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.

 


Sunday, December 12, 2021

Joy

 

Hebrew Testament:                             Isaiah 12:2-6

Epistle Lesson:                             Philippians 4:4-7

Gospel Lesson:                                     Luke 3:7-18


SERMON:  UNCONQUERABLE JOY

How do you preach a sermon on joy two days 

after a deadly tornado like the one that hit Sunday night?

To get a perspective I decided to check and see if there was a Prespyterian church in the town we've all heard so much about: Mayfield Kentucky.  You know, the town with the candle factory--the one we've all seen on the news-- the town that looks like it was bombed.  So, I figured it would be easy enough to just go to the First Presbyterian Church of Mayfield, Kentucky based on my theory that we are always named the First Presbyterian Church of whatever town we're in.  And I was right.  There it was on Facebook:  FPC Mayfield:  alive and well.  

They are the oldest church in the town.  The first thing I saw was their bulletin for today, December 12, 2021.  They were ready to go.  They had their music planned. They were going to use the same lectionary passages that we are using.  If we dropped in on their service we could have the same experience we're having right now.

Then I went to the next photo and saw a picture of a pile of bricks.  A huge jumbled pile of red bricks with a clear blue sky in the background. The photo was taken only an hour before I sat in my easy chair in my living room.  I knew immediately was I was looking at. It was what was left of their church building.  A pile of bricks.  

I've seen a lot of wreckage in my days.  

I've walked through the aftermath of four or five tornadoes and three hurricanes.  The biggest surprises of a tornado versus a hurricane is how tidy tornadoes are.  Hurricanes bring the ocean onto the shore.  They bring the ocean in and leave behind about three feet of mud and dead fish and a general mess.  Hurricanes don't smell nice at all.  But the aftermath of a tornado is just piles of refuse-- wood, bricks, lots of pink insulation....

and blue sky.

For some reason, the sky is always beautiful after a tornado.  

I haven't figured that one out.


But that still doesn't make it a pleasant experience.  There is no joy in Mayfield, Kentucky this morning.  No matter what their church bulletin planned for their morning.  Their congregation has no building.  All they have is a pile of red bricks.


How do you preach on Joy after what happened on Friday night?

The death toll is going to be over 100, I'm sure.

It's going to take years to re-build a town like that.  I understand an Amazon building was destroyed so a lot of people like me may possibly have some Christmas shipments interrupted.


I once heard it explained that a disaster is when everything is affected:  the grocery story, the post office, the barber shop.  Most of the people in the town are out of a job.  So many are homeless.  All are traumatized.

Where are we going to find Joy today?

We can look at our Epistle scripture for that today. The Apostle Paul wrote these words from prison and tells us to rejoice of all things.  If that's not a lesson for us today, well, nothing is.  The guy is writing from prison and telling us to rejoice.


Paul spent a lot of time in prison.  This particular letter was probably written while he was imprisoned in Ephesus or in Rome.  It could have been either city.  He was imprisoned a lot and for many years.  Yet the theme of the letter to the church in Philippi was on the subject of Joy.  Here's what he said again:

"Rejoice in the Lord always.  I will say it again:  Rejoice!  Let your gentleness be evident to all.  The Lord is near.  Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.  And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus."

What kind of faith must this guy have had to write like that from prison?

A better question really is What kind of Jesus is this guy?..... that Paul is able to find Joy in the midst of prison.  In the midst of the aftermath of a disastrous series of tornadoes? What kind of Jesus is this?

I started working on this sermon by pulling out a bok from my bookshelf that I bought years ago what it first came out.  It was written by a couple of guys I both admire:  the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa.  The book was edited by another writer Douglas Abrams who arranged a week-long meeting between the two men back in 2016.  Knowling they were both getting up in years--one of them had already had a battle with prostate cancer that had recently recurred.  The other man is pretty much on house arrest himself in India, very much like Paul was. 

Yet both of these men are known for their joy in spite of their very different faith traditions.  The Dalai Llama is a Buddhist monk and the Archbishop is Christian.  At the end of the book they got to a specific issue and Douglas Abrams, reading from a letter from someone, asked Archbishop Tutu, "this person wants to know how she can find joy in her life while there are so many who are suffering."

This is a question we could ask ourselves today.

"Yes, Very good," the Archbishop said, looking down and reflecting on the question.  "As an old man, I can say"

"Start where you are, and realize 

that you are not meant on your own

to resolve all of these massive problems.  

Do what you can.  

It seems so obvious.  

And you will be surprised, actually, 

at how it can get to be catching."


The Archbishop went on in the next paragraph

to describe how many people the world over

genuinely care for each other,

what he had seen: the depth and number

of how many and how much people care.


I have seen this myself when I worked for

Presbyterian Disaster Assistance

after Hurricane Katrina.

Whenever we tried to thank volunteers for coming to help

they would thank us for providing an avenue 

to allow them a way to help.


You have felt it yourself over the last 48 hours within yourself:

this urge to help others.

Think of the joy it would bring you to send money

or to even be able to go physically to help in person

the people you see on TV who are suffering.


There is a word for this.

It's Grace.

Once a person understands the richness of their life

and how blessed they are

the natural reaction to being blessed

is gratitude.

and this two-part formula is called Grace.

You cannot have one without the other.

Just as we cannot have the manger without the cross

we can't have blessings without gratitude.


I have always thought

that a certain amount of gratitude would spring forth

like bubbles of carbonation from soda--naturally--

but maybe some people need reminding.


the crowds asked John the Baptizer some very solid questions

and he gave them solid answers:


And the crowds asked him "What then should we do?  In reply he said to them, 'Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.' Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, 'Teacher, what should we do?' He said to them, 'Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.' Soldiers also asked him, 'And we, what should we do?' He said to them, 'Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation and be satisfied with your wages.' 


So, if gratitude doesn't spring forth naturally from you,

you can always go to the bible for a solid answer.

Repent.

Turn around in the road and go the other way.

If you find yourself down the road not going to church, 

get back in church.


And Joy will find you.

Grace and Joy go hand in hand.

When you are doing something right 

you can feel it in your stomach

You will feel the joy.

That's how you find joy.

When you are doing what God wants you to do,

you will feel Joy.

That is the joy that nothing can conquer

If it comes from God, nothing can stifle it.


God came to the world in the form of a human,

as a baby,

as a child,

an ordinary working man,

a carpenter,

He led a human life.


God lived as one of us

and understands us as only a human being could

God had friends and loved them

and felt sadness when Lazarus died

Then God suffered the unfairness of a political trial

and a human death, a painful death

Yet God through Jesus Christ overcame death

and returned to life through resurrection.


And Christ promises this resurrection to us.

And all we have to do to receive this resurrection

is believe that it can happen.

If this is not cause for Joy, my friends,

I don't know what else can give us joy.


It is the simplest gift, the most basic gift, most loving gift

Ever given to humanity.

Thanks be to God. 

Hallelujah!

Amen.


Sunday, December 5, 2021

Peace

 

Hebrew Testament           Malachi 3:1-4

Epistle Reading            Philippians 1:3-11

Gospel Reading                      Luke 3:1-6

Sermon:  ”A New Kind of Peace”

We have an interesting collection of scriptures to unpack today. First Malachi tells us a prophecy

that God will scrub us clean and make us good as new.

The Hebrew testament and Epistle readings

both use the word “righteous”

and our Gospel lesson implies it

what with making all the valleys and mountains

equal to each other and paths straight and smooth.

Today we are going to talk about making everything right. 

But first, before we can do that,

we’re going to have to find some peace.

An interesting project in this day and time.   

**************************

I had a memorable encounter with this scripture

on one of my first visits to Guatemala.

Over the 15 plus years I made regular visits to the country

I watched the country’s infrastructure improve gradually. 

When I started going in 1999

the roads going up the mountains were one lane dirt roads. 

If it rained, the roads were muddy and slippery. 

If you met another vehicle coming towards you,

one of you—the smaller one—would have to back up

until there was room for someone to pass. 

These roads going up and down and around the mountains

were steep and narrow and dangerous. 

It was what you could legitimately call a spiritual experience because there was a lot of prayer involved.

 

But the last time I was there around 2018,

I started seeing two lane concrete roads with guardrails. 

To achieve this progress in the last 20 years

there has been constant chipping away at the mountains

and every time I am reminded

of the John scripture we read just now. 

20 years of chipping away at these mountains…….

and still they stand tall as ever. 

And every time I think to myself,

“Does God really intend for them all to be smoothed over—

like the earth was some kind of a giant brown and green blob?

Does God really intend for

 “Every valley exalted and every mountain and hill made low?”

Or is this a metaphor for something else? If so, then what?

 

Does God intend for everything to be equal?

Smooth? Fair?  

The bible uses the word Righteous, and that word fascinates me.  What is righteous? 

The dictionary defines it as “what is morally right” 

Is this the reason John gives for Jesus to be on his way?

So…Will Jesus make things Right? 

What happens if what is right for you isn’t what is right for me? But if it’s “morally right”

there can only be one “morally right” way, correct? 

And who gets to decide what is morally right?

 

We are living in a hair-trigger world right now

and everyone is on edge. 

And everyone is just trying to make decisions

based on what they think is the morally right thing to do.

On the surface, it seems like our country is horribly divided

but if you look deep down,

each one of us is really trying our best

to decide what is the morally right thing to do.


I had a conversation with a friend this past week

about something that happened in her church

during worship the previous week. 

And it happened right here in Winnsboro. 

 

My friend has a brother

who has some pretty serious mental problems. 

He’s been in mental hospitals and in jail for them

and she and I have talked about it before. 

She knows that my own sister was schizophrenic

and so we are able to sympathize with each other

and speak openly and honestly.

 

She said that her brother walked into church

in the middle of worship looking for her. 

He appeared agitated and was pacing back and forth. 

He was also wearing a coat. 

Now, two things happened at once. 

My friend knew that he probably wasn’t a danger to anyone. 

He didn’t own a gun to her knowledge, he never had. 

He was probably hungry and needed money.

He was looking for her because he needed some money.

She figured that if she just gave him some money

he would leave. 

 

But the second thing that was going on

in this hair-trigger and morally righteous world

is that the men in the church wanted

to protect the people in worship. 

What they saw walking into their house of worship

wasn’t a mentally ill brother of a member;

it was an agitated and ill-kempt man wearing a coat

and they didn’t know what he was hiding under that coat. 

And my friend said these men started patting their pockets

and their waists and everywhere

she knew they had concealed weapons on their bodies.

It was a recipe for disaster

if her brother had unwittingly made a wrong move

or one of our neighbors had overreacted.

 

We live in a hair-trigger world. 

And we live in a world where we are desperately

trying to be morally righteous. 

Somehow, we are going to have to find a way

to calm down enough

to avoid making some really bad mistakes

by getting in a hurry.

 

There really is only one morally right answer. 

It is God’s answer but to find that answer takes a long time. 

 

I have been driving past the same mountains in Guatemala

for twenty years and even with road clearing equipment

the mountains are still there. 

John tells us that every mountain will be made low

but he doesn’t say how long it will take. 

I get in a hurry sometimes because I know that God has eternity

and think that I have only my own lifetime to see things unfold the way I want to see them happen.

And I get really frustrated. 

You know what I need?

I need Peace.

 

I just spent the weekend at a Spiritual Retreat at Gilmont.

 

 The focus of the weekend was Peace. 

 

One of the last exercises was to write a poem

answering the question:

 

“Where am I yearning for peace?

How might peace be invited in?

And where is Christ in the midst of the space?” 

 

Here’s my poem:

 

A deeply divided family of brothers and sisters

sit and argue without thinking how much harm

they are doing to their children and the world.

And how much they actually love each other.

 

Christ invites each one of them to supper with him

And they come

Each one thinking he loves them best

 

Before the meal he washes their feet

Then they eat from the same loaf

And drink from the same cup

And they are united once more.

 

Now that might sound like a simple little poem. 

But don’t be fooled by communion. 

In some cultures they call it a Fiesta—a party! 

A Feast! 

In a few minutes we will partake in a feast

prepared by Christ himself –

a feast laid out 2,000 years ago that still hasn’t ended yet. 

The table is STILL set for us. 

Christ is STILL the host. 

All is ready for us. 

All that remains is for us to receive the gift with joy. 

Let us begin our celebration with hymn #514….

 “Let Us Talents and Tongues Employ”

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