Why I Am Still a Methodist

A week ago at this time I was preparing to lead Bible study with a wonderful and diverse group of people. Every Tuesday evening people white and black, wealthy and poor, conservative and liberal, LGBTQ and straight, gather to hear what God’s word says to their lives today. Being a part of this group is a rich experience and one of the highlights of my week.

At this time last week I welcomed people to Bible study while glancing down at my phone. On the small screen was the livestream of General Conference 2019. Four days of Roberts Rules were quickly coming to a culmination and THEE vote was about to happen. In reality, the vote was a foregone conclusion. After watching days of preliminary votes and parliamentary procedure it would take a miracle to have a different outcome. The miracle didn’t happen, the previously unexpected did. One minute before Bible study, the United Methodist Church democratically voted to double down on its exclusion and make LGBTQ people modern day untouchables. In the words of Adam Hamilton the so-called traditionalists “won the battle and lost the church.”

Love should never be up for a vote

I have been to two general conferences and have seen how things work. I can vividly remember tears running down my face in 2008 when the church voted once again for exclusion. But I never imagined we would make it worse. Yet, we did.

In the days that followed I was in a depression malaise. I first came to the United Methodist Church in 1998 believing in the motto of “open hearts, open minds, and open doors.” It is the church that shaped me, formed me, and sent me in to ministry. I have often said if it wasn’t for the United Methodist Church I don’t know if I would be a Christian. And now, 21 years later, I felt like I was discovering that the church was not what I thought it was.

I half jokingly Facebook messaged my former boss asking if I should update my LinkedIn profile. Fortunately, my current boss reminded me of the work of the Swiss theologian Hans Kung who published a short book, “Why I am still a Christian,” in a world where the church had a waning influence on culture.

Below, in bold, are Kung’s answers to this question. My responses follow each of his three points as to why i am still a Methodist.

So, why am I a Christian (Methodist)?

1. Kung: First of all, simply because—despite all my criticisms and concerns—I can nevertheless feel fundamentally positive about a tradition that is significant for me; a tradition in which I live side by side with so many others, past and present.

Henneman: Like Kung I am humbled to count myself among the eternal priesthood of all believers. I get to walk side-by-side with Kierkegaard and King, with John of the Cross and John of the Free Store, with the dead saints of old and the living saints of the streets. Nothing spiritually nourishes me more than living side-by-side with people in an inclusive and diverse community. I get to experience that at the United Methodist Church For All People every day.

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2. Kung: Because I would not dream of confusing the great Christian tradition with the present structures of the church, nor leaving a definition of true Christian values to its present administrators.

Henneman: Someone recently asked me what I thought John Wesley would say about our recent general conference. I believe that Wesley would be furious to find the very thing he fought against continued in his name. Wesley got himself in trouble because he overstepped ecclesial boundaries. He went out to those who the church excluded. He oriented his life around sharing the good news of grace in Jesus Christ with all. Church institutions have a bad history of devolving from spiritual movements to frozen bureaucracies. It breaks my heart that the United Methodist Church has taken this path, but historically it is not surprising. And most importantly, it is not who God is. Institutions may exclude, but God always includes. I img_4366am still a Methodist, not out of denominational loyalty, but because it is ultimately God who has called me to widen the circle of love to include all people, particularly those marginalized by the church. I will continue to live in to this calling within the United Methodist Church.

3. Kung: In brief, because—despite my violent objections to what is called Christian—I find in Christianity a basic orientation on the question of the great Whence and Whither, Why and Wherefore, of humanity and the world: a basic orientation for my individual and social self. And at the same time I find in these things a spiritual home on which I do not want to turn my back, any more than I want in politics to turn my back on democracy, which in its own way has been, and is, no less misused and abused than Christianity. But admittedly, all this only hints at the decisive factor. I must make myself clearer still.

Henneman: It is within the United Methodist connection of personal piety and social holiness that I most clearly see the lived out vision of God’s kingdom coming “on earth as it is in heaven”. The arc of justice is too long and too slow for my liking. Moses did not make it to the Promised Land, King did not make it to the mountain top, and I may never see an international church where ALL people, and especially my LGBT sisters and brothers, are fully affirmed, heard, respected, and honored. But I do get to witness a foretaste of that at the United Methodist Church for All People and will continue to work from the inside until the global church can exhibit the same radical hospitality as the local church.

In the words of my Lutheran heritage: here I stand, I can do no other. God help me. Amen.

You have only to keep still

What are you most afraid of right now?

Last year a recording artist named Amanda Palmer posted this question to social media.

What are you most afraid of right now?

It was a Sunday evening and she had booked time in a recording studio for the coming week, but she needed a song.

She looked around at the scraps of paper that surrounded her, bits of songs and recycled ideas, but she wanted to do something fresh, something different. So, she asked her followers to respond to this question: What are you most afraid of right now?

She had two hours on her calendar to write a song and posted the question hoping for a few responses that would stimulate her curiosity.

In her post, Amanda gave the following instructions, she said: “in LESS THAN 50 WORDS, tell me this:

what are you most afraid of right now?

it can be anything…

personal

political

old

new

big

small

strange

etc

and you can answer as poetically or literally as you want….

whatever it means to you.

obviously if the answers are just “death” and “climate change“ i won’t have much to work with.

so go.

what are you afraid of…right now.

don’t think twice

just comment – i’m reading.

i love you

xx

afp”

Amanda had no idea the type of response she would get. In less than two hours she got almost 1,200 responses and she spent hours reading every one of them.

The responses she got were deep and emotional and personal. In looking through them I didn’t see simple answers where people said things like they were afraid of the dark, or afraid of snakes, or afraid of public speaking.

Instead, people said things like:

“I’m afraid of my family’s history of mental illness

I have ongoing nightmares of someone walking into my school one day and shooting my students and me.

I’m afraid of getting older and getting alzheimers which my mum has and is in her history. I’m alone and have noone who will help me.

I am afraid of losing the people that I care about.

I’m afraid of being swallowed by the deep deep dark that is my depression.

I’m afraid of coming out to my parents and afraid of the wall that this is putting between us, me not being able to tell them a lot of stuff that are going on with my life, them for clearly seeing something not being right with me but not knowing what it is.”

These 1,200 comments are remarkable.

What strikes me about them is fear and the pain that so many people carry.

Amanda Palmer is not a well-known singer. In fact, she is an independent artists, without a record label or a recording contract, she did not even have an album for this song to go on to. And yet, people are carrying so much weight, just below the surface of the image they project, that within a couple of hours 1,200 people poured out their hearts on the comment section of a webpage.

Fear is a powerful force, it probably one of the powerful and prevalent feelings in the world today.

Fear can makes us retreat to ourselves and close us off from others.

Fear can make us lash out and cause harm.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously said “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”. He spoke these words at the most difficult time of the Great Depression. He was trying to communicate that people’s fears, and the actions people took based on fear, were only making the financial crisis worse.

But to say “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” does not take away the very real power that fear holds.

Our scripture today is a story of fear.

Over the last couple of Sundays we talked about the people of Egypt living in Egyptian slavery. Pastor John spoke on the call of let my people go; Pastor Kevin shared with us the story of the burning bush and what it means to stand on holy ground.

We heard in those stories the hardness of pharaoh’s heart. After all, the Israelites were free labor. The wealth and power of the Egyptian empire were built on the backs of Hebrew slaves.

From the banks of the Nile River to the Mississippi Delta 4,000 years later, the same argument has been made throughout history to justify slavery:  We can’t let the slaves go, the entire economic system would collapse. In our own country, slaves made cotton king and slaves built the White House and the US Capitol building.

Why would pharaoh let God’s people go? He is getting rich off them.

But then Passover happens. The first born in every house dies.

Immediately, pharaoh calls in his cabinet and even Moses and Aaron are summoned in the middle of the night and pharaoh says to them:

‘Rise up, go away from my people, both you and the Israelites! Go, worship the Lord, as you said. Take your flocks and your herds, as you said, and be gone. And bring a blessing on me too!’

Fearing for their lives, the Egyptians push the people of Israel to leave immediately. But as they get to the Red Sea, pharaoh again has a change of heart and pursues them with 600 chariots.

In this scripture, the Israelites look back and see this army coming at them and they are afraid.

And for good reason.

The Egyptian chariot was not a means of transportation, it was a weapon of war and intimidation. It was the chariot that conquered nations and held people in slavery and now the people of Israel have chariots coming at them from one direction and their backs are against the Red Sea from the other. They cry to Moses, it would have been better for us to stay in slavery than to die out here in the wilderness.

They are a people filled with fear.

And while I would think they had good reason to be afraid, Moses response to the cry of this desperate crowd is very interesting: ‘Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you shall never see again. The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.’

All you have to do is keep still?

Look Moses, the chariots are coming.

Imagine if we were backed up against Lake Erie and hundreds of armored tanks were coming down on us and Pastor John said, don’t be afraid, God’s got this, keep still.

This is not a normal human response to fear.

Psychology tells us that there are two ways to respond to fear: fight or flight. Either we engage the thing that’s coming at us or we run away from it.

When stressful things happen in our lives we take it on as a challenge or retreat and hide.

But Moses offers a third way: faith.

Moses doesn’t say lets put together what we have and build some weapons to fight back and he doesn’t say to retreat or run away.

He says, God’s got this.

This story gives us a picture of an entirely different way of being. One in which the world is not changed by taking up arms against arms, chariots against chariots, or guns against guns.

The world is not changed by retreating in fear, closing in on ourselves, isolating ourselves from what is going on in the world.

But standing tall in our faith, trusting in a God that makes a way out of no way, is what changes the world.

It is that persistent faith that fueled the non-violence of Gandhi, that brought an end to apartheid in South Africa, and that continues to push for equality and civil rights here in the United States.

It is the kind of faith that dares us to trust in a God through whom all things are possible.
All things.

Is that right? If so, how far does this go.

It goes all the way to the empty tomb.

Think about the disciples.

They gave up everything to follow Jesus. They left their jobs, their families, their fathers-in-law sitting in fishing boats to follow Jesus.

Why?

They believed, they had faith that he was the Messiah.

He was the one who came to bring God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.

They saw the miracles, heard the teachings, and knew he was the one.

And then, as suddenly as he had come on the scene, he was killed on the cross.

Beaten, nailed to a cross, dead.

It was over and they were afraid.

In their fear they hid. Most of them hid before Jesus even made it to the cross and all of them hid after.

Only the women had the courage to get up on Easter morning and pay their respects.

But on their way to the tomb there was an earthquake, a flash of light, and an angel saying do not be afraid. Do not be afraid, the body isn’t here, He is risen!

The scripture says that the left the tomb quickly, the same way that the people of Israel left slavery in Egypt, and with fear and joy.

But on their way to the disciples, Jesus meets them and what are his first words?

Do not be afraid.

But go and tell others and there you will see me.

Once again, as people of faith, as followers of Jesus we are called to a different way of being. Not an impulsive response of fight or flight, but a grounded response of faith.

A faith that love conquers all.

A faith that in Jesus Christ death is overcome, sin is overcome, pain is overcome.

A faith that dares us to believe in God, all things are possible and we aint gonna let nobody turn us around.

Because of our faith in God, we know that all things will be redeemed, all crooked paths will be made straight, all justice will flow down like waters and aint nothing gonna turn us around.

No addiction, no neighborhood violence, no racism, no government shutdown, no infant mortality, no sorrow, no grief, no morning, aint nothing gonna turn us around because we know that God is with us, always.

Of the 1,200 posts that the singer Amanda Palmer received, there was one that stood out to her. One person said, I’m not afraid of anything anymore because he embraced life as a ride. A ride goes up and down and twists and turns and people scream and cheer but that we are all in it together and all will be okay.

What do you do on a ride? The same thing that Moses said to the fearful Israelites, “you have only to keep still”

From this response, Amanda wrote a song called the ride in which she tried to capture the essence of all the things people are afraid of. Part of the song says:

“Everyone’s getting real scared to come out because coming out’s going down badly
Feel the city breaking and everybody’s shaking
And I just want someone to hold me
Some are too scared to let go of their children
And some are too scared now to have them
Suicide, homicide, genocide, man, that’s a ton of sides you can choose from”

And the she speaks to those who shared their fears and says in the song:

“I want you to think of me sitting and singing beside you
I wish we could meet all the people who got left behind
The ride is so loud it can make you think nobody’s listening
But isn’t it nice when we all can cry at the same time”

While I love this song, as people of faith we know that life is more than a ride, it is a journey.

There is stuff in life that does happen to us.

We get scared. There are things that are worth being afraid of.

But we don’t have to cower in fear or run in flight, but we can stand firm in faith because we know that God is with us, always. Even when we can’t see where it is all going, even when we don’t understand, we know that one way or another that God has got this.

Sometimes all we have to do is keep still and watch as God parts the waters of our fears, keep still and see the Risen Christ in front of us, keep still when we live in fear of the news that swirls around us, keep still and do not let anyone turn you around.

Inescapable Mutuality

Jeremiah 29:1-7

Where do we find redemption?

As Christians we find healing, forgiveness, and redemption in Jesus Christ.

But in the Hebrew scriptures, redemption and restoration was found in the temple. People would bring their offerings, first fruits, and sacrifices to temple to heal their relationship with God.

Around 600 years before Jesus, the temple was destroyed. The people of Judah were conquered by the Babylonians. They were pulled out of their communities, their homes ravished, the walls of Jerusalem torn down, and the temple destroyed. The temple was more than just ‘a church’ it was thee church: the place with the Holy of Holies, the arc of the covenant, the temple was the presence of God and now all of it is gone.

It was all gone, all lost, all destroyed, and the people taken from their homeland and forced to live in a country not their own.

It is to these people that the prophet Jeremiah writes this letter.

When we think of the prophets of the Old Testament we normally think of them addressing kings and the powers of the world, calling them to do God’s will and to return to righteousness.

But this letter is not written to the kings of Babylon, but to the people in exile. In particular, Jeremiah writes to the religious leaders, the elders, priests, and prophets, saying here is how you live as a people in exile.

You would expect that a people being forced to live in a land not their own would not be happy about it. In Psalm 137 it says we sat by the rivers of Babylon and wept.  Their captors asked them to perform the songs of Zion and they asked how can we sing our songs in a foreign land?

But Jeremiah writes and calls on them to live differently.

Jeremiah’s first word to them is to continue to live your lives.

Build houses

Plant gardens

Have children

Yes, what has happened to the children of Abraham is horrible. They lost everything and their lives are difficult and not their own. But, live well anyway. Live well in the face of the injustice that has been done to you. Your land might have been conquered, but you have not.

Some of you may remember from a sermon I gave a few years ago that my real heart music is punk rock. It was not in punk rock that I first heard the call toward for social justice, it was in a music that came from the streets.

My favorite album of 2018 is by a new punk band called Idles. Song after song on the album lifts up social justice issues from immigration to racism. But the album is called “Joy as an act of resistance”. The point the album makes is that while there are all kinds of injustices in the world, the invitation is to live as people of joy in the face of it. Not in a Pollyanna naivete, but in the face of the injustice in our lives, live joyful as an act of resistance. Stand tall in the face of anyone who tries to keep you down.

This is Jeremiah’s word to the people in exile. On its own it is a radical, counter-cultural message that challenges us to live differently: not as a defeated people, but as a thriving people. However, the second part of this is even more challenging.

Jeremiah says to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”

The people of Israel would have rightly seen the Babylonians as their captors, their oppressors, and their masters. The Babylonians were in every way their enemy, who have been victorious over them. And Jeremiah says to pray for them. Jesus taught that we are to love our neighbor and our enemies, but that can sound like an abstract idea. Maybe we can even dismiss it as a word only for Jesus and the apostles.

Here, Jeremiah gives a real example of how far that reaches.

Jeremiah not only tells the people to pray for them, but that the welfare of the Babylonians is connected to the welfare of Judah. The welfare of the oppressed and the oppressor are interrelated and interconnected. The welfare of anyone effects the welfare of everyone.

In the words and actions of Jeremiah, we see the inspiration for the words and actions of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. whose life and legacy we celebrate today.

Like Jeremiah, King was a prophet. King called on people, from the powerful to the  powerless, to live in to God’s righteousness.

One of King’s best known prophetic works is his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”.

King had left the relative safety of his home and church in Atlanta to work for justice in Birmingham.

King described Birmingham as “probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States. Its ugly record of brutality is widely known. There were more unsolved bombing of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham than in any other city in the nation.”

And yet, King did not have to go to Birmingham. King wasn’t from Alabama, he was from Georgia. He had his own church to tend to, his own family to care for.

Birmingham is about 150 miles from Atlanta. For us, imagine if we heard of an injustice going on in Pittsburgh or Indianapolis. We might say what has happened in a different city is horrible, we might even pray for someone else, but we have our own lives and work and responsibilities here.

But not King.

He left his home and his church to work for justice in Birmingham.

To say this was inconvenient for King would be an understatement.

During a protest in Birmingham he was arrested on Good Friday. He spent Easter, not kingwith his congregation in Atlanta, but in prison in Alabama.

And while in prison, eight of the pastors in Birmingham wrote an article published in the paper calling on King to wait.

Wait

Instead of standing in solidarity with King, these pastors said: just slow down. Change takes time, you are pushing too hard and too fast. Wait.

Wait was the message King had her from President Kennedy.

Wait was the criticism against him over and over.

The Letter from a Birmingham Jail is a response to this and is addressed to “My dear fellow clergymen”.

To his fellow clergymen, King says, in the wake of all the injustice we have experienced, how can we wait? It is easy for you to say wait because you haven’t been through what we have been through. You didn’t go through 340 years of slavery and Jim Crow. You haven’t been denied access at a lunch counter, you haven’t had to sleep in the back of your car because a hotel would not rent you a room, you have not been attacked by police dogs.

How can we wait?

But again, it strikes me that it would’ve been easier for King to wait. After all, Birmingham wasn’t his city. It wasn’t where his church was or where his people lived.

But in his eyes, it was.

King saw himself as deeply connected to the struggle in Birmingham.

In his letter he said:

I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

King not only saw himself as an oppressed person in Atlanta connected with the oppressed in Birmingham, but he often spoke of working for the liberation of both the oppressed and the oppressor. In fact, at the end of his jail letter he expresses a hope that the very pastors who have criticized him will be transformed and join him in God’s work for justice.

King operates under a vision of a very large community, where all people are connected in an inescapable network of mutuality. The good or the harm done to anyone, anywhere, effects everyone everywhere.

King would live out this ethic for the rest of his life. In his last years many of his earlier supporters who stood with him when he offered his dream would leave him and join the chorus of those pastors who said “wait” when King began to organize the poor people’s campaign and call for an end to the Vietnam War.

King saw connectedness as much farther than the 150 miles from Atlanta to Birmingham, but that as all people are children of God, we are all called to see our own well-being connected with the well-being of everyone.

This last week, from this stage, we hosted a town hall meeting that was reported on from the front page of the Columbus Dispatch to several television channels. We gave people in our community the opportunity to share how the shutdown of the federal government will impact them if the government is not reopened. People talked about the impact of potentially losing SNAP and WIC benefits, housing vouchers, and delayed tax returns.Image may contain: one or more peopleWe, as the Church for All People, do a good job of giving face and voice to what might otherwise be an abstract conversation about numbers on a budget report or in a political debate

One of the voices that stood out to me was Theresa who talked about using her own SNAP benefits to help provide formula for a baby who has food allergies. She talked about how expensive one can of formula is, how the community works together to give this baby life, and how all of that will be undone if the federal government does not reopen.

That is a powerful statement.

But as we read the letters of Jeremiah and King, I want to challenge us to see our work for justice, and our connection with others, as broader than the impact on the South Side of Columbus.

More than any other church I have been a part of, we believe that every person is created in God’s image. In the eyes of every person we see Christ. It doesn’t matter if you are black or white, rich or poor, gay or straight, republican or democrat, a punk rocker or a blues musician, all people have divine value and sacred worth. From this understanding we can see our connectedness as much broader than that with our immediate neighbors.

The safety of a Syrian mother who sneaks her children across a border seeking refuge is connected to our safety.

The security of a Native American man in South Dakota who stands for the protection of his land is connected to our security.

The health of our environment is directly connected to our health. The first job given to Adam was to care for creation, but we have forgotten our first calling.

As a Church for All People, we are sacredly connected with all people, everywhere.

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

So the invitation and the challenge that King and Jeremiah leave us with is not to simply shrug our shoulders at the evening news, but to see ourselves as living in mutual relationship with all people, everywhere.

Of course, we can’t be everywhere around the globe and we don’t have the resources to work for every cause. But that is the gift of being part of the United Methodist Church. As a global church we are in mission with people in 136 countries. And as a church here, we have changed our noisy offerings this year to not only support our work here in Columbus, but to provide opportunities to be more connected with the global church.

As the Church for All People, let us connect our thoughts, hearts, prayers, and actions anywhere that injustice exists. Like King, let us work for the redemption of people who are oppressed and people who are oppressors everywhere, and in doing so may we find our own redemption.

Amen.

Pondering Heart

Listen at https://4allpeople.sermon.net/main/main/21298554

Luke 2:1-20

blue-mary-rebecca-pooleMary, the mother of Jesus, was born in to a life where she had very little control over her life or the things that happened to her.

Mary was from the town of Nazareth, a small, rural town of only a few hundred people which was several days journey from Jerusalem.

According to Biblical scholars she was around the age of 13 when she was engaged to Joseph. She likely had very little control over this situation and would’ve been told this is the man you are going to marry.

Once married, her place in life would be to be the mother of Joseph’s children. There would be no opportunity to go to college, no choice over where she wanted to live, no one would’ve asked her what she wanted to do when she grew up. Her path was set for her.

Until the angel Gabriel shows up without any expectation or warning and says, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”

Mary is confused by this and Luke says she ponders what this means.

Gabriel tells her not to be afraid, that she has found favor with God, and that she will have a child who will be the Son of the Most High.

Mary asks how this can be since she is a virgin.

Gabriel says that all things are possible with God, that the Holy Spirit will come over her, and that her older cousin Elizabeth is also pregnant.

Mary responds with great faith and says, “Here am I… let it be with me according to your word” and the angel departs.

Mary has had this miraculous world changing visit from an angel, but now she is left to live out this unexpected journey on her own.

She immediately leaves Nazareth and travels to Elizabeth’s house. Perhaps her haste is out of a sense of excitement, perhaps it is for her own safety. How will she explain to everyone in her small town that she is pregnant with a child that is not Joseph’s?

I can imagine Mary making this trip and in her mind throwing herself at the mercy of Elizabeth, hoping that she will take her in and keep her safe.

Mary’s hand must’ve been shaking when she knocked at the door, She could not have expected the greeting she would receive.

Elizabeth opens the door and says “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”
Mary responds by saying, “My soul magnifies the Lord”.

Like the angel’s visit, this too would be another moment that was special for Mary, when she clearly felt God’s presence and love around her.

But while Mary had some of these special moments, there would’ve also been long periods where Gabriel and Elizabeth were not there and Mary would’ve felt alone.
She would’ve heard the gossip of people murmuring about this seemingly illegitimate pregnancy. She would’ve gotten the silent treatment from people as she went to the market or the well.

And then, as she was getting close to her time to deliver, as she was preparing to have a healthy baby full weight and full term, the Roman Empire ordered a census. Every family would have to return to the place their family was originally from. For Mary and Joseph that was Bethlehem.

Image result for mary and joseph as immigrantsThis was an eighty mile trip.

For those of you who have been to the Holy Land you know it is not flat. This is not 80 Ohio miles; it is 80 miles of hills and mountains. It would’ve taken them a better part of a week to get there.

And once they were there, they could not find a place to stay.

Think about this. Bethlehem was the place the place their people and their families were originally from. They would’ve had relatives there and yet no one would take them in.

Mary gives birth amongst the animals and places her baby in a manger.

This cannot be what she expected.

Gabriel said this was going to be the Son of the Most High. Elizabeth not only said Mary was blessed but so was her child. Is this what blessed looked like? There had to be a moment of wondering what all those promises meant when she looked at her baby in a manger.

In that moment of wondering, shepherds showed up.

Not a midwife, not a community health worker with a welcome basket, shepherds.Image result for mary jesus shepherdsShepherds who came with an incredible story. They had been watching their flocks. It was the middle of the night and angels appeared. They shined, they sang, they told them there was “good news of great joy for all people”.

The good news that this day a Savior, a Messiah, the Lord has been born!

This was another one of these remarkable moments for Mary. Luke tells us that she “treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”

She treasured them, she held on to them, she kept these words with her for the rest of her life; and, she pondered them. She sat with them, contemplated them, turned them over in mind to explore what they meant.

Just as she pondered the words of Gabriel, she pondered the words of shepherds.

Image result for holy family refugeeThis was another sacred and holy moment, but again Mary didn’t live only in these places but in the every day long expanse of life.

Raising Jesus would have been challenging. He would’ve been different from the other kids, gifted, and special.

Twelve years later Joseph and Mary and Jesus made their annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. On the return trip they realized Jesus was not with them, You can imagine the panic a parent feels when their kid is not where he is supposed to be.

I remember when our oldest son Noah was just over a year old I took him to the farmers market in the town we lived in England, where he was born. I thought he was there with me and turned around and he was gone. Fear ran through my veins like never before. In a split second I wondered how I would go home and tell Jennifer I lost our son.

Now, he was only a few steps away from where I thought he would be. It didn’t take that long to find him, but every parent probably knows that feeling.

And yet, when Mary and Joseph found Jesus he was in the temple teaching. Their 12 year old was teaching the scholars of the torah, the church leaders, people who had spent their whole lives seeking to understand what God was saying. Jesus was teaching them,
While this would’ve been another moment that started with fear, at the end of it Luke says “His mother treasured all these things in her heart.”

This would be another one of those events she could hold on to when times were tough. For with Jesus, there was always this combination of being the mother of a special child who also suffered great pain.

She would watch her son grow and she would see how crowds of people gathered around him. People hung on every word he said. People reached out just hoping to touch them hem of his shirt, just hoping some of that blessedness might rub off.

But there was also much struggle and much of it from her own people.

Mary, Joseph, and Jesus were devout Jewish people. Although they were a financially poor family, they made it to Jerusalem every year for Passover. Living out their Jewish faith was important and core to who they were. And yet it was their own religious leaders that seemed to have the most trouble with Jesus and who gave him the hardest time.

Mary would see Jesus criticized, plotted against, and even killed.

From the foot of the cross Jesus would look down on her and the disciple John and say: “Woman, here is your son.” Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.

Even in his moment of pain and death, Jesus cared for his mother and provided for her.

Image result for mary treasured and ponderedThis too would be a moment she would ponder.

Three days later Mary would’ve heard the news that the tomb was empty, that Jesus rose again. In that moment it would’ve all made sense. The pieces of the puzzle would fit together and Mary would understand.

In Acts, Chapter 1, Mary is there again praying in the upper room, waiting for Pentecost to happen.

Throughout her life Mary had these moments that we would call a spiritual mountain top. Moments where she was visited by an angel, supported by family, and saw her son become a savior.

But in between these few moments there were also years of struggle and hardship and silence.

A similar thing was experienced by Mother Theresa.

In 1946, while riding a train, she heard the words of Jesus on her heart, calling her to leave the mission where she served in India and to get outside those walls and serve the poorest of the poor.

This was a moment that, like Mary, she would’ve treasured and pondered. Something she held on to dearly.

For the next 50 plus years of her life she never experienced anything like that again. She prayed for it, she sought it, but she did not experience it.  And yet what happened in 1946 was enough to carry her through the rest of her life until she died in 2003.

And we too share these types of experiences. There are moments in our lives we can look back on and treasure. Memories of events that shaped us and made us who we are. We can look back on them with fondness and appreciation.

That is part of what we do during the Christmas season. We look back and we remember who we are, where we have come from, and the people and events that have shaped us.

But at the same time that we have these memories we treasure, there are also things that we ponder.

Moments that we struggle to understand, events that we turn over in our head, and pray that God would give us some light in the darkness and clarity of vision.

Throughout her life, Mary was a woman of prayer. A devoutly Jewish woman who prayed from before the time Gabriel showed up all the way in to the book of Acts.

This week I want to invite you to pray like Mary.

Many times our prayer life looks similar to our Christmas lists. We pray to God and ask for God to be with the people we know who are sick, with the situations of the world that are unjust, and with us.

Image result for to you, to you is born a Savior, a Messiah, a LordThere is nothing wrong with praying like that, we should go to God with the concerns on our heart. God is always more ready to hear our prayers than we are ready to pray.

But I hope for you that there will be a quiet moment this week. Maybe you have an extra day or two off work or school. Maybe once Christmas is over you have some time to relax. In that moment I want to encourage you to sit with this scripture. Imagine the angel coming to you and saying “I bring you good news of great joy” to you, to you is born a Savior, a Messiah, a Lord.

What do these words mean, to you?

What does it mean that Jesus came to bring you salvation?

What does it mean that Emmanuel means God is with you always?

Take a moment this week and ponder these words. Consider what they mean for you. And when you hear the words of God on your heart, may you treasure that moment as we go in to a new year that will be filled with moments of joy and struggle beyond our imagination.

May we learn from Mary how to treasure and ponder all that God has given to us and may that lead us to experience Christ born among us anew this Christmas season.

Amen.

Born for This

Isaiah 35:1-10

There are eight shopping days until Christmas. Eight days!

Does that strike you with fear? Did I just increase anyone’s blood pressure or make your heart race a little bit faster?

If so, welcome to advent.

Advent is a time of preparation and expectation. We might normally thinking about waiting for something as a passive activity, that we are sitting and waiting for Christ to be born among us again. Or, that this time of the year should be about peace on earth and then we get disappointed when we don’t find any peace in our lives. But if you think about the Christmas stories, about all of the characters in the manger scene, they all had some unexpected fear and interruption happen to them.

Mary was planning her wedding and all of the joy that would come as her family and nativity-icon-4community came together for her day. Then an angel shows up and calls her blessed and her life is changed. She responds with fear and asks, how can this be? Mary’s heart raced.

Joseph too would have been imagining life with his new family. Perhaps he dreamed about the children he and Mary would have, only to be told that Mary is pregnant with a child that isn’t his. The angel tells him that instead of being a biological father he will be the adopted father of a boy he will name Jesus, the one who came to save people from their sins. Joseph’s heart raced.

Shepherds were quietly watching their flocks by night, like a million uneventful nights before, when the sky lit up and the sound of a chorus of angels startled them. The first words the angels said to them were “do not be afraid”. But from my experience when someone says, do not be afraid, there is something to be afraid about. Whenever someone looks at you and says “I have something to tell you, don’t freak out” internally I freak out. The shepherds’ hearts raced.

Wise men were doing just fine sitting in Persian palaces and advising kings. They lived comfortable lives and then they saw a star. They knew the star was significant, that it meant the coming of a king, and they were compelled to follow it and to bring gifts and worship the newborn king. When they saw the star, their hearts raced.

So if we find ourselves eight days out from Christmas and we have a little anxiety, we are not alone. There are gifts that need to be bought, meals that need to be cooked, cards that need to be written, and less than 200 hours to get it all done.

And six days from now, this sanctuary will become a winter wonderland as it will be transformed in to the Christmas Shop. We do a lot of remarkable things here at the Church for All People, but there is something special about the Christmas Shop and the energy that comes with it. It is really miraculous. But the amount of work to get from here to Saturday is incredible and exhausting and I am sure it makes Dessarre’s heart race.

And yet, it is for this reason that Jesus was born.

I know that eight days out from Christmas this scripture may not be what you expected to hear. It is not the familiar stories of the call of Mary or Joseph that are often preached on this Sunday. But I thought it was worth backing up a bit and exploring the question why did Jesus come, why was Jesus born? We spend a lot of time and energy celebrating the birth of Jesus, as we should, but what is it really all about?

Much of our understanding of Jesus not only comes from the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, but how we understand Jesus, and how Jesus first followers understood him, comes from the book of Isaiah.

The book of Isaiah is either directly quoted from, or referred to, nearly 100 times in the New Testament.

Matthew, Chapter 1, says “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel”. This is a direct word for word quote from Isaiah 7:14.

Listen to these words from Isaiah, Chapter 9:

For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time onwards and for evermore.
The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.

For the people of Isaiah’s day, these words were the hope of a messiah to come. For us, this is who we understand Jesus to be.

When Jesus began his ministry he preached in his home church and directly quoted Image result for jesus in isaiahfrom Isaiah 61 when he said:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’

And when John the Baptist sent his followers to Jesus and asked him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.’

If you go back and look at verses 5 and 6 of this morning’s scripture, you can see this a direct attribute back to Isaiah 35. When John’s followers say are you the one, Jesus says, yes, I am the one because I am fulfilling the vision given by Isaiah.

What is this vision? Why did Jesus come as Emmanuel, God with us? What is it all about?

From what we hear in Isaiah 35, Jesus came to restore creation. He came so that the desert, dry, barren places of life would blossom.

Jesus came so that the weak would be made strong, the fearful would be comforted, the blind would see, the lame would walk, the speechless would sing with joy.

We could look at these things metaphorically and talk about those who are spiritually weak receiving strength. In some cases, that might be true. But I think there is also a literal meaning to this. Jesus said he came that we might have life and have it abundantly. The proof Jesus offers to John’s followers is the physical healing he provided. In his earthly ministry Jesus was very concerned with healing the human body. It is why we at the Church for All People have a fresh market and exercise programs and cooking classes and urban zen. Our bodies matter. Jesus came so that we would have life. Not only in life eternal, but that we would have the life we were created and meant to have now.

Having an abundant life is not only a matter of diet and exercise, it is also finding peace within our souls.

Isaiah 35:4 says: Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God.

That phrase fearful heart comes from a Hebrew term, nimharê lēb, which is literally Related imagetranslated as “ones whose hearts are racing”.

Our hearts don’t only race because we are eight days from Christmas and there is so much to do. Our hearts race when we find ourselves in unexpected and anxiety creating situations.

When we sit in a doctor’s office awaiting a diagnosis, our hearts race.

When a bill marked “late notice” comes in the mail, our hearts race.

When we find ourselves in an uncomfortable or unfamiliar place, our hearts race.

This week Mark Slaughter shared with me a story about his dog, Hooper. Mark had a truck with a cab in it where Hooper used to ride. Now, Mark has a new truck that doesn’t have a cab so Hooper sits in the front. But Hooper is not a fan of the front seat. It creates anxiety in him. When Mark is driving down the road Hooper’s breath picks up, his tongue wags, his eyes get big, he is one whose heart is racing.

But how many times are we like Hooper? We find ourselves in a place that is unfamiliar and uncomfortable and all those same instincts kick in.

And yet it is for people like us and situations like this that Jesus came in to the world. Jesus came as Emmanuel, God with us. Jesus came offering us peace in the midst of our anxiety.

I can imagine how Mark comforts Hooper and touches him and reassures him that all will be well, in the same way God reassures us that we are never alone and the Risen Christ is with us always, to the very end of the age.

Many of the things that trouble us and cause our hearts to race are not only the things that happen within our own body, mind, and spirit, but also the situations of the world we live in.

We live in a country where 40 percent of the food we produce ends up in landfills and 20 percent of kids go hungry. That makes my heart race.

We live in a world where people we know and care about deeply are homeless, but there are more vacant houses than there are homeless people. That makes my heart race.

We live in a world where women earn about three-quarters of what men make for the same work. I saw a story this week that said women will not reach pay equity with men until they year 2,059; African American women won’t get there until 2,119, and Hispanic women 2,224. That will make your heart race.

In contrast to the broken world we live in, Isaiah gives us a vision of a restored creation where waters shall break forth in the wilderness, the redeemed will walk down a holy highway, the ransomed will return with joy and gladness.

As I read these words, I can hear the voice of Dr Martin Luther King quoting from the prophet Amos, “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

Image result for let justice roll down like waters

What Isaiah and Amos and King are envisioning here is justice. Jesus not only came that we would have life individually in our body, mind, soul, and spirit, but that justice would reign

Isaiah, Chapter 40, forsees a day when

Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together.

Jesus came to bring about God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven, so that we would live in to the life we were created to have, to still our racing hearts.

Eight days from now, we will exchange gifts with those who we love. As we tear open the paper our hearts will race, in a good way. We might open a box and inside it find clothes or toys or books or electronics. Those are all good things.

But in Isaiah we hear that the gifts God offers to us in Jesus Christ are strength, courage, hope, joy, and peace. May you prepare to receive these gifts so that we might fully be all that God has created us to be, so that we might be a part of God’s work of justice, and so that as we share those gifts, every heart will be stilled and together we can rejoice in gladness.

Amen.