There is a Light

A Sermon for Sunday February 11, 2018, Transfiguration Sunday, John 1:1-5, 14 and 18; Mark 9:2-9

Whenever we consider the pairing of the words “light and darkness,” we immediately think of “good and evil,” and “hope and despair.” We associate “light” with what is positive and “darkness” with the negative.

It’s what we’ve been taught since we exited the womb. We’ve endured the “dark night of the soul” and understand intimately the notion that “it’s always the darkest just before the dawn.”  In the dark, we are seized with pain, and in the light, we are healed.

There are numerous books, movies, songs, and wise sayings that express that very message, reminding us again and again that the light shines brightly no matter how dark any particular moment seems.  Many of those artistic expressions point us back to the scriptures, which has assured us throughout the centuries that hate and darkness will never overcome light and love. 

That assurance is true and core to our beliefs.

But could it be equally true that the light might be just as scary and quite dangerous to behold and embrace—more so than we’d like to admit? The gospels seem to affirm this truth, which we don’t always notice right away.  

In this morning’s reading from Mark 9, we encounter Jesus and his disciples, Peter, James, and John, atop a mountain when an amazing event occurs. Suddenly and without warning, Jesus is transfigured before them—his clothes becoming “a dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.” (And no, this wasn’t a “Tide ad.”) [1]

Matthew’s version of the story adds that Jesus’ face “shone like the sun,” which would mean that it was intensely bright and difficult to see without squinting.  While Luke’s account says the “appearance of his face” changed, most likely indicating that it became ethereal. And appearing next to Jesus in this flood of illuminating transfiguration are two revered and long-dead prophets, Elijah and Moses, striking up a conversation.

Peter responds to this incredible supernatural spectacle by anxiously suggesting they set up camp and stay awhile.  On the surface, it seems to be a tone-deaf statement that highlights the disciple’s ignorance of what is occurring before him.

However, the reality, as Mark tells us, is that Peter, (along with James and John) is terrified and doesn’t know what to say. In an effort to calm his fear and cope with the magnitude of the scene, Peter starts rambling about dwelling places even though he’s probably aware that his idea is unrealistic and makes no sense. 

The transfiguration is not the special effects blockbuster film that persuades you to sink into a large comfy chair with a bucket of buttery popcorn for a two-hour thrill ride. Nor is it an opportunity to set up a picnic and watch an half-hour fireworks show.

The transfiguration of Jesus is much more compelling in its brevity and comes with a soundtrack straight from the heavens as God’s voice booms: “This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him!”

Peter, James, and John have every reason to be struck with terror. This is not the soft pink light of a sunrise that is easy on the eyes, or the flame of a candle that can be contained from spreading and quickly put out.  This is not a light that can be harnessed and controlled with the clicking of a switch, a swipe on a smart phone, or a voice-activated command.

This is God’s light in Christ arriving with blinding power and might that cannot be tamed.  The scriptures tell us that God’s light rescues people from dark places, protects them like a suit of armor, and reveals the things that were once hidden in darkness. [2] The writer of John’s Gospel, whose poetic words we’ve also heard this morning, proclaims:  “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

Even the natural light that God has created for our days is too potent for us to truly handle ourselves. Sunlight is the most powerful source of energy for our planet, crucial for growth and sustaining of life; for any human being to think it can be completely mastered and managed is quite naive.

Light will do what light does just as God and God’s light does what it will. The transfiguration is a mere glimpse of how God’s righteousness and justice radiates through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ Jesus.

Transfiguration—this mysterious, extraordinary, transformative display of light—is a reminder that Jesus is the hope for ages, the One who comes to fulfill the law and the prophets—the embodiment of the Ten Commandments and the dreams of the prophets who proclaim God’s kingdom will overcome the corruption of earthly kingdoms. Jesus is the Divine Light-in-the-Flesh whose cruel death exposes the powers of the world and their desire for glory and dominion.  For this, Jesus has been baptized and claimed as a beloved child, in whom God is well pleased.

Transfiguration is God quickly flashing God’s hand to let us know that God has all the cards and is about to make the biggest play anyone has ever seen. Only it won’t be a royal flush of monarchs with swords who lay siege on the Empire. Instead it will be an unarmed Savior King who—through great sacrifice—peacefully conquers with unconditional love and steadfast mercy.

And while that is exhilarating to consider on one hand, it is also quite frightening as the disciple Peter can attest.  Peter, James, and John know that Chris is the light of God made manifest and still the prospect of being around and following such a force is scary.

Being a disciple of Jesus is no walk in the park. Ministry is not easy. It’s risky and challenging. Not everyone is fond of helping those who are on the margins of society—the folks who are deemed to be filthy and unworthy. You can be criticized, judged, condemned, cursed, bullied, beaten, arrested, and killed as evident in the stories from the New Testament and our history books.

Peter’s fear is quite reasonable and there are many days when I resonate with what the disciple is feeling. As an ordained minister of 13 years, I know who Jesus is in our lives and world. And yet as someone who has suffered with anxiety and depression most of my life, and who has been in counseling and taking medicine for more than a decade, I am regularly startled by the overwhelming light of Christ.

The best way I can explain what it’s like to live with the debilitations of anxiety and depression is to share a description from a meme being shared on social media:

Having anxiety and depression is like being scared and tired at the same time.

It’s the fear of failure but no urge to be productive.

It’s wanting friends but hating socializing.

It’s wanting to be alone but not wanting to be lonely.

It’s caring about everything then caring about nothing.

It’s feeling everything at once then feeling paralyzingly numb.

Following Christ, witnessing to and bearing the light, is something I feel deeply about; it is certainly my calling. However, I don’t always feel comfortable heeding my call because being a part of the Light means I have to take risks and make myself vulnerable to criticism, condemnation and rejection for showing love, practicing mercy and speaking truth to power. I also have to become vulnerable when I fail at not loving God and neighbor as I should and seek to make amends. I would much rather make a dwelling place in the darkness under the covers of my bed and never come out because it can be exhausting to swing out my feet and take a step forward.

 I suspect that many of you, regardless of whether you have anxiety and depression, would confess that you are also reluctance about fully bathing in Christ’s light like I am. Don’t we often present the best of ourselves, desiring to not be vulnerable or show weakness—to keep our flaws, heartache, struggles and pain deep within? We silently pray: Let a little light in God, but not too much, so no one judges us for a fool.

Like a lot of folks in the world, I feel a sense of inadequacy about myself.  I have great doubts about my abilities as a pastor, husband and dad. But then I recall one of my favorite quotes from the author Marianne Williamson that render this attitude absurd. She writes:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” [3]

“We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us…”—it’s a lot of pressure to live into, isn’t it? It’s not surprising that I or anyone else wants to shrink and play small. The task sounds quite intimidating.

But I suppose that it’s not actually about dwelling in and embodying God’s light 24-7. It’s not about us putting pressure on ourselves to always have a glowing and sunny optimism.

Instead, it’s about coming down the mountain with a small flame in our hearts and kindling the hearts of others as we slog through the mundane, messy, demanding, dark and excruciating parts of life.

God is not asking us to be the light of Christ or immerse ourselves in the light every second of every day. God knows we experience suffering and pain and are incapable of being perfect and happy all the time.

But God does call us to listen to Christ and carry what we can of Christ’s light into a world that needs to be illuminated with love. The Rev. Maryetta Anschutz, an Episcopal priest, says there is no other way:

The moment of transfiguration is that point at which God says to the world and to each of us that there is nothing we can do to prepare for or stand in the way of joy or sorrow. We cannot build God a monument, and we cannot keep God safe. We also cannot escape the light that God will shed on our path…God will find us in our homes and in our work places. God will find us when your hearts are broken and when we discover joy. God will find us when we run away from God and when we are sitting in the middle of what seems like hell. So ‘get up and do not be afraid.’[4]

            Christ’s light finds us and moves us onward in spite of our anxiety, depression, fears, doubts and insecurities. Christ’s light sparks something hidden inside of us that inspires us to brighten the life of another.

Google Images/CNN

Like 15-year-old Gomez Colon, a resident of Puerto Rico who has raised more than $125,000 to help provide 1,400 solar lamps in 840 households that are without electricity due to the devastation of Hurricane Maria in November.[5]

Google Images/Yahoo Sports

Like the former NFL player-turned-Baltimore teacher Aaron Maybin who inspired his community to donate hand warmers and gloves to students when Matthew A. Henson Elementary School lost heat and electricity during the winter cold snap last month, and who has also helped raise more than $80,000 to repair the problematic heat systems that exists throughout Baltimore Public Schools.[6]

Like the church members who lovingly insert quarters in the machines at Kim’s Laundromat to provide clean clothes to those in need.

Like the volunteers who spend a couple of hours every month reading to the children of the Burmese refugee families we sponsor.

Those lights seem like tiny flickers in the midst of darkness, but their affects are everlasting and inconsumable. There is a light even though the darkness always surrounds it, and we must shine that light, however big or small, in any way that we can.

            For when you shine the light of Christ that is within your heart, you free other people to do the same, immersing all in the warmth of God’s love.

            Amen.

[1] Super Bowl 52, “Tide Ad” with actor David Habour of the cult hit Nextflix show, “Stranger Things,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=doP7xKdGOKs

[2] Micah 7:7-9, Isaiah 9:1-3, Romans 13:11-13, I Corinthians 4:406

[3] Marianne Williamson, Return to Love, HarperCollins Publishing,1992

[4] “Pastoral Perspective” on Transfiguration Sunday texts by Maryetta Madeline Anschutz, Feasting on The Word, Year A, Volume 1: Advent through Pentecost. Westminster John Knox Press, 2010

[5] “Teen delivers hundreds of solar lamps to Puerto Ricans without power.” http://money.cnn.com/2018/02/01/news/economy/puerto-rico-teen-solar-lamps-power/index.html

[6] “Crowdfunding helps former NFL player bring heat back to Baltimore schools” https://www.nbcnews.com/news/nbcblk/crowdfunding-helps-former-nfl-player-bring-heat-back-baltimore-schools-n839951; and “NFL player turned teacher goes door to door to help students during Baltimroe cold snap” https://www.nbcnews.com/nightly-news/video/nfl-player-turned-teacher-goes-door-to-door-to-help-students-during-baltimore-cold-snap-1142238275622

 

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It’s About Surrender

A Sermon for the 7 pm Christmas Eve Candlelight Worship Service, December 24, 2017; Luke 2: 1-20 and Matthew 2:7-12

Intro: 

This evening’s sermon is unconventional for a Christmas Eve Candlelight Service. Rather than taking the traditional approach of doing character studies on each of the key figures in Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth—the angels, the shepherds, Joseph and Mary—I’ve decided to explore this extraordinary event through the lens of a short animated Christmas special—Disney-Pixar’s Toy Story That Time Forgot.

Several of you may already be thinking that a cartoon illustration is better suited for young kids and their parents during the earlier Children’s Service and not serious enough for a service in which youth and adults come to profoundly reflect on the meaning of Christmas.

However, I can assure you there is as much spiritual substance and depth to be found in this Toy Story tale as there is in the beloved Charlie Brown Christmas and Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch Who Stole Christmas specials. More than 50 years later, millions of people still gather with their families in front of their TV screens to watch Charlie Brown and the Grinch because it speaks powerfully to them, even though they are long past childhood themselves.

The elation that we discover again and again through the viewing of our favorite Christmas specials and movies (along with other holiday preparations) is reflective of the Christmas story itself. At the center of Christmas is the birth of the child who will turn the world upside down. A momentous occasion that brings forth great joy to the child that dwells inside each of our hearts and reminds us all that we are called to live as children of God.

Prayer: Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of each and every one of our hearts be acceptable to you. May our entire selves be open to your wonders like a child on Christmas morning, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer, unto whom we surrender.

Sermon

If you’ve ever seen a Disney-Pixar film in the last 10 years, you are well aware that while these movies are, on the surface, made and marketed to appeal to children, they contain timely messages intended to grab the attention of adults.

Popular offerings like Frozen, Zootopia, Moana, Finding Nemo, Inside Out, and Coco offer keen insights on life and relationships as it relates to the themes of fear, doubt, loss, hope, mercy, redemption, purpose, vocation, friendship, and love.  And Toy Story That Time Forgot, which first aired in December 2014, is no different.

It’s two days after Christmas and Trixie the blue triceratops is depressed that 6-year-old Bonnie never plays with her like a dinosaur—resigned instead to the roles of goblin fairy, ice cream customer and baby reindeer. The part of prehistoric beast is given to an adorable new Christmas tree ornament named Angel Kitty who only speaks words of Christmas-related wisdom, which sounds cryptic to the other toys.

After being referred to again as a baby reindeer, Trixie lets out a loud sigh, prompting Angel Kitty to say: “Greet the world with an open heart.” Trixie just rolls her eyes and the other toys give the kitten puzzled stares because they don’t know what to make of the newcomer’s sayings.

Later, Bonnie takes Trixie, Angel Kitty, Woody, Buzz Lightyear, and Rex the anxious T-Rex to her friend Mason’s house for a play date. When they get there, Bonnie sees Mason playing a virtual reality video game. Rex, lamenting that he has such short T-Rex arms, shouts: “You’ve got to be kidding me! He got an Optimus X for Christmas! Sadly, the controls are beyond my limitations.”

Angel Kitty responds matter-of-factually: “Limitations are the shackles we bind ourselves.” Again, her companions look at her puzzled.

After Bonnie tosses her belongings into her friend’s playroom, the toys discover that Mason received the complete toy line of battling reptilian-dinosaurs for Christmas. Known as Battlesaurs, these fierce creatures are led by the brave Reptillus Maximus and the devious Cleric. Reptillus then takes Rex and Trixie to get new armor and tech, while, unbeknownst to them, the Cleric orders some other Battlesaurs to take Woody, Buzz and Angel Kitty hostage.

Soon, Trixie and Reptillus begin developing romantic feelings. Trixie is admirative of the Battlesaurs, while Reptillus is intrigued by her world. During a conversation atop Reptillus’ lair, Trixie tells the warrior: “You must have the most amazing play-times.” Reptillus, unfamiliar with the concept of play-time, asks Trixie to explain. She goes on: “You know, play. When you give yourself over to a kid.” Trixie’s words startle Reptillus who replies: “Giving is surrender! A Battlesaur would never surrender!”

Later, Trixie and Reptillus enter the “Arena of Woe”, where Trixie is horrified to see Reptillus attack Mason’s toys in a gladiatorial combat setting. Soon Woody and Buzz enter the ring. Woody warns Trixie that Mason has never played with the Battlesaurs and that they don’t even know they’re toys. Reptillus  battles both Woody and Buzz till Trixie demands he stop. The Cleric deems Trixie an enemy after seeing she has Bonnie’s name on her hand. Trixie escapes the arena to get Bonnie’s attention and the Cleric orders Reptillus to stop her. As Reptillus chases Trixie, he is shocked to discover the box he came in.

Back at the Battlesaurs play-set, Woody and Buzz realize that the Cleric is the only Battlesaur who knows they’re all toys and is determined to make sure the others don’t find out so he can be their ruler. The Cleric then forces Rex to dispose of Woody and Buzz in a ventilation fan that would shred them.

Woody and Buzz scold the Cleric for doing such a dastardly deed during Christmas time. The Cleric is unfamiliar with the concept of Christmas, which prompts Angel Kitty to explain with another nugget: “The joy that you give to others is the joy that comes back to you.”

Meanwhile, Trixie reaches Mason’s video game power cord, hoping to turn it off and direct Bonnie’s focus to the playroom.

I found myself moved by this entire special, much in the same way I get chill bumps when Linus tells Charlie Brown the meaning of the holiday by reciting the birth of Jesus from Luke’s gospel. Or when the Whos in Whoville sing proudly about welcoming the light of Christmas, in spite of the Grinch’s theft of all their decorations and presents.

The title, Toy Story That Time Forgot, is an obvious reference to the dinosaur theme and also a cheesy 70s show called Land of the Lost where a family is thrown back in time and trapped in the pre-historic era. But for me, this Christmas special also seems to be a subtle nod to the story that we in modern times occasionally forget amid the hustle and bustle and commercialization of the season: the story of Emmanuel, God-with-us—the Christ child born in the straw poverty of a manger.

This 22-minute animated film, particularly the focus on the theme of surrender, reminded me of the words of the 20th century Christian martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who wrote:

If we want to be part of these events, Advent and Christmas, we cannot just sit there like a theater audience and enjoy all the lovely pictures. Instead, we ourselves will be caught up in this action, this reversal of all things; we must become actors on this stage. For this is a play in which each spectator has a part to play, and we cannot hold back.

What will our role be? Worshipful shepherds bending the knee, or kings bringing gifts? What is being enacted when Mary becomes the mother of God, when God enters the world in a lowly manger? We cannot come to this manger in the same way that we would approach the cradle of any other child. Something will happen to each of us who decides to come to Christ’s manger.Each of us will have been judged or redeemed before we go away. Each of us will either break down, or come to know that God’s mercy is turned toward us.

What does it mean to say such things about the Christ child?…It is God, the Lord and Creator of all things, who becomes so small here, comes to us in a little corner of the world, unremarkable and hidden away, who wants to meet us and be among us as a helpless, defenseless child. 

So, as we come so near to Christmas, what does it look like for each of us to open our hearts, free ourselves from the shackle of limitations that bind us, give joy to others, and be grateful for the gifts that are all around us?

What does it look like if we recognize that the world is bigger than we know and that the God, to whom we forever belong, chooses many wondrous roles for us to play in this life?

What does it look like if we let go and fall into the hands of our Divine Creator and allow ourselves to be a part of God’s amazing story, God’s glorious play and God’s unique imagination?

What does it look like if we set aside our personal agendas and desires for conquest and give our hearts to the Christ child, to Emmanuel who saves humanity from impending doom and transforms the world with unconditional love and grace?

What does it look like in this Christmas season and the coming New Year, in the silent night and the approaching light of a new day if we take a moment to pause and breathe?

What does it look like if we surrender?

Amen.


References:

Toy Story That Time Forgot, Dec. 2, 2014. Walt Disney Pictures, Pixar Animation Studios and Walt Disney Television Animation and Disney-ABC Domestic Television. Written and Directed by Steve Purcell and produced by Galyn Susan. Music composed by Michael Giacchino.

Christmas With Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ausburg Fortress Publishers, 2005

The Sheep of God’s Pasture

Sermon for Sunday November 26, 2017, Christ The King Sunday

Ezekiel 34:11-16a and Matthew 25:31-40

Pastor’s Note: This is the recycled and updated version of a sermon I preached in April 2010 called One Flock, One Shepherd

Several years ago, my family and I attended the Dogwood Festival in Piedmont Park.  Along the path that winds around the park were hundreds of booths displaying the works of local and regional artists that were as splendidly colorful, refreshing, and mesmerizing as the spring day that enfolded us.

One of the artists’ booths that particularly caught our eye and prompted much smiles and laughter was entitled “Sheep Incognito.” The booth featured a large collection of whimsical, humorous and thought-provoking oil-paintings of sheep, each one with an outrageous title:

A sheep flying in a bumble bee suit: Bumble Baaaaa

A sheep in a gumball machine: Baabblegum

A sheep in a pickup, wearing a cap and smoking a cig: Billy Baab and his Truck

A sheep standing on a ladybug while holding two bales of hay in its hooves and a stalk of corn on its nose: Baalancing Act

And in a scene that is most appropriate for today’s scripture readings—A sheep, standing in a luscious green pasture near a clear blue lake, is gazing up at the magnificent sky with a sweet smile on its face. The painting is entitled Beside Still Waters, a reflection on Psalm 23. But it could easily be referred to as The Sheep of God’s Pasture, a nod to the illustration in today’s passage from Ezekiel.

The artist Conni Togel, who lives on Lake Hartwell in South Carolina, says this about why she paints sheep for a living:

“They really are just sheep, even though you might recognize yourself or those you know in what you are seeing. Truth be told, sheep are messengers of insane moments around us, fun things awaiting us, and focal points of special things in life that often slip by unnoticed. What’s more, being the peacenik creatures they are, the sheep love being part of a greater cause: bringing some joy and whimsy back to a world that seems to be headed into all sorts of wrong directions…The sheep really are a vehicle for the message I hope to impart to the world around me. It is about hope, laughter, love, courage and just a smidgen of insanity—all the things in life that make life wonderful.”[1]

I love Togel’s view of sheep as symbols of hope, laughter, courage and a smidge of insanity because it’s a perspective that is not commonly shared in society. Sheep are not held in the same high regard as other animals, animals well known for their power, might, wisdom, cunning and loyalty like the eagle, the lion, the dog and the bear.  Whenever anyone asks the popular small conversation starter question, “If you could be any animal, what kind of animal would you be?” rarely do you hear a person say, “A sheep!”

The use of the word sheep carries a lot of negativity, a lot of wooly baggage.  No one wants to be described as “sheepish” because it means they are embarrassed or ashamed.  And no group of people wants to be labeled as sheep because it implies they are brainless conformists for whom passivity is a lifestyle.

To be referred to as a “sheep” is always an insult.  And if sheep knew they were misunderstood and could talk like humans, well, they might loudly proclaim that they’re getting the proverbial short end of the shepherd’s crook.

Sheep, of course, are not intelligent enough to communicate in the same degree as are other animals like the dolphin or horse. But they are a lot smarter and more interesting than they’re given credit. For instance, sheep have good hearing, and are sensitive to noise when being handled. Sheep have horizontal slit-shaped pupils, possessing excellent peripheral vision; with visual fields of approximately 270° to 320°, sheep can see behind themselves without turning their heads.  Sheep do have poor depth perception; shadows and dips in the ground may cause sheep to baulk…but sheep have a tendency to move out of the dark and into well-lit areas.”[2]

 All sheep have a tendency to congregate close to other members of a flock, and sheep can become stressed when separated from their flock members. Sheep can recognize individual human and sheep faces, and remember them for years. And despite perceptions that sheep are dumb creatures, a University of Illinois study  on sheep found them to be on par with cattle in IQ, and some sheep have even shown problem-solving abilities.[3]

There are worse things a person can be compared to than sheep like a venomous snake or a cockroach.  And of all the animals chosen to describe human beings and their relationship to God, the one most often used is…a sheep. Throughout scripture, we are told again and again that God loves us and cares for us like a shepherd cares for the sheep—like a shepherd cares for the flock.

This image of God as the sovereign shepherd and God’s people as sheep has a permanent hold on Christian imagination and… piety, especially among ordained ministers (and elders). It is all too easy and common for preachers, like me, to see ourselves as those who have been trained at the very best religious institutions to “shepherd” and “pastor” a church, a “flock.”

While Ezekiel 34 and Matthew 25, among other texts, can be wonderful theological and practical lessons for how church leaders are called to be guides and caretakers, it’s important for all of us to remember that none of us are The Shepherd. Even when we as church leaders are trying to faithfully model our shepherding after Jesus’ preaching and teaching; we are still following Christ ourselves. We (church leaders) are also sheep and fellow members of the One Flock, and God in Christ alone is our Shepherd, and that is an extremely wonderful and humbling truth to behold.

This concept has particularly significance for us as we learn how to move forward and embrace God’s new vision for Pleasant Hill in the wake of founding and senior pastor Dave Fry’s last day as the church’s shepherd of 32 years.

While Dave gave us nearly a year in advance that his retirement was coming in mid November, there has been a decent amount of curiosity and anxiety (albeit mostly healthy) in the church: What will Pleasant Hill do without Dave? Who’s the Interim going to be? When are they getting here? Who will be called to serve as the senior pastor? How long will the search take?

So far, we’re doing well, which is not to say that the church doesn’t need a senior pastor.  As associate pastors, Jody, Jennie and I are completely capable of taking over some of the head of staff’s responsibilities, and yet we will be the first to say in January, “we’re so glad the church has an Interim Senior Pastor!”  And I know all of you will be equally excited to meet that new person who will help us through a time of transition and the eventual calling of a permanent head of staff.

What Dave’s retirement and absence is teaching me (and I hope the rest of us too) is that the One Flock of sheep, the Church Universal, keeps going no matter which ministers, elders, Christian Educators or church leaders are serving in a particular congregation.  The Church Universal keeps following The Shepherd even when folks leave the fold for whatever reason.

It’s true that a church’s staff and Session who oversee or lead ministries are called to use certain gifts for leadership and decision-making among the flock. But those folks are not the only shepherds nor is any one of them The Shepherd. The designated church leaders are not even the one flock, the Church, the larger body of Christ…not without the other members of the fold.

There are many members at Pleasant Hill who don’t have seminary degrees or master’s degrees or have not been ordained in the church that are faithfully leading, teaching, preaching, comforting, and nurturing the flock with the gifts God has given them. There are people doing extraordinary things among the fold even when one of the “shepherds” or church leaders is unavailable or busy with various church tasks. Ministry happens among the One Flock with, without and despite any one of us because of The Shepherd who leads all of us—who lays down his life for us so that we may live, love and serve abundantly.

The words of Ezekiel and Jesus help the church understand its role as God’s sheep and inspire the members of the one flock to do ministry. As one biblical scholar notes: “The calling inherent in this passage (from Ezekiel) is to do as God does: to care for the least, the last, the lost, and the excluded of society, out of a deep sense of love and compassion. This is a call that goes beyond the normal assumption that this pertains only to the pastor as shepherd; this image calls all in the church to minister to others.”[4]

We, who are nurtured by God like sheep under a shepherd’s care, are to live out a life that is keenly attuned to God’s presence in our midst. With sheep-like abilities we hear God’s voice, we see God’s face and we trust God will seek us out when we are lost, injured and weak and draws us from the darkness. And in return, we answer God’s command of us to minister to the broken and excluded people in society.

The command doesn’t come from a stern, tyrant king-like deity who seeks to condemn and torture our souls, but from a benevolent God who desires to nurture, rescue and protects us.

I realize that sounds odd when considering humanity’s long-held view of how a king or world leader should be. Those images of monarchy and dynasty and absolute power and prestige are engrained in our brains.

But the scriptures and our faith remind us again and again that God and Christ defy our expectations for how a leader should function.

Jesus is not a king like the Israel monarchs or the Roman emperors of his time nor is Jesus like any crowned figurehead, dictator, world leader or president that has existed throughout human history.

Jesus is not a king who rides in on a horse, brandishing a sword or riding atop a tank, sporting a machine-gun as some renowned Christian preachers would have you believe. Nor is Jesus a bloodthirsty revenge seeking action hero or a ruthless drug kingpin as some aspects of pop culture depict him to be.

No, Jesus is the King of love and peace because Jesus is the embodiment of God’s grace-filled sovereignty in our world and lives.

And this all-knowing, almighty, mysterious entity arrives not as a power-hungry, oppressive god seeking to wipe out sinners and evildoers.

But as a small defenseless child born into poverty—no less than an animal trough in the poorest part of town—and is visited first by sheep and shepherds.

The Child that grows into a man, who breaks bread with outcasts, heals the sick, and gives comfort to the prisoner.

The Man who does not dress up in regal clothes but who, as Matthew’s Gospel reminds us, appears as the hungry and thirsty person needing a drink; the stranger needing to be welcomed; the naked needing clothing; the sick needing comfort; and the prisoner needing a friend.

The Savior who presides over our lives and world not through acts of coercion and violence but through the supreme act of unconditional, selfless, suffering love.

The Ruler who builds a beloved community where all are welcome and compassion and love are freely and fully given.

The Shepherd who feeds, nurtures, rescues, protects and guides the flocks; and who calls each of us to do likewise for the least of these—the last, the lost, the despised and marginalized—all sheep of God’s pasture.

And all God’s people said: Baaaa—amen!

[1] Conni Togel, Sheep Incognito, http://www.charisma-art.com/

[2] Sheep Facts: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sheep

[3] Sheep Facts: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sheep

[4] Feasting on the Word : Preaching on the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Volume 4, Christ the King Sunday, Ezekiel 34:11-16, Karyn L. Wiseman

Seeing The Face of God

A Sermon for Sunday August 6, 2017; Genesis 32:22-31 and Matthew 14:13-21

Shortly after graduating from seminary in 2005, American singer-songwriter and Grammy-award winning artist Tracy Chapman released the single, “Change”, a deeply moving song about what it would take for someone to make significant change in their lives. The song opened up my world to Chapman’s music and has helped inform my ministry for 12 years and counting. Ponder with me for a moment some of the lyrics:

If you knew that you would die today
If you saw the face of God and Love
Would you change?
If you knew that love can break your heart
When you’re down so low you cannot fall
Would you change?

How bad how good does it need to get?
How many losses how much regret?
What chain reaction
What cause and effect
Makes you turn around
Makes you try to explain
Makes you forgive and forget
Makes you change

When asked to discuss the song “Change” on The Tavis Smiley Show, Chapman said:

“Well, it’s a song that’s asking a question, really, about how do we make the best use of the life that we have… and how do we make changes that we often know we need to make but… for some reason can’t get around to it? And sometimes I think it’s extraordinary circumstances that kind of encourage people to get out of their day to day routine and do the thing that they know they need to do… Sometimes it’s love; sometimes it’s some sort of spiritual experience. … Sometimes it’s having something traumatic happen that really makes you see, ‘Oh, I need to adjust here and rethink my life.’”

A traumatic experience and extraordinary circumstances is precisely what leads Jacob to be changed.

When he is a teen, Jacob steals the family blessing meant for his older brother Esau and then runs away upon learning that Esau plans to kill him. Many years pass, and Jacob (now settled down in another land with a family of his own) yearns to make amends for deceiving Esau. Jacob sends a gift of animals to his brother in the hopes that he will be granted forgiveness. Esau sends a messenger back to Jacob saying that he is coming to meet him…with 400 of his men!

Concluding that Esau is still out for blood, a frightened Jacob asks God to spare him from death before sending more animals to appease Esau. Then that night Jacob takes his family to an area on the other side of the Jabbok River, presumably for safety in the event that Esau attacks while they are sleeping. And it is while Jacob is alone in the woods that a stranger appears and immediately wrestles him.

“Jacob Wrestling God”, illustration from The Holy Motion Story Bible. Published by Sparkhouse Publishing. 2017

The wrestling match between the mysterious man and Jacob lasts until sunrise, and afterwards Jacob asks his opponent to bless him. In doing so, the man tells Jacob: “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel for you have striven with God and with humans and have prevailed.”  The man seemingly disappears and Jacob names the site of the match Penuel saying, “I have seen God face to face and yet my life is preserved.”

 

A few hours later, Jacob goes out to meet Esau, bowing down many times to show respect. In response, Esau runs toward Jacob and joyfully embraces him. Following a brief exchange, they go their separate ways with Jacob forgiven and at peace.

It’s a beautiful story, a testament to how encounters with God in the midst of the daily struggles of living can lead to redemption and transformation. Jacob experienced that “long dark night of the soul” over the divine call to reconcile with Esau; saw the face of God in the struggle; and was changed.

Like Jacob, many of us have wrestled with God into the wee hours of the morning—discerning the questions, problems, decisions and emotions that stir our soul.

We have wrestled with a God who draws not only us, but all people from the darkness of night into the dawn of a new day.

We’ve wrestled till our bodies were sore and our joints were out of place—marked with the painful and exhilarating truth that we can’t escape God’s call to practice reconciliation, mercy and love regardless of how hard we fight against it.

We’ve wrestled just as the disciples of Jesus once did when they were confronted with the dilemma of ministering to more than 5,000 people at sundown in a remote area.

The disciples were tired and emotionally drained. They were grieving the news that John the Baptist had been brutally murdered by King Herod, worried for their own safety, hungry, frustrated… and more than ready for all these flippin’ people to leave so they could go home, eat and sleep.

Send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves,” the disciples tell Jesus, thinking he might respond with a yawn and say, “Ok fellas, you’re right. Been a long day. I’m exhausted too. Let’s go home, get some grub and go to bed. These folks can fend for themselves.”

But instead, Jesus replies: “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” The disciples then hand five loaves and two fish, and per Jesus’ instruction, orders the crowds to sit down on the grass. Jesus then blesses the food and gives to the disciples to feed the people. And, according to Matthew’s gospel account, which we’ve heard read, “all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full.”

The disciples wrestled with Christ’s call to care for others; saw the face of God in the breaking of the bread and their feeding of the people; and they were changed.

When we wrestle, we come face to face with the living God who moves us to “make changes we need to make” and “get out of the daily routine to do the thing we know we need to do.”

Leaving our comfort zones and taking risks to help our neighbors who are suffering is a struggle. Patience and fortitude is needed if we are to hang on long enough to see God and be transformed by our encounter with the holy.

The high school youth and I have found this to be true during two separate mission trips we’ve taken with the DOOR Network over the last eight years. At one of DOOR’s five locations across the U.S., church groups Discover Opportunities for Outreach and Reflection by serving in various non-profits that assist the low income, the poor, the sick and the mentally and physically challenged; learn about issues in the community; and reflect on the experiences.

The DOOR Network’s motto is: “See the face of God in the city,” and at the end of each mission trip, volunteers are asked to share about where they saw God while they were serving during the week. In 2009, during our first trip with DOOR San Antonio (Texas), we were specifically sent out in our smaller work teams look for and interact with God for a half-hour.

That was a very exciting assignment for two of the three work teams whose destination was a large local park where there were a variety of God sightings: children playing games, families having a picnic, people walking their dogs, couples sitting on benches, artists painting the trees, and the homeless camped out on the far edge of the grounds.

But for the third team, who were told to walk down to the Texaco gas station and convenience store to find God, the undertaking seemed hopeless and lame.

Not even yours truly, an ordained pastor on his first summer youth mission trip at a new church, or Erik Mjorud, a long-time youth adviser and mission tripper who serves the “least of these” like most people breathe air, could manage to find the upside in the excursion.

How in the world would we see the face of God at the gas station? Gas stations are nothing like parks. Motorists slowly pumping gas. (Oh look, God buys premium.) Customers deciding whether to purchase a red or yellow Gatorade inside the store. (Cool, God loves red.) Fairly mundane tasks. And the thought of chatting up folks who were filling up their cars or shopping inside seemed awkward…and creepy. The scenario simply didn’t conjure up an inspiring example for Erik, four youth and I to bring back and share with the rest of the group.

“Ugh, a gas station,” we muttered as we proceeded to sit for nearly 25 minutes in the 98-degree heat on the sidewalk facing the pumps and the front door of the convenience store.

We were hot, tired, bored, antsy and irritable. Erik and I kept looking at each other and rolling our eyes as if to say, “When will this grueling chore be over?” We were wrestling with frustration over not being able to see the face of God and not having a story to tell the rest of the group. We felt like failures.

Then suddenly, as we were about ready to leave, a guy with dirty marks on his face, greasy hair, a scraggly beard and torn, stained, disheveled clothes walked from behind another building and crossed in front of us to go inside the store. We all exchanged wide-eyed glances. Erik volunteered to walk in and subtly find out the homeless man’s story.

A couple minutes later, Erik comes out and says to us: “Our homeless friend asked the clerk if he could give him a sandwich and some water. The clerk politely said he couldn’t help. I told him we might be able to do something.”  We pooled what cash we had in our pockets and gave to Erik who went back inside and bought God two sandwiches and a bottle of water.

This memory came to me about a month ago while three of our high school teens and I did mission work with two other church youth groups at DOOR-Atlanta. On our first evening, after dinner at Central Presbyterian Church, we were given bags of sandwiches, chips and water to distribute to dozens of people who sleep on the sidewalk outside of the building.

As we offered the food, we looked into each face—male, female; white, brown and black; young, middle-aged and old; a couple with cigarettes dangling from their lips, a few with cuts and bruises; some with wide smiles and toothy grins, and others with quiet demeanor—and we saw, to our surprise, the face of God staring back.

God always shows up in the most unlikely of places and people. We just need to open our eyes to see. Consider, for instance, this short video by Jewish filmmaker Meir Kay called “Eating Twinkies With God”:

In a description of the video on YouTube, Kay says:

“We don’t need to look far and wide for God. He’s in every one of us and in every thing that we do. Whether you believe or not, we all can agree that …each good act that we do makes this world a brighter place”

By seeing the face of God in others, especially the most poor and vulnerable among us, our minds and bodies are stretched and are eyes and hearts are open. We are changed, and we are forever determined to be the change for others—to be the body of Christ broken and spilled, remembered and shared.

We are reminded of this every time we come to the communion table and affirm that God is present with us in here and with all those out there whom we are called to serve with compassion. Presbyterian author and pastor Frederick Buechner (in his book Beyond Words) explains it this way:

To eat this particular meal together is to meet at the level of our most basic humanness, which involves our need not just for food, but for each other. I need you to help fill my emptiness just as you need me to help fill yours. As for the emptiness that’s still left over, well, we’re in it together, or it in us. Maybe it’s most of what makes us human and makes us brothers and sisters. The next time you walk down the street, take a good look at every face you pass and in your mind say, ‘Christ died for thee.” That girl. That slob. That phony. That crook. That saint. That damned fool. Christ died for thee. Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee.”

Amen.

Gotta Keep Moving

A Sermon for Sunday, May 28, 2017. The Ascension of the Lord Sunday, Acts 1:6-12

The Ascension of the Lord—it’s a peculiar event, don’t you think?

Jesus, after being raised from the dead, spends 40 days hanging out with the disciples, teaching them about the kingdom of God. And then, whoosh! Up in the air he goes. Artists’ renderings of this scene are quite surreal and a bit ludicrous, as if aliens are beaming Jesus up. Whoowhoowhoop!

Jesus’ ascension is an episode that many preachers and churches avoid entirely during the church season because it is odd and difficult to grasp. It’s not grounded in the mud, spit and blood of life. It’s not as substantial as Jesus’ birth into poverty, his ministry among the sick and the poor and his brutal death. Even resurrection—the breath and heart beat returning to the body, the seemingly dead now come alive—is more palpable than ascension.

And yet as lofty and bizarre as Jesus’ ascension seems, it is what people of faith have sought to comprehend for thousands of years. Jesus’ ascension, his grand departure from the earth and his friends, is reflected in many of the stories we tell—stories that try to make sense of this epic moment:

Like Superman the man of steel, who often leaves the city of Metropolis and rises above to keep a watchful eye over humanity.

Like E.T. the extra terrestrial who tells the boy Elliott that he loves him and then boards his family’s space ship to return home to his planet in the stars.

Like Maui the charming demigod who embraces the young chieftain Moana with a hug and then leaves by transforming into a great hawk that soars off into the sky.

Like the zany Genie who, upon being freed from the lamp by Aladdin, zooms into the air and packs a suitcase for an adventure of his own choosing.

Like Mary Poppins the magical nanny who concludes that she has successfully brought a family back together and then, with a wink and a smile, flies away clutching her umbrella.

Ascension in those stories is about goodbyes, endings and beginnings, transition and change. And Christ’s ascension is all of those things and more—the shaping of Jesus’ glory as the one who conquered death and fear; the establishing of Christ’s rein above all worldly powers; and the fulfilling of God’s promise that human beings are in possession of and destined for a future brimming with hope in Christ’s mercy and love.

Naturally, it’s a lot to take for the disciples to take in and, understandably, they have anxiety about what is occurring before their eyes. With nervous excitement, they ask Jesus: “Is this when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”

The disciples know God is triumphant and yet Jesus, their friend, teacher and savior, is leaving them. They want to know what is going to happen and they can’t bare the thought of Jesus not being among them.

The disciples are likely wondering:

  Is Jesus going up for a few minutes to recruit an angelic construction crew before coming back to rebuild Israel?

    Is he going up in the clouds for a few hours for a period of prayer, rest and renewal before returning to end all of the world’s problems with a word or the touch of his hand?

When Jesus tells them they don’t need to worry about the time in which the kingdom of God will be formed, the disciples realize deep in their hearts that the Jesus they knew—the Jesus who preached and taught as they traveled dusty roads from one town to the next; who shared meals with them and healed and fed the despised and downtrodden—wasn’t coming back.

Their hearts ache with a truth they don’t want to accept. So they stare up in the sky, hoping the Jesus they knew will make a quick U-turn and re-enter their lives as before. They know time is marching forward but they’re not ready to do the same.

Sound familiar?

We don’t like to part with someone we deeply love and cherish (and move forward without them) anymore than the disciples, even when we know in our heart of hearts that it’s usually what is meant to be.

It’s why we get choked up or melancholy at the end of a movie or TV episode, when a main character we’ve grown to appreciate, bids adieu. Those stories remind us that nothing stays the same, that the people closest to us will one day leave and that change is inevitable, whether we enjoy it or not.

Of the multitude of viewing options available these days, no show embraces the concept of goodbyes and change better than the long-running international sci-fi hit Doctor Who.

 

For the non-Whovians out there, Doctor Who follows the adventures of a Time Lord, a humanoid alien known as The Doctor who explores the universe in his TARDIS—a sentient time-traveling space ship that appears as an ordinary blue British police box.

In 1966, after the show had been on air for three years, William Hartnell, the first actor to play Doctor Who, became very ill. So the show’s creators invented a plot device in which the character of The Doctor would regenerate or take on a new body and personality as a way of recovering from something that would kill an ordinary person. This allowed producers and writers to cast a new actor into the role without losing momentum in the breadth of the series.

Throughout the show’s run, 13 actors have played the role of the Doctor—all becoming beloved for the unique persona they brought to the character. But no matter how many times fans watch The Doctor regenerate and know that change is going to occur—that an actor you’ve come to enjoy will be replaced by one who is unfamilliar—they become a bit emotional.

That was certainly true for this fan and many others when Matt Smith exited the show as the 11th Doctor and Peter Capaldi took over as the 12th Doc in the final moments of the Dec 25, 2013 episode “The Time of the Doctor.” The 11th Doctor’s trusted companion Clara Oswald (played by Jenna Coleman) knows her friend and mentor is regenerating, but she can’t bear to see him go. And as he is transforming, The Doctor reminds Clara about the importance of change while also remembering his previous companion, the late Amy Pond:

            “We all change, when you think about. We are all different people, all through our lives. And that’s ok, that’s good, you gotta keep moving so long as you remember all the people that you used to be,” the Doctor reminds Clara and viewers. And Clara, speaking on the audience’s behalf, says, “Please, Don’t change.”

Don’t change. Don’t leave.

Those words are imprinted on the disciples’ faces as they look longingly into the sky as Jesus ascends into the heavens. And they’d probably remain stuck there, fixated on the clouds for hours and hours awaiting Jesus’ immediate return, if the two angels hadn’t appeared.

The angels tell the disciples they have work to do and they need to get busy. Christ has chosen them to be witnesses of love and grace to the ends of the earth. There’s no time to gaze at the sky. The disciples gotta keep moving to share and embody the story of God’s love in the entire world.

So often, I think, Christians get stuck when significant change is happening, especially in the life of the Church. Many congregations struggle with saying goodbye to their long-time beloved pastors who accept a new call or retire. They struggle with saying goodbye to programs that are no longer viable or sparking joy.

They grapple with welcoming new leaders and visions for ministry. They have difficulty letting go because, in the words of Marie Kondo (the author of The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up) there is “an attachment to the past or a fear for the future.”

Most of you in this congregation know that we are in the midst of a process of letting go. As a way of honoring Dave Fry’s legacy as the founding pastor of 32 years and his retirement in November, we’ve embarked on a capital campaign–Gifted Past, Bold Future. The campaign’s purpose is to give gratitude for years of faith-shaping ministry as we strive to pay off the mortgage debt and make room for new ideas that will shape people’s lives.

And while Pleasant Hill is embracing the change, particularly Dave’s farewell, in a healthy way, I imagine there is still some anxiety among us. While we realize that Dave’s retirement is unavoidable, we don’t want him to go. We don’t want things to change.

A Pleasant Hill Presbyterian Church without Dave Fry seems strange after decades of service. We know deep in our hearts that this church won’t quite have the same relationship with Dave as it does at this moment. Eventually, Dave will not be in his office every day or preaching from Sunday to Sunday or teaching classes or making pastoral visits or doing baptisms, weddings and funerals. Dave’s not ascending into the clouds, of course, but he will no longer be present among the congregation as he is now and has been for so long.

Like Clara Oswald, we might be in bit of a shock to see someone else in the head of staff role. And the new pastor, like the new (12th) Doctor, might be a little bewildered about how to “fly this thing” or operate Pleasant Hill.

But if we love God and treasure Dave’s ministry, we won’t be stuck in the past or resistant to change or looking off in the distance or leave the new pastor on their own to figure things out. Instead, we’ll answer Christ’s call to be the Church, to be his followers, to be his witnesses for love and grace for all people in every time and place.

And although Dave won’t be roaming these halls one day, and although Jesus is not physically present, we won’t truly be alone in our endeavors.

As Sirius Black tells young Harry Potter who laments never knowing his parents, murdered when he was a child: The ones who love us never really leave us, you can always find them in here.” (points to Harry’s heart)

Therefore, let your hearts not ache or be torn or anxious, for not too long at least. Dave will soon leave us with an amazing legacy to build on for many years to come. There is much to do and to experience as time goes onward. In the beautiful parting words of the hobbit Frodo to his best friend Sam in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King:

         “You have so much to enjoy and to be and to do. (Your) part in the story will go on.”

Jesus has gone ahead of us, preparing for a future full of hope. And he beckons us to follow and to continue the story that God began–a story with many twists and turns. And Christ assures us that something inspiring is coming—like a mighty rushing wind and tongues of flame—to guide us as Christians and the Church on the journey ahead.

Therefore, we gotta keep moving.

Amen.

Meeting Jesus in the Mud

A Sermon for Sunday March 26, 2017 (The Fourth Sunday of Lent) John 9:1-17 and 24-41

One of God’s greatest gifts is…mud. Glorious, messy mud.

For many children, playing in the mud provides endless enjoyment.

Mud pies to serve at a party with friends—each delicacy decorated with pebbles, twigs and flower petals.

Mud puddles to stomp and splash in after a good thunderstorm—brand new rain boots spattered with artful gray streaks.

Mud creeks to explore for signs of tadpoles, minnows and crawfish—squishy clumps wedged between the toes in that cool water.

Teens relish moments romping in the mud too.

I have a fond memory from seven years ago when the high school youth from this church did mission work in Houma, La in July. Nearly every day there was an afternoon downpour.

By the middle of the week, there had been so much rain that a pool of water, a couple of inches deep nearly 30 feet in length had formed on our lodging site—a muddy oasis that had to be experienced by a group of teens who had worked hard all day doing construction work. They spent more than an hour running and sliding through the giant puddle, giggling and shouting the entire time.

Did you ever have those exhilarating experiences growing up? Do you remember what it was like to play in the mud as a kid and the unbridled fun you had?

Of course, there are also plenty of adults who don’t mind playing and working in the mud. On mission trips to Honduras, Guatemala, the Dominican Republic or even a couple hours away in the Blue Ridge Mountains, it’s impossible to avoid getting filthy.

         After a long day of digging holes, carrying rocks, pouring concrete, laying bricks, building homes, adults—caked in a muddy mixture of dirt, cement and sweat—wear their grime as badges of honor.  I’ve seen many adults tease each other over who has worked the hardest by the amount of mud they have on their clothes.

There is something exhilarating and satisfying when we are covered in God’s earth, isn’t there?

In the book Dangerous Wonder, author Michael Yaconeli recounts how a friend did a one-man show on Jesus’ life in which he imagined Jesus and the disciples taking a break in the Jordan River after many days of travel and doing ministry. The scene plays out like this:

Jesus and the disciples were all in the river taking baths when the beloved   disciple,  John, reaches down to the floor of the river and brings up a huge mud pie. Preoccupied with their washing, none of the disciples notices. John takes careful aim at his favorite target, Peter. SPLAT! The mud pie strikes Peter in the face. John immediately ducks underwater as though he is scrubbing.

Peter reaches for his own mud pie, takes careful aim at Matthew and lets it fly. WHAM! James wastes no time responding with his own mud pie, and soon bedlam breaks out amongst the disciples. A full-fledged mud fight is under way.

 Philip and Bartholomew sneak up on Judas, whom they didn’t particularly like anyway, and nail him with two mud pies.

 Simon the Zealot…lets loose with a huge mud pie. John ducks and the mud missile hits Jesus right in the middle of his forehead. All the disciples freeze. After a long silence Thomas leans over to Simon and says, “You idiot! You just hit the Son of God with a mud pie…He’ll turn us into turtles!”

 Jesus gazes slowly at each of the disciples, each one fearing the worst.

With a knowing smile, Jesus stops when he sees Simon, who refuses to look Jesus in the eyes. Jesus reaches down into the mud and comes up with a very large mud pie and—BAM!—Simon is hit squarely on the top of his head, and as the mud slithers down his face, everyone, including Jesus, breaks into laughter.

During Jesus’ day, mud was a treasured substance that had many practical and enjoyable applications for daily living.

Mud was the prime building material people used to make things—jars, pots, plates, tools, ovens, art, tablets, roads, homes and other structures. Additionally, it was used to heal wounds on the skin or give relief to aching muscles, i.e. the mud facial and mud bath.

Now, as far as anyone knows, mud was not considered a cure for a more serious infliction like blindness.  But that doesn’t stop Jesus from mixing spit and dirt into mud and placing on the blind man’s eyes.

           Mud is an essential part of life and it is also sacred because it is of the earth that God created and formed out of darkness and brought into the light.  Thus, it’s no surprise that Jesus, God-in-the-flesh, uses mud to create something new, to give sight to a blind man who was born unseeing.

More alarming is the Pharisees’, the religious leaders’ judgment of the blind man and Jesus.  In spite of this extraordinary act of compassion, the Pharisees believe the blind man is a sinner from birth who is undeserving of healing and that Jesus is a heretic.

The Pharisees have become so self-righteous and full of absolutes and lofty ideals that they’re no longer grounded in God’s ways. They care more about their own status and prestige than getting their clothes dirty by helping their brothers and sisters in need.

The Pharisees have become completely detached from those they are called by God to serve.  They claim to be all knowing about God while ignoring the God who dwells with the poor, sick and oppressed, the Christ who is willing to get mud on his hands to show love to another human being. They’ve forgotten the beauty and joy of playing and working in the mud and being in relationship with others.

The Pharisees behave as no one else matters but them and their absolutes about how God works. And sadly our history shows there have been hard-nosed religious folks who’ve acted just as arrogantly and dogmatically ever since.

The late science historian and mathematician Jacob Bronowski commented on this egotistical behavior of some human beings in the 1973 BBC documentary Ascent of Man:

“It’s said that science will dehumanize people and turn them into numbers. That’s false, tragically false. Look for yourself. This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance, it was done by dogma, it was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods.

Science is a very human form of knowledge. We are always at the brink of the known; we always feel forward for what is to be hoped. Every judgment in science stands on the edge of error and is personal. Science is a tribute to what we can know although we are fallible. In the end, the words were said by Oliver Cromwell: “I beseech you in the bowels of Christ: Think it possible you may be mistaken.”

I owe it as a scientist to my friend Leo Szilard, I owe it as a human being to the many members of my family who died here, to stand here as a survivor and a witness. We have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge and power. We have to close the distance between the push-button order and the human act. We have to touch people.”

Jesus, according to the Gospel of John, spits on the ground and makes mud with his own saliva and touches the blind man’s eyes. And minutes later, after washing his face in a nearby pool, the man is able to see for the first time in his life!

Christ’s actions are a reminder that we as his followers are supposed to touch people—to reach out and dirty our hands if necessary to bring love and life to someone else.  We as followers are called to meet Jesus in the mud.

And it will be clear and beautiful… if we have the eyes to see it

Amen.

The Messiness of Christmas

A Sermon for January 1, 2017. First Sunday After Christmas. Epiphany Sunday. Matthew 2:1-22

37036One of the Advent-Christmas traditions here at Pleasant Hill is to place this beautiful, porcelain made Nativity set on the communion table. These figures from Matthew and Luke’s gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth are familiar to worshippers: Mary and Joseph, the baby, a shepherd, an angel and the magi. All the major players are here…except for one.

There’s no figure of King Herod—King Herod the Great who was appointed by the Roman Empire to rule over Judea, the country in which Jesus was born.

In the millions of interpretations of the Nativity in displays, greeting cards, paintings and children’s books that have been created over thousands of years, a depiction of Herod is not included. Cattle, sheep, camels, a donkey, a dog, a cat and even Santa Claus are added to the scene. But not Herod. The beloved hymns of the Advent-Christmas season don’t mention Herod either, except for two obscure carols, one written in the late 16th century and the other in 1911.

And yet he is an integral part of Jesus’ birth and early childhood.

The reason for Herod’s absence, of course, is obvious. He’s not a good guy and certainly no admirer of Jesus. Herod is, quite frankly, scared of the baby and the prospect that this child will one day overthrow his reign and become Israel’s ruler.

Herod is so terrified of losing his throne and power that he plots to murder the infant Jesus by sneakily asking the magi to let him know the baby’s exact location so he also may pay homage.

But his plan is thwarted when an angel of the Lord warns the magi to return home by another road and then tells Joseph to flee with Mary and Jesus to Egypt. This, however, is not the conclusion of the story, although historicaly our retellings often end here.

After realizing the magi have tricked him and the baby who threatens his kingdom is not within his reach, Herod becomes filled with rage. “If I can’t have the one baby who will become king, I will kill them all!” Herod probably thought as he ordered his soldiers to murder all boys in and around Bethlehem who were between the age of infancy and 2-years-old.

And that image of children being slaughtered by a ruthless king is too much to comprehend. Genocide doesn’t fit neatly with the angels’ pronouncement of joy, the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes in the manger, the star over Bethlehem, and strangers coming to worship the child.

Herod’s violence breaks our silent and holy night in which we celebrate the prince of peace on earth. Herod makes the celebration of Christmas messy and ruins one’s sentimental view of and desire for the holidays, which is not something many Christians like to consider. But we need Herod in the Christmas story in spite of his horrific actions or maybe because of them.

In her essay “Putting Herod Back in Christmas” Anglican priest and author Joy Carroll Wallis[1] puts it this way:

Herod recognizes something about Jesus that in our sentiment we fail to see: that the birth of this child is a threat to his kingdom, a threat to that kind of domination and rule. Jesus challenges the very power structures. Herod has all the male infants in Bethlehem murdered. Not so cozy. This is the Jesus who entered the bloody history of Israel, and the human race. …Herod represents the dark side of the gospel. He reminds us that Jesus didn’t enter a world of sparkly Christmas cards or a world of warm spiritual sentiment. Jesus enters a world of real pain, of serious dysfunction, a world of brokenness and political oppression. Jesus was born an outcast, a homeless person, a refugee, and finally becomes a victim to the powers that be. Jesus is the perfect savior for outcasts, refugees and nobodies.”

Christmas, with its spirit of giving and message of incarnate love, peace and joy, certainly speaks deeply to our hearts and draws out our child-like sense of amazement. It sparks our imaginations and stirs our souls to do a lot of good in the world. But the events that occurred on that first Christmas reminds us that humans have the potential to cause a lot of mayhem.

Jesus is born into a broken and sinful world, in a time in which the Roman Empire controlled everything and Caesar proclaimed himself to be god-like. And from birth to death, Jesus encounters persecution by the Roman authorities and religious leaders who feel intimidated by his presence and the truth that he is the actual embodiment of God’s love among humanity.

Jesus shakes up the world and threatens the status quo. And that holy upheaval scares people who wish to cling to their own power, prestige and agendas. It scares them enough to lash out violently against “the other” whom God has created and to ultimately reject God’s love for human beings—especially the ones who are marginalized and viewed as unnatural and different.

Jesus not only rattles the people during biblical times, but his life, teachings and resurrection also frightens people today, including devoted, long-time believers. Can Christians then open their eyes to recognize and understand the messiness of Christmas and this birth in our lives and world?

Religious writer Matt Emerson[2] says it like this:

We are two thousand years from first-century Palestine, but the Incarnation is not like the Civil War. It is not simply an event from which we draw lessons. The challenge for moderns is to see the dynamics of Palestine within the human landscape of the human heart. Our inner life is one of clashing sects and regimes, of shaky alliances and diverse languages. A Herod hides in all of us. So does a Pontius Pilate. And a St. Peter. And a Mary. At one time we are the moralizing Pharisees; at another, the ruling Romans. Christ today must enter this territory. Will we prepare him room? It’s strange. And it’s difficult. Christ unsettles. Christ imperils…A mix of joy and confusion, happiness and worry. This is the first Christmas. Can we today recover some of its dramatic impact?”

Amid our joyful celebration of Christmas, can we connect with the upheaval that accompanies Christ’s birth? Can we admit that as much as we want Christmas time (and the days ahead) to be filled with peace and forever free of violence and heartache, the reality is that it’s not going to happen instantaneously?

Can we stop brushing aside the messy, hard-to-look at parts of Christmas and life so we can take a moment to see the pain of humanity instead of ignoring it and pretending that the atrocities around us bear no affect on our daily living and happiness?

Can we acknowledge the pain so that we might connect with the hurting, the oppressed, the outcasts and nobodies whom Jesus came to dwell among?

Can we see in the faces of babies, particularly those born in extreme poverty, the Christ child who was delivered in a musty stable to a poor peasant couple in the hub of Empire?

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Can we see in the faces of immigrants and refugees the family of Mary, Joseph and Jesus running for their lives under the cover of night to a foreign land to escape a bloodthirsty king?

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Can we see in the faces of innocent children and families of war-torn Aleppo, the fear and anguish of the children and families in Bethlehem who suffered genocide at the hands of Herod’s army?

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Can we see in the faces of the poor, the working class, the discriminated, the abused, and the broken, the God who dwells among the suffering?

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Can we see in the face of Herod, our own capabilities for destruction and know that God desires for us to act in the restorative ways of love?

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Can we witness as the magi did, the epiphany of God’s love in the world’s most broken places? Can we truly see the power of our Sovereign Creator who comes to be with us in human flesh and divine glory as a vulnerable, defenseless child?

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In a reflection on the scripture reading, Christian theologian David Lose[3] assures us that we can:

Sometimes life is beautiful and wonderful and filled with goodness and grace. And God is a part of that, giving blessing and celebrating with us and for us. And sometimes life is hard, gritty, disappointing and filled with heartache. And God is part of that as well, holding on to us, comforting us, blessing us with promise that God will stay with us through the good and the bad, drawing us ever more deeply into God’s loving embrace and promising that nothing—not even death—will separate us from God… God is working not only with the characters of this (Christmas) story, but also working through their triumphs and tragedies in order to work salvation in and for the world. God is likewise holding onto us through the joys and sorrows, working through the triumphs and tragedies that attend our lives—all to share the news of the salvation God has wrought in and through the life, death and resurrection of Christ.”

God is calling each of us to share the good news and help build God’s kingdom—a place where all are welcomed, redeemed and cared for in love.

God is calling each of us to do the work of Christmas, long after the carols have been sung, the decorations have been removed and the season has officially ended. Or as the late civil rights activist Howard Thurman said so profoundly in his poem The Work of Christmas:

When the song of the angels is stilled, when the star in the sky is gone,

When the kings and princes are home,

When the shepherds are back with their flock,

The work of Christmas begins: To find the lost, to heal the broken,

To feed the hungry, to release the prisoner,

To rebuild the nations, to bring peace among brothers,

To make music from the heart.

             The work of Christmas is not easy. It’s hard, challenging, frustrating and tiring at times. It’s plain ole messy. That’s just how it is.

We take the fear, scorn and despair with the joy, wonder and hope. We take the bad with the good. We take Herod with the magi.

But the anguish reminds us that Jesus enters into a mess and the mess doesn’t overcome God-with-us; and the gloom reassures us that we’ve been made to endure messes and to get busy living out God’s love.

This is the first day of a new year, a new beginning. There’s a lot of messiness in this world and there will be a lot more. None of it will get cleaned up by itself.

So let’s get up and get to work.

Amen.

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[1] http://liturgy.co.nz/church-year/herod-christmas

[2] http://www.americamagazine.org/content/ignatian-educator/terrifying-first-christmas

[3] https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=2973