Sunday, December 28, 2014

Dreaming God Is with Us

A sermon for the Sunday after Christmas at Presbury United Methodist Church.

Today we are getting a little ahead of ourselves. Next week, we'll read the first part of this chapter for Epiphany, in which we celebrate the visit of the magi. But I didn't want us to forget the second part of the story, so we're reading it today. It is a very dark part of the Christmas story, a part we don't often care to remember, but also one that has deep resonances in our own violent time. Hear now these words:

Scripture: Matthew 2:13-23 (NRSV)
Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”

Sermon: Dreaming God is With Us1
Let us pray:
Patient teacher, we give you thanks for all the ways you speak to us and try to get our attention--- from the beauty of nature to the nagging of loved ones, from the words of scripture to even dreams. Speak to us again this morning through the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts. Help us pay attention to you again this day and every day. Amen.

I have not been able to get Joseph out of my head this week. This is strange for me--- when I think of the Christmas story I want to talk about how awesome Mary is. I don't really think much about Joseph. But from now into the spring, we will be focusing on the Gospel of Matthew, and Matthew focuses more on Joseph in the Christmas story than he does on Mary. Now, no offense to the dads here in our congregation today, but you don't really do much when it comes to giving birth, which is perhaps why the Gospel of Luke doesn't mention Joseph much. But in Matthew's gospel, Joseph is active in one small but very interesting way. Joseph dreams.

Dreaming is a common activity in scripture, and when we think of dreaming in the bible, we are more likely to turn to another Joseph, the Joseph of the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. That Joseph got in trouble for his dreams at first. He dreamed of his older brothers bowing down to him, and then, instead of keeping such dreams to himself he went about telling people. His brothers are livid. I have described them in the past as classic bullies. They are obviously hurting, but instead of trying to break out of the cycle of hurt, they choose to hurt someone else instead. Joseph. They throw him into a pit, speak of killing him, but then decide to sell him into slavery. Afterward, they soak Joseph's fancy coat in blood and go to their father, allowing him to believe his beloved son was dead. This is a horrible, heart-wrenching story. And poor Joseph, as though his life wasn't bad enough, he tries to live as ethically as he can as a slave and still finds himself wrongly imprisoned! That's when his dreaming comes back into the story. When in prison, God gives him gifts to interpret dreams, and he eventually makes it all the way up to Pharaoh because of this gift, even becoming rising from the status of a slave and a prisoner to second-in-command over Egypt.

But here's the thing about Joseph—- he does not lose sight of God. When Pharaoh asks him to interpret his dream, Joseph replies that the interpretation is not his own but God's; however, the text itself never says, “And God spoke through Joseph” or “And God gave Joseph the gift of dream interpretation” or anything like that. Rather Joseph, despite all he goes through, is able to interpret drams and dream himself because he does not shut himself away from God. He pays attention to the situation around him and listens for God.

Which is what I think Joseph in the Christmas story does as well. You see, why else would Joseph have paid any attention to dreams if he was not naturally opening himself up to God? But he not only heeded God in one dream, but in two: first as a young man preparing to quietly divorce Mary, he changed his path and took Mary as his wife because of a dream; then, God told him to move far away to Egypt in a dream, and he did as he was asked. He listened, not to the clamor and chaos of the world around him, but through it, to find that God was with him, as his ancestor of the same name did before him.

Now, when we read this scripture from Matthew this morning, I'm sure that your first thought was not, “Wow, what a great listener Joseph was to pay attention to the warnings in his dreams.” Your first thought was probably, “Wait a minute, I thought this Christmas story was supposed to be warm and fuzzy--- I didn't remember that part about the babies dying!” This verse is discordant with the picture of the happy family in the stable receiving extravagant gifts from the wise me: When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. I don't want to gloss over the horror in this story by talking about dreaming. Just a few weeks ago, my friend in San Francisco preached on this scripture and spoke about Ferguson and the violence in the hands of the powerful in our own nation. She said, “There are too many weeping Rachels, not only across America, but in this very room. And not only in America, but in Gaza, in Nigeria, in Ukraine.” And she said, there are too many Herods as well: “Herod killed the babies of Bethlehem because he was afraid, afraid of Jesus’ power. So he killed innocent ones to keep himself feeling safe. When we refuse to hear the truth of the lived experiences of others, we become Herods, exercising power [and control] over others as a way to keep ourselves safe.”2 And of course then it becomes a vicious cycle in which police officers are killed, breeding more fear, which breeds even more violence...Herod's world and our world are hurting, broken places in need of a new dream.

That's why we are talking about dreams this morning--- not to avoid the horror of the story but to remind us that in our own stories of horror we need to pay attention. We need to listen. For God is already with us, speaking to us and guiding our steps if only we would open our hearts to realize it!

To return to the dreams of technicolor dreamcoat Joseph, his openness to God's work in his life is what made him able to ultimately forgive his brothers, rather than continuing the cycle of violence and retribution. Joseph's story is a story of hope that we may become the people God calls us to be, a people who make God's dreams for a redeemed and renewed world come to life. Theologically, dreaming is about vision: a vision of that redeemed, restored world.3 That is God's dream. But God's dream gets so mixed up in our own hopes and fears that we lose sight of it and are lost to violence and power struggles. And we are not able to get out of the struggle because we won't look to God, who is beside us all the time coaxing us to do good.

But both Josephs did. Dreamcoat Joseph forgave his brothers for their betrayal and violence. Joseph, Jesus' earthly father, took Mary as his wife despite his own fears and uncertainties, and despite the societal expectations. Joseph, despite his own confusion and sense of powerlessness, took flight in the middle of the night and went to Egypt, far from anywhere he knew. He had seen that vision of a redeemed and restored world, and he trusted God to guide him to it.

Of course, I don't want you to go home and take a nap so you can figure out what God is saying to you. You have to cultivate a listening heart within yourself--- you can't just expect every dream you have to be direct from God. For instance, recently, I had a weird dream about how I really wanted to eat potato chips but I kept checking the ingredients on the bags and every single one had lard in it. I don't think God gave me that dream, as though trying to tell me that lard is important to my salvation or something. But if we can cultivate listening hearts within ourselves, then even in the small things we may hear echoes of God.

My prayer is that in this new year we may make a resolution not just to lose weight or eat more vegetables or stop cursing, but a resolution to listen more for God. Let us pay attention to God's dreams, whether we see that dream reflected in our own dreams, or in the words of great prophets and leaders, or in the kindness of a stranger. Bishop Desmond Tutu in his children's book called God's Dream that I have read to the kids during worship before says this about God's Dream: “God dreams about people sharing. God dreams about people caring. God dreams that we reach out and hold one another's hands and play one another's games and laugh with one another's hearts.”4 Maybe we resolve this new year to reach out and hold one another's hands. What do you think God dreams about? What does God dream for us in this new year--- for us and our families, for our church, for our world?

Remember: God is with us--- that is what Christmas is all about. So let us open our hearts to God. 
1I knew I wanted to talk about dreams this Sunday, but this sermon didn't really take shape until after reading this blog post: Adam Phillips, “Dreaming of God With Us,” Advent Reflections, Sojourners, 22 December 2014,
2Karen Oliveto shared her sermon with me over a direct message on twitter. Fangirl moment! These are quoted from that sermon. Karen Oliveto, “To Comfort Rachel,” 25 November 2014. Also found here:
3Rolf Jacobson writes, “In terms of theological content, 'those who dream' are prophets--those who receive visions from God (see Joel 2:28-29). The meaning, then, is that the divinely wrought restoration includes the re-opening of the lines of communication between God and people. In terms of the emotional content, 'those who receive visions' often experience and express ecstatic joy--like David dancing beside ark as it was brought into Jerusalem. The picture, then, is of spontaneous and uncontainable joy: 'our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy.'” Commentary on Psalm 126, Working Preacher, 14 December 2008,
4Desmond Tutu, God's Dream (2010)

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Hopes and Dreams

Again, so many drafts in the queue, but it seems sermons are the only things to get finished. Here is the sermon I preached on Christmas Eve at Presbury United Methodist Church. The focus is on Matthew as we will be looking at the Gospel of Matthew through the spring. And it is not a part of the story I think about often.

Let us pray:
Patient teacher, on this holy night, we ask that you are not silent,
but that you dream with us again as you did with Joseph. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts bring the Christmas story to life for us, so we might better live your dream this day and always. Amen.

I've been thinking a lot about Joseph lately. About how he must have felt heavy as he went to bed that night, not Christmas night, but that night months earlier. His mind must have felt like honey, sticky and slow. And his heart must have gotten harder and harder in his chest. He had to make a decision. He could no longer ignore the talk of the town around him, or ignore Mary's growing belly. His parents, of whom we know absolutely nothing about, but who we still can imagine were upset. His betrothed, which in his culture meant the same as wife does today even though they were not yet living together, was pregnant. And the baby was not his. He must have felt so alone, cut off from his community, so far from God. This was not the way his life was supposed to turn out. He had a plan. A loose plan, certainly--- but still a general idea of what his life was supposed to be like. And a wife pregnant with a baby not his own was nowhere close to the plan he had in mind.

You may have been in a similar situation in your life. Maybe not because of an unplanned pregnancy, but because of similar news that changed everything so completely it could never be undone. Maybe you were on track for a promotion in your dream job, and then the company went under. Maybe you were married for one year or forty years and one day told that it just wasn't working anymore. Maybe your child's wide-open future suddenly closed when they got into trouble. Maybe your retirement plans to travel came crashing around you with the cancer diagnosis. You know the sick feeling that comes with complete lack of control; you know those moments, days, years even, of shock that cloud your mind as you try to make sense of how a few moments can change the plan you had for your life. You know how Joseph felt.

Yet when we read this story, we applaud Joseph, pat him on the back for being such a swell guy; though, if we put ourselves in his shoes, we may have found it difficult to practice this compassionate righteousness. We don’t like to think about Joseph feeling betrayed or alone. We don't like to think he felt the same way we do when we lose control or when our carefully laid plans are completely destroyed. We too often choose to believe that God chose Mary and Joseph because they were perfect, good people. To us, they have these halos around their heads all the time, and they never raise their voices in anger or think mean thoughts. But read the story again. The Gospel of Matthew introduces Joseph's dream of the angel saying, But just when he had resolved to do this. Resolved. To me that symbolizes agony, difficulty. The description shows me a picture of a young man alone in him homes with that sinking feeling in the pit of him stomach as he tries to figure out what happens next.

Joseph in our story does not have to be a stoic, flat character, obedient to God to the point of having no personality. When we label Joseph in that way, it lets us off the hook. When we deny Joseph or Mary or even baby Jesus emotion, we take ourselves out of the great drama of the people of faith. Like so many of our ancestors in faith, Joseph was broken and hurting when God revealed the good news to him. Joseph was like us when God revealed the good news to him. Don't you think God can be revealing the good news to us today too?

God spoke to Joseph in a dream. Into that vulnerable space in which coincidentally we have no control, God entered and spoke good news.God is with us, the messenger declared. Even, or maybe especially, when our lives are crumbling around us, God is with us, the messenger insists. Emmanuel. And God will lure the good from the place where we only see ruins. God will save us--- that is what the name Jesus means!

God did not chose to put on flesh and dwell among us by way of young people who had their stuff together. God put on flesh and was rocked to sleep by people who were scared, hurting, confused, and so out-of-control. And God is dwelling among those same people--- us--- today. God is offering those same people--- us--- salvation in God's presence.

Of course, I believe this to be true, but I don't think that Joseph woke up from his dream feeling much better than he did before he fell asleep. I think he was still scared and still feeling a little sick. But, after he dreamed, he was infused with a hope. A hope that his fear was not the last word. A hope that God's calling on his life was a better dream than Joseph could ever plan for himself. His decision to do as the angel commanded was him reaching not for control but for hope.

Our world is in desperate need of a little hope today. Our drive for power and control has gotten us into a mess not just individually but as a society. We are locked into cycles of retribution and anger. We are trapped by fear and loss. But God has dreamed a different world for us. This Christmas, let us place ourselves in Mary and Joseph's story, remembering that God came not to the perfect but to the broken. Let us step out of the trap and turn to one another with compassion, trusting that God is in our midst. Let us live as though we really believe God is with us and that God will save and in fact is already saving us.

We will do that together tonight as we take communion, further living into God's salvation story and tasting the hope God offers us. Then we will light candles, experiencing God's presence within each of us, small and flickering all alone, but beautiful and powerful together. Let us experience not just the brokenness Joseph felt but also the hope.

L: When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel commanded. God is waking us up, now, today. How many of us are still asleep, trapped in nightmares that obscure the dream God has for us? Or how many of us are still asleep, too comfortable in our own dreams to pay attention to the life God calls us to? We have forgotten God's commandments, wrapped up in the sleep. Let us respond as Joseph did, turning our hearts to God:
P: Light of the World, shine into the shadowed places of our souls tonight. Where we are confused or violent, bring us peace. Where we are fearful or worried, grant us strength. Where we are grieving and lost, comfort us. Where we are hateful or apathetic, shake us up. Wake us with your transforming love.
L: Do not be afraid. God came to dwell among us to show us how beloved we are.
P: We are awoken and set free from the bondage of sin and evil by that great love. For nothing is impossible with God!

You are invited to turn to those sitting near you and offer signs of peace.

L: Emmanuel means God-With-Us.
P: God is with us indeed.
L: Open your hearts to this Emmanuel
P: and be not sent away empty, but rather filled with good things.
L: For in the beginning of creation, God shared a dream with us, a dream of goodness and abundance. God breathed into us, inspiring us. But we took God's dream and turned it into a nightmare in which brother killed brother, kings became tyrants, and violence seemed more natural than breathing.
     Yet God adapted the dream, teaching brothers to forgive and women to resist evil, painting rainbows and opening the sea. God crafted laws as a way to bring the dream to life, and sent prophets to point us back toward love and justice. And then God offered us inspiration by taking on flesh and dwelling among us.
P: Glory to our God who is full of grace and truth!
L: Mary believed in the fulfillment of the dream God shared with her, as Joseph did. Mary proclaimed that dream when she spoke of bringing the powerful from their thrones and lifting up the lowly. This is what God did in Jesus: he lifted up the sick by healing them, the marginalized by loving them, and dreamed again goodness and abundance for all of creation.
      Even when we abandoned this dream too, Emmanuel would not leave us. Before he was taken away by those who create nightmares, he gathered us around a table. He broke bread with us and blessed it, saying:
P: This is my body, given for you. In its brokenness, may you be restored to wholeness.
L: When we had eaten, Jesus took the cup, again gave thanks, and said:
P: This is my lifeblood, poured out to bring healing to our world.
L: When we eat and drink and receive Jesus, we dream with God, proclaiming a mystery together:
P: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.
L: Let us pray:
Pour out your Holy Spirit on us gathered here, and on these gifts of bread and wine. Share your dream with us again as we come together on this sacred night. From your fullness may each of us here receive grace upon grace. May we in receiving through bread and cup, wake up and go forth from this place living this dream with our brothers and sisters. May we be light that shines in the darkness that the darkness cannot overcome.
P: Amen.

The bread of life.
The cup that saves us, and sets us free.


The table is set and all are invited. In the United Methodist Church, we practice an open table. This means you don't have to be a member, you don't have to be baptized, you don't have to take classes, you don't even have to be in a good mood. You are invited to come and know that no matter who you are and where you are on your journey, you are a beloved child of God and God's grace is sufficient.

We will be taking communion by intinction, meaning I will give you a piece of bread and you can dip it in the cup. There will be a gluten free option available, so let the servers know if you would like that option. Now, let us come to the table to eat and seek that grace upon grace that God offers us.

Let us pray:
Light of the World, we give you thanks for this mystery, for how your Word became and becomes flesh to live among us. We give you thanks for the grace upon grace we have received from you. Now we ask that as we light candles and sing, your grace will grow within us, overflowing to touch those around us. For each of us here will hold a flickering candle; seemingly insignificant one by one, yet magnificent when held together. Let your light pour out of this place, that all may know how your light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it. Amen.

1Communion Liturgy based on Matthew by Shannon Sullivan, 2014.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Where is Our Comfort?

A sermon for Advent at Presbury United Methodist Church.

A Reading from the Prophets: Isaiah 40:1-11 (NRSV)
Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.

A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.

Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!” See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.

Let us pray:
Patient teacher, the noise of the world so often drowns out the truth of your word.
In this Advent season, we are supposed to be preparing our hearts for you,
yet we find ourselves running ragged to prepare for the less important parts of the holiday season--- getting the house decorated, buying those gifts on the list, sending out Christmas cards, cooking...Still our hearts this morning.
Let your word of life break through the noise of the world in the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts. Amen.

Words of comfort are not ones we expect to hear in either the world today or in Advent. Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God, we read in Isaiah. It may be a message we need to hear, certainly. But it is not always one we believe, particularly when uttered in contexts of court, even a heavenly one.1 Where is this comfort you promised, God? How can those of us who can't breathe in a still-racist country, reeling from two non-indictments in just ten days find comfort? Comfort, O comfort my people, God speaks tenderly from heaven while people chant angrily in the streets. And comfort is not only unbelievable in the nation's racial climate right now, but it is unbelievable on many different levels. Where is the comfort for those of us with family in places like Sierra Leone and Liberia, afraid to pick up the phone because it may be bad news? Where is the comfort for those of us facing holidays for the first time or even the twentieth time without loved ones? Where is the comfort for those of us who see the post-holiday lay-offs looming but have not yet found another job?

The Israelites hearing these words may have heard them as we do, recognizing the hope but unable to believe it. They were living in a time of exile, where many of the elite had been carted off to Babylon, leaving the people in ruin. Now, you should note that the book of the prophet Isaiah is a composite book, written by different people in different times.2 It is not all about Isaiah, who receives the hot coal on his lips and says, Here I am, Lord, send me. And the first 39 chapters of this book, attributed to that prophet Isaiah, are not necessarily comforting. They speak to a world like ours, heavily laden with injustice and oppression not at the hands of foreign powers like Assyria or ISIS but at the Israelite's and our own hands. First Isaiah, as the first through thirty-ninth chapters are often referred to by scholars, speaks a poetic and powerful word of judgment, and indictment from God that it appears will not be echoed by human courts.3

When Israel's crooked kings are overthrown, it seems too late for Israel. The people are torn apart, untold numbers perishing in violence and war-and-occupation-induced poverty; the elite are scattered, exiled. Second Isaiah, written by an anonymous prophet in the late sixth century BCE, emerges from the desolation and fear in a kind of “healing, life-giving song”4 beginning with these verses from Isaiah 40 that we read together this morning. Comfort, God insists, not because the either the Israelites (or we) have finally understood how to learn to do good, as they are instructed in the first chapter of Isaiah (Isaiah 1:17), and ought now be rewarded. Comfort, God insists, because God has heard our cries and felt our suffering. Comfort because ours is a God of grace.

Grace is a word we United Methodist should love, but it is one we don't always understand. Sin is easier to talk about, even when we don't understand that either. This is especially true when we speak of the Second Coming of Christ, for which we are supposed to be preparing our hearts during this Advent season. When we think of the Second Coming, we think of violence and strife, of desolation and doom. We think of a world so seeped in sin that most cannot escape from it and God chooses to destroy it rather that redeem it. We think of despair. There is no comfort in this vision, no transforming of the earth itself5 to bring the wandering and exiled home as gently and gloriously as only God can.

Yet John the Baptist, the one who proclaimed Christ's coming in each of the four Gospels--- his words come from not the words of the rupture between humans and God that we find in First Isaiah, but from this chapter of comfort, from God's insistence on grace in spite of everything.6 Now, John the Baptist is not one we usually think of when we think of comfort. The man wore camel hair and ate locusts, for goodness' sake! Whenever I think of John the Baptist, I think of an internet meme (that I mention every Advent) that goes around seminarians and bible nerds that depicts a hairy caveman-type guy with the caption: Merry Christmas you brood of vipers! Now Repent! Does not sound much like John the Baptist is speaking tenderly to us. His are the words we expect to hear in a world as messed up as ours. He names our sin and the sin of the world and calls us to face it head on. And we need to do so. We need to repent. But we also need to hear words of comfort and grace.

So again I come to that question: where is that comfort? For the ancient Israelites, living under occupation and exile even though times were changing, where was that comfort? For us, living with the weight of the sinful nature of the system of so-called justice in this country as well as just all the personal struggles we have, where is the comfort?

Our comfort comes in believing that unbelievable promise God has made and keeps making to us: that no matter how mired in sin we get ourselves both individually and collectively, God loves us so much that God will save us. God will change the world, and invites us to work alongside God, to make way for God's redemption. Preparing the way of the Lord is about repentance, yes, but it is also about letting God's promise of grace soften our hearts.

For me, I start to believe the promise when I see stories not only about people speaking out against the violence in our nation, calling us all to repentance, but also in stories about grace. Some of the pictures I have seen since Ferguson have been of children holding “free hugs” signs at protests of police brutality. It is a powerful witness, even pointed because it slashes through stereotypes of black criminality by showing child-like innocence. And in one of the most viral pictures, one of those children is hugging a police officer. Devonte Hart held up a “free hugs” sign at a police barricade and was crying, so finally one of the police officers went over to him and had a conversation about what Devonte was crying about. The cameras didn't catch the conversation and the apology for the fear Devonte lived in that the police officer gave, but one caught the hug when the police officer took Devonte up on his sign's offer. That was a moment of grace, a police officer comforting a young boy, and a young boy courageously reaching out in love when in our world it seems so much easier to hate. The police officer still wore riot gear, and in interviews since does not seem to speak too deeply about the systemic racism in this country, but that conversation he and Devonte had was a way of preparing the way of the Lord too.7

The comfort may be brief, but it gives us a grace-full glimpse into the redeemed world God has in mind for us. Jesus' ministry was heralded with words that follow the cry for comfort from Isaiah 40: A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” Preparing the way of the Lord involves repentance as John the Baptist preaches, but it also involves nurturing the comforting presence of God, touching all with grace.

Later in these verses we read this morning, we see God admit that the pervasive nature of grace does not mean that sin is no more. Hear these words from Isaiah: A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field...The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever. We are grass. We wither and fade. The injustices we have created and that we endure now will one day wither and fade. But God's word of love will stand forever.

God's word of love will stand in spite of the continued violence of racism we live under in this country. And God's word of love will stand in spite of our addictions to that which kills us. God's word of love will stand in spite of grief and bad parenting and hurtful conversations and our general anxieties. As unbelievable as it is, this is the good news we proclaim as Christians this Advent season. Let us get up to a high mountain, as we read in Isaiah, and herald these good tidings of great joy; let us lift up our voices with strength--- lift them up, without fear. Let us say to this broken, hurting, sinful and sinned-against world in word and in action: “Here is our God!” Here in love and grace, here in hope and comfort, here is our God. Amen. 
1The chapter opens with God addressing a kind of heavenly council. See Christopher R. Seitz, “The Book of Isaiah 40-66: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” The New Interpreter's Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, vol. 6, eds. Leander E. Keck, et. al (Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon Press, 2011), 334.
2See, for instance, Benjamin D. Sommer, “Isaiah: Introduction,” The Jewish Study Bible: Tanakh Translation, eds. Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 780-784.
3For this comparison between First and Second Isaiah's content, I looked to George W. Stroup, “Theological Perspective: Isaiah 40:1-11,” Second Sunday of Advent, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 1, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 26-30; and Samuel Giere, “Commentary on Isaiah 40:1-11,” 7 December 2008, Working Preacher,
4Kathleen M. O'Connor, Exegetical Perspective on Isaiah 40:1-11, Second Sunday of Advent, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 1, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 27.
5“This unnamed heavenly voice calls for a radical transformation of earthly topography in prelude to a mind-blowing revelation of the glory of the Lord (cf. Exodus 24:16; Ezekiel 43:5) to all people. Not just Judah and Jerusalem, but all people 'as one' are to see it.” Samuel Giere, “Commentary on Isaiah 40:1-11,”
6See, for instance, Billy D. Strayhorn, A Voice in the Wilderness: Isaiah 40:1-11, Sermon Options: December 7, 2014, Ministry Matters, 18 October 2014,

7For story, see Lilly Workneh, “Photo Of Young Boy Hugging Officer At Ferguson Rally Goes Viral And Becomes 'Icon Of Hope,'” 30 November 2014, The Huffington Post, accessed 6 December 2014,

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Where is the one who will be our peace?

The drafts are piling up, but I can't seem to find the time to finish any of them. But I do have this sermon to share that I preached at Presbury United Methodist Church this morning.

First Reading: Micah 5:2-4; 6:6-8 (Inclusive Bible)
But God will give them over to their enemies
until the time when she who is in labor has given birth;
then the remnant of the ruler's sisters and brothers
will return to the Children of Israel.
The ruler will rise up to shepherd them in the strength of the Lord,
by the power of the Name of the Lord their God.
They will live in security, for now the ruler's greatness
will reach the ends of the earth.
They'll say, “This at last is the one who will be our peace!
When Assyria invades our land and tramples our fortresses,
we will raise up against the invaders seven--- no eight!--- shepherds,
leaders of the people.”

“What shall I bring when I come before the Lord
and bow down before God on high?” you ask.
“Am I to come before God with burnt offerings? With year-old calves?
Will the Lord be placated by thousands of rams or ten thousand rivers of oil?
Should I offer my firstborn for my wrongdoings---
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
Listen here, mortal:
God has already made abundantly clear what “good” is,
and what the Lord needs from you:
simply do justice,
love kindness,
and walk humbly with your God.

Second Reading: 1 John 2:3-11 (NRSV)
Now by this we may be sure that we know him, if we obey his commandments. Whoever says, “I have come to know him,” but does not obey his commandments, is a liar, and in such a person the truth does not exist; but whoever obeys his word, truly in this person the love of God has reached perfection. By this we may be sure that we are in him: whoever says, “I abide in him,” ought to walk just as he walked. 
Beloved, I am writing you no new commandment, but an old commandment that you have had from the beginning; the old commandment is the word that you have heard. Yet I am writing you a new commandment that is true in him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining. Whoever says, “I am in the light,” while hating a brother or sister, is still in the darkness. Whoever loves a brother or sister lives in the light, and in such a person there is no cause for stumbling. But whoever hates another believer is in the darkness, walks in the darkness, and does not know the way to go, because the darkness has brought on blindness. 
They will live in security, for now the ruler's greatness
will reach the ends of the earth.
They'll say, “This at last is the one who will be our peace!”
Our reading from the prophets this morning is not one of our regular readings for Advent, this season of preparation in which we look back to the birth of a baby in a barn two thousand years ago and forward to the Second Coming of Christ. Yet this reading from the fifth chapter of Micah, as strange as it may seem for Advent, echoes messianic promises of peace and security. 
And isn't peace and security what we want? But the problem is the world isn't very peaceful or secure. And you don't have to look further than events this week to see that. 
Yes, I am talking about Ferguson.1 Many of you heard about Ferguson, Missouri, over the summer when 18-year-old Mike Brown was shot and killed by police officer Darren Wilson. While there are accounts that Mike Brown fought with the officer, he was unarmed, and eyewitnesses say his last words were, “I don't have a gun. Stop shooting.” The events of that day and the pain following it were revisited again this week as a Grand Jury decided not to indict Darren Wilson. Whether or not the jury's decision was right or wrong, many people saw this as another example of the racism that is still pervasive in the country. An unarmed teenager was gunned down by a police officer and the law did nothing to protect the teenager. 
Michelle Alexander, who is a civil rights lawyer known for her work on racism within the prison system, wrote a powerful piece for the New York Times this week about how she was going to tell her son, who is ten and black, about Darren Wilson's trial. She writes that she wanted to say, “Don’t worry, honey, you have nothing to worry about. Nothing like this could ever happen to you.”2 But she couldn't. Since Mike Brown was killed just a few months ago, more than a dozen teenagers have been shot by police, and almost half of those teenagers were black.3 Where is the one who will shepherd us in the strength of the Lord? Where is the one who will be our peace? 
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., once said that “True peace is not the absence of tension, it’s the presence of justice.” Peace around the country would not happen if we could just all get along, to use Rodney King's words after the uprisings in LA. Peace comes with justice, when young black and brown men and boys cannot walk around without fear of being shot by the people who claim to protect them, there is a problem. Even if those men and boys were getting into trouble. And, for many people protesting, it isn't even about Mike Brown. It is about how racism continues to plague our country in insidious ways, even though we are supposed to be better than that.4

Now I say all of this but should share with you that, when my father called me after the decision was announced, he informed me that, as a child of a police officer, he will always support the police officer. I know that for some of us, perhaps most of us, Darren Wilson shooting Mike Brown is more complicated than you may feel I have described it. I'm sure it is! But I think that we can agree that what we have heard throughout the week has shown us the depths of the brokenness of our world, the pain that reverberates throughout this country, the need for shepherds of peace. The need for Jesus. 
Often in Advent, the readings on Sunday will be about the end times. We are to be preparing ourselves for the second coming of Christ. And wouldn't that second coming be a beautiful thing? We have gotten ourselves in a huge mess--- a mess we can see not only when we look at persistent racism in our country, but also when we read about schools like the University of Virginia where students have been gang raped and then unable to find support and protection from their administration until Rolling Stone magazine brought it to the whole country's attention. We drive down the street and see empty houses and yet so many homeless people. The list goes on and on. Where is that one who will be our peace that Micah told us about? The world is so bad that not only Christians dream of Jesus' return complete with rather violent destruction. In secular culture, our obsession with stories like The Walking Dead, a hit TV show about the zombie apocalypse, show some kind of sense that we are spiraling unavoidably into ruin. We've given up on the world as it is. We want everything to be destroyed so we can start over. Our brains get tired when we try to imagine living the way God originally intended for us to live.

But in Advent, though we may prepare for the Second Coming, we also celebrate how God put on flesh and dwelt among us,5 how God dwelt among us then, and God still dwells among us today. God is in the anger in the uprising in Ferguson, and in the comforting actions directed toward Darren Wilson and his family. God is in the voices breaking the silence about rape on college campuses, and in the hands of those making Thanksgiving meals for folks in need. In the beginning of chapter six of Micah, we see God dwelling among us. God reminds us of how God saved us from slavery in Egypt, sent us leaders to guide us, and brought us justice. God saved us in the past and will save us in the future. That is the story of Advent, folks!

So how do we respond? Where do we find ourselves in this story? This is the question both our scripture from Micah and 1 John are concerned with: What does God want from us as God enacts this drama of salvation all around us? For us to sit quietly at home reading the bible and ignoring the drama and pain of the outside world? For us to stand up in worship and say that we accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior and then go about our life as usual, waiting for the so-called rapture? Studying scripture and witnessing to the power of Jesus in worship are good things, certainly. But God has made clear what God really wants from us: God wants us to do justice, love mercy, and be a humble walking companion. “God wants the world to see whose we are.”6 This is part of the answer to the first question that Micah brought up--- where is the one who will be our peace? If we do as God has required us, then we are the hands and feet of the one who brings us peace. If we do justice, we are exhibiting Christ, who bring peace. If we are kind to one another, showing one another compassion, we are exhibiting Christ, who brings peace. If we walk humbly beside God, listening with open hearts for God incarnated all around us, we are exhibiting Christ, who brings peace.

So this Advent, I have some homework to help guide you. (I know you all love homework!) Using some Lenten calendars I found online last year,7 I came up with one little thing to do each day throughout Advent to help us do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly. My prayer is that these activities help us to better show who we are and whose we are in this crazy, broken world of ours. And that, in learning to better be children of God, we might bring a little light and life, justice and love, to this place.

Let us pray together:
Patient teacher, we know how frustrating we must be. We know that you rage at the sin of racism, and all those sins that have so broken our world. But we also know that you have told us what is good. Justice. Kindness. Humility. Love. As we celebrate the coming of Christ this Advent season, have us hold onto what is good so that we may be part of enacting your healing power on this world little by little. Amen.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

An Epic of Hope

My partner is one of the people who gives me the best feedback on my sermons, and after a few weeks of trying to get back in the swing of things after returning home from vacation, I finally came home to an unprompted, "That was a good sermon today!" So, after having shared with with Presbury United Methodist Church, I bring it to you here to read, to critique if you wish, and (hopefully) to find a little hope. 

(If you are wondering where the reading comes from throughout August and September, we will be following an adapted Narrative Lectionary.)

Hebrew Bible: Genesis 45:1-15 (NRSV)
Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all those who stood by him, and he cried out, “Send everyone away from me.” So no one stayed with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it. Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” But his brothers could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence. Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come closer to me.” And they came closer. He said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years; and there are five more years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God; he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt. Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, ‘Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt; come down to me, do not delay. You shall settle in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and your children’s children, as well as your flocks, your herds, and all that you have. I will provide for you there—since there are five more years of famine to come—so that you and your household, and all that you have, will not come to poverty.’ And now your eyes and the eyes of my brother Benjamin see that it is my own mouth that speaks to you. You must tell my father how greatly I am honored in Egypt, and all that you have seen. Hurry and bring my father down here.” Then he fell upon his brother Benjamin’s neck and wept, while Benjamin wept upon his neck. And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him.

Let us pray:
Patient teacher, we give you thanks for all the ways you guide us,
especially for the examples of those like Joseph who show such forgiveness and compassion even in the face of violence and betrayal.
Guide us today. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts
reorient us so we can live lives overflowing with love
as Joseph did. Amen.

Last week I gave you all homework. Raise your hand if you did it! For those of you who either weren't here or forgot, the homework was to write down every day this week one blessing you received and one way you were a blessing throughout the day. We have been reading the past two weeks about God's promises to us through characters like Noah and Abraham. God told us that God blessed Abraham so he would go and be a blessing. Honestly, I found the homework more difficult than I expected it to be. While I can easily find ways I have been blessed, choosing a way I was a blessing felt uncomfortably like bragging. It also reminded me how even as a pastor, my days can too easily be spent without putting myself out there to really be a blessing to strangers. I don't know if that was your experience. But such difficulty reminded me that maybe I am a little hard on some of these ancient figures from the Old Testament. This call God has placed on our lives to be a blessing to others is not easy even without the added complications of conflict we see in Genesis alone.

The book of Genesis, the first book of the bible, is, frankly a depressing one. God created us and called us good. Then we sinned in the garden and had to leave. Then Cain killed Abel and things went totally downhill into a chaotic, violent, ugly mess until the flood came. But the destruction so upset God that God made a rainbow to remind us that life is too precious. But even with the rainbow and the new start, we continued to mess up. God showered blessings upon Abraham, but Abraham still lied and cheated. And God's whole promise to Abraham was that Abraham would be blessed so he could be a blessing! But Abraham had even more difficulty with that call than we do--- and so did his descendants. Jacob, his grandson, lied and cheated and encouraged violence within his own family by the way he valued some sons and wives and devalued others. The ugliness rivals Game of Thrones, for those of you who watch the show or read the Song of Ice and Fire series.

To look at our history as a people of faith through the bible story alongside our own struggles to be a is all a little depressing. All God asked is that we show each other a little love, a little compassion, and instead we are greedy and self-serving or even just lazy. Brian D. McLaren, a pastor and public theologian, writes that “[t]he book of Genesis would be a tragic epic of despair,” that indeed would give us little hope for our own situations, if not for the end of the book: the story of Joseph.1

(Some of you were probably wondering when Joseph would be coming in here!) His story really begins in chapter 37 of Genesis, the first son of Jacob's favored wife and so Jacob's favorite son. Now Joseph, as much as I will praise him later in my sermon, is not perfect by any means. He is one of those annoying kids who doesn't realize how pretentious he is. I'm glad my sisters aren't here in worship this morning or they would tell you that I used to be(am?) a lot like Joseph in this way. He tattles on his brothers, he has dreams about his whole family bowing down to him and he doesn't keep said dreams to himself. He prances around in ostentatious clothing, which, in his defense, was his father's fault for buying him the fancy coat. But as annoying as he was, and as insufferable as his father must have been fawning over him, no one deserves the treatment that his brothers give him.

Joseph's brothers are classic bullies. They are obviously hurting, but instead of trying to break out of the cycle of hurt, they choose to hurt someone else instead. Joseph. They throw him into a pit, speak of killing him, but then decide to sell him into slavery. Afterward, they soak Joseph's fancy coat in blood and go to their father, allowing him to believe his beloved son was dead. This is a horrible, heart-wrenching story. And poor Joseph, as though his life wasn't bad enough, he tries to live as ethically as he can as a slave and still finds himself wrongly imprisoned!

But still Joseph does not break, and eventually he becomes Pharaoh's right-hand man. God gives him the power to interpret Pharaoh's dreams of a coming famine, and Pharaoh gives him the power to prepare and prevent starvation. And soon, Joseph's own brothers find themselves in Egypt at Joseph's own feet pleading for a little food to ward off starvation. They do not know who he is, but he knows exactly who they are. And then something amazing and beautiful and hopeful happens. Joseph, remembering the blessing of his father's love, looking at the blessing that here he was a slave who rose to prominence, looking at the blessing that in the midst of famine Egypt had plenty--- Joseph becomes a blessing. In McLaren's words, “Joseph refuses to imitate the hatred of his rival brothers. Instead, he returns to the imitation of God whose will, Joseph knows, is always benevolent.”2 He shows us that we aren't doomed forever to keep on messing up and failing God's call to love our neighbors, to bless one another. He shows us that what God asks of us is actually possible, even in the worst circumstances. He forgives his brothers. He feeds them and cares for them and reunites his family.

Now, Joseph's brothers committed a egregious sin. It would not do anyone any good if Joseph just saw them again and welcomed them in with open arms. He was abused by his brothers! But when he saw his brothers again, he was safe, in a position of power so that, if his brothers refused to repent, he would not have to worry about them committing another violence against him. Also, because they did not know he was their brother, he was able to scare them a bit, to see if they would treat their brother Benjamin badly as they had treated him so badly. But he saw they had changed. They were no longer bent on violence and destruction. And so they were able to receive the grace he offered, to receive the blessing.

I read a story once about this kind of compassion and blessing in the face of sin. It is a story from South Africa. I know not many of you are familiar with South African history, but you may remember hearing the term “apartheid” before. The government of South Africa, run by the white minority established apartheid, officially introduced in 1948. Apartheid is a word that means “apartness,” and was a system of violent racial segregation not unlike Jim Crow in our country. In it, however, people of color were not considered to be citizens at all, did not deserve any rights at all, and so most services like medical services were inferior to those for whites. People of color were to be constantly reminded of their so-called inferiority, and they lived in constant fear of violence at the hands of their white oppressors.

When apartheid was finally overthrown in the 1990s, leaders like Archbishop Desmond Tutu came up with a creative and life-giving way to bring justice to the country that would allow them to acknowledge the human rights abuses that were committed while breaking the cycle of violence. They established the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission to bear witness to, record and in some cases grant amnesty to the perpetrators of crimes relating to human rights violations, as well as to determine reparation and rehabilitation.

There are many amazing stories about the commission, and I will share one with you today.
In the days of apartheid, seven youth were killed by the South African military in an ambush. One of the men who participated in executing the youth, who were lying wounded on the ground, testified before the Commission. In the room were the mothers of these young men. After he finished testifying, the mothers were asked if they wanted to say anything. The spokeswoman for the group of mothers said that they did want to speak. She turned to the young man and said, “You are going to listen to our anger. Sit there and listen.” One after another, these mothers spoke of the pain they had suffered. Then, after all had finished talking, one of the mothers turned to the man, who was totally crushed, and said, “Come here. Come here; let me hold you. Let me forgive you. I have no son, now. But I want you to be my son, so that you will never do these things again.”3

Like Joseph, these women did not say to the men that what they did was okay. But rather than returning violence with more violence, they showed love. They blessed the man who had sinned. And that blessing helped him turn away from sin. That blessing gave him hope.

So today I want you to remember that as difficult as being a blessing can be, as difficult as breaking cycles of violence and poverty and apathy and sin can be, repentance is possible. Let us go forward from this place and chose not to return sin with more sin. Let us go forth from this place like Joseph choosing to be a blessing even though it may be difficult.

1Brian D. McLaren, “How the Doctrine of (Un)Original Sin Can Help Christians Be Less Sinful,” Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World (New York: Jericho Books, 2012), 112.
3Thomas Porter, “The Last Supper: Naming the Conflicts and Giving Bread and Wine,” Conflict and Communion Reconciliation and Restorative Justice at Christ’s Table, ed. Thomas Porter (Nashville, Tennessee: Discipleship Resources, 2006), 23.