The Community of the Reconciled

Matthew 25: 15-20

Lent 5C  March 13, 2016

body-of-christThe apostle Paul was way ahead of his time when he described the Church as the Body of Christ. While it is a helpful metaphor to describe the Church of Jesus Christ as a living organism with Christ as the head and members with a variety of gifts and callings as the body parts, more and more we are realizing that it is true scientifically.

The body is a system made up of many sub-systems. We have a nervous system, a circulatory system, a respiratory system, a vascular system, a digestive system and so on that must work in harmony or congruence if the whole body is to function. The body is so interrelated that if one system malfunctions or under functions it impacts all of the other systems. Or sometimes some portion of your body aches that has nothing to do with the actual problem. My father, for instance, was a paraplegic and would often get headaches or fevers if he had an infection elsewhere because he couldn’t feel it, so his body sent a signal that something was wrong.

By observing the biological world, psychologists, neurologists, family therapists and organizational specialists have realized that the same principles of interaction for biological systems apply to human emotional systems. Families are an emotional system. Companies are an emotional system. The Rotary Club is an emotional system. And churches, especially churches, are an emotional system. All emotional systems want stability. There are appropriate structures and boundaries that keep the system in equilibrium. We have by-laws, committees, and unspoken folkways about how to serve communion, appropriate language and topics suitable from the pulpit, expectations of the minister and so on. When this “comfort zone” is pushed, then usually there is feedback. Rumors fly, gossip goes around, people meet in the parking lot. This is known as anxiety in a system.

As human beings we have two poles or two sets of needs. We are social animals and so we need to be close to others and in relationship. But we are also unique individuals and need our own personal space. When we become too close to someone we become enmeshed and our own uniqueness is absorbed by another. Alcoholic families are often enmeshed as everyone colludes to try to protect the alcoholic from the consequences of his or her behavior. On the other hand, we need our space to be differentiated individuals made in the image of God. If we move too far away from others we become isolated and cut-off all emotional contact. Oftentimes rigid families with strict role expectations have order in their households, but no warmth or human connection.

triangulationThus, we are always engaged in this dance of moving in and moving out, or getting close and getting separate. When the familiar boundaries are violated we get anxious and try to pull someone else into the constellation to ease the anxiety. This is called triangulation. So, for instance, when the pastor starts introducing contemporary worship into the Sunday morning service that isn’t familiar, some people may get uncomfortable. The system is changing. The pastor isn’t who we thought she was or she’s not playing by the rules. So instead of going to the pastor, I go to someone else and ask them what they thought to manage the discomfort. Then you may get several more allies. Then you may sign a petition or have an all-church meeting or send out an anonymous email blast. This is one way a system, be it a biological family or a church family, manages differences, changes, or foreign elements being introduced into the system.

This is not necessarily bad. A vaccine introduces a virus into our system and strength-ens our immune system as it mobilizes forces to resist and overcome future viruses. Often, when people act out, it’s not because they’re bad people, but they may be putting the brakes on because something’s moving too fast. They may be the canary in the coalmine.

What we need toanxiety do instead is to define ourselves and stay connected with other people. What do I mean by that? What I mean is that you need to maintain your unique personhood when facing anxiety or conflict. You can’t be sucked into another person’s anxiety by saying, “ain’t it awful,” “oh, you’re so right,” because you feel the emotional pressure to do so—especially if you don’t agree. Nor can you turn your back and walk away from uncomfortable situations. See the tension between being too close or too far away? Instead, you can say, “I understand some of the new worship makes you feel uncomfortable. I happen to enjoy trying new music as do some of our younger newcomers. It’s going to take a time of adjustment to meet the needs of all the different generations in our congregation.”

The best way to handle anxiety in any system, however, is to get it out in the open and name it.  This is what Jesus’ was talking about in today’s gospel reading. Actually, these are probably not the actual words of Jesus, but more of a reflection of how Matthew’s community applied the words of Jesus to their particular situation. I say this because this is first time the word “church” appears in the New Testament and nowhere else in the Gospels. Jesus couldn’t have used this particular word because the church didn’t yet exist.

The other reason I say this is that it seems unlikely that Jesus would tell his followers to treat someone who was behaving badly like a tax-gatherer or a sinner especially when much of his ministry reached out to those folks. Nevertheless, I think these could have been actual teachings of Jesus on another occasion that were applied to the early church as they struggled to define themselves.

Let’s see if we can we press behind it and come to the actual intention or commandment of Jesus. William Barclay, the famous Scottish commentator, says that at its widest what Jesus was saying is, “If anyone sins against you, spare no effort to get right with that person and restore fellowship in the body.” Basically its means that we shouldn’t tolerate any situation where there is a breach of personal relationships between us and another member of the Christian community.

What this passage does is lay down some ground rules for how a Christian community is to behave. They are to exhibit a new way of relating. If someone offends you or hurts you, you are not to get revenge, you are not to engage in personal attacks or vendettas, you are not to go grouse to everyone else, and you are not to retaliate. No, that is what everyone else does. In this new community of Jesus’ followers we are to seek reconciliation.

Before I lay these out, let me make one comment. This is obviously a serious offense. The reason I say that is the final recommendation is so severe: put him or her out of the community. We all have situations where personalities clash because of different styles, tastes and perspectives. There are people who rub us wrong or have irritating habits. That’s not what we’re talking about here. You don’t go to a person with two others and say, “Do you know you sniff a lot when you sit behind me in church. I find that really irritating” and if the offender doesn’t get Flonase you throw them out of the church. These are serious matters and the goal is not the purity of the church per se, or putting someone in their place, but it is the restoration of a relationship and of maintaining a positive and powerful quality of life in the church.

I'm sorrySo, what’s the prescription? First, if we feel that someone has wronged us or a relationship is strained go directly to that person. This is hard for many of us. We don’t like conflict and confrontation. This is the anxiety we feel that I was talking about. But manage the anxiety as a responsible human being. Don’t go to someone else and complain. Don’t try to get people in your corner. Go to the person to whom you need to be reconciled. The motive should always be love. If you had done something wrong and someone came to you, you would want them to approach you gently, convinced that they cared about you and the relationship. Even though the offense may be all you see of that person now, you also know in your heart of hearts that he or she is a child of God, redeemed by Christ and worthy of love and respect. Putting the offense into words and talking face to face with another human being often takes the steam out of it.

Let’s take this a step further. Say a fellow parishioner comes to you and complains to you that the organist is playing too loudly (it could be anything—the deacon’s don’t visit the shut-ins enough, we spend too much money on ourselves and not on missions, the minister walks down one aisle of the church more than the other and therefore is snubbing me). So you say, “Well, have you spoken to him.” “Oh, no, I couldn’t do that. He’d never listen to me.” “Well,” you say, “I’d be glad to go with you. Let me talk to him.” “Oh no,” I couldn’t do that. “It would be too embarrassing.” So, then you might say, “Well, just write down your concerns and sign the paper and I’d be glad to give it to him.” “Oh, no, I couldn’t do that. Can’t you just tell him and not say who told you?” “No, I can’t speak for you, you need to speak for yourself. But I will be glad to tell him that you spoke to me about a concern you had. I won’t share the details, but he needs to know that you had a complaint.” You know what that will do? It will shut down gossip and triangulating and speaking for others because you don’t play nice. You don’t won’t carry their dirty laundry for them and let them off the hook. Someone can’t hide behind, “Well, people are saying.” People need to be treated like grownups and be responsible for their own emotions and convictions.

Second, if a private and personal meeting fails, then we should take some wise person or persons with us. This is based on an injunction from the Hebrew Bible found in Deuteronomy 19:15: “A single witness shall not suffice to convict a person of any crime or wrong-doing in connection with any offense that may be committed. Only on the evidence of two or three witnesses shall a charge be sustained.” The reason for more than one person is not to buttress the case against the offender, but to enhance the process of reconciliation. When you’re angry or hurt you may fly off the handle or overstate your case. You need someone to keep you in check. The offender may also be defensive and will need a gracious, wise presence of another who can create a new atmosphere. The offender may be able to see him or herself honestly and claim the hurt they committed. We must always lead with affirmation, praise and gratitude for who a person is and what they have done. We should never come in with both barrels loaded just so we can vent our spleen, but rather to repair and heal a breach.

Third, if that still fails, we must take the issue to the Christian fellowship and I would suggest it be the spiritual leadership within the church. Why? Because these differences are never going to be settled by going to court or by using Robert’s Rules of Order. Legalism never works. Conflicted matters must be handled in an atmosphere of prayer, love and mutuality if relationships are to be righted. The point of Christian fellowship is that it is Christian and seeks to practice its faith in the light of love, not a rule book of policies and procedures. There might be times in extreme cases when the church has to make the hard choice and say, “We love you, but you may not do that and we must ask you to leave.” Does this mean that they are hopeless and are never welcome back? No, Jesus never found tax-gatherers and Gentiles hopeless and neither should we. Perhaps the best way to love someone is to keep them from tearing down the rest of the community.

This is hard for mainline Christians to hear because we want to be welcoming, accepting and inclusive. We hear Jesus saying, “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” Yet we make judgments all the time about good behavior and bad behavior, about helpful remarks or hurtful ones. What we are never permitted to do is to condemn anyone. Even as Jesus told the woman caught in adult “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.”

racial-reconciliationLet me give you a practical illustration. At a church where I once served as an interim a fellow began gunning for me before I got home from my first Sunday sermon. He dashed off an email telling the search committee that I was anti-American and anti-family because our clergy group in Michigan opposed the Iraq war and supported basic civil rights for gay and lesbian folks. (He had Googled me). My pastoral prayer was unacceptable because I prayed for both American and Iraqi soldiers who had died that week. I was disrespectful of American enterprise because I said jokingly an interim minister doesn’t make an Enron salary. And on and on it went. Mind you, I had never spoken to this guy. I didn’t know him from Adam and I didn’t know if he was the exception or the rule of attitudes in that church. It wasn’t the welcome I had been anticipating. Talk about high anxiety!

The search committee just laughed it off. “Oh, that Bill. He’s always like that.” But I asked them, “Do you think this is appropriate behavior?” No. “Has he done it before?” Yes. “How did people react?” They were upset, but they got over it. “You know,” I said, “Bill is going to be around here a long time after I’m gone. He’s entitled to his own opinion, but he’s not entitled to impose it upon others or upset them. You folks need to go to him and tell him. It’s not about me. It’s about this church.”

They were taken aback. They hadn’t done that before. So they did. The offender was sorry he had hurt people’s feelings but maintained his right to do so. The email blasts with blind copies continued. People got angry. I even reached out and invited him to lunch, but he would never find the time. So the moderator and chair of the Search Committee asked for a meeting in my office, which we had. I explained how his behavior hurt me and the church especially since he didn’t know me or take the time to get to know me. We shook hands and left, but the emails continued and other people started pushing back.

Eventually he and his family left the church, not because they weren’t welcome; he was a genuinely nice guy when you talked about sports and music, not politics. But the culture of the congregation began to change. People took responsibility for themselves and others. They realized they couldn’t let negativity and constant objections hold the church hostage when there was so much good work to be done.

The point of this passrace-and-ethnicityage, I think, is not permission to set up a kangaroo court whenever someone messes up. Rather it is a call to reconciliation and restoration. We are the fellowship of the reconciled, reconciled to God and reconciled to one another. It is a call to a new way of relating by keeping our accounts short, by going directly to people to work out our differences, to speak for ourselves and not for others, and to deal in a responsible, adult manner about our differences and in some small way we might begin to resemble the kingdom of God.




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Prelude to Forgiveness

Prelude to Forgiveness
Third Sunday in Lent 2016
Luke 23: 32-43

fatherForgiveLGI have a colleague and a friend who told me that after the Charleston church massacre he was talking with someone who told him that he thought it was weak for the families of the slain victims to forgive their murderer at his hearing. Rick said, “I found it most inspiring.” “Well you would, wouldn’t you?” he said, “You’re a Christian!”

When I hear things like that I realize that I as a Christian take certain things for granted that are not shared by everyone. I’d like to think I would have been able to forgive as those family members forgave, or at least know it is what I should do. But forgiveness is a scandal, even to people within the church. A pastor in a suburb of New York City the week after the 9/11 attacks preached on forgiveness. A number of people in their community, like many others surrounding New York, died when the World Trade Center towers collapsed. The pastor was fired for the sermon on forgiveness. Not fired in the corporate “clean out your desk” sort of way, but in the discreet way that upper middle-class folks do it. It only took a few influential members stirring the pot, but in a matter of weeks the pastor was gone and the congregation was told that he was called to “new fields of service.” The irony, of course, is that at the center of that church’s worship space was a cross, a reminder that Jesus died forgiving those who murdered him. It’s still a scandal.

That’s why this story is so powerful. Even though I’ve heard it hundreds of times, you could knock me over with a feather. I still find it astonishing that Jesus could say, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” I mean God sent the very best, the Son of God, Jesus, a man who lived among the people, loved them, cared for them, taught them, ate with them, laughed with them, healed their sick, taught them the Good News of the Kingdom—and they killed him for it. The best that the world had created, both in the politics and society of Rome and in religion with the monotheism of Judaism, turned on him and executed him. Yet he could still say, “Father, forgive them.”

We’d like to think that Jesus was able to do that because he was in some way divine. But I like to think that Jesus was the model of what God really intended human beings to act like. We are to be merciful, forgiving, and compassionate. But it’s so hard. I suppose that God can forgive instantaneously, but we’re not God. God can separate our sins as far as the east is from the west and remember our transgressions no more. But it doesn’t happen like that for us, does it?

I think the Church hasn’t always been realistic in its teaching on forgiveness. We can’t forgive instantaneously, yet most teaching and preaching makes us feel guilty if we don’t. We can forgive unintentional slights and mistakes, but the big hurts, the betrayals, the unfaithfulness—those are the hard ones to forgive. We feel the pain deeply. We rehearse the hurt over and over again. We fantasize about revenge.

What I’ve concluded after dealing with fallible human beings for decades and as a fallible human me, is that forgiveness is a process and in some cases it is a process that might take a lifetime. I resonate deeply with that. Lewis Smedes in his book Forgive and Forget: Healing the Hurts We Don’t Deserve says there are distinct stages that we need to go through before we can really forgive.

hurtingFirst of all we hurt. And we have to own the hurt; we can’t deny it. I’ve lived long enough to know that you will eventually be hurt by someone you counted on to be your friend. We can only forgive people: we can’t forgive nature like an earthquake or a hurricane or systems like the IRS even though these can hurt us. We don’t need to forgive people who haven’t hurt us. In fact, we have no right to forgive them; only their victims have that right. It’s even harder when people hurt us unfairly. There is pain and then there is unfair pain. It hurts to lose $50 on a fair bet; it also hurts to be mugged on the street and robbed of $50. It hurts to be bawled out for hitting your sister; it also hurts for a child to be screamed at by a drunken father.

There once was a person in my life who did outrageous things to me. She screamed at me all through dinner. She made me jump to her service at anytime, day or night, no matter how busy I was with other things. Now and then she would pee on my best pants. To make matters even worse, she would get acutely sick and scream. She drove me mad because she would not tell me what was wrong. I sometimes had the impulse to whack her, but never to forgive her. She was my 6 month old daughter Anna. I didn’t need to forgive her, just love her.

That is an example of unfair pain. But what if your husband of 25 years walks out on you for a knockout because you’re getting a little chunky where there once wasn’t any chunk, or if a business partner swindles you out of a life’s savings, or if your best friend begins to spread malicious lies about you—those are wrongful actions and they hurt. So the first step towards forgiveness is that we hurt. What else do we need to do?

I know this sounds totally unchristian, especially coming from a pastor, but we hate.
Note, I didn’t say we MUST hate, but that we do hate. Hate is a grizzly bear snarling in the soul. Hate is our natural response to any deep and unfair pain. Hate is our instinctive backlash against anyone who wounds us wrongly.

hating yourselfAs I see it there are two kinds of hate most of us experience. One is passive hate. Passive hate is when we lose our ability to wish someone well. We don’t wish they would be hit by a bus, but we have a hard time praying that God would bless them. Then there is active hate. This is when we wish our unfaithful spouse would get herpes or that the friend who gave away your secret would get fired from her job. It’s when you actively wish someone ill. What makes this even more complicated is that it is people we hate, not merely evil. We often glibly say, “Hate the sin, but love the sinner,” but how is that possible? I don’t hate cruelty; I hate cruel people. I don’t hate treachery; I hate traitors. But in a way, when we do that we are complimenting them.

By that I mean, we hold them accountable as free moral agents. They are valuable human beings responsible for their behavior. What we do or not do matters. But hate unchecked will be your undoing. We can’t deny our hurt or hate, but if we let is stay there it is like a carcinoma that will eat you alive from the inside out; it will rot your soul. So, that’s why we need to take the next step.

We need to heal ourselves. When we begin to forgive someone for hurting us, we perform spiritual surgery of the soul. You cut away the wrong done to you so that you can see your “enemy” through a different set of eyes that can heal our souls and we receive several gifts.

hand-holding-plantOne gift we receive when we begin to forgive someone is new insight. We see a deeper truth about them—they are weak, needy, fallible human beings, not ogres or monsters. They are not only people who hurt us; that is not the deepest truth about them. They are someone’s husband or wife, mother or father, and worker, friend who likely received their share of bumps and bruises in life that made them the way they are.

And new insight often leads to new feeling. When you forgive me, the wrong I did to you becomes irrelevant to how you feel about me now. The pain I once caused you has no connection with how you feel about me now. We cannot pry the wrongdoer from the wrong; we can only release the person within our memory of the wrong.

The ancient drama of Judaism illustrates this. During Passover, the priest would lay his hands on a scapegoat that was released into the wilderness, taking the sins of the nation with it. It is poetic imagery of what happens in God’s mind. God’s memory changes. What we once did is irrelevant to how God now feels about us. Forgiving is an honest release, like the scapegoat, even though it is done invisibly.

The question naturally arises, how do we know that forgiveness has really begun? I think it begins when you recall those who hurt you and can honestly wish them well. Then you can begin to come together. That’s what we really want after all, isn’t it? Reconciliation. A coming together. One theologian I like said forgiveness is the active process in the mind of the wronged person where he or she lets go of the “moral hindrance” that’s breaking fellowship with the wrongdoer. After that, the freedom and happiness of friendship can begin to be re-established. In other words, the wrongdoer must be given an opportunity to prove his or her trustworthiness again.

forgive-e1436365088901But, you protest, what if that isn’t possible? What if the person doesn’t want to be reconciled? Or what if it’s too dangerous as when a parent abuses a child or a husband abuses a wife? Or a criminal who robbed you? That’s correct. Sometimes it is impossible to be reconciled to some people or it’s simply too dangerous to your mental or physical health. They may never be able to treat you in a trustworthy manner. It’s best to stay away. But with God’s grace you can begin to heal nonetheless by letting it go piece by piece until you can one day wish the wrongdoer well instead of harm.

We also have to remember if we simply brush off the wrong or pretend it didn’t really matter, we are taking our first step into an amoral life where nobody gives a rip about anything. We can’t treat people poorly with impunity and never have someone call us on our behavior. But things will never be right between us if we ignore the wrong between us.
In other words, the one wronged had to give up their claim on the other person and accept some kind of incremental payment plan of restored trust. In effect, you’re saying, “Let’s have a relationship again. I won’t hold the injury over your head and you prove to me that you’re worthy of my trust.” It means turning it loose and risking entering a relationship again, knowing that you may have to forgive again and again.

My friend Mary Luti says that when she’s to name Christianity’s most distinctive practice she always say forgiveness. Some people object. Not love? Doesn’t Paul say love is the greatest of all? Won’t it be the last thing standing when all is ended? Yes, she says, but I am certain that on the day of love’s triumph, it will appear in the shape of a dazed enemy inexplicably pardoned.

This is tough stuff and no one says it’s easy. But it’s better than the alternative of living with hate, bitterness, anger, and hurt all your life. That doesn’t hurt the person who hurt you. It’s a cancer that eats you alive from the inside out. So what I’m saying is that forgiveness is a process, often one that takes a long time. First we hurt, then we hate, then we heal ourselves, and then, if at all possible, we come together.

True forgivers don’t pretend they don’t suffer. They don’t pretend the wrong doesn’t much matter. But they do experience the transforming grace of God that brings them into the place of freedom and release. Which brings us back full circle, to Jesus saying, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”

Father forgive themAs we approach Holy Week, we remember that God risked everything when coming to this earth. God offered an open hand and we in turn offered a clenched fist. Jesus threw all his trust on God to exonerate him when he was on the cross. He nearly lost heart with his wrenching cry, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me.” But God trumped all human wickedness and restored lost trust on Easter morning when Christ was exonerated in his resurrection. Forgiveness, human or divine, is not cheap. It’s very costly. But it’s worth its weight in gold.

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The Forgiveness Factor

1 John 1: 1-10
Second Sunday in Lent
February 21, 2016

Black AngelA number of years ago in 1983 a powerful play called The Black Angel by Michael Christopher, explored the thick and thorny problem of human forgiveness. The play was about a former Nazi general whose name was Engel who, after 30 years in prison (he was sentenced at the Nuremberg war crimes trial), was trying to make a new beginning for himself outside of a little village in France. There he begin building a cabin in the mountains for himself and his wife. His past with its horrendous guilt was now forever behind him, paid for, he believed, by three decades in jail. Now he could try to forget it all. He had earned the right to make a new beginning.

But there was a French journalist by the name of Morrieaux, who could not forget. His family had been massacred at the start of the war in the village that Engel’s army had overrun. Everybody in the village had been shot dead. No, Morrieaux could not forget. For 30 years he planned revenge. If the Nuremberg court could not sentence Engel to death, Morrieaux would carry out his own sentence. Now after 30 years, the time had come. Morrieaux had gone into the little village and stoked the hatred and the fear in the minds of the village radicals and the crazed, and he did his work well. For on that night they were going to come up there as a mob and kill Engel and his wife, and burn down the cabin.

But there were some loose ends to the story of Engel, some unanswered questions that a journalist had to get an answer to. So the afternoon before the night of vengeance, Morrieaux went to the cabin, identified himself to the shocked Engel, and began an inquisition. All afternoon the inquisition went on as Morrieaux probed into the story. And as Morrieaux got inside of the soul of Engel, Morrieaux’s own soul began to change.

Revenge began to taste sour in his mouth, and he changed his mind. And he said to the former Nazi general, “They’re going to come to you tonight, and they’re surely going to kill you. Come with me. I will save your life. I can get you out of here alive.”

The general waited for a long minute before he answered. And he said to the French journalist, “I will go with you on one condition.”

Morrieaux said, “What’s the condition?”

“That you forgive me.”

“No, no, no. Save you I will. Forgive you I cannot. Never, never, never.”

And that night the villagers came as a mob with the courage of anonymity that comes with wearing a hood over your head. They burned the cabin to the ground and shot Engel and his wife dead.

The play left everyone there gasping for an answer to the question of forgiveness. What was it that General Engel wanted more badly than life itself? What was it that he needed so much that he would rather die than live without it? What was it that Morrieaux did not have the power to give? What is the miracle of forgiveness?

Listen to the promise of our text today: “If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us all of our sins.” The Word tells us that God can be counted on to forgive. It is about God’s unfailing grace to do what Morrieaux could not. But God’s forgiving is a model for our forgiving. So what happens between God and a sinner can also happen between two human beings alienated from one another. God shows the way.

We must notice the closForgivenesse connection between confessing and forgiving. If we confess, God forgives. But we mustn’t make the converse true as well. The text does not say if you do not confess God will not forgive. Repeat: The text does not say if you do not confess God will not forgive. The text only says that if we do confess, we are assured that God will forgive. What God does with unconfessed sin, we can leave to the mystery of God’s unlimited mercy. This we can seize onto. If we do confess, God surely forgives.

What is a confession? And what is forgiveness? I am indebted to Lewis Smedes, late professor of theology and psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary for these insights. He has explored these questions deeply in a book entitled, Forgive and Forget: Healing the Hurts We Don’t Deserve. So I invite you for a few moments to hang tough with me as we probe deeply into these two questions. What is it to confess? And what is it to forgive?

What is a confession? First, I want you to brush aside some of the pious debris that can clutter up the reality of a confession. Let me mention three things that confessing is not. Confessing is not talking about sin. If talking about sin were confessing sin then our society would be on a confessional binge. Charlie Sheen confessed he has AIDS, Bruce Jenner confessed he was transsexual, VW confessed they rigged their cars so their CO2 output could not be measured, and Josh Duggar of the show 19 Kids and Counting confessed that he used a website designed to cheat on his spouse. Grocery stores sport the latest misdeeds of celebrities or politicians in the tabloids at the checkout aisle. Fortunes are made on the premise that you and I are peeping Toms at heart. I continue to be amazed at people’s readiness to divulge their private peccadilloes to the likes of Dr. Phil and to a few million eaves-droppers. But blabbing our secrets is not confession. Spilled beans do not yet a confession make. Talking about sin is not the same as confessing it.

Second, confessing sin is not the same as explaining it. I am more than willing, like most of you I imagine, to try to explain my faults. I want everybody to understand me and appreciate the extenuating circumstances under which I was practically forced to do the crazy things that I sometimes do. I want you to know that I’m not a terrible fellow. I can explain everything. Well, that afternoon on the mountaintop General Engel explained. Morrieaux should know what it was like to have been a German general under that lunatic Adolph Hitler. You might gain insight and under-standing, even compassion, but it’s not confession.

Third, confessing sin is not the same as being realistic about it. If realism were the same as confession, our society would be pros at it. Tell all books, crying admissions on television, grizzly 24/7 coverage of natural disasters, and public acknowledgement of behavior that would once have made us blush, are now common place. Realism makes us honest. It makes us tough. It makes us callous, but it does not make us confessors of our sins.
If confessing is not the same as blabbing, not the same as explaining, and not the same as being realistic, what in heaven’s name is it? I think that confession always includes three essential qualities.

The first one is an acknowledgement of our responsibility. To confess is to acknowledge responsibility. Let me say upfront that as I’ve grown older, been in ministry for some 25 years, and seen more tragedy, I am convinced that people are as often sinned against as much as they sin. They’re as often victims as they are culprits. We’re victims of many forces. I don’t know just how much you can blame on your genetic makeup, or how much you can blame on your lousy psychological childhood environment. I don’t know how much you can blame on something else. But this I believe—that somewhere in the matrix of your decisions, somewhere in the dynamics of your actions, you decided, you chose, you determined what you should do. It’s not my mother, not my father, not my toilet training, but it’s me, O Lord, standing in the need of prayer. And I have not confessed until I have acknowledged my responsibility even though I might not be fully sure of what it is.

Second, and this is most crucial, confession is shared pain. When I truly confess to you that I have hurt you, I am saying to you that the hurt that I caused you now hurts me, too. I feel the pain that I inflicted upon you. I wounded you, and now I am wounded by the cuts that I sliced into your life. Only when pain is shared does confession begin.

Third, confession is a gamble on grace. How do you know when you’ve held out your heart and you’ve held out your soul in your hand for the other person to look at it with all of its flaws—how do you know that the other person will not look at it and find in it reason to shut the door in your face? What a huge risk! That’s the risk of love and of vulnerability.
Every confession is acknowledgement of responsibility, the feeling of shared pain, and a risk and a gamble on the other person’s grace. With these any confession can be the beginning of a miracle that tears down a wall and builds a bridge over which you can meet each other and begin again.

What then is the miracle that happens after confession is made, when one confesses and the other forgives? Again, we need to brush away some misconceptions that can clutter up the reality of forgiveness and keep its miracle from our eyes. Let me mention two things.
Forgiveness is not forgetting. Forgiveness is hard; forgetting is easy. It’s not painful. You need no miracle of grace to get you to forget. All you need is a bad memory or fear enough to force you to drive the memory into the dark pit of your unconscious. If God could have forgotten, we would not have needed a cross. God could have just said, “It doesn’t matter, I’ve forgotten it.” Forgetting is not forgiving. Forgiving is remembering and still forgiving.

Second, forgiving is not excusing. Oh, we all need a lot of excusing for the dumb things we do. I know that I want to be excused for arriving late because I’m so busy. I have so many things going on, so many responsibilities, so much to get done—of course, you understand. Nobody dares to not excuse us pastors because, after all, we’re doing the Lord’s work. So I’ve got it made on the question of excusing. But we all excuse each other for so many things. I know you’re a flake, but you’re my kind of flake. My husband is a clod, but with the mother he had to grow up with, what would you expect? You see, excusing is easy and sometimes it’s entirely appropriate for those mistakes we all make just for being human. But excusing can also be an end run around the pain and the challenge of forgiveness. You can excuse almost anything if you understand it well enough.

CONFESSION_1If forgiveness is not forgetting and if forgiving is not excusing, what in heaven’s name is it? What happens when God forgives a sinner? What happens when a hurting person forgives the person who hurt her? Forgiveness at bottom is a very simple miracle. It is the miracle of a new beginning, a new beginning starting at the moment where you are, not where you wish you were but at the place you are together, to begin again. When you truly forgive someone you hold out your hand and you say, “I cannot excuse what you’ve done. I cannot fully understand what you’ve done. I cannot forget what you’ve done. But here’s my hand. I want to be your friend again. I want to be your husband again. I want to be your mother again. Let’s begin over.”

When we’re ready to forgive we do not have to understand everything. We do not have to get the story straight. We don’t have to sew all the loose ends together in our minds. All we need to do is to begin where we are in our shared pain and determine to walk into the future together.

What future? Who knows—it may be a future where we will have more pain, we’ll hurt each other again which will require more confessing, and more new beginnings. We never settle it once and for all. Forgiveness does not guarantee a painless future between us. Nor can forgiveness turn back the clock. We have to begin where we are, and sometimes that means that we have to begin a brand new relationship.

Whatever the quality of the moment, whatever the status of the relationship, when you sense that another person has shared the pain that he or she has caused you, you are ready to forgive if you have grace enough to do it. And there’s the rub. As long as we are relating as sinful persons to sinful persons, confession is such a great risk. I may not have the grace to forgive you. You have to risk it with me.

So where do you need to take a risk this morning? Who do you have to forgive? From whom do you have to ask forgiveness? I’m always amazed when people are confounded that there is sin in our churches. “I can’t believe how cruel he was.” “They left the church over that?” “How can people who call themselves Christians do such a power play?” “An affair? I can’t believe it.” Yes, we’re rightfully disappointed. We wish it could be better. We do have a higher calling and we should be models of a new humanity created in Christ. But we’re a hospital for broken wounded people, not just a way station for saints.

I know there’s been conflict here in the past year and before that. There was a rift over same-gender marriage. Some didn’t like the process—they thought it was a done deal. Others didn’t know why it was taking so long, it shouldn’t even be an issue. Some were angry that the subject even came up and others thought it didn’t go far enough. There was sharp disagreement over the best way to develop the Friendship Garden. People said and did things that were hurtful. Things that are regrettable. Differences of opinion that could have been handled better. Actions that were not intended to be hurtful, but nevertheless were. But you know what? Everybody wants the same thing. Everyone wants a church that is welcoming to all and struggles with tough issues of the day. Everyone wants a beautiful garden—a place for prayer and reflection, for beauty. Everyone wants to sing their hymns at the top of their lungs be they classic hymns or contemporary praise songs. But we have different ways of getting there or understanding what it means or what the best path might be. Forgiveness, reconciliation and moving on are an important part of the interim time. Let’s try to make the most of it.

The gospel this morning is that with God all risk is removed. If we confess, God is faithful and fair to forgive us all of our sins. We can depend upon it. There’s no gamble. What makes the difference? The difference is a cross set in the soil on a Palestine hill, where a man once hung in shared pain for the sins of the world. God drove deep into our human predicament in Jesus. God came and shared “our common lot,” as our UCC Statement of Faith puts it. In Jesus, God knew what it was like as a human being to be sinned against, to be misunderstood, to be disappointed, to offer one’s heart to another and have it stomped on. Jesus was fully human and as such he understood the pain we caused God’s heart.

As our representative, Jesjesus-forgives-sins-and-healsus in his suffering held out his pain to God as though he were saying, “O God, the pain that the human race caused you I am feeling with you now. I share your pain, O God. And we are so sorry.” And in the sharing of pain on the cross for us, Jesus made a perfect confession of sin for the whole human race. The cross in God’s light is the guarantee of a new beginning for us. The closer we get to the things Jesus’ cares about, the closer we get to the pain that God must feel when we brutalize one another.

There is a cross of shared pain in the life of God. This is why God can be trusted never to shut the door, never to turn away. God can be relied on not simply to excuse us, not simply to forget, not simply to understand but to know and remember everything and still say to us, “Here’s my hand. I want to be your God again. I want to be your friend again. I want to be your fellow traveler into the future with you. Let us begin again.”

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“Don’t Tempt Me!”

Luke 4: 1-13
First Sunday in Lent C, February 14, 2016

christ in the desertEvery day we read yet another story about how a politician, a sports celebrity, a business executive or a pastor was caught embezzling, lying, or philandering and fell headlong from the top of their perch. In most of these instances it was a temptation to money, power, influence or delusions of grandeur that break these people. They began to believe that they were a cut above the rest of us, entitled to cut corners, and deceived by the assurance that they would never be found out.

For most of us, our temptations are more pint size than being tempted to embezzle millions of dollars, run off with a starlet, or lie to cover up a murder. Our temptations are much more mundane and pedestrian. For instance, some time ago I was having my car filled up with gas. The total was $27.50 and I pulled out thirty dollars to give to the attendant. He asked me if I had change, so I fished out 50 cents and gave it to him. He looked confused, so I said “You owe me $3.” “You gave me $30, right?” I said, “Yes” and he gave me the three dollars. Just as I was about to pull out, I looked to my right and there on the passenger’s seat was the $30 under my wallet where I had placed it to get the 50 cents. For a split second I thought, “I could drive away and he’d be none the wiser.” Instead, I got out of the car, found the attendant and gave him the $30, to his great relief. You were afraid, weren’t you, that you were going to have a thief for a preacher? If I had kept the money, do you think I would have told you the story?

But that’s where most of us live, isn’t it? Tempted not to give back the change when we’re given too much back, tempted to blow up at the kids rather than leave the room and get your cool, tempted to look at stuff on the internet we know isn’t good for us, and tempted to keep quiet when we know we should speak up.

But the good news this morning is that we have a Savior who walks with us in the midst of life’s pushes and pulls, who was tempted just as we are, but who overcame it in ways we only struggle to. In Luke’s story today of the temptation of Christ, we see the humanity of Jesus in sharp relief. Jesus is tempted just as we are. And let me note up front, that there’s nothing wrong with temptation. If you weren’t tempted, you wouldn’t be human. It’s what you do with the temptation that counts. That will either build spiritual and moral muscles resisting it or become yet another occasion to learn how to give in to it.

Temptation of JesusJesus was tempted in three ways, just as we are: in his appetites, in his power, and in his pride. Jesus had been in the wilderness for forty days, fasting. He would have been starving. Satan says, “If you really are the son of God turn these stones to bread” (vv. 3-4). It was an appeal to satisfy a desire in an inappropriate way. Our appetites–food, drink, sleep, sex, the need for shelter, clothing, love and security–are all legitimate needs and gifts of God, but we can seek to satisfy them in inappropriate or excessive ways.

Satan then showed Jesus the kingdom’s of the world and promised him political power “If, you then, will worship me” (vv. 5-6). This was an appeal to use his power not to build the common¬wealth of God, but to aggrandize himself. We experience this as the lust for power or covetousness. We want a bigger house, a better car, a greater position, more prestige. We’re always restless with our station or calling in life. We don’t like our¬selves. We wish we had a different spouse or different parents. These things can call forth an unholy devotion in us.

Jesus-in-the-desert1And last, Satan took Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple and said, “Throw yourself down. The angels will catch you. Show ’em who you really are” (vv. 9-12). Here the appeal was to Jesus’ pride, to show off. This is the desire to be like God, to manipulate God. We want God to be our divine bell hop and jump at our every beck and call. Pride may also be the result of not having a security within so you must make sure others always know how great you are. Jesus’ temptation, just as it was in the Garden of Eden, was not to be like the devil, but “to be like God.”

In every case, Jesus was being tempted to be something he was not. His mission wasn’t strictly humanitarian, although the hungry would have loved him to turn all the stones in Palestine to bread. His calling wasn’t to set up a political realm by coercion, although the oppressed would have loved him to overthrow Rome. His role wasn’t to be simply a miracle worker or healer, although the sick and the lame would have loved him to be so. His mission was not to save himself, but to save others. This was the great temptation of Jesus: to be someone other than God had called him to be. It is our temptation as well. We can either try to be someone God is not calling us to be or to play down our gifts or hide our light because it’s too much work.

temptation_of_christ_10_3So, how do we handle temptation when it stares us down? Let me offer a few suggestions. First, name it. By naming what it is you are tempted to do or not to do, be or not to be, you draw the sting out of it. “Right now I am tempted to be a coward and shut up even though those kids are using racial slurs to insult another. Why make a scene?” “I sure would like to have my shoes under her or his bed.” “Right now I am tempted to feel really insecure because I am being ignored.” “This moment I want to eat the entire box of Dunkin’ Donuts myself.” Naming the temptation puts it right in front of you where you can take it on.

Second, own it. What I mean by this is to honestly claim that this is part of whom you are or potentially could be. “I am a coward. I really could walk away from an injustice to save my skin.” “I am an adulterer. I really could betray my wife and kids.” “I am a glutton. I really could eat those dozen donuts if I wanted to.” This is not to say that you are a perpetual liar, thief, gossip, selfish brat, or whatever it is you’re tempted to be, but it is squarely facing up to that part of you. It’s your shadow, that dark side of your soul.

Third, face it. Face the temptation. Look it in the eye. Call it what it is–pride, revenge, self-pity, lust, hate. But also face the fact that in your own strength you are powerless against it. I take great comfort in advice Paul gave to the Corinthians:

No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it (1 Cor. 10:13).

The Tempation of Jesus ChristGive it to God. Look for the way out. Don’t put yourself in places where you know it’s going to be tough. Is gossip your issue? Don’t become part of those conversations and leave them when they start. Is workaholism your nemesis? Covenant with another to call you at 6 p.m. and tell you to get home. The great New England evangelist George Whitfield once, when watching a drunk, stumble down the street said, There, but for the grace of God, go I.” Whitfield knew himself.

Lastly, appropriate power over it. That is the birthright of every Christian. The power of the living Christ who overcame the temptations in his human life is available to us now. You have a choice. Sometimes we have to be honest and say we don’t want power over it. We rather like it. Or we say, “Lord, give me strength, but not right now.” Or, “Give me a partial victory.” You can choose to submit to it or you can choose, by God’s grace, to fight it.

I don’t want to be facile here because there are genuine addictions and other diseases that don’t submit to a simple choice. We shouldn’t feel guilty because we’re not praying hard enough, or trying hard enough or don’t have enough faith. The strongest thing to do then is get professional help. But for garden variety temptations giving it back to God may be just the ticket.

The reason we can draw strength from Christ is that he has gone the distance with temptation and won. We may think, well, he was the Son of God. It would have been a piece of cake for him. But think again. If you got in the ring with Mohamed Ali, how many rounds do you think you’d last? Even one? One uppercut and you’re out cold. “Wow,” you’d say, “that guy can pack a wallop.” But if George Foreman got in the ring with him and went fifteen rounds, enduring body blows, lightning left hooks, and dozens of right jabs, who do you think would really know Mohamed Ali’s strength?

arm wrestlingIn the same way, Christ was fully assaulted with temptation. He could have turned stones to bread. He could have come down off that cross with a legion of angels and wiped out the Romans. He could have told his disciples to go hang themselves when they were being bone-headed–but he didn’t. He stayed true to whom God called him and all Christians to be. That power resides in you when you allow Christ to be Lord.

So, my friends, on this first Sunday of Lent, as you travel through the wilderness, take heart. You’re not going anyplace that Jesus has not already been. You’re not facing anything that Jesus has not already faced. And you’re not going through it by yourselves. Remember Jesus’ promise, “I will never leave you or forsake you.”

The perennial wit and poet Ogden Nash once said, “I can resist anything–except temptation.” By God’s grace, let’s see if we can prove him wrong.

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Six Prepositions for Communion

1 Corinthians 11: 17-34
Epiphany 5C, February 7, 2016

CommunionThis morning, on this communion Sunday, I want to give you six guidelines for making use of this Great Supper that Christ has given us; six prepositions, six great looks that come to us from 1 Corinthians 11. These may be new looks for you, or helpful reminders. You may even wish to jot them down to review every time you come to the Lord’s Table.

First, look back. V. 23: “For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: the Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” Look back. Look back to Passover night. Holy Communion is seen as a Christian Passover in 1 Cor. 5:7: “Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Therefore let us keep the festival…” It was on Passover night that this great meal was instituted. It was the night of nights when they celebrated the great release of the people from Egypt. Remember how God told the Israelites to sacrifice a lamb and to smear its blood on the door casings of their homes (Ex. 12:13). The Lord passed over those homes that were under the blood of the lamb; the lamb died instead of the first born.

passoverNow Christ is saying that the Passover they celebrated on this night was in anticipation of God’s greatest act of deliverance. Jesus as both the first-born of God and as the Lamb of God, would offer the ultimate sacrifice—the gift of himself. Imagine the electric sense when Jesus took bread and said to his disciples, “This is my body, which is for you.”

Imagine their amazement when Jesus said, “This cup of thanksgiving is the new covenant made, not with the blood of goats and bulls, but in my blood.” An important thing to remember is that Jesus was not a blood offering to appease an angry God. That is paganism. God did not require blood nor punish Jesus instead of us. That would be Divine child abuse. No, remember what Paul said to the Corinthians, “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. And he gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation.” (2 Cor. 5:19) God was on the cross taking all the pain, suffering, sin and sorrow into and upon the Divine heart to identify with us and to overcome all that plagues us. Jesus became the scapegoat that carried the sins of the world away. Jesus’ offered to God what we could not offer—a life of holiness and faithfulness to God.

God now would “pass over” the sins of those who trusted in this great work of Christ. This was the gateway to a greater deliverance than Egypt. It was deliverance from the bondage of sin, death, and evil. Christ drained the power and the penalty of sin, of separation from God, with his own body. This new Passover is a memorial of his great achievement on Calvary. We need to look back with profound gratitude that God in Christ did this for me!

Leonardo_da_Vinci_-_Last_SupperSecond, we are to look in. V.27: “Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. A person ought to examine him or herself be¬fore they eat of the bread and drink of the cup.” We are to look in, examine ourselves, and repent. In the Jewish Passover, they have a great hunt throughout their homes for leaven, the yeast, which generally has a bad connotation, a symbol of evil, in the Old Testament. It spreads. You put in a little lump of yeast into bread and the whole thing rises. “A little works through the whole batch of dough,” says Paul, “so get rid of the old yeast…of malice and wickedness.”

You cannot go to a royal banquet with filthy hands. If we want to profit from the Lord’s Supper there has got to be that looking in and taking an inventory of our soul. We needn’t get into an excoriating excavation, but we need to say, “Cleanse me, O Lord, and try my heart and see if there be any wicked way in me.”

Then, look up. Look up in faith and adoration. V.20: “When you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, for as you eat, each of you goes ahead without waiting for anybody else. One remains hungry, another gets drunk.” What would happen is that the Corinthians would meet and worship in one another’s homes. An agape or love feast preceded often communion. The well off would arrive early and gorge themselves and get drunk. Working people and slaves who would arrive after work would find most of the food gone by the time they got there. So Paul is being very sarcastic, saying, “It’s not the Lord’s supper you eat when you get together. You’re just getting together to pig-out.”
It is not the supper about the Lord; it is the supper with the Lord. And if you are having supper with the Lord, you can’t act like selfish pigs. I believe in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. The Lord is here. The Lord is at hand. The Lord is alive and in our midst. The Lord is really present. It is the Lord’s Supper. He is the host. He welcomes us to eat with him and to feed on him.

lower_city_housesJust as the Passover meal was strength for the journey for the Jews, so Jesus is the strength for the Christian life. There is only one strength for the Christian life and that is the Jesus who accepted you, the Jesus who is with you, the Jesus who at death will receive you, and the Jesus who for all eternity will be with you. He is the only strength for the Christian life. So when we come to the table, we must come expectant that the Lord will meet with us. We are feeding on him in our hearts by faith. We’re not just remembering what he did in the past. We are meeting him in exultation as we break bread and come before him in praise and adoration.

Then, look around, in love and fellowship. When we come together as a people we are expressing a unity that is found in this sacrament. And so if there is division and disharmony and inequity, as there was in Corinth, remember, “Anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself” (v.29). This could mean that anyone who approaches communion without recognizing the significance of Christ’s broken body on the cross does so to his or her detriment. But it also can mean anyone who comes to the Lord’s Table while hurting the body of Christ, the Church, trivializes the meal.

The-Lords-SupperExcluding people from the meal can hurt the body of Christ. That is why we invite children to communion, claimed by God at their baptism. Remember that communion is a social meal. It is not a private thing. It is not my communion. It is a shared thing. It was at a table with the twelve. It is a mark of the self-giving of Jesus which is meant to be a model of the self-giving of us to one another. We are his body here on earth. We therefore need to fulfill that new commandment to love one another. We need one another. There is one loaf. There is one cup. There is one host who invites us. We are guests and we are there by his invitation alone. We have no right to despise anybody else. We have no right to be at loggerheads with one another. We are denying the very sacrament of which we partake when we do so. And if we feel unworthy, that is the prime qualification for partaking.

Next, look forward. Look forward in confidence. V.26: “For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” Look forward in confidence. You are engaged in a foretaste of heaven right now. It is the marriage supper of the lamb that you are celebrating in advance. In the midst of social disintegration or political danger, in the face of agony and turmoil in your own life, we are saying, “Our God reigns.” In Christ’s cross and resurrection, and in the meal given to us to celebrate it, we have the chance to announce it until God’s rule is established. I see in communion the first installment of God’s future and I say, “Alleluia, this is the marriage supper of the Lamb in cameo, in miniature. Our God reigns. This is the feast of victory of our God.” That’s what you’re celebrating in the Lord’s Supper: a look forward.

thy_kingdom_comeLastly, look out. Look out in service. V.26: “You proclaim or announce the Lord’s death ‘til he comes” is indeed the case. You proclaim it by the broken bread and the poured out wine. But you also go out to announce it. The feast proclaims the Lord’s death to the world and pro¬claims to God that we rely on nothing else. These are power bars for Christian servants and activists, not junk food for Christian couch potatoes. You and I are called to be Christ’s broken body for needy people in the week that follows. “For you,” that’s the haunting cry of Jesus as he offers himself. “My body, for you.” “For you!” That’s the attitude we need to adopt as we leave this place. Fed, nourished, grateful, uplifted. It is a life of service for the Lord who has given himself for us.

So every time you come to this table look back, look in, look up, look around, look forward, and look out.

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Celebrating the Story in Worship

Psalm 95; John 4: 21-24

psalm95When the Church adopted Sunday as the Sabbath, the day of worship, it was because the resurrection happened on a Sunday and every Sunday thereafter was a “little Easter.” We derive our word worship from the old English word “worthe schipe”–meaning “to ascribe worth.” When we worship God we acknowledge that God is worthy of our attention, loyalty, and devotion. That which deeply impresses us by its greatness or its worth calls forth our worship. Praise is endemic to who we are. We praise things all the time: we praise good wine, a beautiful woman, a rare coin, a triple axel by a figure skater, the fall foliage, a balanced spreadsheet, a rainbow, a straight set of teeth, or a good murder mystery. It is acknowledging the inherent worth of something.

People who are most given to praise tend to be the most balanced, optimistic, and even-tempered. Critics tend to be churlish, unhappy, and unable to delight in anything. The positive person can always find something to praise even in the simplest of meals, while the detractor will always get dyspepsia after the finest of meals.

Millions of people went nuts last year when the Patriots and the Seattle Seahawks stepped onto the grid-iron to do battle for the super bowl championship. As two superb football teams, they were worthy of the enthusiastic admiration of their fans. As heroes call forth our admiration, praise, and enthusiasm, so much more so does God–who is most excellent.

To worship God is to give God supreme worth. It is to join the psalmist when he says, “Great is the lord, and (there¬fore) greatly to be praised” (ps. 96:4). Or again, “Give to the Lord the glory due to his name” (Ps. 29:2). In worship we are caught up in the truth, marvel, and mystery of the God who has called us “to live for the praise of his glory” (Eph. 1:12) and we celebrate that fact.

mountains-heroThe psalmist in our Psalm today enjoins us to come before God with singing, joyful noise, and thanksgiving. Why are we to do so? He tells us in verse two: “For (because) the Lord is a great God, and a great king above all Gods.” Well how is our God above all Gods? “In his hands are the depths of the earth; the heights of the mountains are also his. The sea is his…” Why? “For he made it”! “and the dry land, which his hands have formed.” The point is, God is the Creator and as such is worthy to be worshiped and praised.

PoseidonUnlike the Greek and Roman Gods who had assigned duties—you know, Poseidon was God of the sea, Demeter, God of grain, Bacchus, the God of wine—our God is the Lord of all creation. No nation has a “most favored nation clause” in their constitution. Israel tried to domesticate God within its temple, the Nazi’s branded “Gott Mit Uns” on their belt buckles, and some come dangerously close in this country of making God out to be an American. But God will have none of it. God reigns over all the nations.

Then the psalmist moves us from standing in praise and adoration to kneeling in humility. Yes, we should kneel because God is the majestic creator so unlike us. But there is more: we are to kneel because God is our Maker. God’s has set that peculiar, precious, gracious love upon us! “For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.” God is not only the God of creation, but God has stooped to be our God and to claim us as the people of God, the sheep of God’s pasture. Such a privilege should drive us to our knees in humble thanksgiving and adoration.

Massah and MeribahThere is another reason to kneel and that is the next plea of the psalmist: “O that today you would listen to his (God’s) voice! Do not harden your hearts…as at Meribah…on the day at Massah…when your ancestors tested me, and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work.” Meribah and Massah (which means, “is the Lord among us or not?”) refers to the incident in the wilderness when the people were without water and began complaining to Moses. They did not trust that God would provide for them today as God had yesterday. In his anger, Moses whacked a rock with his rod and water came rushing out. The psalmist implores the people of God today not to be like that—not to harden their hearts, stop up their ears, raise an angry fist in God’s face. Today, today, listen for God’s voice. That’s what happens in worship.
Note in verse 11, God says, because they wouldn’t listen, “they shall not enter my rest.”

Rest in the Old Testament had several meanings—one was rest from their enemies, rest on the Sabbath, but also the rest that comes from being in the presence of God. You can’t enjoy God’s presence if you’re wrapped up in knots, t’eed off at God, or stubbornly disobeying. The Puritans spoke of worship as “warming the oven of your heart.” Worship softens us, gives us perspective, takes the poison out of us, and makes us malleable for God’s use.

When we say “worship service” we are actually repeating ourselves because worship is service to God. Let me do an informal poll this morning. How many of you come to worship each week to get your batteries recharged, so to speak, to get your spiritual tires pumped up for the week ahead? How many come for the aesthetics, for the beauty of the music, the liturgy, and the spoken word? How many come to enjoy God, to bring pleasure to God, to offer praise and thanks to God–not for your sake, but for God’s sake? That’s hard to get our minds around, isn’t it? That God actually wants our praise, worship, and love; that we as human beings can minister to God. Not that God needs our worship, like an insecure deity who always wants human beings groveling before him, but as a loving parent who enjoys the company of children. Worship at its best is for God–not for us.

True worship is work. In fact, our word “liturgy” is a compound of two Greek words–laos, meaning people and argon meaning work. So liturgy is “the work of the people.” this has several implications for public worship. The first is that Sunday morning is not a spectator event. The minister, the choir, and the lay leaders do not put on a performance for the congregation. God is the audience and the congregation performs–you offer praise, thanks, hymns and songs, and prayer to God. Worship is a love letter to your creator and redeemer. The minister, choir, and lay leaders are here to provide the cues. The minister does not the worship on behalf of the congregation. Worship is a discovery of Christ with the congregation.COMMUNION_OF_THE_APOSTLESJPG.305200118_std

But there is more. When the bible speaks of “worship,” “service,” or “liturgy” it is speaking of something far greater than what we do here on Sunday mornings. It is really speaking about all of life. The apostle Paul tells us our “spiritual worship” or “reasonable service” is to present ourselves “as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God” (Roms. 12:1). God is to be worshiped in every area of life. All of our life should be an offering to God in love and in response to God’s self-offering to us. We offer ourselves back to God in devotion and in loving service of our neighbors. And that, my friends, is worthy worship.

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What Matters?

Deuteronomy 30:9-14 and Luke 10: 25-28
Third Sunday after Epiphany
January 24, 2016

Obit photoTwo years ago my younger brother David was diagnosed with a disease called “Myelodysplastic syndrome.” It is a blood and bone marrow disorder which is essentially pre-leukemia. He had chemo at Mass General during the fall of 2014 while waiting for match for a bone marrow donor. He and his family still lived in the town where I grew up, Exeter, NH. My sister-in-law ran a preschool and was active on the school board and my brother was a painting contractor and photographer. They were also active in their church. Consequently, everyone in town knew them and rallied around them. A group of friends held a bone marrow donor day where you get the inside of your mouth swabbed to see if you’re a match. Normally 20 people show up for such a drive. That day 300 showed up. Word came on Dec. 26, 2014, that a donor had been found. We broke out the champagne and thanked God for the find.

David went into intensive chemo the first week in January. He was in an isolation unit because the treatment essentially kills your immune system to allow the new bone marrow to replace the diseased cells. His wife Sue, of course, kept vigil. My wife Peggy worked on Beacon Hill and could walk over regularly. I called or visited every day. One time while driving to Randolph I called him and asked how he was doing. He said, there are days I only want to touch the hem of Jesus’ garment.

Those were precious times telling stories and memories, sharing affirmations of one another that we should have shared years ago, and being humbled by the outpouring of care and support. There were days when David’s bones just ached all over or he was nauseated to distraction. Those days we just sat with him not needing to say anything, but just being there. The day came when they gave him the bag of bone marrow (he said it looked like Campbell’s tomato soup). Then we waited. There would be days when his platelets and red blood cell counts would go up and we would be hopeful and optimistic. Then the next day they would drop so they would give him a pint of platelets, then they would go up again.

I came in one afternoon and asked him, “David, how is it with your soul?” He looked at me, thought a moment and said, “It is well with my soul,” repeating the words of that well know hymn. I said, “Really, you feel God’s nearness?” “Oh yeah, “he said. “I’d feel gypped if I were you.” “I don’t feel that way. I’m grateful for the life I’ve had. I’m not afraid to die.” I was blown away. I’m supposed to be the pastor.

Finally the red blood cell count and platelets just flattened out. We asked his doctor if what was happening is what we thought was happening. And he asked, “What do you think is happening?” We said, “That it didn’t work.” “Sadly,” he said, “that is the case. The disease has morphed into full blown Leukemia.” When the doctor left, we asked David what he wanted us to do. He said, “Pray for a miracle.” So Sue and I took his hands and Sue prayed the most heartfelt, vulnerable and heart wrenching prayer you would ever hear.

The miracle never came. After some long thought and pleading from his four adult children to keep trying he began treatment as a Leukemia patient with more potent chemo treatment. One night overwhelmed his system and we decided to bring him home under hospice care. He died 10 hours later.

What-Matters-MostWhy am I sharing this with you? Because I’m morbid and want to depress you on a glorious Sunday morning? No, it’s because during this horrible ordeal the Bendroth family learned what really matters. Oh, we knew it intellectually, but it was more in the head than the heart. What we learned is that what really matters is not all the “stuff” we had accumulated over the years. It was not the graduations, job opportunities, the articles published, the trips taken, the money spent, but it was the love shared, the memories accumulated, the friends who rallied around and loved and supported us in the midst of tragedy that would overwhelm any one of us. It was clean sheets and vanilla ice cream with Hershey’s syrup, walks on the beach and smelling chrysanthemums, sipping freshly brewed coffee with a friend and giving a back rub to your spouse. We learned courage, hope in the face of hopelessness, compassion, humility and just how little we have control over life. When life is stripped bare of all the non-essentials we learned what mattered. I’m sure many of you, if not most, have similar stories.

core valuesI chose this theme today because after church we’re going to start a series of several meetings where will reflect together about who we are and who God is calling us to be. We will be looking today at the core values of our life together. What is the bottom line? What is the glue that holds us together? What are our hopes and dreams and aspirations? When everything else is stripped away, what’s left?

Sometimes we can’t tell the forest from the trees. We get so caught up in “church work” that we forget the work of the church. We squabble about who forgot to buy coffee for coffee hour, the pastor forgot to call on Betty Lou, George offended yet another person, how can we afford a new boiler and so on. We forget what’s important, what gives life meaning, why we do what we do, what life is all about and what church is all about.

In our gospel lesson today, Jesus cuts to the chase, and, as usual gets to the heart of the matter in a hurry. He is in Jerusalem during the last week of his life. He is getting peppered with questions designed to trip him up. By what authority did you kick all the money changers out of the Temple? Should I pay taxes to Caesar? Is there really a resurrection? The gospels tell us it was the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders who were trying to trip him up—those in power, those with the most to lose, those trying to maintain social control of the people.

But one of the lawyers listening in on these disputes perks up. “This Jesus knows what he’s talking about. He’s smart. He’s clever. He’s even gracious. But he’s tough. He won’t let them get away with anything. I think I’ll ask him a question.” So, he asks, “Teacher, which commandment is the most important one?”

Now remember. Here is a lawyer. He was immersed in these documents. There were thousands of pages, full of ideas and history. You also have to remember the Pharisees of Jesus’ day had established some 600 rules and regulations to protect people from breaking the Law. They called them a “hedge,” put up around the Law to keep people from transgressing. For instance, the Law said you couldn’t work on the Sabbath. So the Pharisees said if your donkey falls into a ditch on the Sabbath, it was OK to pull him out. But they got upset when Jesus healed on the Sabbath because that was considered work. So this lawyer who knows the law like the back of his hand asks a question to trip him up, doing what lawyer’s do best in cross examination. “Teacher,” he asks, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

And Jesus asks, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” Without missing a beat the lawyer says, “O that’s simple. You should love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and love your neighbor as yourself.” Apparently this guy was sincere. Maybe he wanted to see if Jesus gave the same answer. And Jesus said, “By jove, you’ve got it right. Do these things and you will live.”

ShemaAs I said, this lawyer knew his Bible. He was quoting from Deut. 6: 5, which is the Shema (“Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one…) and from Lev. 19:18 to “love your neighbor as yourself.” No big whoop. Heard that, read that before. It’s in my Bible. What was different, however, is that in other gospels Jesus fused them together as if to say, “You can’t have one without the other.” The operative word in both instances is love and it is in the imperative. This teaching is not particularly novel or morally superior. All the world’s major religions contain something similar to them.

Christianity is unique not because it calls us to follow a set of ethical ideals or principles, but because it calls us to follow a person who embodies them. What is so compelling about these words is not that Jesus said them, but that Jesus did them. He took time alone to pray and fed hungry mouths. He preached the good word and healed broken bodies. He forgave sin and washed dirty feet. He submitted himself to the will of God to the point of death and raised those who had died. Clearly, here was someone who loved God and his neighbor.

In Mark the scribe applauds Jesus’ answer and he adds his own footnote: “This is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” We don’t know if Mark put these words in the scribe’s mouth or whether he was reporting what he actually said, but the point is still valid. Love of God and neighbor takes priority over religious ritual.

Note he does not say that worship isn’t important. It is. But if going to church becomes a substitute for loving God and neighbor, then it’s a sham. If going to church is treated an amulet, a good luck charm, to keep you in God’s grace, then it’s better to stay home. If going to church means you behave one way on Sunday and another on Monday, then you are a pious fraud. But if going to church means drinking in the worship, getting a fresh vision of the greatness of God and our great need of God, letting the words and ideas mold you and shape you so that you behave and believe differently because you’ve been there, then you’re on the right track.

Ah, the life of the church. So many arguments, so little time. The list of subjects about which the saints disagree is seemingly boundless, encompassing both the profound and the woefully mundane. The ordination of women. The proper role of religion in politics. Climate change. Homosexuality and same-gender marriage. Gender pronouns for God. How best to aid the poorest of the poor. Which hymnal to use and which hymns to sing. The use of “trespasses” or “debts/debtors” in reciting the Lord’s Prayer. Should the American flag be in the front of the church? It should be no surprise that most outsiders looking in are asking, “Why would I want to sign up for something like that?”

Indeed, who would? Our common devotion to God and neighbor should trump all our squabbles about things that are often matters of taste or preference or ultimately insignificant. To have a future, to be a church that people will come back to Sunday after Sunday, week after week, month after month, year after year, this church must be a place where in a modern and complicated and uncertain world anyone can feel safe in asking, “Is it true? Is it really true?”

Is it really true that forgiveness can overcome resentment and hurt? Is it true that the human heart can really change? Is it true that our church really can experience unity with all of our differences? Is it true, all this talk of a loving and good God? Is it true that there is a purpose and a meaning and a direction for my life, for our lives, for this crazy mixed up world we live in? Is the Gospel really true?

I dare to say to you this morning, “Yes! It is true!” So let’s prove it by behaving how we say we believe, by majoring on the majors, minoring on the minors and remembering what matters.

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The Transforming Power of Jesus

John 2: 1-11
Norman B. Bendroth
January 17, 2016/ Second Sunday after Epiphany

transformationIt was at a wedding that Jesus performed his first miracle. It was at a wedding when Jesus gave the first sign of who he was and what he was about. It was at one of the oldest, universal, everyday institutions of humankind that Jesus chose to inject the extraordinary into the ordinary.

Cana is a little village located 9 miles north of Nazareth. Mary obviously had a special place at this wedding, having had something to do with the arrangements because she was concerned when the wine ran out and had authority enough to order the servants to do as Jesus told them. Jesus and his then five disciples were also invited to the festival.

Then something horrible happened: the wine ran out. I do not say this facetiously because in the Near East hospitality was a sacred duty; for the provisions to fail would be a terrible humiliation for both the bride and bride¬groom. For a Jewish feast wine was essential. Regardless, Mary runs up to her son and reports the potentially embarrassing situation.

Jesus responds with what appears to be a rather rude answer to his mother: “Woman, what concern is that to you and me? My hour has not yet come.” It’s better translated as “Dear woman.” It was not an impolite term. His response was simply, “This is not our concern.” This matter was not Jesus’ concern be¬cause his “hour had not yet come” or more clearly, “It is not time for me to act.” It’s not time yet to reveal himself as Savior of the world.

Water into WineMary obviously did not regard it as a rebuke, for she told the steward to do what he asked or maybe she just blew him off. Jesus told the servants to fill up the stone jars to the brim, containing about 20 to 30 gallons of water each. He then instructed one of the waiters to take some of the water to the chief steward of the wedding (this would be like the “Master of Ceremonies” or the Best Man presiding over the gathering). When he tasted it he complimented the groom for saving the choicest wine until now. Normally the host would hold it back until everyone was sufficiently tipsy and couldn’t tell the difference between a $30 bottle of Bordeaux and a $1.99 bottle of Boon’s Farm Apple wine. When I was in Israel many years ago the running joke was the wine was so bad in Cana that they wanted Jesus to turn it into water.

Well, that’s the story with a little bit of background. What are we to make of it? That Jesus is the kind of guy you’d like to have at parties? That he was into conspicuous consumption creating nearly 180 gallons of wine? Fortunately, the text itself gives us an interpretive clue. John tells us in v. 11: “Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.” John’s primary emphasis is not on changing water into wine nor on the reaction of the headwaiter or the groom. The focus here is on Jesus as the one sent by God. What shines through is his glory, his distinctiveness, his divine personality, and the only reaction that John emphasizes is the belief of the disciples. What John wants us to see is the transforming power of Jesus Christ.

This miracle, as in all John’s stories, is a “sign.” These miracles point beyond themselves. It’s like when you point something out to a dog. What do they do? They look at your finger, not what you’re pointing to. The same thing works here: people look at the miracle, but not what it’s pointing toward. “Signs” in John show us God at work. They contain a deeper meaning.

So let’s ask, how did this miracle at the Cana wedding reveal the glory of Jesus? What are some of these symbols? The drama takes place at a wedding. In the OT this is used to symbolize messianic days. Isaiah could write: “As a young man marries a young woman, so shall (Yahweh) marry you, and as a bridegroom rejoices over a bride, so shall your God rejoice over you” (62: 5). The wedding and the banquet are both symbols Jesus drew upon to talk about the age to come. “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son,” Jesus said (Mt. 22: 1-14). For John the wedding is a sign that the coming of God’s kingdom is being fulfilled.

Another symbol is the replacement of water with choice wine, better than the wine the guests had been drinking. At another wedding feast in the gospels we find Jesus using the symbolism of new wine in fresh wine skins in order to compare his new teaching with the customs of the Jewish law, (Mk. 2: 19). So when the headwaiter said, “You have kept the good wine until now” it was a sign that Jesus’ ministry is the beginning of a new era.

jars-of-clayJohn highlighted the fact that the six stone jars were for Jewish purification rites, a ceremonial washing to cleanse one from sin. When Mary says, “They have no wine,” she was right. The old system was passing. Water could no more purify you from sin than hit¬ting yourself on the head with a hammer will cure a headache. In contrast, the new wine is Jesus’ gift of abundant life, of right standing with God.

The abundance of wine now makes sense to us. If there were six jars, each filled with 20 to 30 gallons of water that would make between 120 and 180 gallons of wine. In this same gospel Jesus said, “I came that they might have life and have it abundantly” (10: 10) and this abundance of wine points to the extravagance of Jesus’ gift of new life. One of the consistent signs of blessing, joy, and fulfillment of the final days in the OT was the abundance of wine. (Amos 9: 13-14). This then was the “sign” that the disciples saw which revealed the glory of Jesus to them. This would be the first of many more dawning realizations that Jesus was “the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

Now we can see what John is teaching us. Every story tells us not of something Jesus did once and never again, but of something he is forever doing. And what John wants us to see here is not that Jesus one day turned some pots of water into wine; he wants us to see that whenever Jesus comes into a person’s life, there comes a new quality which is like turning water into wine. Some days it’s just ordinary or even lousy wine, but then others we are overflowing with abundant blessing and joy. In this story we see the transforming power of Jesus. It becomes visible in two ways: personal transformation and social transformation.

MLKWhen Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. took to the pulpit of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, on September 5, 1954, he had no intention of becoming a prophet or a crusader. He had just about completed his Ph.D. from the School of Religion at Boston University and was looking for a quiet pastorate where he could study, tend the flock of God, and preach for a few years before looking for a job in academia. He already had a reputation of being a spellbinding orator, but he wasn’t looking for glory, just a place to hang his hat for a while. But all that changed when on December 1, 1955, Rosa parks refused to give up her seat for a white man on a Montgomery bus. She was arrested for viola¬ting the segregation laws of Alabama. That weekend the now famous bus boycott was organized like wildfire through the network of black churches and on Monday morning when the buses rolled out onto the streets they were empty.

That same day the Black ministers organized the Montgomery Improvement Association to sustain the boycott and unanimously elected the reluctant, new pastor to be their president. A half hour later he was to be the speaker at a mass meeting at the Holt St. Church where hardly anyone had heard of him. When he arrived the crowd was peaking at over 5,000. The man who usually took 15 hours to prepare a sermon had but a few minutes to think about this speech. When he left the podium moments later his oratory had just made him forever a public person. Like all prophets, he was either loved or hated. He was 26, and had not quite 12 years and 4 months to live.

By the end of January, King was a broken man. In addition to his full schedule as a pastor and a husband and father, he oversaw the organization of the boycott, was active in the NAACP, engaged the recalcitrant white city council in vociferous, fruitless negotiations, spoke nightly at mass rallies, started a boycott of merchants during Christmas, suffered pressure and criticism from both friends and enemies and began to attract the attention of the national media. The final blow came when on January 26, he was arrested for going 30 mph in a 25 mph zone.

Late the next night, after getting out of jail, the phone rang. “Listen nigger,” said the caller, “we’ve taken all we want from you. Before next week you’ll be sorry you ever came to Montgomery.” Sleep fled from him as he wandered downstairs to make a pot of coffee. This is how his biographer describes the scene: “King buried his face in his hands at the kitchen table. He admitted to himself that he was afraid, that he had nothing left, that the people would falter if they looked to him for strength. Then he said as much out loud…his doubts spilled out as a prayer, ending, ‘I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.’ As he spoke these words, the fears suddenly began to melt away. He became intensely aware of what he called an “inner voice” telling him to do what he thought was right. Such simplicity worked miracles, bringing a shudder of relief and the courage to face anything. It was for King the first transcendent religious experience of his life.”

Change of seasons from winter to summer

It was that voice, the voice of Jesus speaking to his child that transformed King and propelled him to pursue his dream that echoed across the reflecting pool of the Lincoln Memorial in August of 1963: “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, I’m free at last!” That same Jesus is with us in this sanctuary this morning, transforming despair into hope, hate into love, apathy into energy, and disillusion into creativity.

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Would You Like to Hold the Baby?

Christmas Eve 2015

141-baby-photographer-MaineEpiscopal priest, author and speaker Martin Smith tells a story about how he was at some out of the way chapel in England. He was startled by a simple limestone statue there of the Madonna and Child. He was startled because it was not the typical image we find by the old Masters of a new mother with peach colored skin doting over a celestial Jesus. So many of those are sentimental, maudlin and not very realistic about what Mary and Jesus would look like after a night of labor in a stable.

Instead, Mary was holding the baby out in front of her, looking down at the onlooker as if saying, “Would you like to hold the baby?” That happens a lot this time of year. Your daughter presents you with a new grandchild and says, “Would you like to hold her?” Or your nephew you haven’t seen since his wedding proudly asks if you would like to hold your new grandnephew. We are usually delighted to do so and coo and giggle and tickle the new addition to the family under the chin.

But for Mary to hand you Jesus! That would be a bit off-putting, to say the least. We might be afraid we’d drop him. Can you imagine dropping the Son of God? You wouldn’t want to get his dad mad. Perhaps we might think we’re unworthy? Who am I to hold Jesus? Mary thought the same thing when the angel Gabriel told her she would carry the Savior of the Nations in her womb. Who me? You’ve got to be kidding?

More likely it’s because we don’t want God getting that close. Imagine holding a baby who is God incarnate? A baby who might spit up on your shoulder or pee in your lap? What kind of god is that? Scandalous! That’s why Paul wrote: “22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, 23 but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” (1 Corinthians 1:22-25)

The Greeks, who thought that flesh was corrupt, inferior to all things spiritual, and only a container for the soul scoffed at the idea that God would take on the flesh of a human being. And the Jews who thought that anyone who was “hanged on a tree,” (13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.’” (Galatians 3:13; See Deut. 21: 23) was cursed by God. To think that God’s Messiah could be crucified was preposterous.

And yet this is what we have before us tonight. God who created all things became part of that creation. God who gave birth to time and space was subject to the limitations of time and space. God who gave birth to the hu¬man race became subject to the birth of Mary. The pre-existent, eternal, second person of the Trinity was born in a manger and restricted by swaddling clothes. The God who knew not the limitations of time was personally altered and fractured by time, and became a victim of time by submitting to the end of time in personal death. Foolishness indeed!

This is the profundity of what we celebrate tonight and which John puts so powerfully, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” (John 1: 14).

Another reason that we wouldn’t want to hold the baby Jesus is that we would have to become just as vulnerable as he was. Couldn’t we just look? It is as if Mary were saying, “No, you take him. He’s not just my baby, but yours as well. Jesus is for all of us. He belongs to you as much as to me.” When God can be this close it’s frightening. God is not the distant potentate, the wholly other, or the Force of Star Wars that we imagined, but God is a close as hands and breath. Now God will find us out. God will know who I truly am. God will discover all my insecurities, lustful fantasies, puffed up ego, secret sins, deepest desires, heartaches and hopes—everything! Well, yah. That’s the point, isn’t it? Christ wants to be your Savior, your Holy Friend. As Henri Nouwen puts it, “God decided not to be God without you.”

We have an image of an all-powerful, overwhelming God, judgmental God, who scares Hades out of us. And God is fearful—unbearable light, weighty holiness, towering and majestic, beyond our knowing, righteous and pure. God is like a Blue-White star which at over 50,000 degrees Celsius would vaporize us if we stood before such intensive heat. So in Christ, God becomes a candle to draw near to us. The Creator of Heaven and earth came to us as a human baby, who is the Light of the World.

We cannot hold onto our dread of God and still hold baby Emmanuel in our arms. To be sure God does judge the evil of the world and in us, but it is a merciful judgment, not a punitive judgment. It is a judgment of all that is wrong in the world to make it right. As preacher Barbara Brown Taylor says, “God loves us just as we are, but God loves us too much to leave us that way.”

We are so sure that God’s closeness would be invasive, overwhelming and suffocating; so convinced that God is dangerous that we better keep our distance. All of that comes under judgment tonight. Mary says to us, “Here is the God you are so afraid of, the God you feel you cannot trust. If this God is so fearsome why would he come to you as a child? Will you take him into your arms?” To do so we have to let go of our fears, to trust in a love so amazing that it would stoop so low to embrace us by letting us embrace him.

Mary is the bearer of God’s love in human flesh. In her very body, love becomes a verb. In her very body, love takes flesh and becomes something God does. In the flesh of Jesus, God comes to us to heal and to feed, to help and to hold, to teach and to lift, to forgive, release and redeem.

So, this Christmas Eve, “Would you like to hold the baby?”

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nativityChristmas officially begins at midnight on December 25th. For Christians, the season of Christmastide extends from December 25th until January 6th, Epiphany. That’s where we get our twelve days of Christmas. You cannot live long in this culture without experiencing how quickly the air is let out of the holiday balloon come December 26th. The Magi may not make it to Bethlehem until January 6th, but in our culture the whole matter is dropped, gifts exchanged and returned, and decorations taken down barely before Christmas Day is over.

I like the way W.H. Auden describes this phenomenon in his poem  For the Time Being:

Well, so that is that. Now we must dismantle the tree…
Once again as in previous years we have seen the actual vision
and failed to do more than entertain it as an agreeable possibility.

Almost anybody can become sentimental about a baby cooing and drooling and entertaining angels and shepherds. But Christians and the Church know and remember that the baby grew up and got into trouble with the authorities for living out his notion of what the Kingdom of God looks like—a new social arrangement without the old barriers and boundaries, an arrangement in which all are loved and welcomed at the banquet. The Church also remembers a part of the story that the dominant culture has no interest in—that the shadow of a cross falls across the manger.

This birth is a sign, for people of faith, that God is alive and at work in the world. Christ comes again, is born again, when lives are transformed again by his love, when forgiven and restored men and women begin to live new lives in a world that is suddenly new because he was born into it. The culture may drop Christmas like a hot potato, but for people of faith, it is a beginning not an end. So there is Christmas work ahead of us.

As Auden wrote:three Wise men

Music and sudden light
have interrupted our routine tonight
And swept the filth of habit from our hearts.
O here and now the endless journey starts.

Merry Christmastide!

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