Ethos.

Matthew 5:1-12New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

The Beatitudes

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Ethos is an interesting word.  It simply means the characteristic of a culture, a person, or an organization.  What are the things that guide us?  

Questions:  

  • What is a guiding characteristic of our culture?
  • What is a personal guiding characteristic that you try to live by?
  • What about an organization that you belong to?
  • What about Fleming Road UCC?

These are all interesting characteristics.  I would also say that we can present an ethos or character statements in our lives or in our church that can help guide us and give us meaning and purpose.  

For example, my friends at Oasis have five ethos statements that define what they value and how they operate: 

  • a passion to include everyone
  • a desire to treat everyone equally, respecting differences
  • a commitment to healthy and open relationships
  • a deep sense of hope that things can change and be transformed
  • a sense of perseverance to keep going for the long haul 

In our church’s Elemental Vision, Values, and Goals work, you can say they are also a part of an ethos that is developing…we still have work to do as we all know on this…but, it is coming together more clearly as we sit with it and chew on it and develop it more.

  • Our vision:  engaging neighborhood, partners, churches.
  • Our values:  authenticity, partnerships, diversity, spiritual gifts, and leadership.
  • Our goals:
    • Create opportunities for authentic engagement and welcome through new and existing events.
    • By 2024, Fleming Road UCC is a recognized community presence.
    • Increase community outreach through the use of the building facilities.
    • Creating congregational affinity.

Again this is a work in progress and it can be summed up in an ethos of awareness I believe that will evolve and continue to lead us towards more clarity of who we are as persons and a congregation…and even encourage deeper faith and trust. 

Our gospel lesson this morning also gives us the ethos of what it means to live in Christ, practices that we should live into.  We call them the beatitudes.  The word beatitude means blessing.  One of the things about reading the beatitudes is to understand that these are not commandments.  They are an ethos or a characteristic of what it means to live in the Kingdom of God, the Presence or reality that this is God’s world and we are God’s and we are called to follow God.

So, if you are a peacemaker, you are blessed.  If you show mercy, you are blessed, if you are meek, you are blessed and will inherit the earth.  If you mourn, you are blessed and you will find comfort.  If you are persecuted, you are blessed because of righteousness…in other words, because you have lived in right relationships with others, worked on making those relationships good, then when persecution comes, when the bullies do their thing, you are blessed and your right relationships always works towards kingdom values and kingdom awareness…and, bullies or the unrighteous actions of others eventually simply waste away to nothing…like chafe in the wind.  They don’t have lasting meaning.

Now, what the beatitudes aren’t asking for is moral perfection.  When scripture says to be perfect as God is perfect, we tend to put our cultural ethos of doing things right or being right into this statement…we think as the Greeks did or in a dualistic way.  But, in Hebrew and Aramaic, it is odd to speak of God as morally perfect.  Dr. Glen Stassen and Dr. David Gushee in their book, Kingdom Ethics, state that the word perfect in biblical sense means to be complete or all-inclusive in your love…especially in your love for enemies.  

It’s easy to love your friends, but to go out of your way to bless and love your enemies.  That’s truly counter cultural.  Yet, that’s the message of Jesus throughout the Sermon on the Mount.  Jesus isn’t teaching impossible moral ideals, Jesus is teaching an ethos of all inclusive and committed love that perseveres through all circumstances.  That’s a hard teaching for many, but when you can move towards that, things shift in your life in the lives of others.

Ghandi understood that, Martin Luther King understood that…the great changes in history happened as folks followed the way of Jesus.  Even Ghandi modeled his non-violent protests in many ways on the life of Jesus.  Living in the way of Jesus does come at a cost, you have to move from comfort to courage in life, but it gives you the peace you long for in your own life, and it can bring peace to others…it can even usher an awareness of the Kingdom of God.

David Gushee and Glen Stassen also go on to say that there is a threefold pattern in Jesus’ teachings on the Mount.  There is a teaching on what it means to be in right relationship, a vicious cycle meant to tell the listeners that one can’t settle for the way they’ve always lived, and a transforming initiative that says if you live in a characteristic or ethos of authentic love, you’ll be aware of God’s presence and that will change you and give you the growth you desire.

People in this world are craving for this kind of teaching, because it not only cultivates a relationship with God, but also action and an ethos that is worth living into.  We can see that in Jesus’ time, crowds came to hear this teaching.  The early disciples experienced amazing growth that changed the course of history through this teaching.  Folks today are leaving the church in droves because we’ve gone away from this ethos, but my bet is that if we taught this and lived this, people would want to embrace again the teachings of Jesus and want to see real change in all aspects of our personal lives and in the lives we live together in our church, community, our city, and our country.  In many ways, many of us here at Immanuel are already are already living into this Kingdom ethos as a church, it’s simply a matter of naming it and living into it.  As our church goes through some strategic visioning this year, defining our ‘ethos’ and how we live into that will be a central part of our discussions.  

God has been pleading with us to live this way throughout history, our old testament lesson today in Micah says that God has a “controversy with” God’s people…God simply requires us to live good by honoring God and others by doing justice, and loving kindness, and to walking humbly with your God.  And our passage in Psalms tells us that those who practice this will abide in God’s big and expansive tent!    

God has made God’s tent with us and walks with us, all of us.  May we recognize God’s walking with us, beside us, before us, behind us, and walk in humility with God and God’s loving ethos for us, all of us.   We cannot turn our backs on the refugee, on persons of different skin color, sexual orientation, economic status, or whether they are new or old to our country or our church.  What’s amazing is that Fleming Road UCC strives to do this, it’s been a part of the ethos of this congregation in many ways.  We can live into the ethos that God has given us with the opportunities right at our doorstep.  We can be a blessing and be blessed, or we can live drifting from one distraction to another, and miss out on the goodness that God has created within us and around us.  But, I believe that’s not us at our core, we want to move boldly and with courage to the future God has for us! 

Follow.

Old Testament Reading

Psalm 27:1, 4-9

Triumphant Song of Confidence

Of David.

The Lord is my light and my salvation;
    whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the strongholdof my life;
    of whom shall I be afraid?

One thing I asked of the Lord,
    that will I seek after:
to live in the house of the Lord
    all the days of my life,
to behold the beauty of the Lord,
    and to inquire in his temple.

For he will hide me in his shelter
    in the day of trouble;
he will conceal me under the cover of his tent;
    he will set me high on a rock.

Now my head is lifted up
    above my enemies all around me,
and I will offer in his tent
    sacrifices with shouts of joy;
I will sing and make melody to the Lord.

Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud,
    be gracious to me and answer me!
“Come,” my heart says, “seek his face!”
    Your face, Lord, do I seek.
    Do not hide your face from me.

Do not turn your servant away in anger,
    you who have been my help.
Do not cast me off, do not forsake me,
    O God of my salvation.

New Testament Reading

Matthew 4:12-23

Jesus Begins His Ministry in Galilee

12 Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. 13 He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14 so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:

15 “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
    on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—
16 the people who sat in darkness
    have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death
    light has dawned.”

17 From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

Jesus Calls the First Disciples

18 As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 19 And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” 20 Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21 As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. 22 Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

Jesus Ministers to Crowds of People

23 Jesuswent throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

Our passage from Matthew this morning finds Jesus hearing that his cousin, John has been arrested so he retreats to Galilee.   Jesus, like all of us, needs time to retreat, regroup, process what he’s just learned.  So, he goes…along the way, it says that there is a prophecy fulfilled, the people in the lands that Jesus walked through, saw a great light.  Something has changed…there is light in the midst of darkness.  

The darkness at that time is probably much like it is today, folks are disconnected from one another, there are powers both inwardly and outwardly at work that keep people from living freely as they were created.  Powers inside of us that leave us that leave us enslaved to self-doubt, immobility, loneliness…powers that manifest themselves through consumption, selfishness, and a lack of self and others awareness.  We are isolated.  Those powers on the outside of us are similar as well, in our text, they are demonstrated in civic and religious power holders who want to maintain a sense of control and project power and relevance through fear and anxiety.

We are all in this darkness, enslaved.  And yet, darkness is sometimes necessary to walk through.  It’s only when we are in darkness like the people of Israel were in our gospel text, like they were in the old testament often, and how we are in our own lives now, can we grow and lean towards the light when we see it.  

There is a certain sense of passing in this passage, Jesus and John are relatives, there is continuity in their ministry as well as a discontinuity as John hands off his ministry to Jesus.  John knows it’s time to let go….that Jesus’ love and presence is being made known to folks and that there is a need for a new story, a new narrative to emerge.

Jesus steps through these areas mentioned carrying with a message of release, of freedom, and of being empowered through connection and inclusion with others and with a God who loves us and moves in, through, and around us bringing his an expansive view of the world filled with empathy, meaning, purpose, love.  

Jesus also continues John’s message of repentance…it is a reoccurring theme in Scripture.  When someone encounters this God that wants to free us, and encounter that is both deep within us and outside of us, drawing us closer to to our truest self as as well as a deep connection to others, it can create within us a change of heart and mind, we can experience a conversion, a transformation.  But, we have to come through darkness and want to move towards the light….and we can’t settle for divided lives but to live in awareness of embracing all that we are, which is being made in God’s image, and to be committed to one another and to God as God calls us to live in Christ and to follow the example of Jesus.

The next few verses give witness to folks responding to Jesus’ call to them and giving up everything, right at that moment to follow him.  Now, it’s unusual in those days for a rabbi as Jesus was to call his followers to follow him.  They usually sought him out, but Jesus seeks out Andrew and his brother Simon.  He sees them fishing and tells them to follow him and become fishers of men.  He doesn’t tell them to form a study, a committee, or go to seminary, he tells them to simply do something they understand.  Fish.  But, to go after others, to pursue friendships with others and include them into community.

Now, every Jewish boy wants to have a rabbi, Andrew and Simon may have felt like their time had passed them by, they were fishing with their father, we don’t know how old they were…but, it’s safe to say that they probably weren’t the first choices…but, they recognized something in Jesus, something good and beautiful, and said yes with their actions.  

Someone I’ve enjoyed getting to know over the years in the few conversations we’ve had is Jill Rowe, she talks about saying “yes”.  Several years ago, her London church said yes when the British government called them on a Wednesday to see if they’d take in 500 teenage refugees on a Friday, two days away.  Her pastor said yes…then they worked out to find homes for those kids…and they did!  A few months later, they have a thriving ministry to refugee children.  

It kind of reminds me of when our church said yes very quickly to the request from our Ukrainian friends last year to host a food festival.

Jill has a church that is incredibly diverse and filled with folks of all ages.  Jill talks about how so many folks are turned off by the church in general, we focus so much on minor things and people just get tired.  They want to simply “get on with it” Jill says, get on with loving others, working on awareness, and serving others…saying Yes to God’s call.

My friend Dr. Walter Brueggemann shared with me a new phrase a few years ago…people today want to move towards a post-critical scriptural adrenaline.  We can poke all sorts of holes in scripture, that’s fine, but we are still left with the stories that have power in them…they are stories of God’s YES to us and a call for us to say YES to God and each other.  

Many times, when Jesus approaches us, we can try to close him off…or we can say Yes to what he’s asking of us…and change the world, starting with ourselves and the neighborhood in which we live!  Yes, to refugees in London, or here at home, yes to Ukrainians, Nepalis, to Arts Connect, and to so many others, even for starting the church as Andrew and Simon did…and certainly saying yes to yourself.  You are not a sinner in the hands of an angry or displeased God, you are beautiful and loved by a God who constantly says YES to your being human and divine…a God who resides within you and all around you…

Saying Yes, to Jesus can be crazy, adventurous, and overwhelming…sometimes the following may take us into dark places…but, we are not alone.  Our identity as Christians is simply to live in Christ….to be Christ’s matter, Christ’s body in a world so fragmented.  Friends, this world is crying out for those of us who claim to live in Christ, to be be Jesus followers to get on with it, and live into transformational relationships.  

Waiting.

Old Testament Readings 

Psalm 40:1-11 

Thanksgiving for Deliverance and Prayer for Help 

To the leader. Of David. A Psalm. 

1 I waited patiently for the LORD;
he inclined to me and heard my cry.
 

2 He drew me up from the desolate pit,
 out of the miry bog,
 and set my feet upon a rock,
 making my steps secure.
 

3 He put a new song in my mouth,
 a song of praise to our God.
 Many will see and fear,
and put their trust in the LORD. 

4 Happy are those who make
 the LORD their trust,
 who do not turn to the proud,
to those who go astray after false gods.

5 You have multiplied, O LORD my God,
your wondrous deeds and your thoughts toward us;
none can compare with you.
 Were I to proclaim and tell of them,
 they would be more than can be counted. 

6 Sacrifice and offering you do not desire,
 but you have given me an open ear.
 Burnt offering and sin offering
 you have not required.


 7 Then I said, “Here I am;
 in the scroll of the book it is written of me.

 8 I delight to do your will, O my God;
your law is within my heart.”

9 I have told the glad news of deliverance
 in the great congregation;
see, I have not restrained my lips,
 as you know, O LORD.

10 I have not hidden your saving help within my heart,
 I have spoken of your faithfulness and your salvation;
I have not concealed your steadfast love and your faithfulness
 from the great congregation. 

11 Do not, O LORD, withhold
 your mercy from me;
let your steadfast love and your faithfulness
 keep me safe forever. 

New Testament Reading 

John 1:29-42 

The Lamb of God 

29 The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 30 This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ 31 I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” 32 And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33 I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ 34 And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”

 The First Disciples of Jesus 

35 The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, 36 and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” 37 The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. 38 When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” 39 He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. 40 One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. 41 He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). 42 He brought Simonto Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter). 

Such a great psalm reading, one of my favorites. It’s also a psalm that the rock band U-2 plays at the end of most of their concerts. It’s a longing of the heart, how long must we sing this song? We long for life to somehow come together in some way, or even deeper, for life to be lived where we know others and are known by others…as well as knowing 

God and God knowing us. 

It’s amazing to be in an area or a stadium when Bono sings this song “40”, which is basically Psalm 40. 100,000 people fill these stadiums and sing this song at the top of their lungs. When I look around I see folks with tears in their eyes. Now, U2 is not a christian band, they are simply a popular rock band who happen to have a deep sense of God’s presence in their lives. 

I often think, wow, why can’t the church be like those stadium experiences? Not the production, but the feeling of deep connection. Now, church happens all of the time, it’s happening in those concerts, it happens down the street, and it happens in here. I see folks all of the time that want church, they want to connect to the deeper longings of their lives. They want to see God and to know that God sees them. 

However, those of us in the church often get caught up in so much other things, that we forget that church, the body of Christ, is supposed to be a community of authentic friends going after this longing for God. There are important things like buildings, programs, meetings, etc. Often, we also are not able to let go of certain destructive things in relationships, it’s hard being in community together, isn’t it? We have so many different thoughts, emotions, opinions…we sometimes seemingly can’t get on the same page or even the same chapter. The church as we know it can become a place where we can’t see God because of our focus on our stuff…it leads us towards a blindness. Yet, we still long for something more…we still long for relationships within ourselves, others, and God to be made well. 

What amazes me about Fleming Road UCC, is that this church has the same issues as most churches, yet there is a core of us that stay with this, we are committed to one another and to working through things and you include others. Most folks in society give up, move on, become church refugees. That’s not a judgment on them or us, it’s understandable. Yet, here, I know we have issues, but we are willing to have the patience to stick with it, to stick with each other I believe. 

So, the psalmist goes on to say that as we wait, we should wait patiently, and God hears our cry, God sets us up on a rock. 

Our gospel passage this morning finds John, the cousin of Jesus, proclaiming to the world that Jesus is the messiah, the promised one. This passage has a lot of verbs like, “look”, “see”, “behold”, all coming from the same greek root word. Have eyes opened to the reality of God in the flesh before us. 

John goes on to say that this Jesus is the lamb of God. The lamb who sacrifices every- thing for us out of love. There is a motif in scripture that humanity is always looking for a scapegoat….someone or something that we can blame our issues on rather than dealing with them ourselves and doing the hard work of self awareness and risking vulnerability. 

In Jewish custom, lambs or goats were offered as sacrifices, that’s where we get the term scapegoating. They believed that they could place their sins, their shortcomings on a sacrificial animal and release it in the wild to wander away with their sins or selfishness and give them a fresh start…or kill that animal. 

Jesus comes on to the scene. Jesus loves well and looks into the lives of others with grace and inclusion. Jesus is scapegoated because the religious leaders of that time and others were exposed in their shortcomings and put on to Jesus their issues…which led him to the cross where he became the scapegoat for us all. Jesus took it on and overcome being a scapegoat…Jesus love even overcame death and led to resurrection. 

This is key for us in our understanding of the way of Jesus. Jesus took on our stuff, didn’t let it define him, absorbed it, and then nailed it with him to a tree…he let it die and then resurrected to new life that he shares with us. 

Our passage also shares that others saw Jesus’ belief in them, Jesus’ willingness to love and brought folks to them. Andrew, a disciple of Jesus, always seems to be introducing others to Jesus…which makes sense, when we are excited about our relationship with someone, we want to connect them to others. It’s good to pause here and ask ourselves, do we sense Jesus’ love for us so much that we want to introduce Jesus to others like Andrew? 

When Andrew is introduced, Jesus asks, what is that you want? That’s also a good question for us. We are the church, the body of Christ, what do we want in meeting Jesus? And, are we ok with playing church or do we really want to experience relationship with Jesus? 

If we do want relationship, that changes everything. First century Judaism understood that names meant something, they had meaning. We get that on some level today. But, devout Jews knew that if you knew someone’s name, if you had their name, that brought a sense of knowing and of submitting to someone else. It was vulnerable to someone else to know one’s name. 

Jesus was introduced to others, he was given their names, and then he did something remarkable, when he met Simon, he gave him a new name, Peter, which means rock. Later he would say that Peter, would be the rock that the church would stand. 

Friends, may we also know that Jesus has given us that same name, we are the rock. We wait patiently for the Lord, he hears our plea, then he sets us upon a rock…a rock that isn’t a building or a system, but a relationship that is a sure foundation in a world that can often be shifting underneath us. And, we have friends that we love…and as we fall in love with Jesus, we want to love them as Jesus loved them and help them, as well as ourselves, find the new name that God is giving to us.

Deep.

Psalm 42

Longing for God and God’s Help in Distress

As a deer longs for flowing streams,
    so my soul longs for you, O God.

My soul thirsts for God,
    for the living God.
When shall I come and behold
    the face of God?

My tears have been my food
    day and night,
while people say to me continually,
    “Where is your God?”

These things I remember,
    as I pour out my soul:
how I went with the throng[
a]
    and led them in procession to the house of God,
with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving,
    a multitude keeping festival.

Why are you cast down, O my soul,
    and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God, for I shall again praise God,
my help

    and my God.

My soul is cast down within me;
    therefore I remember you
from the land of Jordan and of Hermon,
    from Mount Mizar.

Deep calls to deep
    at the thunder of your torrents;
all your waves and your billows
    have gone over me.

Matthew 3:13-17

The Baptism of Jesus

13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14 John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16 And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw God’s Spirit descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from the heavens said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

I love the outdoors.  I love to rock climb, hike, camp…and of course, I love to run.  These are all activities that I enjoy that are on solid ground.  I don’t particularly like water sports though.  I do enjoy kayaking and canoeing and I love going to the beach…but, I don’t particularly enjoy swimming.   I have confidence and skill in the other activities, but not swimming.  As a kid, I learned to fake swimming pretty well, I was embarrassed that I didn’t know how to swim.  It wasn’t until I was an adult, in my mid-twenties, when a good friend Jay Borck, who knew I wasn’t confident in my swimming, taught me.

My lack of confidence in swimming was evident on a vacation years ago.  Some very good friends of ours offered to us their family’s condo near a beach in Florida for vacation.  It was a great vacation filled with great memories with our family. One of the days we were there, we went to a state park that was known for snorkeling.  We spent a lot of time in several locations looking at some great fish and other sea life, but the water was fairly shallow and I could stand.  At one point, I found myself pretty far from the rest of my family.  They were one side of this lagoon and I was one some rocks on the other side.  I had gone around the side as the middle was fairly deep.  To save time, I decided to swim across the middle that was only about 40-50 yards.  I started to panic a bit when I realized that it was so deep that I could no longer see the bottom.  I was overwhelmed but kept on kicking.  I really wanted to get to the other side, I wanted to be with my family, but the path that I took was pretty scary for me.  

Being in deep water can overwhelm a lot of us.  But, we could be feeling overwhelmed with lots of things in like issues in our families, or our own inner thoughts that we are scared to deal with or simply cannot process.  Maybe we are overwhelmed with some sort of addiction or obsession that we cannot seem to get out of or get release from.  Maybe we are overwhelmed with financial pressures or issues with co-workers or bosses.  Even in church, where we are supposed to have safe haven, and even when we feel like we know how to swim metaphorically in the body of water called church, we can feel overwhelmed.  

Maybe we can relate to this quote from the book, Breathing Underwater, by Richard Rohr:  

“I built my house by the sea. Not on the sands, mind you; not on the shifting sand. And I built it of rock. A strong house by a strong sea. And we got well acquainted, the sea and I. Good neighbors. Not that we spoke much. We met in silences. Respectful, keeping our distance, but looking our thoughts across the fence of sand. Always, the fence of sand our barrier, always, the sand between.   And then one day, —and I still don’t know how it happened— the sea came. Without warning.   Without welcome, not even sudden and swift, but a shifting across the sand like wine, less like the flow of water than the flow of blood. Slow, but coming. Slow, but flowing like an open wound. And I thought of flight and I thought of drowning and I thought of death. And while I thought the sea crept higher, till it reached my door. And I knew then, there was neither flight, nor death, nor drowning. That when the sea comes calling you stop being well acquainted, friendly-at-a-distance, neighbors…you give your house for a coral castle, And you learn to breathe underwater.” 

Richard Rohr, Breathing Underwater

During times of feeling overwhelmed, if we are facing them alone or keeping the issues facing us to ourselves and not leaning into them, adapting…we can experience a deep sense of despair and brokenness.  I was grateful to have my family there with me at the lagoon that day (knowing that they are all excellent swimmers!) and for my friend Jay Borck whom I could share my embarrassment of not knowing how to swim and to have him be my friend and offer to help.

I learned, and continue to learn, to trust what is given in the moment in life.  

We can also be overwhelmed in a good way.  We can learn to live in new ways when things happen to us.  We can learn to “breathe underwater” and go to some of the deeper places in life and even find rebirth in the midst of whatever is washing over us.  We can learn to appreciate friends like Jay and so many others and my family, not out of what they can do for us, but out of our deep love that we find within ourselves.  Knowing that they are not simply there to rescue us, but to love us as we love them.  We can then be overwhelmed with the depth in those relationships and the community that God has given us, or communion if you will.  We may realize that we may not have much in material wealth, but we are wealthy beyond imagination in relationship with ourselves and one another as we live in the depth of the flow of God’s Presence!

God longs to be in community with us, to be in relationship with us.  And we also have a longing for God.  We are hard wired for relationship and something inside us compels us to seek out the source for relationships.  We have a desire to be connected.  We can relate to the words of Psalm 42 that were read this morning.  

The Psalmist does not long to be in relationship with an idea, concept or emotion, but an encounter with a living God.  The imagery of a deer panting for water gives testimony that God is the source of life.  We all need water to survive!  As a runner, I know that if I don’t drink enough water, I will get dehydrated.  I thirst for water.  Coke doesn’t work, other drinks don’t work as well either, I long for water.  The Psalmist is desperate for God, not a substitute.   In verse 5 of Psalm 42, the writer describes his soul as being downcast and that they are desperate for God’s Presence.

Psalm 42:7 gives witness to the depth experienced in this relationship:  7 Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls; all your waves and breakers have swept over me. (Psalm 42:7, TNIV)

Deep calls to deep.  God calls us out of the depth of God’s love and desire for relationship and we experience a depth of desire for that love.  God is the author of relationship and of love.  God is deep within all of us, crying out for God’s very self to God…and to the depth of God in each one of us, all of us.  All of the world and creation really.  It is overwhelming, like a waterfall or waves breaking over us on the beach.  

A few years ago I went on vacation with my family to Philadelphia to visit my brother-in-law, Paul.  My other brother-in-law, Johnny, and his family went with us.  We had a great time together.  One of our day trips was to Rehoboth Beach, DE.  We spent the day playing in the waves and building sandcastles.  I also spent some time walking around the boardwalk there by myself.  It was a great time of remembering a summer that I spent in Rehoboth beach 36 years ago after my freshman year in college.  It was a time of deep loneliness for me and questioning of my faith.  I remembered sitting on the boardwalk one night at 19 listening to the waves and asking where God was and if God understood me and if he even existed.  Over that summer, as I had more times of sitting on that beach, listening to the waves, the Bible became alive to me as I read it new ways with new eyes, the eyes of suffering and being overwhelmed…eyes that were seeing God within me suffering along with me and with all people!  Through so many others, and a new power or depth within me, I began to see a God who not only was real, but was within me and even experienced what I experience in our shared humanity.  God was even with me in my doubting and questioning.

The Gospel lesson from Matthew this morning demonstrates God’s deep longing to be with us and to share in life with us through Jesus.  It’s the story of Jesus’ baptism where God’s love is poured out over Jesus.

John the Baptist, the one who had been calling people to repentance and announcing that the Kingdom of God was at hand, tried to talk Jesus out of being baptized, saying that Jesus should be baptizing him.  But, something else was at work.  Jesus was demonstrating a deep relational reality and promise.  Jesus is proclaiming that through his life, God and humanity were joined together.  That he was God in the flesh and that this God was entering into all of the messiness and brokenness of humanity.  He was identifying with us and our need for forgiveness and repentance.

TF Torrance says this:  “When he saw the people going down to the river…being baptized, confessing their sins, submitting to their verdict of guilty…Jesus said to John, ‘Baptize me!  I will submit…”

Jesus submitted to baptism.  He demonstrated to us that he is present with us and asks us to respond by following his example.  By doing so, we are participating in Jesus’ baptism for us.  It’s a crazy, beautiful deal.  It is deep calling into deep.  By submitting to baptism, Jesus is signifying that humanity is forgiven through his actions on our behalf.  Jesus is also fulfilling a promise that God is with us, completely…not just part of God, but all of God.  

After Jesus is baptized, there is an amazing statement from a voice from heaven saying:  “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”  Since Jesus represents all of humanity, that voice in effect is saying to all of us, “”YOU are all my children, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”  God has come to us, God has entered into our brokenness, and God’s Spirit which demonstrates perfect love is with us today and wants to open our ears and eyes to a God who is telling us that he is well pleased with us, that we have his approval and we have his Presence.

Baptism symbolizes to us much about God’s faithfulness to us through Jesus’ actions for us.  We are now going recognized our new slate of officers, reminding them, and all of us, our communion, our coming together…and we are also about to participate in another action that Jesus practiced, gave us:  the Lord’s Supper.  In this sacrament or “sacred moment” we celebrate God’s community with us.  As we break the bread, we are reminded that we are Christ’s body and Christ is present with us in our brokenness.  As we pour the wine (or grape juice in our case) we are reminded that Jesus has poured his life out for us and into us and we are called to receive it and to revel in this reality to world that is broken and in need of God’s communion.  The very word “communion” has a meaning of community and union.  We are not alone.  Friends, may we experience God’s waves of love crashing over us as deep calls into deep and as we are reminded of God’s faithfulness to us and to our community.

Dream.

Matthew 2:13-23

The Escape to Egypt

13 Now 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.” 14 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15 and 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.”

The Massacre of the Infants

16 When 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.17 Then 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.”

The Return from Egypt

19 When 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.” 21 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22 But 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. 23 There 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 Nazarene.

It is interesting to see how our world defines kings or power.  We are all about the sense of regality, of power and a sense of certitude that a king can bring.  The idea that a new king has been born is a part of the Christmas message.  What gets missed in the Christmas message though is that the story doesn’t end with Jesus’ birth in a manger and the wise men and shepherds coming.  No, this story has more twists in Jesus’ early life.

You see, as we’ve been saying throughout Advent, God entrusted God’s self to us in Jesus.  The Trinity, the 3 in 1 God flows into humanity through Jesus.  It is a beautiful story, but rather than coming as a conquering king or in splendor and glory, Jesus shows up as a little baby born to first time teenaged parents in the middle of political and social upheaval.  God comes to us, not in regal authority, but in true humility, which has more power than any conquering army.  

After the birth in the manger in a dirty stall, our passage on this 1st Sunday after Christmas Day details Jesus’ first few days after the Shepherds and wise men visit.  

King Herod, who was the ruler under Roman authority, was a ruthless politician.  He had wide latitude and the roman army to back him up.  He committed many atrocities to keep his hold on power.  He was rather thin skinned and narcissistic I’d imagine…and furious that the wise men had visited Jesus and did not tell him where to find Jesus as they were told.  So, he ordered all of the boys under 2 years old in Bethlehem to be slaughtered.

Joseph is warned in a dream by an angel to flee Bethlehem before this happens…but to make haste and do it that very night.  Dreams are interesting, sometimes they can be windows into our hearts, our souls.  The Divine was deep within Josesph, warning him, telling him to move his young family to safety.  So, he got up, got Mary and Jesus and fled to the relative safety of Egypt to escape Herod’s persecution and to save the life of his son, and probably his and Mary’s.

Friends, this story is so important to us as we close 2022.  This has been a year of many ups and downs for all of us I’d imagine, but it is also a year where we have seen one of the largest refugee crisis in the history of the world throughout the world, and especially in Ukraine.  Through wars, famine, and political upheaval, there are now an estimated 60 million + refugees.  

As followers of Jesus, we should recognize that Jesus was a refugee and if we are called to identity the image of God in each person, and to identify with all of humanity, and especially those on the margins through Jesus, then when we see a refugee, we are looking at Jesus through our shared humanity.  

According the UN, the definition of a refugee is as follows:  

refugee is someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.

I would say that definition certainly fits with Jesus in our story this morning.  Jesus knows what it’s like to have to flee a country as a child, to know that his life is in danger.  And his earthly father knew that he had to do whatever it took to get him to safety.

I’m also reminded of a refugee that I met in Brussels, Belgium a few years ago.  He shared what it was like to have his boat overturn in the Mediterranean and to swim to the relative safety of a rock with his family and to watch 23 other humans drown who weren’t so lucky.

This amazing story of Jesus as a refugee was one wrought in peril, in danger.  It could have gone bad as many refugee stories do.  Even when Jesus and his family return to Israel, they don’t go back to Bethlehem.  It’s too close to Jerusalem, and even  though Herod had died, his sons and others still may not take kindly to Jesus.  So, Joseph is instructed to go to Nazareth, which had recently become somewhat of a more independent region.  This also fulfills a prophetic word about the Messiah coming out of Nazareth…as well as add to the narrative that God comes out of nowhere, and out of those in poverty.  Nazareth was not of any importance in that day.  

Friends, we may have gone through a lot this past year.  And, as we face 2023, we will have some struggles to face personally, as a congregation, community, city, country, and world.  Yet, even as we use the symbol of a baby as the new year 2023, we approach it with eager expectation.  We don’t know what will happen, or where hope will appear, but we can have faith and commitment to a God who promises to be with us  

When I became a dad, I looked at my kids with all sorts of amazement and wonder, I did not know what life with them would bring, how they’d turn out, but I knew I was committed to them.  And, I know that in this new year, as I continue to grow, even in my mid-fifties, that my kids are a part of birthing something new in me.  

Let us not forget that, just as we reminded in this morning’s gospel story, that God weeps with us and looks out for us.  That the Christmas story is about what is being incarnated, fleshed out, birthed within us.  May we have the listening ear, wisdom, and obedience of Joseph to follow God’s voice, even if it takes us places we may not want to go…but, as we go, be reminded that we are not alone and that God will make a way for us in 2023 and beyond.  

Darkest Before the Dawn.

Luke 2:1-20 

The Birth of Jesus

2 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 Joseph 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. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 And 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.

The Shepherds and the Angels

8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah,[a] the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host,[b] praising God and saying,

14 

“Glory to God in the highest heaven,

    and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”[c]

15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

Footnotes:

  • Luke 2:11 Or the Christ
  • Luke 2:13 Gk army
  • Luke 2:14 Other ancient authorities read peace, goodwill among people

Sermon Manuscript:

Here we are again friends.  Christmas Eve.  What a year we’ve had.  I know that for me, this year has been a time of tremendous growth.  Experiencing deep growth coming out of a year of birth pains in 2021.  As we come to the end of 2022, I love that we read this passage.  Really, we read this same passage almost every Christmas Eve.  It’s traditional, it’s the Christmas story…and it’s the promise of new birth coming to us in the darkest of nights, the darkest of days.

My dad would read this passage every Christmas Eve…from the King James Version no less.  He went to church every Sunday, was a church leader, but this was the only time I really ever remember him reading Scripture.  Yet, he did.  One thing about my dad, he was pretty consistent!  

I don’t know where we all are in our lives as we come to this night…maybe you feel stuck, a place that is dark, without hope.  Yet, if we allow the work of new birth to rise within us, and receive the gift that Christmas offers, of light in the midst of darkness, we can break out of being stuck in this loop.  

We have been through a lot these past couple of years, but tonight, here we are,  together in some way, whether here in the sanctuary, or on Zoom, Facebook, we have gathered to hear this story again!  

This year, many of us have had to ponder on a deeper level what Christmas is about, it’s about something new being birthed…in us and in the world around us.  Childbirth isn’t easy, it’s painful…yet, what do we call babies after they’ve arrived?  “Little bundles of Joy”.  Possibility, mystery, love, struggle, suffering, growth, and presence are all wrapped up into babies.

Babies grow into adulthood through the throes of life.  Our faith does as well.  Sometimes we have to remember that things are formed in dark places, like the womb.  Faith, also is birthed in darkness.  And, faith is not about certainty…it is simply believing, deeply, that you are not alone in this world…that there is a God who resides within you and all around you that is with you…a God who entered humanity, became human, in the form of Jesus.  

December 25 was decided by the early church, really our Germanic and Celtic ancestors, because it is close to the annual winter solstice.  It was actually a pre-Christian celebration, and our Christian ancestors borrowed a lot from their ancestors because it simply made sense with the story of the incarnation of Christ…which is a story that is also incarnated, birthed within us.  

The winter solstice is also known as the “longest night”.  It is the day of the year where it’s darkest the longest.  It is to remind us of the darkness of life.  And also that there is hope, because after the longest night, when it is the most dark, the light shines forth, dawn comes…and we can see what was birthed in the night more clearly.  

Uki MacIsaac says this:

The longest night of the year bears within itself the promise of the return of the light, the ‘rebirth’ of the sun. Thus, the Winter Solstice is a time to celebrate the darkness of the womb from which creation arises. We honor the cycles of life, death, and rebirth, the dark night of the soul and the rebirth of new hope and vision. When we move deeper into the darkness instead of avoiding it, we find the gifts the darkness holds. To some, that may mean moving into the shadow aspect of self. What needs to be released, to be brought into the light of our awareness? Even in our darkest moments we can find the seeds of growth and healing within.

…The journey into the darkness prepares the way for celebration: in gratitude we rejoice in the return of the light, the promise of the sun lighting our path, the promise of new beginnings.

The symbolism is great.  Throughout history, people and culture have known “dark times”.  Times when things are in upheaval.  Unless we aren’t paying attention, we must know that we are also in a time of great change and upheaval.  And, let’s be honest, all of us go through dark times in our lives.  The question is, are we going to try and ignore the darkness, or live into it and grow and find God in the depths of it?  

Friends, the reality is that the church has so often preached a message of hope, of joy, of peace, of love, and even a message of Jesus without the darkness that we see around and in us, without struggle…and God is saying to us on the symbolism of this night…to look into the darkness in order to see a candle, a flame, of love…of promise, of relationship, of incarnation…

Into this season, God has called and placed us.  We are asked to embrace the dark night, because in the darkness we can learn so much.  

In the darkness of Christmas night, there is a great stirring, movements towards hope and something new.  There are shepherds seeing and hearing miraculous news while dutifully minding their flocks.  There are wise men and women seeking knowledge and growth.  

The passage that we read tonight is full of subversive beauty!  Caesar August, the Roman emperor was the head of a political cult that set him up to be divine, a savior, the lord, one who didn’t have any failings, a winner at all costs…and he lived in imperial power exacting a census that was a sign of his authority and ability to collect taxes and contribute the wealth of Rome.  Yet, Jesus comes to us impoverished, on the run, and in a dirty stable.  His coming is announced to a group of outsiders, literally, shepherds and not some great proclamation to the entire empire, this proclamation came from the heavens to a few shepherds and wise men and women so that it can be carried to and for all of creation.  Amazing!

Into that dark night, a baby is born.  Emmanuel or “God with us”!  Jesus, Emmanuel, born to us, humanity.  God, entrusting God’s self to us, in darkness, and to a couple of teenagers who were still trying to figure things out!  God, who gives hospitality and relationship receives hospitality and relationship.  The “uncreated” creator giving over itself to its creation.

Into the night, a small light came on to the scene of history that grew to a blazing fire illuminating hope, peace, grace, friendship to ALL, welcoming the outsider, showing radical hospitality.  This Jesus that says he will be with us in the darkness birthing new life and possibility to us and to those around us!  We are becoming more and more radiant as we acknowledge the hard and struggle of life, share that life together, and look at each and see the “glory on each face”!  

One of our German Christian mystics from the 1400’s, Meister Eckhart, says this:  “The light is satisfied only in the innermost place, where no one dwells. It is within you even deeper than you are in yourself. It is the ground of simple silence that is motionless in itself. Yet from its stillness, all things move and all things receive their life, that they may live in accordance with this reason (vernunftecliche) and be conformed to it within themselves.”

We have opportunity after opportunity to meet God in the stillness of the night, this night and every night…really every moment in the deepest parts of our lives and in every life.  May we lean into the darkest places, the darkest night, and grow into people of radiance as we wait for the morning light!  

As we look into the darkest nights of our lives for the hope of Christ to be born again in us and around us…may we proclaim and rejoice in this king, this savior, this lord, this friend to us.  And, in this looking in, may we experience the birth of Christ that is happening within us, all of the time.  Friends, as we go into the night, here these words from Meister Eckhart:  

“This birth which takes place unceasingly in eternity is the very same birth which has taken place within human nature.” 

May the joy of the promise of new birth, the story of Christmas, be with you every day, every moment of your life.  Amen and Merry Christmas!

Immanuel.

Matthew 1:18-25

The Birth of Jesus the Messiah

18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

23 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
    and they shall name him Emmanuel,”

which means, “God is with us.” 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

I have not gone rock climbing in a while…I love it though.  There’s a sense of accomplishment and movement that’s amazing.  It’s also a risk.  Especially when climbing with someone and having to risk trusting them when they are belaying you.  Belaying means holding the rope as you climb and being able to stop your fall by putting tension on the rope while you climb.  I’ve had lots of belayers in my life, including my own kids!  

But, when being belayed, it is a risk of trusting with my life.  Here I am, so you can know that the trust has paid off!  

Friends, we are at a point in our church’s live where we are going to have to go deeper in our trust with one another as we are going to embark on some risks in the next 2-3 years! 

Our next congregational meeting in January will be exciting as we flesh this vision out even more.  I believe that meeting will be very encouraging to us as a congregation, and it will also mean some risk.  We all know that we need to take some risks, that’s the only way we grow in our faith…both in our personal lives as well as in our corporate life as a congregation.  That may cause all sorts of reactions, but if we trust one another and ourselves, as well as the Divine movement throughout, we may just grow in ways that we cannot imagine.  But, it does come at a cost and it will be a tad different and unexpected.  

As your pastor, in this season, I want to focus on three areas to give us a foundation for this new work as our council and action team work on specifics:  

Community Engagement

Congregation/Clergy Renewal

Congregation/Clergy Rest

All of these are important as we take risks moving into the future, while staying present with one another, and appreciating our past.  I know change brings some anxiety, but the Christmas story can bring us some hope.

As we listen closely to the gospel text this morning, we hear in Joseph’s voice some hesitation, maybe some panic.  His risk is in trusting God’s voice through the angel and trusting Mary is not without consequences.

Friends, this Christmas story is about birth…and that can be scary and disorienting!  Let’s dive in a bit more with this story.

Joseph was engaged to Mary.  In those times, engagement and marriage were pretty much one and the same.  When you were engaged, you didn’t just break it off if things weren’t going well.  You had to get a divorce.  But, this was a time of waiting, they had not been physically intimate.  Yet, Mary is pregnant.  By God’s Spirit.  There is all sorts of ways of looking at that, but God’s intimacy with her was greater than we could imagine.  God planted God’s very relational being within her.  That seed would be born into humanity through humanity and would be God with us, or Immanuel.  That seed would be called Jesus, which literally means the deliverer of salvation.  In other words, God’s presence, God’s being with us, gives us salvation.  

Now, that’s pretty amazing.  But, Joseph still has to deal with the society and norms in which he lives.  It is said that he was righteous, he was respected, he did the right things and folks knew him to be a good person.  The safe thing to do for his image, and the expected thing to do, would be to divorce Mary and make it known that he was innocent and not the father of her child.

Joseph struggled with this greatly.  So, he made a compromise, he’d break the engagement privately and spare Mary from public humiliation.

Decision made.  Move on.  But, God interrupts again.  God said that Joseph wasn’t alone.  That God was in the middle of all of this and Joseph needed to keep his commitment to Mary and marry her.  Even though Mary would still have the child, she needed community, she needed Joseph’s support.  It’s as if to say, God does great things, but God always does those things through community and in community with us.  

So, Joseph is emboldened, even as I’m sure he was still scared.  Maybe even more so after God’s angel reminds him that this baby would be called Jesus and that this Jesus would be the salvation of humanity.  Pretty heady stuff.  

Friends, I don’t know exactly where you are this morning in life.  But, God has given us Godself in Jesus.  We are not alone though.  Yes, we can try to make decisions on our own, or bargain with God, work on protecting our image, or try to live a safe life.  But, this God with us, Immanuel.  God calls us to risk trusting God, and in so doing, trusting one another.  Often we say NO to others or opportunities, we are risk averse in our lives and even collectively as the church.  Yet, God calls us to be willing to risk everything in order to bring the good news of God’s salvation, of God’s being with us, to the world around us.  WE have to say YES to more risk, to more opportunities to live out our lives in faithful response to Jesus’ love for us.  

God’s Spirit is with us, calling us out, calling us forward…loving us until what C. Baxter Kruger says in his book, The Shack Revisted, “…the whole cosmos is a living sacrament of the great dance of the triune God.”

I had a dream recently that our congregation was dancing through the neighborhood of Finneytown playing kazoos…not sure what that means, but it was interesting…I do think it has something to do with joining in relationship with one another and taking what may seem silly, or risky, and loving one another as we love this neighborhood, as messy as we are and as messy as the world is…

The Franciscan Sister Ilia Delio says this:  PP

“This God of love appears in Jesus of Nazareth, a God who gets radically involved in the messiness of the world to be God for us. . . .

To have faith in a God of unconditional love is to realize how intimately close God is. So close we forget God’s presence. In his own day Jesus was immersed in a violent culture, a culture of conflict and anxiety. But he also knew of the deeper truth hidden beneath the surface of human judgment, namely that this broken, anxious world is oozing with God. He asked us to have faith, to believe that the reign of God is among us and within us.”

Friends, this Christmas and every day of our lives, may we take the risks necessary to see God’s presence worked out in beautiful ways in the amazing paradox of our lives.  And have faith as join in the Dance!

Voice.

Psalm 72:1-7

Prayer for Guidance and Support for the King

Of Solomon.

Give the king your justice, O God,
    and your righteousness to a king’s son.
May he judge your people with righteousness,
    and your poor with justice.
May the mountains yield prosperity for the people,
    and the hills, in righteousness.
May he defend the cause of the poor of the people,
    give deliverance to the needy,
    and crush the oppressor.

May he livewhile the sun endures,
    and as long as the moon, throughout all generations.
May he be like rain that falls on the mown grass,
    like showers that water the earth.
In his days may righteousness flourish
    and peace abound, until the moon is no more.

Psalm 72:18-19

18 Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel,
    who alone does wondrous things.
19 Blessed be his glorious name forever;
    may his glory fill the whole earth.
Amen and Amen.

Today is the second Sunday of Advent, we celebrate peace.  Now, peace is not simply the absence of conflict, on the contrary, it is a calling out of injustice and a movement towards awareness and reconciliation…of healing, of being whole.  It is the good news that Jesus came to bring…like a voice crying out in the wilderness.  Hear this gospel lesson!  

Matthew 3:1-12

The Proclamation of John the Baptist

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
    make his paths straight.’”

Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

11 “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Are you even impatient for something?  As a kid, I can remember the tough waiting for Christmas…and, I have to admit, it wasn’t waiting for Jesus to appear, but more so the toys under the tree.  Which, I know, is supposed to symbolize the gift of Jesus to humanity…but, not much in the thought patterns a 6 or 7 year old.  

But, even today, I can get impatient.  But its different than it was just a few years ago.  I used to want to move things, to get them done yesterday.  But, being at Fleming Road UCC, I’ve been able to rest more in who I am.  A sense of “re-membering”…becoming whole, being at peace if you will.  Don’t get me wrong though, I do love it when projects move forward and there is buy-in from others and a sense of unity, collaboration, and teamwork.  

I’ve come to realize over the years, that takes time and patience to move forward.  Which, again, has been something that I’ve been able to live more fully into at Fleming Road.  Which is a good thing.  And, waiting can produce character and other benefits.  

Advent is partially about waiting…and that doesn’t mean not finishing or moving something along.  There are markers, goals, and lists that can be checked off in moving towards the development of an idea or project.  

Our passage in Matthew finds John, the cousin of Jesus, waiting for the appearance of the Messiah, of the Son of Man.  John was looking forward to the day that Jesus would make his presence known as the promised one.  Really, before John was even on the scene, doing his thing of proclaiming Kingdom come and baptizing, the whole of Israel was hoping for the Messiah, their savior to come on to the scene and what the Messiah would do.

Hundreds of years before, in the book of Isaiah, this was said:

11 A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
    and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
    the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
    the spirit of counsel and might,
    the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.

This passage goes on to say that this Messiah would have good news for the poor, the oppressed, and would give release to those held in bondage, in captivity.

John comes along and begins his ministry.  John practiced what he preaches.  He wasn’t afraid.  He wore clothes made of camel hair, which was unusual and probably not a fashionable thing to wear, for any period of history.  He also ate locusts.  That sounds kind of gross, but in Levitical law, that was an accepted thing to eat, they were plentiful apparently and high in protein and nutrients…yet, still, not something that was common.

It’s as if John was making a statement, I will live a simple life in order to make my message heard and simple as possible:  Repent, have a change of heart and mind from the way you’ve always thought and lived.  Be baptized to symbolize that the old way of living is dead, be raised into new life in the way that God intended…living simply in love with others, serving all, especially those on the margins.  John also did his ministry outside of the temple, outside of institutional norms and processes.

And, the people came in droves to hear him and be baptized.  It’s as if they knew that they needed change.  Yes, they had hopes for a Messiah, they knew that John was pointing them towards someone to come…yet, they were also ready for a change.  A change that would include everyone, that would be both personal and communal.

Even the Pharisees and Sadducees came to hear John and to even be baptized.  John has some harsh words for them, calling them a brood of vipers.  Which, in that context meant that they were like serpents, feeling the flame of fire and trying to get away from it.  As I’ve said before, God’s love extends to all, even those on top of a religious and political system that oppresses folks and isn’t good for them.  

Now, God does call those systems into question…and God does separate the wheat from the chaff as the author goes on to say.  That doesn’t necessarily mean that the wicked folks will burn and the righteous folks live.  It means that actions done out of selfishness, need for control, anxiety…actions born of out of sin, out of missing the mark that God intends, will pass away, be consumed, forgotten.  But, righteous actions, actions done out of loving others, honoring one another, listening and not being condescending, but lifting others up.  Actions of inclusion and genuine friendship, those will produce good fruit and multiply and lead to real life.  

The religious leaders of that time felt like they had a birthright to live as they chose because of their identity as Children of Abraham, as descendants…and that God promised to bless Abraham’s descendants.  But, John is saying that’s not the case because they’ve forgotten the most important thing…it’s not about what you inherit, it’s what you do with the giver of the inheritance, how well you love.  

God’s wrath, or God’s desire for things to be in right relationship can bring an ax to cut down an unhealthy tree, in order for something new to grow.  And, yes, there will always be something new, and good, and bearing fruit to grow.

Friends, hear this clearly, John is reminding us that Jesus is coming, that this Jesus will show us how to love and will love us no matter what.  This Jesus will bring wholeness and peace that is real.  This Jesus is worth the wait, and while we are waiting, it’s a good thing to prepare by confessing our vulnerabilities and the ways that we have missed the mark of God’s loving intentions…and to prepare our hearts and minds to be receptive to God’s voice through Jesus in our lives.  

Something in us may need to die in order for us to hear God’s voice.  That also applies to us as a community.  God’s voice is rising up in us, what do we need to clear out of the way to hear what God is saying to us?  We cannot rest in our identity as part of the UCC or even as Christians, we have to ask ourselves what does it mean to receive grace and recognize what it means to live in Christ, and into our collective lives together as a church, as a part of the body of Christ.  

As we do that, may we be reminded that this Jesus gives us courage and voice to ask the hard questions, first with ourselves, then with each other.  This Jesus, in his life and even now, because we are his body, reminds us through the taking of the elements of communion that we shared last week, we are bound together in him and that the Christ is speaking deeply in and through us through the power of God’s Spirit, God is present with us!

Aware.

Matthew 24:36-44

The Necessity for Watchfulness

36 “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son,[but only the Father. 37 For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39 and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40 Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41 Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 42 Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43 But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 44 Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

This has been simply an amazing week.  I needed a week like this.  I’m not sure what your week has been like, but my hope and prayer that as you come into this time, this morning, that you are able to be thankful…and that you are wide awake to the possibilities that surround you.

Our Gospel lesson this morning is from Matthew.  Jesus is preparing his disciples, his followers, and those that are listening to him, that the time is coming, and maybe even already upon us, that the Son of Man, would be present with them.

During Jesus’ day, there was much anxiety.  Israel was an occupied land by the Roman Empire.  They were on edge from the whims of the most powerful force in the world at the time.  What’s more, the Roman Empire had enriched and empowered narcissistic rulers in Israel.  Things were on edge.  Yet, within that, persons were sensing that things were changing.  Their hope was for the Son of Man, the messiah to return soon and be a political ruler that would make things right.

What Jesus was saying is so much more.  The Greek phrase in this passage for the visitation or coming of the Son of Man, is “Parousia”.  It translates as the coming of the King, but it also translates as the Presence of God.  This is a theme throughout scripture, that the Kingdom of God is coming and we’ve talked quite a bit in the past about the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Heaven are phrases that tell us that God’s Presence is with us, coming to us, in our midst and even in us.  

Now, Jesus wasn’t a political ruler…no, Jesus wasn’t interested in simply seeking earthly power or making things great for a few folks or through some sense of cultural collective ego that was looking for an external savior to drop from the heavens.  Jesus was about something much more, much deeper…Jesus was about bringing all of humanity together.  Not making everyone the same, actually celebrating our human diversity, while also bringing unity and a deep sense of communal love and connection.  Jesus, in his humanity, showed us how to love and how to work towards reconciliation and inclusion in his life.  After his death and resurrection, Jesus continues on to represent all of humanity.  Our passage this morning gave our spiritual fathers and mothers a couple of hundred years later a sense of our understanding of God’s Trinitarian nature.  In the first verse it talks about the Father knowing the time that the son of Man will be with us, that phrase denotes relationship between the father, and the son, and bears witness to that relational dynamic of three creating, redeeming, and sustaining through relationship and that Relationship’s flow in and through our lives.  

It also goes on to say that we don’t know when calamities or hardship fall upon us, we do live in anxious times.  Every election cycle that we have had in the past six or seven years has been evidence of that anxiety.  Which, is really more about a shift in culture than an election.  People are fearful in times of change and we can all become susceptible to extremes.  Regardless of who you voted for, and we all know this, there has been a deep sense of change happening all around us for years.  Yet, the fear of the unknown is real.  

The way of dealing with change in a productive way is the path of awareness.  We are called to be awake, to be sober to the realities around us and to be interested or curious without judgment as things unfold.  Discernment yes, but not judgment.   To cultivate a sense that God is coming to us and that God has come to us…that the Kingdom of God is here and we celebrate Advent, the coming of God’s physical presence through Jesus and God’s commitment to us throughout history in Jesus’ representation of humanity.  

There can be moments in our lives, whether through life events in our families or neighborhoods, or even national elections that remind us of the divisiveness and walls between us…but, we have also have moments like today that remind us that we are called to be together.

In this mornings passage, Noah is referenced.  He goes into the ark, into the storm, and after 40 days, the waters receded and Noah was reborn.  Life wasn’t perfect for Noah after this “rebirth”, he was messy, read the story.  But faith held him and he took a risk and he lived into a new era with a deeper sense of Presence.  

In our baptism, which is more than a one time symbolic event, we also arise out of the waters, symbolizing our old lives being shed and being awakened to the deeper reality of God’s Presence, of God’s Kingdom in our midst and in us, to each other, and to the world through Jesus’ actions on our behalf and the relational flow from our 3 in 1 God.  

May we stay awake and aware to the realities of this world and in our lives, that we do face dark times in this world, as well as our own lives, we do experience anxiety and grief…we are not alone…we can overcome that which divides us and move towards real friendship with God and each other.  Yes, it is hard work, this work of awareness, of living in God’s Kingdom presence following the model of Jesus as we work out the practices of reconciliation and inclusion….of allowing ourselves to emerge and to grow towards an ever deepening maturity.  

As we close this morning, there is a great quote from a Hispanic theologian, Miguel Diaz, “As beloved triune community, God ‘dances’ to birth human communities torn by suffering, hatred, and division.”

As we celebrate many of the things of this past week, and all the weeks that preceded it and will come after this moment, may we know that life is filled with paradox, but life is also amazing and wonderful and filled with possibility and imagination.  That anxiety and fear are no match for love and grace.  And, may we enter into the dance of God, and be awake even in the face of things we may not understand or predict.  

Friends, keep your eyes and ears open, stay awake, be aware, and live in faith even as the night comes..and dance in God’s Presence that has come, is coming, and is here now.  

Unexpected.

Luke 23:33-43 

33 When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesusthere with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. 34 Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing. And they cast lots to divide his clothing. 35 And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiahof God, his chosen 

one!” 36 The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, 37 and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” 38 There was also an inscription over him“This is the King of the Jews.” 

39 One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deridinghim and saying, “Are you not the Messiah?Save yourself and us!” 40 But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come intoyour kingdom.” 43 He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise

What does it mean to be saved? Has there ever been a time in your life where you’ve wanted to be saved? Maybe a social situation that you wanted to get out of? 

You’ve heard me say before, in my tradition growing up, I think I was saved at least 42 times!  Every time there was what we called an “altar call”, I would get caught up in the emotion of the moment and go forward.  I was so afraid of not being saved!  From what, at almost 55, I’m not exactly sure anymore.  Probably some sense of guilt, of loneliness, of whatever.  And, always looking for something to save that was distant, an external savior to take my problems away.  

Yet, over time, through so much of life, living into even the shadow sides of life…times of despair and even humiliation, something unexpected happened.  I began to see, and still seeing…although sometimes dimly, that God is bigger than some euphoric moment…a bigger God that doesn’t lay a guilt trip on you…a God so intimate that this God is already in and and around you in all things and all people….and a God who does not need to be appeased by a blood sacrifice.  That this Jesus does the unexpected, like forgiving someone on the cross while they are both dying…this guy did not earn forgiveness…it was given.

Our passage this morning from the gospel of Luke depicts humiliation as well as something unexpected. Only on a scale that I could never imagine. Crucifixion by the Romans was meant to be more about humiliation than pain even. The place of the Skulls in Jerusalem was picked by the Romans for crucifixion because it was visible for all to see. It is also referred to as Gahenna, a garbage dump that is outside of the city…Gahenna is often used as a reference to what we call “hell”.  To be nailed to a tree, lifted up, often for days, while folks walked by either throwing scorn and insults, or shielding their eyes away from the cruelty. 

Luke reminds us that the Romans and the Jewish authorities formed an alliance of convenience in order to maintain the system status quo. They viewed Jesus as a threat to their hold on power and to the way things have been that kept them on the top. They wanted to send a message. Even giving Jesus cheap wine with vinegar in it…not good wine fit for a king, but sour wine. It says that the Romans mocked Jesus. The term for mock in this passage denotes that the Romans thought of Jesus as less than human. 

Its been an interesting week, one full of unexpected conversations.  Bob Frey and I met and had a great conversation on what it means to be a church member at Fleming Road UCC and ways that we can enhance membership health.  How do we grow in unexpected ways, what imagination do we have, and what is a way that we can lay the groundwork to see what it means to us, and the culture around us, what it means to be member of this particular congregation.

Later in the week, at our weekly Bible study, in our opening devotion we talked about the story of Ezekiel calling forth dry bones to life.  It was an unexpected turn of events for Ezekiel, yet God reminded him that, with God, all things are possible.  Dave Kleinschmidt immediately thought of the song that the community choir sang the night before, an African spiritual about bones coming to life.  When all seems lost, there is a deeper faith at work un unexpected ways.  

It’s important to note that’s why the black church has been a powerful voice in unexpected ways. In our recent history, like Jesus, Black folks were often considered less than human.  They have understood humiliation, and they have persevered. In many unexpected ways, I feel like the Black church is the salvation of the American church. It is through their suffering and example of love in so many ways, that we, as a church universal, can have an avenue of understanding what it means in many ways to live in faith of a God with us.  And, in unexpected ways, the Black church continues to be a much needed prophetic voice to the Church Universal…as well as a source of friendship even in the midst of persecution and racism.  

We see that in the gospel lesson. Jesus is humiliated with the scandal of the cross. Yet, Jesus asks for God to forgive them, which is unexpected.  Usually, you’d think that a response would be one of anger or a desire for revenge, but Jesus greats violence with non-violence. They are telling Jesus, jeering at Jesus, to save himself. Yet, Jesus has incredible agency and resolve to absorb and to suffer…to take on death in a scandalous way in order to show us a better and deeper way of living. The people that killed Jesus were telling him to look for salvation like any other king would, by force or violence. Jesus is responding to violence with an inner strength of love and non-violence. Which, ultimately brings salvation to them, and to all of us, as we live into becoming people of love, resolve, and our truest selves. 

Jesus responds to persons as they begin to move towards humility in unexpected ways. It seems like we often look for a savior to simply come in and swoop us out of a situation, but, more often than not, we experience growth, humility, and salvation even in the midst of a tragedy by simply recognizing God’s Presence and embracing the moments we are in…and seeking a deeper undestanding… 

Jesus is crucified in between two thieves. One, wanting to be saved, but cannot recognize himself or his humiliation….the other, recognizes where he is, knows his humiliation, names it, and sees in Jesus a Presence, the presence of God. And, Jesus follows up on God’s promise of being with us by reassuring him that they would be together in paradise that day. 

Friends, Jesus remembers us, all of us. Jesus is with us in all of life’s ups and downs. May we own where we are, we may be looking around for someone or something else to save us…but, may we follow the example of this gospel lesson and look deep inside, as well as deep inside of others as we build genuine friendships, and recognize that God is with us and God knows what we are going through…God does not give up on us, God brings us forgiveness, brings us salvation, God brings us God’s self. 

Today is the Reign of Christ Sunday.  This is not simply a king, the Christ encompasses all people, things, creation…it is the universal presence filled with promise and relationship.  This Christ, in all things, shows up in the most unexpected ways.  May we live in these times looking for the unexpected.