Advent Stories: Sermon for December 7, 2014

Mark 1:1-8
1:1 The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

1:2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way;

1:3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,'”

1:4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

1:5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

1:6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.

1:7 He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.

1:8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

Advent2

I don’t watch a lot of movies. I really have never been good at sitting still long enough. But there is one exception: Christmas movies. Right now there is a stack of them next to our TV: It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Carol, Charlie Brown Christmas, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Elf, Christmas Vacation…the list goes on. And each December I probably spend more time than the rest of the year combined watching movies.

I’ve found that the same is true for others too. There’s something so special about the Christmas stories we grew up with, and even the ones we’ve come to know as adults, that they become a part of the way we celebrate the holidays.

But as much as I love them, there’s a catch…and that’s that I don’t think all of our favorite Christmas stories are really Christmas stories at all.

I’ll come back to that. But first, we have this story from Scripture about another character: John the Baptist. It’s traditional that on the second Sunday of Advent churches read about John, and about how he lived out in the wilderness where he ate locusts and wild honey, and wore camel’s hair, and shouted at people to “prepare the way of the Lord”.

So, you know, really Christmasy. He doesn’t sound like he was a lot of fun to be around. Actually, he sounds a little more like the Grinch or Ebenezer Scrooge. And yet, this is in many ways exactly the text we need to read this time of the year.

Because Advent is about preparation. It is about, as John puts it, preparing the way of the Lord and making the Lord’s paths straight. And John doesn’t mean literal paths by that. He doesn’t want us to build sidewalks or pave roads. He wants us to do something much harder.

John is telling us to clear the way for God to come into our hearts and into our lives. “Prepare the way of the Lord. Make the path straight.” In other words, get ready. Make some room for God.

That can be hard to imagine during the midst of the busy run-up to Christmas. We all have things to do this time of year. Presents to buy, cookies to bake, decorations to put up, cards to send. We may be busier than ever. And now John, this guy with his camel hair, wants us to add one more thing to the list. And that’s pretty easy for him to say. His shopping list consists of only two things: locusts and honey.

But, what if he’s right? What if you and I are being asked to prepare the way of the Lord? And what if it’s not just something to do on top of everything else we do to get ready for Christmas? What if it’s the point of this whole season and nothing else really matters?

Part of how we prepare the way of the Lord in this Advent season is by reflecting on the four traditional themes of the season. Last week was “hope”. And today is “peace”. But this story about John the Baptist, this guy who is sort of out there raving in the wilderness, at first glance might not sound like it has much to do with peace at all, so you might be wondering, “why do churches read about him this week”?

I think the answer to that has to do with how we understand what “peace” means. So, how would you define peace? It is the absence of war? In one sense, yes. And I would love for us to learn how to live without war. This world has too many wars, including ones being fought right now. This year, as I’m thinking about what peace means, I’m also thinking about a friend of mine who is deployed to Afghanistan right now. And as he spends this Christmas away from his family, I’m thinking about a world in which he would never have had to go.

I believe that Jesus, the Prince of Peace, wants that kind of peace for the world. But I don’t believe peace stops there. Because peace means more than not just firing a weapon, or raising a fist. And Jesus himself showed that.

Because the child we wait for this season, the one who would be called the Prince of Peace, is also the guy who grew up to angrily flip over tables in the Temple. He didn’t believe in the kind of false peace that comes only in the absence of armed conflict. And that’s because he wanted more from us than peace without justice.

And so when Jesus walked into the Temple and saw a system of money changing and usury that manipulated the faith of people and exploited the poor, he literally turned the tables on it. And in doing so, he taught us all that real peace cannot come when some are being oppressed. Real peace only comes when every child of God is treated justly.

So, already peace is a tall order: the absence of violence, and the absence of injustice. But, what if there’s even more to it?

There is a song you may have heard: “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.” There’s also that prayer from St. Francis that we recited at the beginning of our service: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.”

What if we got absolutely serious about that? What if we decided that we ourselves were going to be the place where peace starts. And, even harder, what if we committed to creating peace within our own selves?

There’s a word that I’ve come to associate with inner peace: serenity. Reinhold Niebuhr, the well-known UCC minister and theologian, even wrote a prayer about it that you probably know: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Serenity does not mean that everything is perfect. It does not mean that things are even good or comfortable. It simply means that in the midst of everything, we have a sense of peace. And for those of us who are Christians, that means a sense of connection with our God, and with Christ, the Prince of Peace.

In that way, reading about John the Baptist on this Sunday of peace is maybe not so strange after all. Because what John is asking us to do is to get ready for God. John is saying prepare your heart, and mind for Christ’s coming. Unclutter the path that God will take, remove the obstacles you have placed there, and open yourself up to the peace that only Christ can bring.

Prepare the way of the Lord, because that’s how you find peace in yourself. And if you don’t have that peace, how can you ever except to bring it to others?

And that’s important because so much of what John the Baptist was doing out there in the wilderness was witnessing to the one who was to come. John knew he was not Christ. He knew something bigger than him was coming. Just like you and I are not Christ, but we witness to what we believe by the way we live our lives. And in Advent we prepare ourselves for the work of witnessing to God’s hope, and peace, and joy, and love, that we are asked to do all year. We prepare the way of the Lord inside of us, that we may prepare the way of the Lord in a world that so desperately needs all of those things that only Christ can bring.

And so, here’s where I want to go back to those Christmas movies and specials I talked about at the beginning. Remember how I said they weren’t really Christmas stories? I say that not because they are not Christmas-themed, but because most of them are really Advent stories. And that’s because most of them are about someone who learns to prepare the way of the Lord in their heart by making a change.

Even when everything is coming down around George Bailey, he learns to see the world through grateful eyes. Ebenezer Scrooge sees the truth about himself, becomes a compassionate and kind soul, and changes his miserly ways. Charlie Brown hears Linus recite the Christmas story, and he learns what Christmas is all about. And even the Grinch hears the Whos down in Whoville singing despite the fact he stole Christmas, and his heart grows three sizes that day.

Those are their Advent stories. Each has an Advent that prepares them for Christmas. And each arrives at Christmas day different than they were when the season of Advent started. They are, in some way, transformed. And transformation is what Advent is all about.

So what is your Advent story? How are you going to be transformed this year? How are you going to prepare and make straight the way of the Lord?

You don’t have to be visited by the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future. You don’t have to have to go to Whoville. You don’t even have to have Charlie Brown’s sad little Christmas tree. All you have to do is this: open your heart, and make a little space for the Prince of Peace. Prepare the way of the Lord, and the Lord will show you the rest. Amen.

God is Still Breaking and Entering: Sermon for November 30, 2014 (First Sunday in Advent)

Mark 13:24-37
13:24 “But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light,

13:25 and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.

13:26 Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory.

13:27 Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

13:28 “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near.

13:29 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates.

13:30 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.

13:31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

13:32 “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.

13:33 Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.

13:34 It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch.

13:35 Therefore, keep awake–for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn,

13:36 or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly.

13:37 And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

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Today is the first Sunday in Advent, the start of the church season when we begin to prepare for Christmas, and the coming of Christ. And like I was telling the kids when they came up here this morning, our sanctuary shows that we are getting ready for something new. Our paraments have switched over from greens to blues and purples. The Advent wreath has been lit for the first time. And the manger is here, waiting for Jesus’ birth.

And this first Sunday in Advent, like all the other Sundays in Advent, has a traditional meaning and theme. The first Sunday is focused on hope, and the next three on peace, joy, and love. And so over the course of this month, we are going to be thinking about those things and praying about them in the hopes that as we wait for Christ, hope, peace, joy, and love will surround us, and transform our world.

And so, knowing that we are thinking about hope today, you might wonder why most churches are reading the particular passage from Scripture that was just read. Because, it doesn’t sound so hopeful. Listen to part of it again: Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.

It almost sounds like a threat: Jesus is coming, and you better not be slacking off because Jesus is like the boss who comes in and finds you sleeping on the job. Not exactly hopeful, right? There’s an old joke: “Jesus is coming! Look busy!” When I read this text I think, “Maybe that’s not a joke?”

But then I think again. Because I don’t think that Jesus is the horrible boss hiding around the corner waiting to sneak up on us and catch us in the act. I don’t think Advent is about that at all. But, I do think that Advent is about waking up, and being prepared. But not because we are afraid. But because something big is about to happen, and God is behind it.

And that’s because Christmas is a bit of a both/and holiday. It is both about something that happened 2,000 years ago, but it is also about something that is happening now. Because 2000 years ago Jesus was born in Bethlehem, and that alone is worth celebrating and remembering. But Christmas is more than just a historical event. Christmas is something that keeps happening in our lives. And each year this celebration can help us to remember that.

Because Christmas is all about God becoming one of us. Not like one of us, or pretending to be one of us, but God choosing to be one of us. It’s God loving us so much that God came into the world not in power, or wealth, or prominence, but as a little child who had none of those things, and yet who changed everything. And it’s about the fact that God has never stopped being a part of our world.

Christmas is about God breaking into this world, and God breaking into our hearts. And, in a strange way, Advent is the season where you and I help God get ready to do pull off the ultimate break-in.

We do this by preparing ourselves to be the first to be broken into. And so, we unlock the doors of our hearts and minds, the ones we keep sealed up so much of the year out of fear, or anxiety, or pain, or hatred. We shut off the alarm systems that keep us on edge, and keep us from opening ourselves wide. And in this season, somehow, we find a way to be just a little more loving, just a little more joyous, and just a little more hopeful.

And the hope comes where we least expect it. Because contrary to what the ads on television might tell you, hope does not come in a Black Friday or Cyber Monday sale, no matter how much you will save. Hope is not dependent on whether you get everything on your Christmas list this year, or even whether your kids do. It doesn’t even come from having the perfect Christmas cookies, or lights, or tree.

Instead, the hope comes when God breaks into our hearts, the same hearts which are so often broken by this world. Because you can be the most positive and optimistic person in the world, and yet you have to admit that there is a lot in this world that can break your heart.

And yet, the true meaning of Christmas is God saying it doesn’t have to be that way. And the true meaning of Advent is us saying, “We agree, and so we are going to get ready for another way.”

So this year, how are you going to help God’s love to break into this broken world? How are you going to prepare for something better, not just for a few weeks every December, but for always?

Our tradition in the UCC is fond of the phrase “God is still speaking…”, used to describe our belief that God is still revealing God’s self to us. But maybe a better phrase might be the odd sounding “God is still breaking and entering…” God is still breaking into our world, and entering our hearts. And thanks be to God, literally, for that.

And so, where do we hope God’s love breaks into and enters this December? Afghanistan? Syria? Washington, DC? Ferguson, Missouri? I hope for all of those places. But before I can hope for any of those places, I have to first hope that God’s love breaks into my own heart, and changes me.

I have to be ready to let God’s love do that. I have to be willing to be transformed. And I have to accept that fact that once God is in, everything is going to be different. I can’t hope and also cling to the way I want things to be all at the same time. Because if I want to choose God’s hope, I also have to choose to let go of what is comfortable, and certain, and easy.

That’s true of all of us. That’s even true of God, who chose to become one of us, that came in a newborn’s weakness, in order that we might learn what it is to really hope.

And so, on this first Sunday of Advent, we can choose to live into that hope. And we can choose to help to welcome Christ into this world by preparing a place for him that we have lined with our prayers.

During the children’s sermon I was telling them that each week we are going to be doing just that, in a symbolic way. This manger has been brought to the chancel, and you have in your pews strips of yellow paper. You might not know it yet, but that’s straw. That is the straw that we are going to use to line this manger, and to get it ready for Jesus’ birth.

So, here’s the interactive part of the sermon.

Each week you will have the chance to write a prayer on that straw. This week we are asking for your prayers of hope. Next week of peace. The following of joy. And the final week, of love. And after today our kids are going to collect them as they come forward for the children’s sermon, and they are going to place them in the manger. And by the time we get to Christmas Eve, this manger will be full. And when it is we will be saying this to God with our prayers: “We are in…we are ready…break into our world, God, and break it open with your love.”

And so, take a moment now. Take one of those strips of paper, and write your prayer for hope. It can be simple, just a few words. And in just a few minutes, as we sing our next hymn, the youngest members of our community are going to collect those prayers from you, and they are going to bring those hopes up to the front here, and lay them in the manger.

And as they do, we will be singing a hymn that you have probably sung many times before, the classic hymn of Advent. “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”, which means, literally, “O come, O come, God-with-us”. It’s a prayer in itself. An invitation to God to break into our hearts, and to change everything this Advent.

And so my first prayer of hope this Advent is for all of us, and that is that we will sing that hymn and mean it. It’s that we will be ready to ask God to come and change everything. And it is that we will hope.

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel…we are ready for you. Amen.

Jesus, America, and the Bullies on the Bus – A sermon for July 1, 2012

Mark 5:21-43
5:21 When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea.

5:22 Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet

5:23 and begged him repeatedly, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.”

5:24 So he went with him. And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him.

5:25 Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years.

5:26 She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse.

5:27 She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak,

5:28 for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.”

5:29 Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease.

5:30 Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?”

5:31 And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?'”

5:32 He looked all around to see who had done it.

5:33 But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth.

5:34 He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

 

Like many of you I’ve been following the story of the New York state bus monitor who was bullied recently. Karen Klein was riding on a bus when a group of 7th graders, 12 and 13 years old, taunted her, grabbed at her, and made fun of the fact she’s a widow and had lost a child. Another student then posted it on youtube. Apparently this had happened before. As anyone who watched the video can tell you, these seventh grade kids are already breathtakingly cruel.

And today we read this story from the Gospel, about Jesus and a woman who was looking for healing. Jesus has been called to go to a house where a young girl is dying. He’s hurrying along and seemingly oblivious to this woman who approaches him. She has been suffering for a long time. Twelve years. And she has seen all the doctors and spent all her money trying to get well. But she’s heard about Jesus, and she says, “If I can just touch his clothes, maybe I’ll be healed…”

She does, and she is immediately made well. And Jesus knows something has happened and turns around and says, “Who touched me?” She admits, timidly, it was her. Jesus tells her, “your faith has made you well…go in peace and be healed.”

What do these two stories have to do with each other? And why am I putting the two together on the Sunday that we celebrate the 4th of July, and ask God’s blessing upon our country?

It’s because of this. As much as we might want to write those school bus bullies off as “kids today” or as much as we might want to talk about what the parents could have done differently, the fact is those kids on the bus were not born in a vacuum, nor were they raised in one. They didn’t wake up one morning after years of exposure to a society of civility and compassion and decide to bully the widow who road their bus. The same is true of the kids who are bullied around this country every day, for whatever reason. It’s not an issue of “kids will be kids”. They don’t come up with this on their own.

Instead, they get it from somewhere. And more often than not, they get it from us. Not us here specifically, but us as in the adults in their life. Not just the ones in their homes, but the ones in their neighborhoods and on their televisions and even in the places of power in this country.

Pundits bemoan the lack of civility in this country. They say we have lost basic manners and human compassion. And to a great extent, they’re right. We reward radio personalities who degrade women, we engage in name-calling when someone has a different political belief than ours, we curse out the umpire when he calls our kid out at home plate. Is it any surprise those kids on the bus may have thought what they were doing was acceptable?

In fact, in the aftermath of the video, some of the boys involved began to receive death threats from adults. And while nothing those boys did on the bus that day was okay, adults threatening 13 year olds with death isn’t either. The ones who made the threats are probably oblivious to the fact that they were replicating the very kind of un-compassionate behavior those kids were engaging in.

Now, it would be wonderful to be able to say that we who follow the way of Christ, who taught us compassion and who taught us to love our neighbors as ourselves, aren’t like that. But the truth is Christians are sometimes the worst offenders. The things that are said in the public arena by Christians of all stripes, sometimes even as they defend their views as being truly Christian, are sometimes staggeringly lacking in compassion, kindness, and respect. It’s little wonder that many under the age of forty in our country think that Christians is a religion where believers claim to believe one thing but act in a totally different way. For many Americans in my generation the hypocritical Christian is what they think of when they argue religion is useless.

So how do we change that? How do we change not so much so that we will be perceived differently, but so that our society will be different? How do we become a people who embodies Christ’s teaching in such a way that our culture changes?

I think about the woman on the road that day. Broken down. Losing her lifeblood. Looking for healing. Being willing to try anything. I think of her seeking out this man who was promising a different way. A way of compassion. A way of moving forward. And I think of her, unsure, tentative, reaching out and just touching his clothing. Reaching out to the one that she thought would heal her.

I think she has something to teach those of us who would follow Christ. In a time where the culture we live, the body made up of all of us in this country, sometimes feels like it is bleeding out, and losing its life, how do we reach out for that which would heal us? How do we reach out for the cloak of Jesus and dare to ask for healing?

We Americans often sing God bless America. It’s a prayer we are singing. But when we finish singing, do we think about our part in that? Or do we ask for that blessing from God without considering the things that God wants us to do? Do we finish singing and forget about it? Or do we finish singing and get to work on working with that blessing? Do we get to work trying to follow the path of love, and compassion, and kindness set out by Christ?

Now, I want to be clear here for a minute that I am not saying this should become a country of Christians. We live in a religiously diverse country and every citizen of every faith should be valued and respected. And every faith, in its best interpretation, encourages its members to lead lives of compassion and care for ones neighbor. But what I’m saying is that for those of us who are Christian, our faith adds an extra layer to our citizenship. It adds a mandate that we help to transform our culture from one where 13 year old kids think bullying an elderly woman is acceptable to one where they have grown up with the privileging of compassion and kindness and civility. One where the whole idea of loving your neighbor as yourself is not something that we just give lip service to on Sundays.

I believe that’s possible. I believe it’s possible to create a country where we may disagree widely on the issues, but we still act like Christians. I’ll give you an example. I know this congregation pretty well, and I know that last Thursday when the Supreme Court decision on health care came down, many of you had strong reactions. A segment of this congregation thought it was the worst thing to ever happen to this country. But I know another group of you thought it was the best thing ever.

And yet here you are, on Sunday morning. Sitting across the aisle from one another. Maybe even sharing the same pew. You’re not calling each other names. You’re not saying the other is unAmerican. You’re not yelling at each other with red faces. You may disagree, but you pray for each other’s families and bring casseroles over when one gets sick. And after the final hymn you’ll go into the back room and drink coffee and actually fellowship.

I’m not naive. I know that this country will never resemble a church fellowship hour. But I do know that if we who would follow Christ were to reach out to him, reach out and just try to touch him, try to be healed, we could help to spread that healing to the places we live and work and learn. If we did that, things might look a whole lot better than they did when we saw that video taken on the bus for the same time. They might look a whole lot more like the country we want to be, the country that we hope God will bless.

It’s not always an easy path, though. Deciding how you will live into your Christian calling as a citizen is different for each person, and deciding how you will ask for God’s blessing, and healing, for us all is a personal decision.

A seminarian I know, a good friend of Heidi’s, had to ask herself that question recently. She felt called by God to a different type of ministry, one in which she could share Christ’s compassion and love with those who needed it most. And so this summer, while her classmates have been safely ensconced in air conditioned offices, she’s been waking up at 4am and running, drilling, and otherwise getting through another day of training to be an Air Force chaplain.

She’s not someone who relishes the idea of war. Her political ideas are different from many she serves with. But she is someone who feels called by God to serve in that way, and to spread Christ’s love and light to those who don’t get to see a whole lot of it. She has decided that is the way to embody her faith in her citizenship.

That’s the path she took. But you don’t have to join the military to do that. You can do it right here at home in your own neighborhoods. In this election year, where the commercials bombard us every night on our TV screens, where the debates grow louder each round, where even jokes about candidates being killed are not considered out of bounds, how will you choose to let your faith inform your citizenship? How will you reach out for Christ asking that his healing be on us all? How will you ask God to bless America, and bless the whole world?

Will you let yourself be transformed by the meanest kids on the bus? Or will you become the one who steps in, and reaches out for Christ’s healing? The one who hears Christ say, “your faith has healed you…go in peace”?

May God bless us all that we would not be the one who sits ideally by when our country, and our world, need us the most. Amen.

Cruise Ship or Christ’s Ship? – Sermon for June 24, 2012

Mark 4:35-41
4:35 On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.”

4:36 And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him.

4:37 A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped.

4:38 But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

4:39 He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm.

4:40 He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”

4:41 And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

A few years ago a friend of mine who lived in Boston decided to take a quick trip to the outer tip of Cape Cod. The two aren’t that far apart, of course. At least not as the crow flies. But if you drive you have to go down the South Shore, over the backed-up bridge, and over and up the Cape again. Several hours later you’ll get there.

So my friend decided to go by boat. When they got on the ferry, the day looked pretty nice. The sea was calm. It was sunny. They’d be there soon. But once they got out in open water, things changed. The swells came up the side of the boat. It lunged through the water, dipping up and down, and her friends told her she was literally turning green.

She made it safely to the other shore, but she resolved that next time she would drive.

If they had had cars in Biblical times I’ll bet the disciples in today’s passage would have gotten to the other shore, turned around to look at Jesus, and said “next time we’re driving.”

Jesus is teaching the crowds and when he gets done he tells them that they are going to the other side. And part way across a storm kicks up. The water swamps the boat, the waves beat against it, and the disciples are not just seasick; they’re pretty sure they’re going to die.

Times like this, you want Jesus to be awake. But they look over at him, and he’s sleeping. And I’m sure they were thinking, “How can you sleep through this, Jesus?” They call out to him, “don’t you realize we are about to die? Don’t you care?”

And then Jesus wakes up. And he looks around. And he says, “Peace…be still.”

The storm goes ends. And the winds die down. And they are safe again. Jesus asks them, “Why are you afraid? Do you still have no faith?”

The Scripture tells us that the disciples were filled with awe, and started to ask each other, “Who is this guy? Even the wind and sea obey him?”

Had I been there, I might not have been filled with awe about Jesus. It might have gone more like this: “Hey, buddy…while you’re asleep the rest of us are about to die, so maybe you could wake up and help us keep the water out of the boat?”

To be honest, a lot of us have moments we feel that way about Jesus. The sea gets rough, the waters of life overwhelm us, and we call out to a God who it sometimes seems might as well be sleeping. Sometimes we might feel like we are all alone on a sea, shouting, “Jesus, don’t you care?”

This passage gives me hope in times like that. Not because Jesus stilled the storm, though I’m glad he did. But because it shows me that even the disciples felt that way at times.

But more importantly, it shows me this. Even the disciples were put in situations that they didn’t know how to get out of. It shows me that Jesus sometimes does lead us to places that aren’t all the great in the moment.

I think sometimes we think that if we really believe, if we really try to be a good Christian, nothing bad will ever happen to us. I wish that that were true. The saints of the faith have lived holy lives, and yet they, like we, have often found themselves on choppy seas. And the people in our lives who most exemplify “good” sometimes are the ones who face the situations we just don’t understand.

It doesn’t feel fair. It makes us want to call out to Jesus, “Why is this happening? Are you asleep at the helm?”

But then I think again about today’s passage, about Jesus telling the disciples to get in the boat and cross the sea, and I wonder if maybe he knew what was coming. I wonder if he was preparing them for what was about to happen.

Jesus was a teacher. He used parables and metaphors and whatever was handy to teach his disciples about God and the life of faith. And I wonder if that’s what he was doing that day. He knew that life for the disciples would be full of stormy seas, and that at times they would be about to lose everything. And maybe he knew that in those moments they’d need to draw on faith from somewhere.

Have you ever noticed where Jesus is in this passage? That’s what always strikes me. Jesus isn’t back on the shore. And he’s not standing over on the opposite shore. He’s not high and dry and safe.

He’s in the boat. He’s going through the storm with the ones he loves. And in the end, being in the same boat with Jesus is what saves them.

In art work, the church is often represented metaphorically by a boat. The World Council of Churches, and international body made up of denominations from all over the world, chose not a cross, but a boat as their symbol. And during World War II the Confessing Church, the churches that opposed Hitler in Germany, used a boat as a symbol.

The boat symbolizes the church and its people being carried by God through the sometimes choppy waters of life. Even this place you’re sitting in now, this part of the sanctuary, is also called the “nave”, from the same root as naval or navy. If you think of the steep roof of a church, it looks a little like an upside down boat. There’s a reason for that. Even church architecture reminds us that we are called to journey together in the same boat as Jesus.

That’s both a blessing, and a warning. When my friend got on the boat in Boston, she knew she was going to make it to the Cape. Even when the waters got bad and she wanted to just be on dry land, she knew that by night fall she’d be eating a lobster roll and sitting by the beach.

But getting in the boat with Jesus is different. It’s not a luxury cruise ship. It’s not a quick ferry. It’s a boat that goes to places that sometimes we might not want to go. Because it’s Jesus boat. And sometimes Jesus goes into the heart of the storm. That’s his job. To be there in the roughest of waters, with the ones who need him the most. And if we want to be in the same boat as he is, that means that sometimes we will end up there with him too.

Sometimes Christians, especially in this country where we are rather comfortable, fall into the trap of thinking that the church is more of a club than anything else. We go to church on Sundays, but it doesn’t really affect us much. Or, we don’t go to church at all. We figure we can just follow Jesus as an individual, and we don’t need the community of faith. Christian belief becomes something that doesn’t really challenge us much.

But if your Christianity is not inconveniencing you a little, if you are not at times finding yourself on choppy seas because of what your faith calls you to do, you might want to check to make sure you are in the right boat back at the docks. If your faith makes no demands on your life, if it doesn’t make you make the hard choices sometimes, chances are good that you may have accidentally boarded the cruise ship, not the Christ ship.

It’s okay. God allows you to change your travel plans mid-trip.

I talked earlier about the Confessing Church in Germany. These were the Christians who refused to be a part of the puppet Reich church that Hitler had set up and instead decided that they were going to follow the Gospel. The fact they chose a ship as their symbol is a reminder to me of the sometimes very high price of being in the same boat as Jesus. Some of them died for their beliefs, and their refusal to collude with Naziism. They could have chosen smooth waters in a safe ship by simply cooperating with Hitler. But they didn’t. And the storm got bad.

But they called out. They remained faithful to the Gospel as they knew it, and, they called out to Jesus at the worst of the storm, when it must have most felt like God was asleep at the helm. And finally, the winds stopped, and the waves receded. And not only they, but nation and a world was saved. They did not do it alone, but they did it perhaps more faithfully, and with greater stakes, than any other Christians. And, ironically, all the ones who had chosen the boat with the easier waters, found that in the end their ship was the one that was destroyed.

I have no doubt that Jesus was in the boat of those confessing Christians. And I have no doubt that Jesus is in the boats of all of those who would follow Christ’s call no matter where it takes them, even if it’s into the storm. We are often tempted to pray for smooth waters and an easy passage. I can’t deny that I want that sometimes. But ironically, in the end it’s being in the boat that sails the hardest seas, the one with God at the helm, that will truly bring us peace.

May this small boat that we all now sit in find the other shore safely, but may the seas be just choppy enough that we know we are on the right boat. Amen.

Why We Repent: Sermon for Sunday, February 26, 2012

Mark 1:9-15
1:9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.

1:10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.

1:11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

1:12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.

1:13 He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

1:14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God,

1:15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

When I was in about first grade, my teacher made up this chart for my class. It has each of our names along the side, and all the days along the top. And at the end of each day, depending on whether or not we had followed the rules that day, she would give us either a happy face, or a sad face.

I lived for those happy faces. I knew exactly what I had to do, and not do, to get one. And when at the end of each grading period I got to go home with an unblemished row of happy faces, I was in heaven.

When I was six, if you had asked me about sin, I probably would have told you about the happy faces. If you do all the right things, follow all the rules, you get a happy face. If you don’t, it’s a sad face. It was all very cut and dried, and easy to understand.

I was thinking about that as I was thinking about this text, and repentance, and what it means to acknowledge that you’re not living the way you should. Jesus goes to John the Baptist and is baptized. He then goes out into the wilderness for forty days, like our forty days of Lent. And then, after being tested, he comes back and begins his proclamation: “The time is fulfilled. The kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.”

We don’t talk about repentance much. It’s always in the back of our minds, but we don’t actually say much about what it means. We like to focus on hope, and grace, and faith. We say the prayer of confession every week, but it’s over in a minute, and then we sing the Gloria together and move on.

But then we get to Lent. And we have this more solemn season of the church year, where we start to slow down, and look at who we are, and how we act. And we have days like Ash Wednesday, and Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday, that remind us that human beings are flawed, and fallible, and sometimes prone to do the wrong things.

Repentance is a hallmark of Lent. But what does it mean? I find it helpful to look at what the two languages of the Bible, Hebrew and Greek, say it means. To repent, in Hebrew, means “to return”. And in Greek, to repent is metanoia, or to change one’s thinking. In other words, change the way you think about things and return to God.

When Jesus is calling us to repent, he’s calling us away from sin. He’s calling us to turn from sin and towards spiritual life. But sin is sometimes hard for us to talk about. We’re not the kind of church that stands on street corners and tells people to repent. We’re not a church of judgement where we tell people what they are doing wrong in their lives. We’re not the kind of place that has tearful confessions at the altar, or solemn ones behind the doors of the confessional. We, like most other mainline Protestant churches, acknowledge that we all sin, but without much fanfare. But in the back of our minds, we wonder. “Am I doing well enough?”

When I was about six, I think I thought God had a big version of my first grade teachers chart. I probably envisioned God making that crucial judgement between the happy face and unhappy face at the end of each day for each of us. And like those rules on the classroom wall, I wanted to do just enough to know I was safe. If I could only have a list of God’s minimum happy face requirements, I’d be all set.

As we grow older, of course, it takes more than a chart to help us make the right choices. There are more variables, more responsibilities, more nuance. What is age appropriate at six, is not so reliable when we are even a few years old. And by the time we get to adulthood, the chart feels like a cute memory of a simpler time. Life in the real world requires more than charts.

Which is why curious that sometimes our spiritual thinking stays on the same level. Most of us appreciate that life is a nuanced thing, with each of us called to a different path in life, and different challenges. And yet sometimes we think tend to judge our choices in life based on a sort of easy criteria. Do I get a happy face? Or a sad face?

If God had a chart, most of us, on most days, would probably see ourselves getting smiley faces. We don’t hurt other people. We don’t steal. We aren’t blatantly unkind. We try to be good. Most days, we rest assured that we are good enough people. That we have done enough to stay in the positive. And by contrast, we probably think we know who gets the sad faces. And we know the minimum we need to do to not end up like them. That gives us conscience. That eases our mind at night when we sleep. We can go to bed saying, “I’m not a bad person.”

And you’re not. But what we sometimes don’t understand is that that old way of looking at things, that childhood worldview where we do just enough good things or too many bad things, doesn’t work after a certain point. Just like our grade school teachers put them away after we grew old enough, old spiritual life demands something more than them as well. At the end of the day, God doesn’t stand in front of a chart with all our names, deciding who gets sad faces. Which is not to say that God just gives us easy grace, and happy faces either.

But it is to say this. At the end of the day, God throws the chart away and calls us to something better. At the end of the day, God calls us to do the same thing Jesus called us to do in Galilee. God calls us to turn away from what distracts us, and repent. But more than that, God calls us to something more.

God wants more than the bare minimum. God wants us to strive for more than just a minor mark of approval, or meeting the letter of the law. God wants us to be honest, and God wants to actually have a relationship with us, to know us.

That’s what Lent is about. It’s about turning away from sin, repenting, and deciding to be in relationship with God. It’s not about getting our ticket punched by doing what we have to do. It’s not about following a long list of rules because we have to. It’s not about God as the big grader in the sky who tells us whether we pass or fail. It’s about God who loves us so much, that God doesn’t want us to be separate anymore.

That’s what sin is, after all. It’s our separation from God. We sin not so much when we break one in a long list of rules, but instead we sin when our will begins to differ from God’s, and we wander off on our own paths. Repentance is about turning around, and going back to God’s path and trying not to stray from it again. It’s not something we can do by reciting some words on Sunday and hoping for the best. It’s something we do by deciding our faith will not be peripheral to the rest of our life. Instead, it will be the lens through which we view the rest of our life.

Now that’s not always easy. Because relationships never are. The first Scripture passage that we read this morning, the one from Genesis about covenant, talks about the same thing. It’s about God wanting us to be in relationship. It’s not about anger or judgement or condemnation, but it’s about honest relationship and covenant. And being in relationship to someone else is always hard, but it can also be rewarding.

You probably know what it’s like to be in a covenant, because you know what it’s like to be in relationship with another, whether friend or partner or family member. You know what it’s like to care enough about someone to know that your choices affect them. To know that the relationship doesn’t work if it stays peripheral. It only works when it stays honest, and centered.

It’s the same way with God. God never chooses to leave us, but we sometimes do the things that make us drift away from God. And at the end of the day, we find ourselves off alone on a path of our own creation, instead of with the God who loves us more than we know.

That’s when we can repent. That’s when we can look at what feels disjointed or disconnected in our lives. That’s when we can say to God, I’m tired of walking alone. I want to come back and walk with you.

And that’s what Lent is about. Forty days of choosing to walk with God, instead of choosing to walk away. It’s forty days of believing that there is a better life, and a greater joy, waiting for us. It’s forty days of being honest with ourselves, and being honest about the fact that our lives would be better if we just let God into every part of them.

God already knows who you are. God knows who you are on your best days and your worst. When you stand on Sunday mornings, and pray the prayer of confession, and then keep silence as you reflect upon your own life, you’re not telling God anything God doesn’t already know. And the good news is this. God still loves you, and God still wants to be in relationship with you.

Lent is about repenting, turning around and coming back to God. And that means Lent is about coming home. Coming home not to the same old house with closed off rooms full of secrets, or doors that hide the truths about ourselves we fear the most. Lent is about coming home to God’s house, where the doors are always open, where we are know at our deepest level, and where we are known, and understood, and loved.

This Lent, will you come home? Will you come back to a home in which you are not judged on charts or with happy or sad faces? Will you come home to a place where all of you is welcome? Will you come home to a relationship with someone who loves you at your worst, yet calls you to be your best? If so, then take the first step out into the wilderness of Lent, and repent. Be honest, and be prepared for what happens next. God will lead you back home, and back into life. Amen.

“Making New Paths” – Sermon for 4 December 2011

Most of us have seen a fender bender take place in front of us before. We may have even been asked to be a witness to the accident. A police officer has asked us to remember everything that we saw, leaving nothing out, even if it seemed insignificant. And then he or she has gone and asked everyone else what they saw.
What’s interesting is that if you and I and a few other people were to see a fender bender, get separated, and then get asked what we saw, our stories wouldn’t be the same. I might remember that one driver ran a stop light. You might have seen the other driver texting. Someone might say the car was red. Another might remember where the license plates were from. And some of our stories might even conflict a little, not because any of us are lying, but because we were standing on different sides of the street or because one thing in particular caught our eye and felt so important that we remembered it.
It’s been said that the Gospels aren’t that different. There are four Gospels that we consider canonical, or a part of Holy Scripture. And each serves as a witness to the life of Christ. Each tells the story of what they saw. And they are all different. Some overlap and tell some of the same stories, but often you’ll find that a story one or two Gospels contains isn’t in the others. It’s like the witnesses to a fender bender. The parts of the story I think are most important might not even make it into yours.
Which is why John the Baptist is so interesting. Because he is there in all four Gospels. He is a part of everyone’s story. While some of the Gospel writers leave out this miracle or that parable, no one forgets John. He’s like the car that everyone saw run the red light. You can’t leave him out.
Every Advent we read about John. We read that he was the one who came first to try to tell everyone who was coming after him. He told those Gospel writers who was coming, and they couldn’t forget it.
The writer of Mark in particular didn’t forget. In fact they start the Gospel this way: “the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ.” And the beginning of that good news is that God sent this messenger. This messenger who lived out in the wilderness and wore camel’s hair and ate honey and locusts. He’s the first thing that Mark talks about. Not Mary or Joseph or the manger, but this strange guy who shouts out “prepare the way of the Lord. Make God’s paths straight.
You might think that Jesus could have gotten a better PR guy. Locusts and honey and camel’s hair don’t seem like what you want people to remember about your spokesperson. You want someone polished and dynamic and exciting. Someone with powerpoint and music and a big budget. Someone who Oprah will invite on the show and say that you changed her life. Someone who will write the feel-good best sellers that fly off the shelves. Not someone who tells everyone to “repent” and to get ready for something that is about to change their life.
But God sent John. And every year about this time we remember him in Advent. We remember him as the first person to know who Jesus was and to tell people to get ready.
As a child I thought “John the Baptist” must actually be a Baptist. I figured that there was John the Baptist, Steve the Methodist, Joe the Presbyterian, etc., etc. I didn’t understand why he was called that. A more accurate name for John would be “John the Baptizer”. Because that’s what he did. He called people out to the wilderness, away from the comfort of what they knew, and to a river. And they confessed their sins, all the things that caused them pain and grief and kept them tied to the past, and he baptized them. He helped them to put all of that behind them, and to start over fresh, because someone was coming that was going to need them.
John the Baptist was the original Advent guy. He was, as Mark says, “the beginning of the Good News”. He was the one who told you that Jesus was coming, and everything was about to change. And so, you’d better get ready.
Advent is about waiting. It’s about expecting that something incredible is about to happen, and watching for the signs that are all around you.
And we hear “wait” and we probably think about being patient and passive. You might think about the Advents we knew as children where the most we could really do was shake the presents and count down the days as you opened the doors on the Advent calendar. Advent was something to be endured.
But Advent is more than a kind of calendar. It’s a time of preparation. It’s “the beginning of the good news”. It’s the time where we are called to not just passively wait, but to get ready. John tells us to prepare a path for God. And Advent is the season to do it.
But how do you prepare that path? How do you get ready for what God is about to do next? How do you say, “Come, God. Come”?
To me, Advent is more than just four weeks a year. Advent is a lot like life. If we have faith, on our best days we believe that God is going to do something incredible with God’s people, both in this world and the next. We believe that Christmas, the coming of Christ, was not a one time only event. We affirm that Christ is coming again. And we are waiting.
But God wants us to do more than just sit around and wait. We don’t live our lives just crossing days off calendars the way we might open the doors of an Advent calendar just wanting to get to December 25th. God wants us to get ready. To prepare the way of the Lord, not just during Advent, but every day of our lives.
And so we get ready. Just like we get ready for Christmas by putting up the lights, and cutting down the tree, and buying the presents, we get ready for Christ every day of our lives. Because what is coming is more incredible than anything we have ever hoped for on Christmas morning.
But how do we get ready? We get ready by making this Advent world look like we want it to look like when Christ comes again. We don’t throw up our hands and say, “Let’s wait until God changes everything.” We look around, and we see what we can do to make this world ready for Christ. And then we work together to do it.
It’s not always convenient. It’s not always comfortable. It’s not always what we want to do. Usually it takes us on a path that is nothing we would ever expect. But in the end, if we are preparing the path that we think Christ will need in this world, we will find ourselves more fulfilled than we ever will leading a passive life of faith. That’s not what Advent is all about. That’s not what the life of faith is all about.
The church I attended in college and seminary was not a place of passive people. It was a place where people looked around, saw what they thought Jesus would be doing if he came back today, and did it. They looked around their neighborhood, saw homeless folks all around, and they invited them in and fed them and gave them somewhere to sleep. They were waiting for Christ to come again, but they weren’t content to sit by and cross days off the calendar. They listened to John. They were preparing the way of the Lord right then and there.
I was thinking of them this week, as Wilmington prepares to decide what path to take and how they will prepare the way of the Lord. My little church had slowly lost members until less than fifteen folks came on Sunday. And it became clear to all of us that God was ready to do something new. God was calling us to create a new path.
That church is gone today. At least in any official sense. There are no Sunday services, the members have all gone elsewhere, and the sign out front is gone. But its legacy lives on in the form of a building that has been transformed into a residential center for those who need a hand up. Hundreds of folks in Atlanta have had their lives changed because the people of that church decided that God was calling them to take what they had and create a new path. It wasn’t the end of a church. It was, as Mark says, the beginning of the good news.
Our job in all of our life, is to be a little like John the Baptist. Without the locusts. Prepare the way of the Lord. Make a path for God. In all we do, point not to ourselves, but to the one who is to come. And be the beginning of the Good News. Because if we can be that, God will make sure that there is more Good News to come, and that the Advent, the beginning, we create will give way to the one who is yet to come. Prepare the way of the Lord. This is only the beginning…Amen.