Monday, March 7, 2022

Going Into the Wilderness

 

a sermon preached at the First Presbyterian Church of Winnsboro, Texas on March 6, 2022

Luke 4: 1-13

I recently heard about one of the most unusual Ultra Marathons in the world. Part running and part hiking, it’s called the Barkley Marathons and it’s actually five

20-mile marathons , run consecutively. 

on an unmarked course

that changes each day

in the mountains

of Tennessee in the autumn 

The weather can be raining and cold

The course goes through brambles with mud, thorns and gravel,

up and down steep terrain. 

In the last 36 years over 1200 people have run the course but only 15 have actually finished it.

It’s easy to get lost so runners carry flashlights and a ompass.

I forgot to mention that half of these five runs take place at night.  OH---and also that once you arrive at the starting line they don’t tell you when the race will start.

 It could be anytime within a 12-hour time period

so runners set up a tent and try to rest until the signal goes off to indicate the start of the race. 

And if you are confused at this point, that’s one of the things that makes the Barkley Marathon so unique. 

And if you think the design of the marathon is confusing

the execution is also confusing

because the five 20-mile runs over a 60 hour time span

are back to back without a break

so sleep deprivation is a huge factor by the time you get to the end. 

 

And it’s what made me think of our scripture today.  It reminded me of Jesus’ time in the wilderness. 

 

THAT is what Jesus did immediately after he was baptized. 

He went into the wilderness to be tested.

Except the scripture says he

 

 

was led by the Spirit into the wilderness. 

Remember that part. 

We will come back to that part later.

 

The scripture says that Jesus was there in the wilderness for 40 days.  We are able to break down what happened during that time into three parts:

 

(1)          He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. 

 

This would have been a temptation we are all familiar with:  hunger. 

 

(2) Then the devil[a] led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil[b] said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. 

 

This would have been the temptation to have power.  I think we’re seeing this one play out in Ukraine.  And again Jesus did not succumb to it.

 

(3)           Finally………Then the devil[c] took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, 10 for it is written,

‘He will command his angels concerning you,
    to protect you,’ 11 

 

This last one has been called the temptation of Ego or Pride.  And we have seen a lot of people who desired to be placed on a pedestal if not the pinnacle of the temple.  But Jesus would not give in to it.

 

So, the devil gave up and left. 

 

Because Jesus wouldn’t take his bait.

 

And I would ask you now…..

 

What is your wilderness?

 

What could the devil tempt you with?  Where do you find yourself weak or lost and confused?  Feeling small or overlooked?  Tempted to go against the values you know are not your own?  When or where do you find yourself alone and afraid?

 

The spiritual journey is not linear or smooth and predictable.  It’s messy and does not come without cost.  Spiritual growth is messy, meandering and awkward.  It sometimes involves other people and sometimes to an embarrassing degree.

 

You can get cancer or another kind of illness.  You can end up depending on someone else in a way you never planned to or anticipated that you would ever have to depend on other people.

 

You might even find yourself in a wilderness with other people. 

 

We can turn on the TV for a quick example of people who are sharing their wilderness experience with others.  Last week we saw a lot of women on trains in Ukraine with other women and their children who have been reduced to their lowest level they thought possible locked into a wilderness they never planned with other women in their own wilderness.  Those women shared the same wilderness. 

 

And it’s a wilderness not of their own making while the whole world watched and none of us have been able to do much to help them even though we want desperately to and none of us know how much longer this wilderness is going to last.  And if you are tempted to call one man, one human being by the name of Satan I might not argue with you at this point.

 

 

We will sing a hymn at the end of the service that says... "Jesus walked this Lonesome valley.  He had to walk it by Himself....."   alone, nobody else walked it for him……….but it is important to point out that in this scripture today it doesn’t sound like he was alone out there in the wilderness.  

 

 

He was “led in the wilderness” by the holy spirit” .  He never was really alone.  God’s Holy Spirit was with him the whole time.  And that part is important for us to remember here today.  Because as lonesome as our journey into the wilderness of our own lives gets, we’re never ever alone.  Even when we can’t see God or touch God. 

 

We may feel like we’re in a wilderness alone but I want you to know today that we are never alone there.

 

When we read and absorb Psalm 139 and the words,

 We realize this:

Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
    you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down,
    and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
    O Lord, you know it completely.
You hem me in, behind and before,
    and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
    it is so high that I cannot attain it.

Where can I go from your spirit?
    Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
    if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.

 If I take the wings of the morning 

and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,

10 even there your hand shall lead me,
    and your right hand shall hold me fast.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,

  and the light around me become night,”
12 even the darkness is not dark to you;
    the night is as bright as the day,
    for darkness is as light to you.

 

Reading this beautiful psalm we come to know that there is not a place we can go that God has not already been there.

 

And there is no place in our minds, no matter how dark or dreary or horrible the mood or our state of mind, that God will not accompany us to.  

 

 

If you’ve been watching any of the television news of the Ukraine invasion in the last week, you will see that in the midst of such horrible physical atrocities one country can do to another physically,  there has sprung up another beautiful and hopeful sign of the resilience of humanity. 




 Our planet got a little smaller this week as the bright blue and yellow of the Ukrainian flag started showing up in places we’ve never seen it before. 

 

People were not created to be alone.  God took one look at Adam and knew he needed a partner.

 

When we close worship today we will sing a beautiful old Spiritual, “Jesus Walked This Lonesome Valley”.  I love the song and the tune.  But as I looked closer to the lyrics in light of today’s scripture I realize that Jesus wasn’t alone when he went into the wilderness to be tempted.  He was led into that wilderness by the Holy Spirit.  And, in spite of what the song says, we will not walk the lonesome valley alone.  Jesus accompanies us on our own Journey.  We are never alone on our journey.  The Triune God, Creator, Son and Holy Spirit is always with us. 

 

Let us pray.  Holy Brother Jesus, walk with us on our Journey through the Lenten season as we seek to draw closer to you.  Melt into our minds, hover over our hearts and sustain our spirits as we seek a deeper relationship with you.  Amen.

 

 


Sunday, January 2, 2022

The Work of Christmas

 

GOSPEL READING            John 1:1-9

Sermon: The Work of Christmas

It’s only fitting that at the beginning of a new year

we read the words of John that start with

In the beginning was the Word,

and the Word was with God,

and the Word was God 

He was in the beginning with God. ….” 



This scripture reminds us that Jesus has been with us

from the start of the universe. 

It sets up the concept of the Trinity,

 that Jesus, the Creator and the Holy Spirit are one

and have been since the beginning of time. 

 

This quote from John just packs a whole lot of theology

in a few succinct lines of beautiful poetry

even though John can be hard to understand sometimes. 

But it is a story of beginnings: 

how the world began with Christ. 

So, today on our first Sunday of the new year

we can take some time to think

of how we can begin our year with Christ. 

Do we dare plan our year ahead?

 

Based on 2021 we are smart enough to know

that planning the next 12 months is kind of a gamble

the way things are going. 

 

But we live on a planet that operates in a cycle

and our year has cycled around to a new beginning

and we have an opportunity to make new year's resolutions

or fill a new calendar or make different choices. 

And in a remarkable circumstance,

our new year falls exactly one week after Christmas

so that we get a new year right after the birth of our savior,

Could we have planned this any better? 

Maybe if we had a new calendar year the week after Easter

it might have been more meaningful. 

But we re-start our secular lives this week.

This might be an opportunity to re-start our sacred life, also. January, 2022 could be a new beginning for us,

for our spiritual lives.

 

About ten years ago I heard a poem that stopped me dead in my tracks.

It’s printed on the cover of our bulletin today.

And called The Work of Christmas. 

You are able to read it for yourself.

I can tell you it has become one of my favorite poems.

 It’s majestic in its simplicity


When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and the princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flocks,

The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,

To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart.


 

And it’s been around in so many different forms

that I’m not quite sure in which form I first heard it. 

I’ve seen it on a greeting card

and heard it in an elaborate choral arrangement

sung by none other than the Meadows School of Fine Arts at SMU.

The words came from to the Rev Dr Howard Thurman who died in 1981.

 

I had never even heard of Howard Thurman until recently

but it turns out he was a much-respected clergyman and quite a busy guy.  He wrote about 20 books, one of which,

 Jesus and the Disinherited,

is usually required reading in at least one class at most seminaries. 

He ended his career as the dean emeritus of the chapel of Boston University and was generally considered to be the mentor of Martin Luther King

and the one who convinced him to follow a path of non-violence. 

This last fact caught me by surprise

since I had always been under the impression

Dr King had come up with the idea

of using Gandhi’s non-violent approach on his own

but it turns out that it was Howard Thurman who talked him into it.

As my year of 2021 developed,

I kept hearing Thurman’s name in Zoom meetings

and Facebook posts.

He showed up quoted in sermons and special worship services. 

 

 

So, getting back to the poem, how do we begin our work of Christmas?

We can start anywhere we want. 

We can use our imagination,

or we can borrow an idea from someone else. 

One of the most fun ministries I’ve ever taken part in

started out with the memory of a ministry

my friend Linda remembered when she was in college

that her home church in Missouri had done for her

as a student far from home. 

She remembered getting a care package at Halloween every year

and suggested that we could do that for the kids at our church.

One of the other women in our circle of friends

took the idea and added to it

and it turned into an annual tradition

that went on for probably 20 years.

One of the women in the group was the church secretary

so we always had the most accurate address for all the kids

without having to ask anyone. 

She made up the address labels

that only gave a return address of the church that read

“the angels of First Presbyterian church”.   

I had access to free UPS shipping through the company where I worked

so we were able to send some pretty big care packages at no cost. 

And the best part about it was that outside of the roughly six or seven women in our group who participated, no one in our church or the kids ever knew who was sending the packages.  The kids just knew that they could depend on it.

One year, I was at a joint meeting of the deacons and elders

when they were discussing the various committees and their duties

and someone mentioned the Halloween boxes. 

One of the elders said something about

“the boxes the deacons send off at Halloween”

and the moderator of the deacons said,

“We don’t do that; I thought y’all did that.” 

There was a majestic silence around the table

while the leaders of the church realized

there was a ministry happening that none of them knew about.

I never said a word that night 

and was content to leave the ministry anonymous.

I'm of the mind that there still needs to be some mysteries in good deeds.

 

But the beauty of it all, and the moral of the story is that

When we go looking for the work of Christmas

We don’t have to come up with anything new

The Halloween boxes was an idea we got from someone else

We didn’t have to invent it on our own.

++++++++++++++

 

Now, when we read the book of John

It can be a discouraging endeavor.

So much of it is poetry

and has simple words written in a beautiful way. 

But it can be hard to understand.

It’s appropriate at the beginning of our year to read,

“In the beginning was the Word….” 

But then we usually become discouraged

when we can’t understand the rest of what John is saying. 

I know I do.

John is hard to understand.  

Even the great preacher, professor,  and author

Barbara Brown Taylor admits this.

When we understand that God’s word

became flesh in the person of Jesus Christ

then we can begin to understand that our next step is Thanksgiving. 

Or, as BBT tells it,

 

“Until someone acts upon these words,

they remain abstract concepts—

very good ideas that few people have ever seen. 

The moment someone acts on them,

the words become flesh. 

They live among us, so we can see their glory. “

 

In other words, we can bring the word of the bible to life

through our own actions….

through our own lives.

our own flesh.

The work of Christmas is

Finding the lost, feeding the hungry

 

And just when I thought I had said it all

and there was nothing new to say

my friend Linda sent me an email

(This was another Linda....like most of us, I have about 3 friends named Linda) 

that she had found something else that Howard Thurman said. 

She found something he must have written

in one of those 20 books he wrote. 

He wrote one called “The Mood of Christmas & Other Celebrations.” 

So she sent me this poem:

 

         I will sing a new song

       I must learn the new song for the new needs

       I must fashion new words

born of all the new growth

of my life-

Of my mind—

of my spirit.

       I must prepare for new melodies

that have never been mine before.

       That all that is within me may lift my voice unto God.

       Therefore, I shall rejoice with each new day

       And delight my spirit in each fresh unfolding

       I will sing, this day, a new song unto the Lord.

 

The wise men that visited Mary, Joseph and the baby

brought gifts. 

The bible tells us they brought gold, frankincense and myrrh. 

Today we still bring Jesus gifts. 

How do we do something for Jesus when he’s not here? 

When he is not a physical presence on earth today?

It’s as simple as that one line in Matthew: 

“When you do these things to the least of these, you do them to me…”

 

What can we take the Christ child?

What new thing will we bring to this new year?

How can we attend to the least of these?

The hungry and the thirsty? 

The refugee or the outcast? 

listed in the Matthew 25 scripture

 

How can we travel with the wise men of old?

What gift can we take to the child

At the dawn of our new year?

Perhaps we will take him a new self

A healthier “me” who takes better care of myself?

One who eats better and exercises more

A person who prays more and spends time listening for God’s voice?


We can put flesh on God’s words

We can put our own flesh on God’s words.

Let the work of Christmas begin.

 

+++++++++++++++++++++

Our Benediction for the day also came from Howard Thurman, from his book "Meditations from the Heart":

A Prayer For The New Year

God,

Grant that we may pass through the coming year with a faithful heart. There will be much to test us and make weak our strength before the year ends.

In our confusion we may often say the word that is not true and do the thing of which we are ashamed. There will be errors in the mind and great inaccuracies of judgment.

In seeking the light,

We shall again and again find ourselves

walking in the darkness.

We shall mistake our own light for Your light

and we shall drink from the responsibility of the choices we make...

Though our days be marked with failures, stumblings, fallings,

let our spirits be free

so that You may take them and redeem our moments in all the ways our needs reveal.

Give us the quiet assurance

of Your Love and Presence.

Grant that we may pass through the coming year with a faithful heart. Amen


Sunday, December 19, 2021

Love

 

Hebrew Testament     Micah 5:2-5a  

EPISTLE READING       Hebrews 10:5-10                                            GOSPEL READING    Luke  1:39-55

Sermon:  ”Love”

I want to start off today with one of my favorite stories about Julie Adkins…Those who remember when Julie was the pastor here may remember that Julie and I went to Guatemala together a few times on mission trips and I know y’all remember what a smart cookie Julie is.  This story relates to the scripture we just read.  Our hosts wanted us to do a bible study with the women at one of the churches we were going to visit.  On our way there in the bus they told us they were having a bit of a problem with the men of the church……the men insisted on attending the women's bible study.  Nobody could figure out if they thought the women needed chaperones or if the men were just so hungry for bible study they would take anything they could get…..but the real problem was that when the men were there the women wouldn’t talk.  And the men ended up doing all the talking.  And it was a bible study that was supposed to be for the women. 

…………Well, it didn’t take long for Julie to figure it out and she said, “I know what to do.  Leave it to me.”

So we got there and sure enough, the men showed up at the women’s bible study.  Introductions , etc, etc.  And the first thing Julie did was to have everybody pull out their bibles and go to Luke 1:39 and she asked everybody what it felt like the first time they felt their baby move inside their womb. 

That shut the men up.  And eventually they drifted away and the women had the room to ourselves. Julie is a genius.

+++++++++++++++++++++

But this story of Elizabeth and Mary is one of the best in the bible because it has so many layers.

And each layer is a love story

 Just like our banner says today

And just like the candle we lit in our advent wreath

Today is a good day for us to talk about love.

 

We have all heard the different categories of love in the Greek language:

Eros is romantic love, passion

Philia is friendship love between friends

Agape is the unconditional love God has for us

 

 It’s the story of two women of very different ages: 

A story of the deep Philia love between them

But also a love based on

Something unique that is happening to them

That no one else on earth understands

And it is based on God’s agape love for humanity

 

the older Elizabeth who has given up on ever having a child

who now has this miracle bestowed upon her

even though she is beyond her childbearing years

 

and the younger Mary with a different sort of miracle

a miracle no woman has ever encountered before

Mary, more than anyone in this story,

knows that her pregnancy is impossible,

and she’s not sure how to feel about it

but remarkably she has enough faith to tell God

she is a willing participant

This is love.

This is faith

 

Elizabeth prepared the way for Mary

In the same way her son John

prepared the way for Mary’s son Jesus

 

Elizabeth was the only other person who understood

What God was doing with Mary

Because a miracle was happening to her, also

This was love

In so many different ways

And on so many different levels

 

 

Everyone needs friends like Elizabeth and Mary had in each other.

The bible doesn’t indicate that they were able

to spend much time together after this meeting

And that’s a shame.

Elizabeth could have been such a wonderful mentor to Mary

We know from scripture that Mary and Joseph had to flee to Egypt after Jesus’ birth in fear of Herod

I suspect that Mary lived the rest of Jesus’ life

looking over her shoulder

She probably never ever relaxed

Knowing that his life would always be in danger

Nobody says much about it but it must have been hard to be Jesus’ mother.

Yet all the bible says is, “…Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”

Mary really needed a friend like Elizabeth

 

 

This is a story in which the men are silenced

And the women do the talking

Zechariah is struck mute by God’s angel

Until after the baby John is born

Joseph does not speak at all in the book of Luke

And Mary makes one of the great speeches of the bible.

 

It’s a story of Joseph who was willing to believe his betrothed

No matter how unbelievable the story was

 

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

One of the great surprises of this 21 months that we have been living inside a pandemic and basically confined to our homes has been the way we educate, work and socialize

 

With the development of the internet, a lot of it has moved online. Schools and businesses have moved online with mixed results.  Some people have started working from home and say they won’t ever go back to the office.

 

I have a group of friends I’ve known for over 30 years.

We all started out going to the same church

but, as you might imagine, over 30 years,

people drift off to other lives. 

The core of the group is four women who have a singing group. They try to meet a couple of times a year to sing together. 

In person this made for a Girls Weekend that was a lot of fun. 

But now the group has grown to seven women

who live in six different cities in two states. 

And it’s just almost impossible to get together in person anymore.

But since Covid hit we have started getting together

 on a monthly basis for the last year.

But we do it in a Zoom call.

I don’t have to drive in the rain or dark. 

My cat can crash the party if she wants.   

In short, we have seen each other more easily

and more regularly than ever before. 

We get caught up on kids, grandkids,

cats and dogs, ideas, recipes and laughs.  

Our biggest problem this week was that Traci didn’t come because her Sunday School class

was having an In-Person Christmas party

and they were offering real food. 

A Zoom meeting couldn’t compete with real food. 

 

Women have been doing this since Mary and Elizabeth’s time:

Getting together and enjoying each other’s company. 

My grandmother met a friend every Friday in downtown Dallas. 

I have no idea who the woman was. 

But every Friday Oma would dress up in her corset

and best jewelry and take the streetcar

to downtown Dallas to meet this lady.

I think her name was Mrs Frankie

and I’ll bet they spoke German at their lunches

because Oma didn’t have anyone around her

who spoke her first language,

the one she was most comfortable with.   

 

These comfortable friendships are so important. 

Friendships where you can let your guard down

and be your most authentic self. 

 

We are able to relax and be comfortable in our friendships

Because we know that God approves

Just as God sent Eve for Adam to have a partner

So he wouldn’t be lonely

We have friends to bring fullness to our days.

Above anything else on this earth

The one thing we know

Is that God loves us

And wants us to be happy.

++++++++++++++++++++++++++

 

Today is the Sunday we lit the Love candle

on the advent wreath

To remember God’s great love to us in sending Jesus

And I am drawn to the John 3:16 scripture.

 

Sitting here today in the beauty of our sanctuary

With the excitement of Christmas within our grasp

As mature Christians we cannot ignore how the story ends

 

 

We know that the cradle will end at the cross

We know how much God loves us because

we have memorized that short line in John 3:16

“For God so loved the world

God loved you and me……and, yes, even Beaven Els

…..and John Clark......and Dan Wilson.

God loved us all so much

That God came in the form of a human, in the form of Jesus,

As a baby in a manger, to live the ordinary life of a human,

To walk among us and to suffer and then to die a human death

And all we have to do is believe in that love

To believe that this kind of love is possible

And that God can and did do this wonderful thing

 

It is not too far of a stretch because

we begin from a position of already knowing God

as a loving parent who had already

done us some pretty generous favors out of love. 

 

God listened to Abraham when Abraham wanted

to negotiate for the people of Sodom to be saved

God listened out of love for humanity

 

And then, if we believe Jesus is God incarnate,

God wept at the death of Lazarus.

God wept out of love

 

and at Jesus’ baptism

while his cousin John watched

a dove flew down from above and told everyone in earshot

that “this is my beloved son in whom I am pleased.  Listen to him.” 

God told everyone that God loved Jesus

 

Jesus Christ loved us enough to give his life for us. 

But he learned to love from his heavenly Creator.

 

As we enter the final leg of this year’s Christmas season

May we will be filled with love

Love for family, and for friends,

Let us remember where that love originated

It came from the Blessed Three in One

who dwells with us in this very moment

Just as it did 2,000 years ago

on that wonderful night of Christ’s birth

In Bethelehem…. in a humble town

A town that is a real place

That we could go visit today if we wanted to.

The place where Jesus Christ

drew his first breath as a human being

Where God came to live among us

Because God loved the world that much.

 

Let us pray:

Blessed Creator,

Thank you for loving us

We thank you for Sending Jesus into this world

Give us the eyes to see him

And the hearts to hold him

And the feet to follow him

Amen.

 


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