No More

The church where I serve as Senior Pastor is just a few miles south of Stoneman Douglas High School, where yesterday seventeen people were murdered, many others injured, and countless more deeply traumatized.

I am heartbroken. Again. And I’m just so damn tired of being heartbroken. This is the eighth school shooting in the United States that resulted in death or injury in 2018 alone. We are only forty-eight days into the year, and already eighteen incidents have been reported of guns going off inside schools.

Yes, I am so very, very heartbroken.
We need to pray.
We need to seek God’s guidance and wisdom.

But it doesn’t — it can’t! — stop there.

We need to fight hate (taking actions that confront hate) and live love (taking actions that demonstrate God’s love). We must take what we say with our lips and believe in our hearts… and DO something with it!

So… what action am I taking this day after February 14 2018, after Ash Wednesday, after Valentine’s Day, after the shooting at Stoneman Douglas? I am letting my government’s leaders know where I stand. It’s one thing I can do, right now, as I also look for more ways to help.

You can, too.
Let your voice be heard.

Write to your government leaders

#fighthate #livelove

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Dreaming of Peace

[Transcript of a sermon delivered at Plantation UMC on February 11, 2018.]

A Dream Unfinished

Peace.

Up there with a cure for cancer and winning the lottery, it is one of the things people pray for the most.

Peace for our world. Peace for our country. Peace for our communities. Peace for our families. Peace for our spirits.

And, at the very same time, it is one of the things that seems most distant from our grasp. Unattainable. Impossible. Peace.

We know — we know — what it should look like: a world where no one looks down the end of a gunbarrel, knowing that life is about to end; a world where no one faces starvation; where no one is abused by those who should love them. A world where all people are known, cared for, valued.

There are nights when I, quite literally, dream of peace. In the space between wakings, my imagination, my subconscious, my longings, take me to a vision of a world where all is right, where we are all tender and caring and kind. Where sin is no more and where peace reigns.

And that is why it is so difficult and painful for me to wake up on those mornings, when I’ve dreamed of something so beautiful, and to stumble out into the living room to turn on the television. Because in that half-hour of news I watch as I wake up, sipping my morning tea, I see visions of a world where peace does not reign, where so much seems wrong; where hatred overflows into the streets and seeps into the homes; where we are cynical and uncaring and even cruel.

And that is why it is difficult and painful for me to walk out into our world, knowing that the world around us is not in reality that dream world of peace. It is not, in reality, what God desires for us.

And that breaks my heart.

We see stories of anger and abuse and alienation, division and discord, vilification and violence. We watch people whom God created and loves doing great harm to people whom God created and loves. All people for whom Jesus died.

And that — routinely now it seems — breaks my heart.

But that is why it is not difficult and painful for me to walk into this place, this family of faith, where I see in you a glimpse of that dream world of peace, right here on earth. Not just in the varied hues of your skin, or the melodies of your accents, but in your tenderness toward each other, in your caring, in your kindness. I see in you a glimpse of that dream world of peace as together you strive to understand God better, learning from each other, being patient with each other, spurring each other on, encouraging each other.

I see in you a glimpse of that dream of peace.

And that is why it is difficult and painful for me
to realize just how fragile
what you have built here really could be.

“Blessed are the peacemakers,” Jesus said to a people who had gathered on a hillside to hear him speak. “Blessed are the peacemakers.”

From two Greek words: eirēnē (peace) and poieó (to make). Eirēnē. Peace. But not just an absence of war, of bloodshed, of conflict. Eirēnē. Peace. Meaning wholeness. When all the essential parts are pulled to work together. When what was so deeply divided is brought together in love. When brokenness is healed. Peacemaker. Eirēnē. And poieó: to make, to construct. Poieó: to act, to cause, to commit, to do.

Jesus calls us to be
makers of completeness.
Constructors of wholeness.
Doers of peace.

In our scripture reading today, the psalmist asks this question in verse 12: “Does anyone want to live a life that is long and prosperous?” Now, that’s a question with a pretty obvious answer, right? If I were to ask you this morning, “Does anyone here want to live a life that is long and prosperous,” how many of you would raise your hands? Seriously, would any of you not raise your hands? A life that is long and prosperous? Sign me up!

The Hebrew word translated as “prosperous” is tov. If you’ve ever heard someone being congratulated on a significant life event by the phrase “Mazel tov!” it literally means “good fortune.” Tov means beautiful, the best. It means goodness in all its fullness and variety.

And then, as a way of living that prosperous life, we hear the command in verse 14: “Turn away from evil and do good. Search for peace, and work to maintain it.” That word for peace in Hebrew — shalom — has the same rich meaning as eirēnē in Greek: the unfinished made complete, the divided made whole.

And I see in you a glimpse of that dream of goodness and peace.

Because… right here, in this sanctuary we have people with different perspectives, different deeply-held views on just about every subject imaginable. All worshipping together, learning together, serving together.

Sitting here with you today are Republicans and Democrats, Independents and Libertarians, so many flavors of political party. You may be sitting next to someone who has voted in every election since they were first eligible, or someone who hasn’t ever registered to vote.

We are diverse, not only in politics, not only in ethnicity, but in theology, as well. We have brothers and sisters in faith here who are theologically conservative, theologically liberal, theologically right-in-the-middle, theologically just not sure and pretty undecided.

We have, in this family of faith,
people who feel deeply, strongly
about social issues facing our world today,

and the conclusions to which they have come
through study and prayer and thought,
have led them to hold positions

which might well be very different
from the conclusions to which you have come
through study and prayer and thought.

But I have witnessed firsthand the ability of people in this family of faith to have a real, honest conversation about difficult, challenging subjects — with respect and care and grace.

Which is beautiful and amazing.
As you are beautiful and amazing.

But that is, again, why it is difficult and painful for me to realize just how fragile what you have built here really could be.

Because peace? It isn’t something that occurs naturally in our world, in our country, our communities, our families… or in our church. It’s something that we have to want, to fight for, to work for.

Because peace? It can be shattered in an instant.

There are many nights when I wake up in the middle of the night in a panic, thinking of the challenges that lay ahead for us as a church. And I’ve thought how ironic it is that the pronunciation of that Greek word for peace — eirēnē — sounds so much like our English word “irony.”

Because we talk about that peace — that shalom, that eirēnē, that wholeness, that completeness — in the midst of the reality of the world that is anything but.

And we live in a world that is pressuring us to join in the brokenness. Now hear me: I’m not talking about the world pressuring us to enter into the brokenness to offer healing and hope. We’re called to do that.

I’m talking about the pressure to become broken ourselves. To break this family of faith.

And it could happen so frighteningly easily. It could take one scandal. One dispute. One act of violence. One controversy. And that glimpse of a world of peace we see here, it could vanish.

Here’s just one example. And it’s one of the things — not the only thing, mind you, but one of the things — that wake me up in the middle of the night. By now you may have heard about the Methodist Church’s “Commission on a Way Forward.” At the 2016 General Conference (the worldwide gathering of UMC leaders), this Commission was created to examine what the Book of Discipline (our church law book) says about human sexuality and to make a recommendation for any possible revisions.

This Commission’s discussions have already led to news headlines like: “Schism threat has some churches caught in middle” or “Will the Methodists Split Over Homosexuality?” or “Could LGBT debate split Methodists?”

And here’s the thing. No matter what the Commission eventually recommends, no matter what the called General Conference next year decides to do, no matter what, this issue… it’s coming. It’s here already.

I hadn’t actually intended to talk about this today. Originally, my sermon was going to go in a very different direction. But, right here and right now, I can see the potentiality for cracks forming in the peace. And because I love you all so very much, I can’t not address it.

This Thursday in our weekly E-News email blast, we included a notice about a gathering initiated by the Florida Conference, called “A Point of View Conversation.” It’s also in the bulletin this morning. I didn’t know about this gathering until I received an email about it last week, which was sent to all the District’s pastors. We were asked to let our congregations that it was being offered, as a place to talk about the Commission on the Way Forward.

Almost immediately, I started hearing back.

Some members of our family of faith — who I love and respect — shared with me their concerns that the church was heading in the direction of condoning sin, and not living out the truth of the gospel.

Other members — who I love and respect — shared with me their concerns that the church was heading in the direction of excluding and harming people, and not living out the truth of the gospel.

I have spoken to people in our congregation who feel strongly, passionately about this issue. On both sides. People who love God, who love the people around them, who are committed to following Christ, to growing in faith, to serving in love… and who believe the exact opposite of someone who might be sitting right near them.

And that is why it is painful for me to realize just how fragile what we have built here really is.

Because “searching for peace and working to maintain it”? It is not easy. And we have to want it. And we have to believe that it is possible.

With that in mind I’m going to admit something to you that may make you uncomfortable, or perhaps even mad. There are times when I am super tempted to give up, to throw in the towel.

Times when I look at all that is happening in our world, when I look at the challenges facing the church, and I think, “I can’t do it. What difference can I possibly make?” I wonder, “How are we going to walk through this together, with the division and brokenness we’re already seeing in our denomination?”

Although I love what I do, and so love where I do it. Although I love you all, although I love you and your incredible hearts, I still occasionally feel like giving up.

I do.

Then at those lowest of moments, I hear a small voice in my head. No, not God’s still, small voice. It’s the voice of a little girl on YouTube named Ryan Ramirez…

Don’t stop! Don’t give up! That is what being a peace-maker — an eirēnē-maker, a shalom-maker — means. Never stopping. Never giving up.

“Search for peace and work to maintain it,” the psalmist tells us. It is not easy. And we have to want it. And I DO believe that it is possible. Even in the midst of the toughest, most painful, most divisive issues. And we cannot give up.

If you hear nothing else from what I’ve said here this morning, please here this: peace — completeness, wholeness, healing — is possible. It is possible because we have a God who loves us, and who desires peace for us.

The author of Psalm 34 starts out with these words: I will praise the Lord at all times. I will constantly speak his praises. I will boast only in the Lord; let all who are helpless take heart. Come, let us tell of the Lord’s greatness; let us exalt his name together. I prayed to the Lord, and he answered me. He freed me from all my fears. Those who look to him for help will be radiant with joy; no shadow of shame will darken their faces.

Facing the challenges in our world on our own, we will fail. Working for peace purely relying on our own strength, our own wisdom, our own courage, we will fail. We can have a vision of peace, we can have the strength to struggle, to cry, to learn, to stretch ourselves, because of God’s promise to work with us.

“I prayed to the Lord, and he answered me. He freed me from all my fears. Those who look to him for help will be radiant with joy; no shadow of shame will darken their faces.”

I am dreaming of peace, praying for peace — for our world, our country, our community, our families, our church home.

And that is exactly why we are starting this Fight Hate Live Love initiative just three days from now. On Wednesday we begin our season of Lent — the 40 days leading up to Easter — a time of introspection, contemplation, and repentance. It’s a time for taking a deep, hard look at ourselves, at our lives, at our world … and coming to terms with where we’re broken.

And many of you have already committed to praying for God to guide us through these turbulent times, to show us the way to go, to grant us God’s strength, God’s wisdom, God’s courage.

“Blessed are the peacemakers”, Jesus said. Blessed are those who do the hard, long, intensive, heart-rending work of reaching into the brokenness, and seeking God’s peace in the midst of it all.

Don’t stop. Don’t give up.
Don’t stop seeking God’s will.
Don’t give up on what God has planned.

I see in you a glimpse of that beautiful world of wholeness, of peace.
And that is why I am here this morning.
And that is why I have hope.
And I thank you for that.

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A Dream Unfinished

Esther 4:12-17 (New Living Translation)
So Hathach gave Esther’s message to Mordecai. Mordecai sent this reply to Esther: “Don’t think for a moment that because you’re in the palace you will escape when all other Jews are killed. If you keep quiet at a time like this, deliverance and relief for the Jews will arise from some other place, but you and your relatives will die. Who knows if perhaps you were made queen for just such a time as this?” Then Esther sent this reply to Mordecai: “Go and gather together all the Jews of Susa and fast for me. Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. My maids and I will do the same. And then, though it is against the law, I will go in to see the king. If I must die, I must die.” So Mordecai went away and did everything as Esther had ordered him.

A Dream Unfinished

“I say to you today, my friends, though, even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up, live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’”

Standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC on August 28, 1963, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke those words in his speech at the “March on Washington.” That was the centennial year of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, when President Lincoln had signed the document into law, declaring the end of slavery in the United States of America. On a hot summer day, one hundred years later, over a quarter of a million people came to the nation’s capital to protest segregation and racial discrimination.

That march and Dr. King’s powerful speech were powerful catalysts for the signing of the Civil Rights Acts less than a year later, in July 1964. Title VII of that Act, made it illegal — specifically in employment practices — to discriminate because of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.

This day in January 2018,
I, too, have a dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up,
live out the true meaning of its creed:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident,
that all men are created equal.”

Equal, meaning “considered to be the same as another in status or in quality.”

A dream of equality.

Equal, regardless of the color of our skin,
whether we are black or white or brown or pale or dark.
Equal, regardless of our gender, whether we are male or female.
Equal, regardless of where or whether we choose to worship.
Equal, regardless of who we love.
Equal, regardless of our physical abilities or disabilities.
Equal, regardless of our intellectual strength or weakness.
Equal, regardless of the contents of our bank account.
Equal, regardless of our age.
Equal, regardless of what nation we have come from.

It is,
I firmly believe,
a dream that is within our reach.
But we have to be willing to reach out for it.

There is in our Bible a fairly short book — just ten chapters long — about a young woman. Born into a Jewish family, she had been given the Hebrew name Hadassah, but as an exile in Persia, she was also given a Persian name: Esther.

Esther caught the eye of the Persian King’s servants when he was searching for a new wife. Installed in the palace, she eventually becomes queen.

Time passes, and a politician named Haman is promoted through the ranks, and becomes the highest official in the land, next to the King himself. Haman convinces the King to allow an edict ordering the destruction of all the Jewish people living in Persia.

You would think that Esther, living right there in the palace, would be one of the first to know about this edict, but she is sheltered there, but she has no idea what is happening in the city around her — fear and the grief. The first she hears of it is when her servants report to her that her Uncle Mordecai is making a scene, tearing his clothing, putting ashes on his head, and crying and moaning at the gate between the city and the palace.

Esther doesn’t understand what is happening, so she sends her servants back to Mordecai with fresh, clean clothing. Which he refuses in his grief. Esther then sends a trusted servant, Hathach, to find out what is happening. Mordecai’s reply through Hathach:

“Don’t think for a moment that because you’re in the palace you will escape when all other Jews are killed. If you keep quiet at a time like this, deliverance and relief for the Jews will arise from some other place, but you and your relatives will die. Who knows if perhaps you were made queen for just such a time as this?”

Mordecai forces his niece to listen to the difficult truth: this problem, this horrible, evil threat, it wasn’t just going to go away on its own. And Esther was uniquely placed to make a difference. If she was willing to take the risk.

And, make no mistake, it was a risk for her. Even as the queen, she could not simply walk into the King’s presence — she had to be invited. Leaving the safety of her luxurious chambers, and entering the King’s rooms uninvited meant, quite literally, risking her life. If he wasn’t happy to see her, she could end up being killed.

Knowing this, and knowing that she had to do at least try, she sends Hathach back to Mordecai with this reply: “Go and gather together all the Jews of Susa and fast for me. Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. My maids and I will do the same. And then, though it is against the law, I will go in to see the king. If I must die, I must die.”

There are four things that Esther does in this story that can help us to respond to the evils in our own world. Esther…
(1) Listens to the difficult truth
(2) Recognizes that it will not be easy or comfortable to respond
(3) Goes to God for help
(4) Uses what influence she has

First: Esther listened to the difficult truth.

It would have been personally easier for Esther to just hide out in her palace suite, closing her ears to the cries of the people around her.

It would be easier for us to do so, as well.

Back in September, I flew up to New York to spend time with my Father after his open heart surgery. On that flight, I sat next to a man. Let’s call him Bill.

Bill had the aisle seat, and I was in the middle. Through the miracle of modern technology, once we were at cruising altitude, I was able to open up my laptop to begin working on my church’s website. Bill was looking over my shoulder, as I updated the site’s landing page, and he saw the picture in the header.

PlantationUMC

Bill asked, “What kind of church is that?”
I answered, “A wonderful church!”

I thought — I really thought — that the conversation was going to go in the direction of what a beautiful sight it was, people from many ethnicities, many cultures, worshipping and working together.

“Hmmph,” Bill said with evident disgust,
“You’ve got people of different colors in there.”

Over the next one and a half hours (did I mention I was in the middle seat?), Bill talked at me, telling me how Black people were constantly exaggerating both the difficulties they face and the historical abuse they had experienced, “making mountains out of molehills.”

Then Bill asked my connection to the church. When he learned I was the senior pastor, he threw his head back and exclaimed:

“Oh man, don’t even get me started on uppity women feminists!”

[feel free to insert here a mental picture of me repeatedly banging my forehead on the airline seat in front of me]

I tried — I really did try — in that seemingly interminable 1-1/2 hours to calmly and lovingly talk with Bill about the challenges faced by people I know and love, who deal with discrimination and prejudice as a regular occurrence.

But Bill wasn’t having any of it.
He wasn’t interested in listening.
He certainly wasn’t interested in understanding.

You see, it is so very, very easy for us to close our ears to the cries of those who are struggling around us. In our community. In our world.

It would be easier. But we cannot do it.

One of the things that have impressed me the most about the resurgence of the “Me Too” movement is the reaction from so many men: “I Believe.” This movement, which Tarana Burke began in 2006 to raise awareness of abuse experienced by women of color, took off this year as women posted online about their struggles.

And people have responded by… listening.
And believing.
And seeking to understand.

One of the most important things that we can do is simply listening, and learning, as we seek to understand the difficult truth about what people are experiencing all around us. What people we know are experiencing. What we may be experiencing.

We can listen to and seek to understand the difficult truth of those who are hurting. That is what Esther did.

Second: Esther recognized that confronting that difficult truth would not be easy or comfortable.

That’s true for us, as well. It is easier to cluck our tongues at the anger and division as we watch the news, as we check our Twitter feed and update our Facebook pages. It’s easier to do that than to struggle with the discomfort of doing something about it.
It’s easier to say that someone ought to do something about it. Someone with more authority, with more power, with more time and energy and strength and influence. Someone, basically, other than us.

Challenging the status quo is not easy. It’s hard. And that is why we need to take the third step…

Third: Esther went to God for help.

Esther is one of the few books in our Bible that doesn’t overtly talk about God’s influence in the events recorded. Yet when she faces this difficult challenge, she immediately makes the decision to go into an intensive time of fasting and prayer. And she doesn’t just do this on her own. She reaches out to her community, and asks them all to join with her in preparing.

There is power in joining together as a community of faith to pray together, to fast together, begging God for guidance and direction as we seek to address the evils in our world.

Fourth: Esther used what influence she had.

Just about two years ago, I received the call that I would be coming to Plantation United Methodist Church as the senior pastor. I was so excited! Not just because I was getting out of the miserable cold of the Washington DC winter (I’m such a wimp), but because I already knew that the Plantation family of faith was a glimpse of the Kingdom of God.

And, thanks be to God,
the Christian church is meant to offer such a glimpse.

The Christian family
across our communities,
across the United States,
around the world
is a glimpse of the Kingdom of God.

We worship God:
people of different ethnicities,
different colors,
from different countries.

We worship God:
the owner of the million-dollar house
and the man who beds down under the bridge.

We worship God:
the grade school education and the PhD;
the employed, the underemployed, the unemployed.

We worship God:
black and white,
male and female,
gay and straight,
rich and poor,
young and old.

All around our community, around our country, around our world,
the Christian family is meant to be a witness
of love and grace and hope!

We are meant to use our influence
to bring not hurt, but healing
to offer not judgment, but redemption
to create not division, but peace.

I have ideas about how we can use our influence to make a difference. But I don’t want to press my ideas on you. I want to know your ideas. I want to know how God is calling you, calling us together, to do our part to make the dream a reality.

And we do that by:
(1) Listening to the difficult truth of those who are hurting
(2) Recognizing that confronting that truth will not be easy or comfortable
(3) Going to God for help and guidance
(4) Using what influence we have — our unique witness to be a catalyst for change

I do have a dream, for the church all around the world.

I have a dream that the church would rise up, and live out the promise we find in Galatians, chapter 3: “For you are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. And all who have been united with Christ in baptism have put on Christ, like putting on new clothes. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus” (26-28).

No matter the color of your skin, no matter your gender, no matter your sexuality, no matter your origins, no matter your abilities, your resources, no matter what: you — YOU — are a child of God. You belong to Jesus. You are beloved by Jesus.

I have a dream that this truth would be known by all people.
And that all people would see in the people around them,
not strangers to be feared,
but brothers and sisters yet unmet.

And, who knows if perhaps we have been brought here by God for just such a time as this?

I have a dream.
And I believe that dream is within our reach…
if we are but willing to reach out for it.

 

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Down to Earth Christmas

Text from the Christmas Eve message at Plantation UMC.

Down To Earth_long

I don’t remember how young I was the first time I went to a Christmas Eve service. Probably 7 or 8 years old. My family didn’t attend church, but on Christmas my Uncle Kevin would visit us, and he’d take me with him to the Catholic church in town. I loved that service. First of all, let’s be honest, as a kid I loved it because I got to stay up really late for Midnight Mass!

But also I loved the smell of the church, kind of a woodsy, smoky scent from the incense that was burned. I loved the candles and the organ and the way the priests just seemed to float down the aisle in their long robes as they processed in and out. I loved the little kneeling rail in the pews, and figuring out when to stand, kneel, or sit during the service. I loved the music and the songs. And I loved being there with my Uncle, who smelled like pipe smoke and soap.

I attended that Christmas Eve service every year with him and loved it. But I have to tell you, I can’t recall one single sermon that was preached. Not one!

And that gives me really high hopes
for what you’ll remember about my sermon tonight!

In my late teenage years, I started to notice that some of the people who attended that Christmas Eve service — all dressed up and pretty and smiling — were the same people I ran into during the rest of the year.

The mean man who lived across from the town library, who would actually throw stuff at us if we took the short cut across his back lawn.

The lady I had once seen beating her dog in the grocery store parking lot.

Other kids I went to school with who cheated on tests, or who cheated on their boyfriends.

And I started thinking that the whole thing was less magical than I had thought. I started thinking that maybe everyone there was faking the whole “I’m-so-nice-and-I-go-to-church” thing.

Add to that, that everyone around me seemed to know all the songs. Not just all the songs, but all the verses to all the songs. I couldn’t always figure out which book we were in, let alone what page. I didn’t want to sit in an uncomfortable pew listening to a minister preach a sermon that I wasn’t going to remember anyway.

So why ruin a perfectly good Christmas Eve by going to church?

After all, I just really wasn’t that interested in church. Eventually, I became pretty antagonistic toward it. I wanted nothing to do with it. And the whole Jesus came into our world as a tiny baby thing? That just seemed such an easy way to make faith controllable. There is nothing more portable, more maneuverable, I thought, than a baby. Pick it up, dress it however you like, put it down wherever. I mean, what is more cute and cuddly and non-threatening than a baby?

A God who becomes a baby? I thought that Christmas was all about a faith that puts you in charge.

And I was not interested.

Fast forward about ten years. I was working in a job I seriously disliked, unsure of what my future held, and wrestling constantly with what exactly my purpose on this earth was.

After one horrific week at work, I was completely disgusted, and heading home on the dark country road. Off to the right I could something bright on the side of the road. I slowed down as I approached, and realized it was the stained glass window of a church I had driven by hundreds of times before, but never paid attention to.

After all, I was not interested.

That stained glass window shining in the night was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. And I could not get it out of my mind. After several weeks, I decided that I needed to see it again. From the inside. Even though I was still not interested.

Long story short, I met Jesus there, in that little country church.

Not in the words of the preacher
(though I really wish I could say that!),
not in the music
or in the prayers.

I met Jesus in the people.
I met Jesus through their love.

These were people who didn’t pretend to have it all together. People who were flawed, and who were honest about their mistakes. They didn’t judge me, look down on me, or offer me unwanted advice. They just loved me.

And then, finally, it hit me. The Divine coming down to earth as a baby on Christmas wasn’t about giving us a controllable faith.

No.
It was about
LOVE.

If you remember nothing else from this sermon tonight — and from my experience, that’s entirely likely — this is what I would love for you to hear:

Because of God’s love for us,
God came quietly,
in the form of a newborn
in a dirty barn
in a backwater town.

Because of love.

Think about that for a moment. I mean really think about it. There is nothing more vulnerable than a newborn baby. Completely dependent, utterly defenseless.

When you love, really love, you put yourself at the mercy of the one you love. The God who created everything that is, powerful beyond all imagining, loved us enough to be put into our hands. To be vulnerable.

Tonight we remember that this baby whose birth we celebrate, he came for a reason. He came to teach, to heal, to challenge, to die for us, to give us the promise of heaven. Jesus came to love. He came to give of himself so fully in love, that he — through whom the Heavens and Earth were made — he made himself completely and utterly vulnerable in his love. And that love would eventually take him all the way to the cross. For us.

When I realized this, suddenly I was interested.
Really, really interested.

Because of love.

Not the kind of love defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “strong affection for another.” (Boooring!!)

It’s a love that is best defined
by the Greek word for love
used throughout the New Testament:

ἀγάπη
agape

Agape (ah-GAH-peh) is a powerful, life-transforming love. It is a love that is consciously chosen, a love of the will as much as of the heart. It is a love that is all-encompassing and self-giving. It’s the kind of love that God offers to us in Christmas.

I’ve met and talked with some of you tonight. And you look lovely and put-together and happy in your Christmas Eve outfits. You’re beautiful!

But I also know that you’re not perfect. You make mistakes. You have regrets. You mess up every day — you may have messed up on your way here tonight.

Or, maybe I’m wrong, and you are perfect!
Maybe the pastor preaching to you tonight
is the only one who’s not perfect.

(Which is a super depressing thought.)

But in all likelihood, you are like me. Some days are great and you feel on top of the world, and others are, well, maybe not quite so stellar. I know this because you’re a human being, living in a messed-up world, torn in a million different directions every day, just trying to make your way. Just like all the other beautiful people in this room tonight.

So, remember I said that there was just one thing that I wanted you to take away from the sermon tonight, that God came down to earth on Christmas because of love? Did you remember that one thing?

Well, I’ve changed my mind. There are actually TWO things I want you to remember tonight! The other is this:

Jesus came down to earth to be born in a stable surrounded by animals, to become vulnerable and to give of himself so fully, not just because God loves us.

God did it because God loves you.

You. Really. You! All this, because God loves each of you, so much, that he came down to earth on Christmas. And that is why we are here tonight.

Our bishop in Florida is a brilliant guy named Ken Carter, and he gets the truth of all that. The other day he posted on Facebook a poem he had written. I don’t usually read poetry on Facebook, because, well, most of it is just awful. But he titled it “A Christmas Eve Prayer for Those Who Don’t Go To Church.” With that title, of course I had to read it! I’d like to share it with you tonight…

____________

A Christmas Eve Prayer for Those Who Don’t Go To Church

I don’t go to church very often, Lord.
I don’t go at all…well, I am here at Christmas.
I’m home then.  I feel drawn to it.
I like the Christmas Eve service.
The coolness of the air,
the aroma of the candles,
the familiarity of gathering with strangers.
I feel like a kid again.
It’s surreal.

I know it’s common to make fun of people like me.
What can I say?  I’ve drifted…
But something pulls me back
Are You speaking to me?

I connect with something in the sermon, sometimes,
but mostly it’s the music and the candles.
What is it about the candles?
Darkness and light.
Light and darkness.

I know about light and darkness.  I live in both.
I’ve got some of both in me.
And yet there is an impulse,
a movement to be closer to the light.
And so the flame of a stranger touches mine
and I sing the chorus,

“Son of God, love’s pure light
Radiant beams from thy holy face…”

That is the light, the face, the life I seek,
and in this moment, I am touching it.
And then a voice reminds me,
in the echo of ancient words
that are always needed,

“the light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness did not overcome it.”

I am speaking to you, Lord,
but on this night, from every conceivable direction,
you are speaking to me.

And I am listening.

____________

I have to say that my life began to change  in that little country church with the gorgeous stained glass window, when I began to listen, when I put aside my cynicism, and when I finally allowed myself to become interested.

And so my Christmas Eve prayer for us — for all of us here, for you and for me — is that we would become interested in finding out more about this God who loves us so much.

This God
who came down to earth
on that first Christmas
out of LOVE…

FOR YOU!

 

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A Down to Earth Trust

Isaiah 40:6-11 (New Living Translation)
A voice said, “Shout!” I asked, “What should I shout?” “Shout that people are like the grass. Their beauty fades as quickly as the flowers in a field. The grass withers and the flowers fade beneath the breath of the Lord. And so it is with people. The grass withers and the flowers fade, but the word of our God stands forever.” O Zion, messenger of good news, shout from the mountaintops! Shout it louder, O Jerusalem. Shout, and do not be afraid. Tell the towns of Judah, “Your God is coming!” Yes, the Sovereign Lord is coming in power. He will rule with a powerful arm. See, he brings his reward with him as he comes. He will feed his flock like a shepherd. He will carry the lambs in his arms, holding them close to his heart. He will gently lead the mother sheep with their young.

Down To Earth_long

He will feed his flock like a shepherd.
He will carry the lambs in his arms,
holding them close to his heart.

It’s such a beautiful, comforting image. God lifting us up like lambs, holding us close and keeping us safe. It’s an image immortalized in Psalm 23, one of our scriptures that we often turn to in times of struggle: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” God as our gentle, loving, compassionate Shepherd.

It’s an image that is near and dear to my heart.

In the three years Chuck and I lived in the Washington DC area, one of my favorite places to visit was the National Cathedral. I know: all those great places to visit in DC, and I kept going back to a cathedral. What can I say? I’m a church nerd.

It’s a magnificent building. It looks like an ancient European cathedral, with all its spires, gargoyles, and stained glass windows. But it’s a relatively young building. The foundation stone was laid in 1907. In addition to the main worship space, there are several chapels throughout the building. I’ve enjoyed exploring them all. But my favorite, by far, is a little, tiny, off-the-beaten-path chapel.

Good Shepherd Chapel

It’s called “The Good Shepherd Chapel.” Just two short pews in a small, closet-like room. Not a place for a claustrophobic worshipper. If you stretched out your arms, you could almost — almost — touch either side. The walls are made of a light stone, which feel cool to the touch, even in the hot DC summer months. It is a lovely, peaceful place to pray.

But my favorite part of the chapel is the carving above the small altar: Jesus, lovingly cradling a lamb in his arms. Jesus, The Good Shepherd.

In the years since the chapel was opened, many people have found comfort in that image. You can tell this, because of the coloring of the sculpture’s hands. As hundreds, thousands of people have laid their hands on the stone, the oil from their hands has burnished the light stone until it looks almost alive.

Lamb

You might also have noticed that the head and ear of the lamb are darker, as well. Many people have touched this little lamb that so snuggly lies in its shepherd’s arms, knowing it is safe and loved. A beautiful image of perfect trust.

Psalm 23: The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside the still waters. He restores my soul; He leads me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff they comfort me.

Psalm goes on, but I want to stop there: Your rod and Your staff they comfort me.

That word “comfort” in Hebrew is nacham: to comfort, to console. The root of the word means to sigh, to breathe strongly. It’s all that we’ve just talked about, as if falling back into the arms of our Good Shepherd, and breathing out in relief. And that image is beautiful and real and true. Thanks be to God!

Your rod and Your staff they comfort me. A strange image, wouldn’t you agree? The rod, the staff, they were tools of the trade for a shepherd. A staff would be used to guide the sheep, to keep them in line. The curved part could be used to rescue, to lift out a sheep in danger from a pit. Or it could be used to not so gently encourage a wandering sheep to get headed in the right direction again.

The rod and the staff, they’re needed because sheep wander. They start chewing away on the grass, they get distracted by something, and they’re off, heading to places they shouldn’t be going. They need to be guided onto the right path, kept safe and protected.

That said… one of the beauties of Hebrew is that many words have layers of meanings. Nacham means comfort, but it also means to change one’s mind, to be sorry, to repent.

Your rod and Your staff
they change my mind,
they cause me to repent.

When we trust in God, when we trust deeply in God’s love, God’s compassion, it doesn’t just give us comfort. It changes us. It’s meant to change us!

Because trust — true trust — results in obedience. It results in a submission to, a dependence upon the Good Shepherd to guide us, and a willingness to head in the direction that the Shepherd desires us to go.

Even if it’s not a direction that we ourselves would have chosen.

We see that so clearly in the story of Mary’s encounter with the angel in Luke’s gospel. We’re told that the angel Gabriel came down to earth, and gave Mary astounding news: she was to bear a child. A special child, conceived by the Holy Spirit, the Son of God.

In response to this mind-boggling proclamation, Mary simply replies: “I am the Lord’s servant. May everything you have said about me come true.”

What trust! Mary, young, unmarried, from a poor town, unconnected to the power structure of the time, she is to bear the Son of God.

Here’s the thing,
and I believe this strongly.
Mary could have said no.

She could have heard the angel’s words, considered the implications, thought about the incredible difficulties that would lay ahead for her, evaluated how people would react to her pregnancy (her fiancé, her parents, her friends, her community) … Mary could have thought about all of this, and she could have said no.

And when Joseph, Mary’s fiancé, was told by an angel in a dream that Mary’s baby was to be the Son of God, Joseph could have woken up, and considered the implications, though about the incredible difficulties that lay ahead for him, evaluated how he would be ridiculed by his friends, ostracized by his family and community … and Joseph could have said no.

You see, God doesn’t force obedience from us. Just as a sheep, if it really wanted to avoid its shepherd’s guiding staff, it could run full tilt away, so we can choose to avoid God’s guidance, heading off on our own. But if we do, we miss out on the power and joy of what God desires to do through and in our lives!

Mary could have said no. She could have continued in Nazareth of Galilee, married Joseph, and lived a normal life.

Joseph could have said no. He could have continued his life, married Mary, and lived a normal life.

But Mary and Joseph said yes. They chose obedience. They chose to live out their trust in the God who created and loved them. They chose to follow God’s guidance, moving their life together in a direction they had never anticipated.

And because of their trust in God, in just one week from now, we will again celebrate how God entered into our world in the form of a tiny, perfect little child.

That little child who grew up to be the Good Shepherd.

“I am the good shepherd,” Jesus says in John 10:11. “The good shepherd sacrifices his life for the sheep.”

That little child who grew up, and who demonstrated what trust and obedience look like, as he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane before he was arrested, and beaten, and killed. He prayed: “Father, if you are willing, please take this cup of suffering away from me. Yet I want your will to be done, not mine.”

Trust in the God who loves us.
Obedience to the God who guides us.

Mary and Joseph could have said no. But they so deeply trusted in the infinite, good wisdom of God, that they was willing to follow God’s direction, wherever it might lead. And because of their trust, we are here today!

Christmas is a time of great joy. It’s also a time for us to re-evaluate how it is that we are living out the trust that we have placed in God.

So, a question: this Christmas season, how are our lives — yours and mine — reflecting our trust in God? What is God calling you to do in obedience, that may feel difficult or just too much?

Perhaps our Good Shepherd has been nudging you to forgive someone who has wronged you. To work hard for healing in your marriage or in your family. To speak a word of healing and peace into a broken relationship.

Perhaps our Good Shepherd has been prodding you to spend less money on stuff, and to invest in what really matters to God — to care for the hurting, seek out the lost, feed the hungry, give shelter to the homeless, advocate for the powerless — to use your influence and strength to reach out in God’s love.

Perhaps our Good Shepherd has been trying to pull you out of a threatening situation: substance abuse, gambling, addiction, an abusive relationship, a spirit-damaging job. To rescue you from a dangerous path, heading in a direction that will do you harm.

Perhaps our Good Shepherd is asking you to lead a class at church, to join a small group, to seek out a group of friends to hold you accountable in love, or, maybe, even nudging you to explore becoming a pastor.

Perhaps our Good Shepherd is calling you to share your faith with someone you know, to offer them guidance and comfort and hope. Perhaps just simply to invite someone to come with you to a Christmas Eve service.

“O Zion,” our Old Testament scripture read, “messenger of good news, shout from the mountaintops! Shout it louder, O Jerusalem. Shout, and do not be afraid. Tell the towns of Judah, “Your God is coming!”

Say “Yes!” to God this Christmas.
Let your life shout out the truth
that you trust deeply in a God
of love and grace and guidance.

This beautiful season of faith,
may our words and our actions
beautifully and boldly
SHOUT the Good News of Christmas:

that the God who created it all
chose to come down to earth
to love and to save us.

Thanks be to God!

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A Down to Earth Love

Down To Earth_long

Isaiah 64:1-4 (NLT)
Oh, that you would burst from the heavens and come down! How the mountains would quake in your presence! As fire causes wood to burn and water to boil, your coming would make the nations tremble. Then your enemies would learn the reason for your fame! When you came down long ago, you did awesome deeds beyond our highest expectations. And oh, how the mountains quaked! For since the world began, no ear has heard and no eye has seen a God like you, who works for those who wait for him!

In the past few weeks, I’ve done a higher than usual number of funerals. It’s always an incredible honor, and a daunting task, to memorialize a person, seeking to summarize their life, their personality, their faith, their accomplishments and their struggles, all within one worship service.

One of the most rewarding aspects for me of being a pastor is getting to sit with the family as we plan the services, and to hear them tell stories about their loved one. Sometimes those stories are funny, and the room fills with laughter. Sometimes the memories are painful, and we sit in silence. Often, very often, there are tears, as the family comes to terms with the loss of this person for whom they cared so deeply.

I vividly remember sitting with one widow in her home, years ago now. Sarah’s husband had died just the day before, and we sat on her living room couch, with the quiet no longer broken by the loud, in-and-out steady rhythm of her husband’s breathing machine in the next room. 57 years of marriage, the last few of which were devoted full-time to lovingly caring for him, and, now… now for Sarah it was over. She looked lost, and my heart broke for her.

As we held hands on that couch, she looked at me, and said, “I wish I hadn’t loved him so much. Then I wouldn’t hurt so much right now.”

The truth is: she was right. What she had said was completely correct. Losing her husband — it hurt. The reason that she was in such pain, was experiencing such profound sadness, was because she had loved so deeply.

When I asked her if she would change anything, if she would go back and make the decision to not love her husband, would she do it, she answered with a smile,

“Never. I wouldn’t give up a second of it.”

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as “strong affection for another arising out of kinship or personal ties.”

What a lame definition.

“Strong affection” for her husband wasn’t what Sarah had experienced over their years together, and certainly it wasn’t what was wracking her heart in his loss. When we love — really, truly love — it exposes us. We open up our hearts, our spirits, our lives to another human being, allowing them, in way, to become a part of who we are. It’s more than just allowing that person to know our stories, our history, our hopes and dreams. It is putting our trust in that person. Loving makes us vulnerable. And that can be scary.

One of the phrases you’ll hear often in the church is that God is love. God isn’t just lovING. God, by God’s own nature, IS love. Any love that we experience is a reflection of the love that God is.

1 John 4:7-8 says this: “Dear friends, let us continue to love one another, for love comes from God. Anyone who loves is a child of God and knows God. But anyone who does not love does not know God, for God is love.”

That sounds lovely, of course.
God is love.
But what in the world does it actually mean?

The word for “love” here in Greek is one we talk about pretty frequent: agape. It’s not that lukewarm, weak love as defined by Merriam-Webster: “strong affection.” No, indeed! It is powerful. It is a love that is consciously chosen, a love of the will as much as of the heart. It is a love that is all-encompassing and self-giving.

And what does that kind of agape love look like? Let’s look at the powerful words that open the Gospel of John:

In the beginning the Word already existed. The Word was with God, and the Word was God. He existed in the beginning with God. God created everything through him, and nothing was created except through him. The Word gave life to everything that was created, and his life brought light to everyone. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it… The one who is the true light, who gives light to everyone, was coming into the world.

And then the first line of our Old Testament reading from Isaiah 64: Oh, that you would burst from the heavens and come down!

That is what we celebrate at Christmas, what we are anticipating during these weeks of December. That we worship a God who created everything, and who came down to earth on that first Christmas morning.

This is what I pray you would hear : the very fact that God IS love made it possible for Christmas morning to happen. The Savior, the Messiah, the Promised One, could have come to earth, simply appearing as a powerful, full-grown man. He could have come with armies of angels, and an earthquake that split the continent.

But
because God IS love,
God came quietly,
in the form of a newborn
in a dirty stall in a backwater town.

Think about that for a moment. Really think about it. There is nothing more vulnerable than a newborn baby. Completely dependent, utterly defenseless.

When you love, really love, you put yourself at the mercy of the one you love. Our God, powerful beyond all imagining, loved us enough to be put into our hands. To be vulnerable.

That’s why this past Sunday was such a powerful day for me. It was the first day of Advent, the season of anticipation and waiting, when, along with the Prophet Isaiah we cry out, “Oh, God, that you would burst from the heavens and come down to us!” With our decorations, our songs, we are looking forward to the arrival of Jesus in the form of a tiny baby boy, born in a stable in Bethlehem.

And, this year, it was also Communion Sunday, when we remember that this baby whose birth we will celebrate on December 24th… he came for a reason. He came to teach, to heal, to challenge. He came to love.

He came to give of himself so fully in love, that he — through whom the Heavens and Earth were made — he made himself completely and utterly vulnerable in his love.

Jesus’ pain as he was betrayed by a friend, abandoned by those closest to him, as he endured a mockery of a trial, as he was beaten and flogged, as he was crucified and died — all this pain came as a result of the deep, profound love he has for humanity.

For you.
For me.

And Jesus knew that all that he had experienced, all that he had given, would be redeemed on Easter morning, as, seemingly beyond all hope, God’s love would reach into the grave and bring Jesus back to the world.

Jesus came — out of love — on that Christmas morning knowing what he would endure. And he counted it as worth it.

So, my friends, love deeply. Because it is love that came down to earth on that first Christmas morning. Because it is love that is the defining characteristic of the Christ-follower.

Because it is love
that has come down to earth
and saved us
and set us free.

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Offer Light

Light Out Of Darkness

In a world of madness, offer sanity.
In a world of anger, offer peace.
In a world of confusion, offer comfort.
In a world of darkness, offer light.
In a world of despair, offer hope.
In a world of apathy, offer action.

#fighthate
#livelove

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