God cares for a flower that’s here today and gone tomorrow, how much more will God care for us? We are more than what we eat or what we wear or where we live or how we vote. We live by God’s grace, regardless of what the future holds.

Still, “do not worry” seems a bit too Pollyanna-ish at times. If we live by God’s grace, why are people still living out of cardboard boxes? Why do we need oncologists and rehab facilities and overflowing medicine cabinets? We think God has failed us because our world still gives us plenty of reasons to worry, so we put our faith in real people who promise us that they have things under control.

But God never promised to take away our fears. God promised to help us overcome them. The truth is there will always be something to worry about, if we so choose. When we were baptized or made our confession of faith, we were not promised an easy life. What we are promised is the endless, unremitting, unconditional, loving care of God over every aspect of our lives. And that, Jesus says, is why we shouldn’t worry. Our attitude should be defined, not by what we see, but how we see it and respond to it. A crisis can be an obstacle or an opportunity. A difficulty can be a roadblock or a lesson. We choose how to respond to life, how we move into the future. We can worry, or we can trust, regardless of what happens on Nov. 8.

Jesus gives us the blueprint for how to do this. “Seek first God’s kingdom and righteousness, and all these things will be given to you, as well.” Worry about the future starts to consume us when we take our focus off the priority of loving and serving God. If we truly believe that God is God, then we trust that no matter what happens, whether it’s good or bad, whether it’s what we wanted or not what we wanted. God is with us, loving us, working to bring about good in the situation.

We’ve all had times in our lives when we’ve thought, “I’ll never get through this. Things will never be the same. My life has changed forever.” We lose someone we love, and life changes. We get a diagnosis, and life changes. We get downsized from our job, and life changes. The candidate we don’t vote for gets elected, and life changes. If you’ve gone through those things or something like it, you know that feeling of despair, hopelessness, worry. What does the future hold now?

Have you felt that way before? You know what it’s like to be in the valley, don’t you? I’ve been there with some of you. It’s scary down there. You feel at times like you won’t make it out. You worry about the future, which is so unclear. But guess what? You’re still here. You made it this far, didn’t you? You may not be the same person you were, but you are here. We’ve been empowered to bear the unbearable and do the undoable and pass the breaking point, but not break. Through our weakness, God is made strong. That’s God’s grace at work.

Where are you on the worry-meter today? Maybe you’re a “1,” cool as a cucumber, abiding like the Dude, living all “Hakuna Matata” and “Don’t Worry Be Happy.” Or maybe you’re a “10,” feeling like looking like Albert Einstein with his finger in a electrical outlet, worrying about everything there is to worry about, and then worrying that you are worrying too much. No matter where you are on that scale, I wonder this: Where is God in your worry? Have you shared what worries you with God? Have you listened for God’s promises?

You may not have the wisdom for tomorrow’s problems. But you will tomorrow. You may not have the resources for tomorrow’s needs. But you will tomorrow. You may not have clarity about what’s going to happen tomorrow. But you will tomorrow. In the meantime, instead of worrying, seek first God’s kingdom in your life. In other words, if you find yourself worrying about what the future holds for you, do something to make the future better for someone else. There’s so much we don’t control about what’s going to happen in our world, but we can make a difference for that one person whose future is much more uncertain than ours. Someone is going to get elected, and a good portion of us will be ticked off about it. Promises will be broken, the future will change, and we won’t have any control over it. And life will go on. We can worry about what the future holds after Nov. 8, or we can take control over the things that matter, like how much we live out our faith or how generous we can be or how much of a difference we can make it someone’s life. Seek first the kingdom of God and you may just find you don’t have as much to worry about.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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