Archive for January 2011

“The Beautiful Attitude”

January 31, 2011

A SERMON ON THE 4TH SUNDAY OF EPIPHANY

Micah 6:1-8
Hear what the Lord says: Rise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice. Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord, and you enduring foundations of the earth; for the Lord has a controversy with his people, and he will contend with Israel. “O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me! For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery; and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised, what Balaam son of Beor answered him, and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal, that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.”
“With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

Children’s Time: What makes you happy? Going to Grandma’s? Skateboarding? Being with friends? Does happiness come from what we “get” or could it be in what we “give” others? Sometimes we think if we had more friends, or more money we’d be happier. Or, if we were the best at something or really pretty or strong… we’d be happy. Jesus taught about a different kind of happiness that comes from inside us… even when we’re sad, or poor and hungry, we can be happy. When we’re being teased or even hated, we can find happiness inside. God lives inside you as the Holy Spirit and will always be with you.

Intro: Dear friends in Christ: grace to you and peace, from the One who is and who was and who is to come: our living Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Are you happy? Or, do you spend a lot of time fretting about life – what people think about you – what you think about yourself? What are my children are up to? Is my lover is still interested in me? Do I have enough money? Do people like me? Am I successful? And by whose definition? Am I attractive? Strong? Powerful? What makes you happy? What gives your life purpose?

These are all questions we ask ourselves whether we’re religious or not. As people of faith, we search for the answer in God. Oh, I know we look for happiness in other people or things, too, thinking that someone “out there” is going to save us. Remember the old saying, “If momma ain’t happy t’ain’t nobody happy!”? Well, that may be true sometimes… but even momma has to face her maker someday!

Some of us obsess with “finding happiness.” Sheryl Crow sang about this in the 90’s:
“If it makes you happy, it can’t be that bad.”
“If it makes you happy, then why the hell are you so sad?”

With the Super Bowl coming up, I’m sure there’ll be some crazy commercials again. Last year, Dodge ran an ad for the Challenger muscle car, about all these men and how much they had given up for their wives… but the one thing they wouldn’t budge on was the car they drive! “Man’s Last Stand!” Now, I’m a big fan of cars… but in the end even the joy of an open road takes a back seat to God (and of course, my wife).

For believers in Jesus, no one thing or person holds the monopoly on your happiness. It is something we work out with fear and trembling in the quiet of our hearts and by the power of God’s Spirit within us.

Without God, we answer only to ourselves. YOU decide what makes you happy and you spend your life “being true to yourself.” But when it comes to having faith in God, there are the Ten Commandments to keep in mind… or, Jesus’ call to “take up your cross and follow me” and in today’s lesson, Micah’s call to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God.

Even our Psalm today (Ps. 15) has it’s own version of the Ten Commandments:
O Lord, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill?
Those who
1) walk blamelessly, and
2) do what is right, and
3) speak the truth from their heart; who
4) do not slander with their tongue, and
5) do no evil to their friends,
6) nor take up a reproach against their neighbors;
in whose eyes the wicked are despised, but who
7) honor those who fear the Lord; who
8) stand by their oath even to their hurt; who
9) do not lend money at interest, and
10) do not take a bribe against the innocent.
Those who do these things shall never be moved.

In Micah, we hear of a God who “will contend with Israel…” God is the next big contender, as if there were some prizefight going on between God and people…
“In this corner… weighing in at 195 pounds, we have mere mortals…
And in this corner, weighing in at infinity pounds give or take a few ounces: The Lord, God, Almighty!”

We know that God will always win in such a match… but the contending is important. When Jacob wrestled with the angel through the night (Genesis 32) refusing to let go unless God would bless him, we see the importance of engagement with God. Why is God contending with the people? From Micah’s point of view, there is no shortage of good will here. Plenty of acts of worship and devotion abound…

“Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? 7Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression?”

…but all those acts of worship mean nothing to Micah. They are as sounding brass. It’s not a temporary act of devotion he calls for. Amy Oden, Professor of History at Wesley Theological Seminary (Washington DC) reminds us that the Israelites couldn’t just “write a check” and be done with the whole affair… Something much deeper is required of them… A change in how they see the world is put before them. Doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with God are not individual acts… but a whole way of living.

As we gather this day for our Annual Meeting, we will also have to consider those same questions mentioned earlier: Are you happy? Do you spend a lot of time fretting about church – what people think about us – what we think about ourselves? What are our children are up to? Will they stay involved after confirmation? Will we continue to grow? Do we have enough money? Are we successful? And by whose definition? What gives our life as a congregation purpose and meaning?

This month our youth went on a mission trip into the Twin Cities. We spent the morning at the Marie Sandvik Center in the Philip’s Neighborhood in Minneapolis. They have a “Kids Club” every Saturday and we were able to help with games, crafts and serving food to these kids – many of whom come from broken homes with families who struggle with addiction and abuse.

To watch our girls serving tater tots to hungry children in our own community… made me happy. As I watched one of our boys hand out a free coat to a child who didn’t have one suitable for winter… made me happy.

I know we live in a world that bases one’s happiness on oneself. But there is something more to happiness. The happiness we read of in the beatitudes. This Sunday’s devotion (in the Christ in our Home booklet) says that one way to remember the beatitudes is to think of them as a “beautiful attitude” to have about life. Surely, there are days we will be anything BUT happy! So, I wrote a prayer to help sum up what I’m trying to say. It’s a silly kind of way to do it (but it made me happy):

Desperate with despair, I’m drawn into drudgery… duped daily by the diabolical distractions of the devil to deter me from my destiny! Days like that drag us down… but we are not defeated. Dance for joy on that day and be glad. Downers are deemed delightful by the one who died to destroy death. So, don’t delay, dear God. Deliver us from the disease of despair and destructive desires. Direct our paths, that we may do justice, devote ourselves to mercy, and dwell humbly with you always! …and all of God’s people said… Amen.

p.s. After church, a member gave me a note in response to my closing prayer: “Dat discourse in rhyme was a delightful destination!”

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Singing the Blues with Baby Jesus

January 7, 2011

Matthew 2:13-23
13Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”
16When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. 17Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: 18“A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”
19When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, 20“Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” 21Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. 23There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”

Intro: Dear friends in Christ: grace to you and peace, from God our father and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Today’s lessons are a rude awakening to the Silent Night we recalled as we gathered on Christmas Eve. In Matthew chapter 2 we are told that no sooner than Jesus was born, that he was a refugee. His parents had to flee to Egypt to save him from King Herod, who was threatened by the news that a child had been born who would be the King of the Jews. He sent his soldiers to kill all the children 2 years old & under in that region.

It was a horrifying experience – a blood bath of war and oppression – of foreign occupation and corruption. And sadly, it was the most innocent of all people caught under the heel of Herod: the children.

And, on top of all that, today (Dec 26th) marks The Feast of Stephen: St. Stephen, the Martyr. He was the first of Jesus’ disciples to be killed for his faith. Stephen was put to death by stoning when the religious leaders in Jerusalem set up false witnesses against him. This story is told in Acts 6-7. You’ve probably heard the familiar carol:

Good King Wenceslas looked out, on the Feast of Stephen
When the snow lay round about deep and crisp and even

The Feast of Stephen was about being murdered for your faith. The flight to Egypt sent a clear message to Jesus and his family: “You’d better get used to hardship and heartache.”

So, I thought today I’d share with you some music I prepared for the Blue Christmas service last year. [Cue track 1: BLUES BOYS TUNE] I don’t know about you, but sometimes when things are going bad, music seems to help make the journey bearable. If we could not sing our way through this walk of faith… many of us would never take that first step.

That’s the legendary BB King, playing his guitar “Lucille.” The holidays can be an especially difficult time with all the smiles of Christmas and the expectation that we create this sort of “atmosphere” that is warm and cheerful and, well… really not anything at all like that first Christmas was. Last night, just as we were singing “Silent Night” one of the children conked her head against the pew – and just hollered! …just as we were singing: “All is calm… all is bright… Holy infant so tender and mild…” I bet she was tender after that!

Mary and Joseph were huddled in the hay with no place to stay. Baby Jesus, born in a barn. King Herod chasing them out of town with an order to kill all the firstborn… hardly the makings of a postcard perfect Christmas!

So, we make room for the martyrs and those who carry burdens and sufferings this Christmas season. Where do the blues come from? One place is heartache… [Cue track 2: “I GOT TO MAKE A CHANGE”] (click on “preview this track”)

HEARTACHE
Both women and men sang the blues in the early days… That last one was Memphis Minnie singing, “I got to make a change.” This music was born out of the deep South and the experience of slavery and the Negro Spirituals… sung on the plantations and in the cotton fields of oppression. The blues gave people a way to “sing themselves out of a bad situation.” Here’s one by Buddy Guy entitled: [Cue track 3: “DID SOMEBODY MAKE A FOOL OUT OF YOU?”]

Maybe you’ve been hurt in the past by someone… and that hurt is keeping you from living a life after loss. They say it takes about 2 weeks just to get over the initial shock of losing your job – whatever loss you face, you might feel paralyzed and unable to move on. How long is long enough to grieve the death of a loved one before “moving on” and laughing again? Loving again? No one sets that down for us in stone… but through prayer and a song we find our way.

Here’s a classic from blues singer, Billie Holiday entitled: [Cue track 4: “GOOD MORNING HEARTACHE”] – where she has a conversation with her heartache… As people of faith, we know there’s more to life than simply singing a song to feel better. That’s especially true if your blues aren’t caused by heartache. Another source of grief was the the injustice experienced by those who wrote the blues…

OPPRESSION
Noted author James Cone once said: “No theological interpretation of the black spirituals can be valid that ignores the cultural environment that created them. The black experience in America is a history of servitude and resistance, of survival in the land of death. It is the story of black life in chains and of what that meant for the souls and bodies of black people. This is the experience that created the spirituals…” –James Cone, The Spirituals and the Blues

One such song had these simple words of hope in the face of oppression:

Oh Freedom! Oh Freedom!
Oh Freedom, I love thee!
And before I’ll be a slave,
I’ll be buried in my grave,
And go home to my Lord and be free.

Listen to Michael Card’s rendition of one such spiritual [Cue track 5: “WALK WITH ME, LORD”]
LIFE’S CIRCUMSTANCES
What life experiences weigh you down this Christmas? What heavy burden have you had to carry for as long as you can remember?

Sometimes we just need to give ourselves permission to let it go. Like Mary and Joseph we need to follow our dreams, and get on that donkey, and keep moving and providing as best as we can for our families.

We’re not bad people… we just sometimes forget ourselves when the blues batter down on us. It’s easy to become bitter and vengeful. That’s when this song by Bonnie Raitt comes in handy… [Cue track 6: “THE VALLEY OF PAIN”]

Sometimes when we’re hurting we have dangerous tongues…. And we use them and lose them like a gun… And, maybe the verse that follows can be your prayer when you find yourself in the valley of pain:
Don’t let me grow bitter, I pray.
Give me strength to carry on my way.
I’m leaning on you like a wooden cane.
When, I’m walkin’ through the valley of pain.

One of my favorite blues artists is BB King. And I love this story he tells from his autobiography The Blues All Around Me. It’s about a time his cousin hurt his feelings when he was young boy:
My cousin hurt me in a way I’ll never forget. We’re coming back from school, making that long walk, feeling tired and cranky and especially hungry. You know how hungry kids get after school. We stopped at his house and he asked his mom, my aunt, if he could have his dinner. “Your food’s in the safe,” she said. The “safe” was a closed compartment, something like a closet, where the insects couldn’t get in. He reached in, grabbed his dinner and began to eat. I waited a few seconds, hoping there’d be food for me, when he asked, “Where’s your dinner?”

“Where’s your dinner?” is a question that’s haunted me all my life. I keep hearing it in my mind. The question cut me deep. My cousin knew there was no one at my house except me. He knew I didn’t have any dinner waiting in any safe. It was his way of reminding me that I was stone alone, and too bad. I could have killed him… But me being me, I did nothing. Didn’t say a word to my cousin or my aunt. Didn’t give either of ‘em the slightest notion that I felt like the most useless, worthless thing on earth. I watched him eat and left.

…I learned [one] thing from the hurt my cousin gave me – never to give that kind of hurt to anyone else. My revenge was to change a bad feeling into a good one. If I’m working with you and I sense you’re feeling a little insecure, I try to make you feel great. That’s how I get rid of my old hurt. If I don’t do that, my hurt grows and makes me mean and vengeful. But if hurt can change to kindness – that’s something Mama showed me – the world becomes a little less cruel.” (38-39)

FAITHFUL RESPONSE
Oh, if we could just be that way as the people of God. You know it’s a cruel world out there… but it doesn’t have to be that way. As followers of Jesus, we fight hatred with love – and turn cruelty into kindness. We’ve been schooled in it every time we come to worship. Let that faithful response frame all we say and do this Christmas – not letting the griefs we bear weigh us down… but overcoming them by the power of the Holy Spirit.
[Cue track 7: “BLUES MAN”]

This Sunday after Christmas is the day we gather to remember that all was not well with Mary and Joseph and the little baby Jesus in those early days. We all bring various hurts to this place – loss of a job – loss of a dream – the loss of a loved one – the hurt caused by another person letting us down, perhaps someone we trusted with out whole heart.

Today we bring it all to the throne of God’s Amazing Grace and lay it down with hope that he will pick it up. Because the good news is we don’t have to carry that burden alone. Through God’s Word-made-flesh, in this baby Jesus we come to adore, we find the fulfillment of the hopes and fears of all the years.

As Isaiah comforted the Israelites in captivity just before they were about to go home, with those words: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light…”

I want to close with this spiritual sung by Mahalia Jackson.
[Cue track 8: “NOBODY KNOWS THE TROUBLE I’VE SEEN”]

When all else fails, we know that Jesus knows… even when it seems the whole world is against you… take comfort in the assurance that you are known and loved by Jesus – and he will carry your burden – and turn your sorrows into joy… weeping may last through the night – but joy comes in the morning. Praise God from whom all blessings flow – and the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

(Note: I don’t hold the rights to any of the songs or images linked above. If you are the owner and wish them removed please let me know.)

Jesus’ Little Helpers!

January 7, 2011

Luke 2:1-7
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.


Children’s Time: Santa’s Little Helpers: When I was little, and it was time to open presents, we always appointed someone to be “Santa’s Little Helpers.” It usually ended up being the youngest kids in the family. After I got older I was kind of glad I didn’t have to do it anymore. Did you know that Jesus wants to you be his helper? To deliver a present to everyone you meet called: LOVE. You don’t even have to wrap it – YOU ARE THE WRAPPING! Don’t let love’s enemies steal it away, like the Grinch. Oh, you know who they are: Greed, selfishness, “me first,” hitting and name-calling. They’re all ways we tuck LOVE back under the tree and pretend we don’t have to do that anymore. You never outgrow Christmas, and you never outgrow showing God’s love. Let that be the most important present we give this year!

Intro: Dear friends in Christ: grace to you and peace, from the One who is and who was and who is to come: our living Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Every day we get the chance to be Jesus’ helpers – to deliver this present of love and peace, of forgiveness and grace. The angels and the shepherds were the first “Jesus’ Little Helpers.” We hear their story in our gospel lesson for today:

“In those days a decree went out…” Those were the days! Right? I mean, just imagine how many hundreds of years people have been gathering on night – around the fire – around the altar – just to stop and reflect on “those days.” It means we have the precious gift of “today.” This day. Right now, you’re all here today because something extraordinary happened that night long ago… but even moreso, you’re here because you believe that it still happens. That God still comes down to walk in our shoes. That LOVE is still born anew. That God still comes to save us.

O come let us adore him. Let us celebrate his life – from the stable to the cross and everything in between. To realize how his rising on the third day stands to bring us back to life every day thereafter.

Everywhere Jesus went people’s lives were changed. Nothing was ever the same after they met him. We celebrate his birth, but every Sunday is a celebration! How do you sum up in just one day what Jesus means to the world?
Is it about the LOVE that he brings – a love that is stronger than hate?
Is it about PEACE on earth – a PEACE that passes all understanding?
Is about WAITING these 4 weeks of Advent, preparing our hearts with anticipation?
Is it FORGIVENESS of sins and a brand new start in life?

Wherever Jesus is, all things seem possible – no, not seem – ARE POSSIBLE! He doesn’t just make us feel good about ourselves. He makes us right again with God and with each other.

Because of this baby in the manger, we have hope, when all seems lost.
“Because he lives, we shall live also”
“If God is for us, who can be against us?”
“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me!”

There it is… it’s all there in scripture, and it’s written on the tablet of your heart.

Love always wins. Love at birth… love that draws us closer, to peer over Mary’s shoulder for peek… love in the trusting eyes of a child… Love that stands against predators then and now, shielding them from the dangers of King Herod, or anyone who else who threatens you. Love that comes again and again, being born anew in those who wait… in those who believe.

And don’t get me started on waiting… “I just can’t wait!” We hear that all the time at our house lately. It’s so real: the anticipation, the excitement of Christmas. “Present check!!!” “Can’t I open just ONE? Please?” The nagging, the constant harping, the hoping that “I get what I want for Christmas.” When all we’ll ever need is right here… in the manger. In your heart.

Surely those who followed Jesus faced the same hopes and anticipations. From the moment he was born… all the way until John baptized Jesus and the dove came down from heaven: “This is my son, the Beloved, listen to him!” People knew there was something special about this kid.

“This is gonna be great!” they must’ve said. “Did you hear that? It’s God’s son!!! Just think what this means!” And yet, just like at Christmas when we are unhappy with “what we got” or disappointed because “it’s not what we expected,” so too, Jesus’ followers were put off. Let down. Disappointed. He wasn’t what they expected. And his dying on the cross represented the biggest, fattest lump of coal in their stocking they could have imagined! That’s why people wrap up the gift of God’s love / the gift of this church / the gift of sharing with a neighbor / and put it back under the tree!

Before you can give it you have to receive it. It has your name on it – this gift called LOVE. Can you hear it saying to you, “It’s okay, all is forgiven?” Can you feel it washing over you like waves from on high, wiping away the sin and shame of past mistakes? Can you feel it tugging on your shirtsleeve, telling you “It’s time – time to move on and take that next step?” Can you hear love saying, “You’re good enough, just as you are?”

I have a friend who’s a pastor, who once wrote: “I rest peaceful and secure that I don’t have to be good enough, pretty enough, strong enough, perfect enough or skinny enough. A slobbering infant born amongst the mingling smells of hay, animals and smelly shepherds loved me way more than enough to take care of all that. Go tell that on the mountain.”

Now, I know as well as you do that Christmas is more than massage therapy for the soul. We’re not here just to feel good about ourselves. Yes, all is forgiven and forgotten because of this child in the manger. Tomorrow IS a new day. And because of his dying on the cross and his rising from the grave – there is hope now, and in the world to come.

Unlike Santa Claus, Jesus knows if you’ve been bad or good and there’s no catch. He’d die for you all over again! He would!

That’s it.

What a gift! How could we NOT be Jesus’ Little helper this Christmas?
Get out there and show the love through kindness and mercy!
Show the love through your singing of the carols and the worship of our savior.
Show the love at work or at school, when you have a chance to brighten someone’s day.
Show the love in your prayers and your quiet time of devotion.
Show the love when you’re volunteering in our community.
Show the love by picking up your offering envelopes for 2011 and by committing to support this church financially (Lord knows, we need to shows some extra love in that department!). The pledges for this coming year are $50,000 behind where they were last year! These are tough economic times we’re in. And many people are worried whether or not they can make ends meet. Even so, let’s make sure the many ministries this church has to offer can continue through our financial support.

However you show the love, don’t leave that gift under the tree, to be packed up and brought out, same time next year.

Be the people of God by acting like it. When people meet you they see the love of Christ. Something brought you out in the cold on this Christmas Eve, to this place of worship. Do you see it? There’s a family resemblance. You ARE a Christmas gift to the world on behalf of the giver of himself, Jesus.

Give it away daily – through healing and peacemaking – building up and making amends – by bettering society and contributing to the common good – through helping the poor and tending to the sick and the dying.

This Christmas, let’s thank God for the gift of his only begotten son – then let’s be the kind of Jesus’ Little Helpers we were meant to be. There’s nothing to be ashamed of; and you never grow out of it!

Let us pray: O God, we thank you that you have blessed us with this most precious gift of all: the LOVE of your Son at Christmas. For all he was and is to be, back “in those days” and right here and now. Come, Lord Jesus, and make us your helpers, in your precious and holy name we pray. Amen.