Jumping For Joy an Advent 4 Sermon

Jumping For Joy

December 23, 2018

First Presbyterian Church Norman

Rev. Jessica Dixon

This sermon was given on the fourth Sunday of Advent, which was also my last Sunday at First Presbyterian Church of Norman, which is reflected in the sermon.

Before beginning the sermon, and after reading Luke 1:39-46, I recited Rev. Layton E. Williams’ poem An Almost-Mother’s Song: A Christmas Poem About Mary

Those words, beautifully written, and first performed by Rev. Layton Williams at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago on December 20, 2015 say an awful lot of what Mary means to me. Rev. William’s life experience is different than mine, I did not grow up fearing impurity as a sin worth nightmares, and that I would be judged for. I do not have blood nephews, but those life details being different only serve to reinforce the point. If we are all almost-mothers as Mary once was, bearing love into the world, than the details of our experiences are vital to us, but insignificant to the point.

Today we hear a story of Mary’s journey toward being Jesus’ mother.

We see her visit her relative Elizabeth. We heard the beginning of Elizabeth’s miraculous journey with God at the Longest Night service on Thursday as her husband Zechariah is visited in the temple by an angel and made unable to speak after he questions what is to happen, for he and his wife are old, past child bearing days, and the angel tells him he will have a son, Elizabeth will give birth to their son John. At the conclusion of that story Elizabeth chooses to stay home for five months, we assume because it is so strange that she is having a child and while her husband, a respected priest, has been made unable to speak by God.  

These would not have been easy days, a husband who cannot communicate, her body changing in ways she assumed it never would, bringing life to the world when it seemed far too late.

And then Mary arrives. Mary, who was too young, who was probably getting away from her own town gossip, possibly family strife, and a fiancee who has to be convinced by an angel that she is telling the truth, goes from Nazareth into the mountains to visit her cousin/aunt. Two women, one too old and the other too young, chosen by God to bear two baby boys, and the hope of the world, meet. And in their meeting, as Mary greets Elizabeth, John, en utero and five months along, jumps for joy at her arrival and greeting. I imagine the scene taking place in the doorway of Elizabeth’s home, just as Mary is entering, and the women reacting like the art on the cover of the bulletin (Jump for Joy by Corby Eisbacher). If you do an image search on google for Mary and Elizabeth, or The Visitation, or the Magnificat- sooo much of the art that comes up has the two women seemingly standing feet apart and looking a bit more serene than I could ever imagine from the way this bit is told.

Now I know a lot of it has to do with Catholic and historical theology around the holiness of Mary and her being depicted as never being touched by other people….because apparently sin rubs off…. But if you were pregnant because God said so, at an age after you thought that was possible, and your niece showed up on your doorstep and before she could tell you anything about the strange and miraculous time she has had of late your baby jumps for joy, I cannot imagine that being a calm thing, or that these women, who already knew one another intimately and now share this huge God-reality, not touching one another at all. Many of us would reach out for assurance, for comfort, for joy, or just in greeting. So I think it’s probably a bit more like today’s cover and the joy, bewilderment, and love displayed by these two would have been palpable.

Elizabeth says to Mary “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb” which have become central words to Catholic faith and familiar words of the Hail Mary and Rosary prayers. These words, and their intent are so formative as to be ingrained in the faith of our Catholic siblings in Christ. And here lies perhaps why we do not know them as well- as a part of the split, the schism between our two faith communities, broadly the Protestant tradition we are a part of and, the Catholic faith, Mary is one center of the controversy.

  • What does her holiness mean,

  • was she herself without sin or is that only Jesus,

  • what role should she play in our understanding of Jesus?

  • what would it mean to pray to her?

These are questions and disagreements that go all the way back to Martin Luther, and we still have them today, and so our Protestant tradition has not focused on Mary so much.

Another layer of these words is to think about what it means for a woman to be blessed in scripture. For instance the woman in the Hebrew scriptures described as ‘the most blessed among women’ is Jael- you know her right? She’s the one who, during a battle with the Canaanites when the commander of the Canaanite army runs away, she invites him in to her home, tucks him under a blanket, gives him a glass of milk and once he is asleep… drives a tent stake through his head, thus ensuring an end to the war. And the judge Deborah sings a song about her….So this whole being the ‘most blessed’ thing is not for the faint of heart who are not willing to go the extra mile for their faith, whether it is murdering a general, or carrying God’s self in your body and then parenting him…its a big deal.

But, whatever our traditions and theological acrobatics have told us in the two thousand years since the story was acted out, as far as we know in the story we hear today, Elizabeth is speaking with the authority of the Holy Spirit, and exclaims her joy and love for her blessed family member. It really doesn’t need to be more complicated than that, does it? Elizabeth has an all too rare moment of knowing for sure, right now, the joy of God’s truth and goodness. And so she literally shouts about it. While her husband can’t talk, she yells loudly about God’s blessings to her kins-woman.

Isn’t that great! How often are you so convicted that something is true and wonderful enough that you shout about it, right where you are- in the grocery store, in your living room, with your family gathered, here at church? How often does the spirit move you so much you just have to yell about it? For myself, I would have to say literally never.

So can we celebrate for a second that these two women, so long ago, amidst such strange, captivating circumstances, had a moment of such importance that the unborn jumped for joy and a woman felt the need to shout about it? And not worry about all the rest. God’s goodness is worth shouting about. The love we feel for one another is worth shouting about. And even in (or perhaps especially in) our staid, overly analytical tradition, we should do more shouting about our faith- and not the kind of shouting that is really fighting.

So John jumps… Elizabeth yells… and then Mary sings.

And I love her song dearly.

This is one of my favorite poems in scripture. I read it for comfort, and to challenge myself with its truth, and sometimes it helps me to not feel alone.

Mary’s beautiful words here are words of faith, of gratitude, and that describe the way that God turns the world upside down for those who love Her. They are just beautiful.

These words are also threatening-

  • God has “scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations”

  • God has “pulled the powerful down from their thrones  and lifted up the lowly”

  • God has “filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty-handed.

  • God has remembered mercy and fulfilled promises…

While I believe that it is possible to understand her words as meaning that she is grateful for the ways she, as an oppressed person- a woman, and of a faith community under occupation, and an unwed mother, has been treated by God far better than the world would treat her- it is a cop-out to think that these examples are only that. Mary means what she says, she knows God has done these things, and she is seeing the same in her life. So what does it mean for us, who are mostly citizens of a rich nation, ourselves mostly well educated and financially secure,  and in most other ways secure to affirm Mary’s song?

It means we need to listen to her, to remember that the God she sings about has indeed done these things, and will do them again. And that it is our responsibility as followers of Mary’s son to ensure-

  • that we humble our own arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations,

  • and that we help lift up the lowly,

  • and even help topple the powerful from their thrones when need be,

  • that we feed the hungry with good things

  • and not give more to the rich who do not need more…

...not comfortable words for our context or our days.

But, despite the discomfort of those parallels, we also must remember to do these things not out of fear of being the powerful to be toppled, or the “rich to be sent away empty-handed” no, we should do these things for the reason Mary sings about-

  • because like to her, God shows us mercy,

  • because along with her, we rejoice at God’s role in our lives,

  • And because just like for her, God fulfills the promises God has made to us,

And because, as Rev. Williams reminds us,

“We are all almost-mothers
like Mary once was
conceiving within us
the promise of love”

Love that goes to extremes, that turns the world over, that is both all powerful and as vulnerable as a newborn child, that gives us all hope and joy and the strength to jump….to shout….and to sing because it is ours.


Love worth singing about, love that brought me here. That makes me love this congregation, that brought me from far away to live in a strange place. Love that means that even though we journeyed through some hard times and hurt feelings, I will remember you with fondness and hope. It is also love that asks me to go now. It is time. It may not feel like time to you, I have had moments too where it felt like I Should be here with you, but I knew even in those moments that that was my fear of an unknown future and my sadness at saying goodbye, and not what is right for you or for me. We became a community together over these last two years, and we became that for a purpose and for a time. And that time has come, and so I will move on to a new role, and you all will move into a new future, a future I know will be bright, that will be strengthened by your love of one another and of God, I love you all dearly, and will keep tabs from afar. I will be sure to send updates when I know where I will serve next. And I will pray for you. I will pray that Mary’s song and yours are one- that the mercy and grace of God are palpable for you, that you know that justice and making things right is God’s work, and that, like Mary you can know joy even in the midst of confusing or difficult times.

As advent ends and new seasons begin today, May we enter them with joy and love that make you jump...and shout...and sing for their love. Amen.


Esther, Jesus and believing women

Sermon for September 30, 2018

Esther 7:1-10 and Mark 9:38-40

A Well Seasoned Faith

First Presbyterian Church Norman

8:30 and 11:00 am

Today in the lectionary we are given two stories that are violent. One, from the book of Esther, of the pivot points of its story, and we have strong words of both encouragement and admonition from Jesus in the book of Mark. As has happened a lot in the years I have been your pastor (since June of 2016) I come before you humbled by the role of preacher, saddened and angered by the events of this week in our nation, and hopeful for a future when the people of God and the people of our nation and world might find justice and peace. Today is no different, in fact I spent much of my week hearing stories from women and some men of their experiences of abuse and pain they felt led to share because of the non-stop news cycle that told the story again and again, whether the news people and the American people believed her or not, of Christine Blasey Ford being assaulted as a high school student by Supreme Court Nominee Brett Kavanaugh. This accusation and the lead up to the hearing on Thursday and the emotional hearing from both Dr. Ford and Mr. Kavanaugh brought up emotions and stories for many people and women especially of their own violent and painful instances of abuse and often the accompanying silence they felt they needed to keep for fear of the very backlash Dr. Ford faced in the form of ridicule at best and death threats to her family and other threats of violence at worst, instead of support and help and arrests.

In this week, with these stories swirling in my head I worked with our teens and children and found myself hoping they will grow, through our support as a church, and of our community, to be people of integrity and truth who can tell their stories even while we live in a world full of voices of power who would want to silence them because their words are uncomfortable, are too real, or are a threat to their power.

It was in the midst of this ongoing onslaught of pain and truth, of hope for those who come next, of disillusionment with our government and culture, that I found myself reading these two stories from scripture, one from the satirizing theatre of the book of Esther, and the other honest and powerful words from Jesus.

Esther takes us into the story of a young woman, a Jewish member of the people of Israel, who has become, by the time we join the story, a queen of Persia. She finds herself from the beginning in a place of vulnerability both because her people did not encourage or want their daughters to marry outside their community, and because, up to this point, King Ahasuerus did not know she was Jewish and it was unclear how he might react to this news. Up to this point he has already proven himself both to be a drunken buffoon and one who makes quick decisions without considering the consequences, namely taking the advice of his aid Haman to murder the whole of the Jewish people with little rational, which Haman asks the king to do because while Haman is being petty and grabbing for power and status Mordecai, Esther’s Uncle, won’t bow to him because Mordecai’s faith tells him not to bow before men only for God and this lack of respectability, and of being overpowered, angers Haman. Next, once the decision to kill the Jews comes, Mordecai tells Esther it is her job to speak for her people, the people of God, She was born “for such a time as this”  and she should go before this volatile and emotional man who has the power to kill them all, and save her people. Even then, Esther technically doesn’t have the right even to ask to speak to the king, let alone ask for this huge thing. So, given Mordecai’s words, she figures out how to get an audience, she throws two dinner parties, one to soften up the king and get him in a good mood, and the second to tell her story.

This is where we enter the story today, at that second dinner party, she cuts to the chase and tells him he has made a decree that will mean her death, and the death of her people. She tells him it is Haman who has convinced him to do it. In his anger the king leaves the room to walk in the garden and when he returns he finds Haman in close proximity to Esther, possibly even touching her, assaulting her, which further enrages him, and so he has Haman killed on the very stake Haman had worked hard to erect so that he might enjoy the public murder of Mordecai, the one who slighted him.

It is a brutal story, one in which Esther, the one for whom the story is named, is both powerful and at the mercy of a government on one side and her faith community on the other, a community on one hand that values her only for her beauty, and on the other a faith community that values her for what it can do for the community. Neither community particularly values Esther for who she is other than as beautiful or politically well situated. In the end she is one of the only women of faith we have in scripture, she is important, and her story is all too familiar to the stories women have to tell even today of how we are beholden to a world run by men. Even in our days of women’s empowerment, legal equality, and leadership in our faith communities, I am sure if you ask around this story with Esther’s need to figure out how to make the king happy before she can ask for what she wants, gaining station based on how she looks instead of what she has to offer, and relying on the men she loves to help protect her in the world are not unfamiliar to the lives of the women you know and love. And this was unacceptable truth 2500 years ago, and is unacceptable today.

Reading this story and carrying the burdens of this week, I turned to the story of the Gospel of Mark. The disciples come to Jesus and complain that others are casting out demons in his name, people who are not in their community. They say they have tried to stop them. Jesus reacts very strongly to this. He tells them not to stop these people from casting out the demons, that if they are able to do this in his name they must be one of his, belonging to God, and therefore part of the community even if they are not known yet to the disciples.

He then goes on to admonish the disciples about what happens, on the other hand, to those who lead people, and children in particular, into sin. This seems like a non-sequitur in the way the lectionary gives us the story, restricting it to verses 38-50, but the story that came before this one was the story of the man bringing his demon possessed son to Jesus to be healed and the disciples are unable to heal him, and the legal experts show up and fight with them before Jesus comes and heals the boy. Then in response to their inability to heal, the disciples, instead of being chastened by Jesus, fight over who is the greatest among them.

I would say by the time we get to Jesus’ strident words today in the Gospel he is tired, frustrated with their distractibility and the ways they seem to miss the message at every turn. So he lays it out with no ambiguity. Anyone who causes a child to sin might as well tie a big rock around their neck and drown in a lake, if your hand makes you sin cut it off, the same with a foot or an eye. It’s better to go into heaven missing these parts than to sin. Then he concludes this shocking speech with (from the Common English Bible) “Everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt loses its saltiness, how will it become salty again? Maintain salt among yourselves and keep peace with each other.””


“We will be salted by fire?” I can hear the disciples saying

“What does that mean?”

“That’s a scary thing to say.”

“Don’t we have it right by follow Jesus? What is the fire for?”

“This salt is good?”

“How do we lose our saltiness? How can we maintain the salt?”


...lots of questions we ask of Jesus too.

As Jesus’ people how do we maintain our salty faith? When the fire comes, and it seems to come often in these days, how do we remain salty? Can we be salty, even upset, and remain the salty community of God? Does anger, as the current colloquialism ‘salty’ expresses, and disagreement have a place in this salted community of faith?


I would say Jesus’ manner here answers some of these questions- To be salted by fire means we will face difficulty, we will know pain and fear, but these things are not an indication of sin or of separation from God or the community, on the contrary, sometimes they help us keep our faith focused. Life is hard, Jesus does not deny this, he does not say “God won’t give you more than you can handle”, he doesn’t say “when God closes a door he opens a window” he doesn’t tell them to be respectable.

No Jesus tells them to be fierce, to tell the truth, to cut off the lies and the distraction, to stop fighting about who is best, who gets to do the healing when their feelings are hurt that someone else can do what they couldn’t in his name. He tells them to focus, get rid of all those excuses, all the exclusion, and to be the community he has told them to be, he knows they can be, but that they can only be if they focus on the truth that in prayer and practice they can do miracles. They can save children, they can believe women, they can welcome strangers and foreigners, feed the hungry, and accompany the lonely, they can bring justice and joy to the world.

But they, and we, can only do these miracles if we are not distracted by the things that do not lead to God’s kin-dom, anything that distracts them from doing God’s work- even if that distraction is someone else also doing God’s work, even if that distraction is our own ‘thoughts and prayers’, our egos, our fears, our jealousies, and our comfort. Just as the disciples are distracted by who among them is the best, by why they can’t heal and Jesus can, why they can’t heal and strangers who are not yet friends of Jesus can, by what they know the rules of the world are when Jesus changes them.

We face all these distractions too. Every day. And Jesus is asking us, as he asked them, to step up. To make the truth clear, to clear away our distractions and be salty. To be seasoned by our own struggles, by the pain and fear and anger we know those around us face that we can alleviate with the truth and God’s peace that comes paired with justice. With a love that sometimes is brutal, that asks us to cut off our hand when it sins, but that is always, in every situation, bigger than the struggle we face.

Friends, it has been a hard week for me, and I imagine for many of you. If it has, please take care of yourself. If you need to tell your story, I am here, and others are here to hear you and believe you. If you Need the story of Esther and the story Jesus today like I have needed it, lets read some together. If you need something to do in the face of these days and these words lets find something to do together, so that we might be salt for one another and for the world. If you didn’t live or hear stories that made you struggle this week would you please share your hope and love with those who are hurting, listen with believing ears, and loving hearts?

Let us be salt for one another, let us be the people sent “for such a time as this”, let us make a world where the truth is told, power is shared, and people are loved for exactly who God made them. Be salt friends. Be light. Today and every day. For I know that the God who created it all, created you and loves you. Offers you grace and peace. And gives us a path to make “justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream”. May we help the world know it is true, while we find the way to believe it ourselves. Amen.

A Sermon for MLK weekend 2018




A Sermon for MLK weekend

delivered January 7, 2018

First Presbyterian Church Norman, OK

readings: 1 Samuel 3:1-20, John 1:43-51

Today we hear two call stories, and call stories are ones we tend to gravitate toward in the church. I suspect we gravitate toward them because we wish God’s calling in our lives were as clear as a voice in the night calling our name or a man standing before us and our mentor telling us to follow him. But have you ever noticed that it’s no easier for the matriarchs patriarchs, prophets, rebels, teachers, evangelists and leaders of scripture to know that they are supposed to follow the voice they hear or the person that tells them to do what God needs of them than it is for us? Samuel for instance, has to be called by God 3 times, and Eli has to tell him what to say to God so that they can begin his relationship with God and God’s call to him. We often say about call stories like Samuel’s or Jeremiah's or Timothy's that they are somehow off the hook because they are young and this somehow makes it easier or excusable that they don’t understand at first because they are young. But what sense does that make? We also talk about the audacity of youth, the courage that comes with ignorance or naivete, and so if young ones are both audacious and unknowing, why would they not just follow when God calls? I think there is actually far less difference, when it comes to faith and call, between youth and age. For when we turn to the Gospel story and the call of Nathaniel we see an adult with confusion and reticence to follow Jesus, do we see anything different than we see with Samuel? I’m not sure it is different, perhaps adults are less likely to follow God’s call, all it takes for Samuel to follow is a trusted friend to tell him something about what is going on, but when  Philip tells Nathanael about Jesus he still responds “can anything good come from Nazareth?” Perhaps in this case youth is an advantage, it gives us space to let grace win out over our doubts, cynicism, fears and habits. Perhaps this is why Jesus later tells us to have faith like children, and to let the children come to him, because children have the space in their lives to let God’s way be whatever it is, instead of asking so many questions that mean so little.

What could it matter where Jesus is from, if he is who they say he is? What would it matter anyway? Many a pastor in my social media found these questions resonating with the comments President Trump made last with with lawmakers about the peoples of Haiti and various African nations who try to come to our country. Our president’s words, while far more inappropriately worded than ‘what good could come from Nazareth?” might easily be phrased “what good can come from Haiti, or Africa?”. In the same conversations with clergy many pastors of color asked why it is that in response to these words, those who disagree with the President started posting stories of those who are “valuable” to our nation- scientists, artists, teachers, and leaders who come from these places. What difference should it make what they offer in this way? The oath of citizenship does not on a scale of how important one’s work is, it merely asks that one promise to be loyal and support and defend the constitution, and serve our nation the way any citizen is. So what difference does it make to us what value someone holds in the marketplace or as a leader? I am not entirely sure, but it clearly does matter to us. Even when it came to Jesus the question was asked. And when it comes to our times we may not call other developing nations names the way President Trump does, but we do engage in respectability politics, and value people more or less depending on how much we can relate to and understand them. And this is a problem, and a sin. God does not ask us to judge one another based on any of these criteria, or to judge one another at all. No, we are asked to love, it is our greatest calling, and one we are very flawed at following.

So in the weekend where we celebrate the legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the ways that he stood for people of all descriptions having equal rights in our nation, it is indeed sad that our President would say such things about our neighbors around the world, but it is perhaps not surprising when we judge one another, and even the President by what we value in one another, instead of respecting the inherent humanity in every individual no matter their place in life. And since we all fall so far short of the calling we share, and we also celebrate the gifts of those who lead toward the truth of love, and since tomorrow is the day our nation celebrates the life and legacy of the pastor, protester, teacher, and martyr the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. King who spoke eloquently and often on topics of political, social, and religious importance, and beyond words, he acted in ways he felt called by his faith and his citizenship to move toward a new hope for justice, love and peace for our nation and for the world. Because his words were so powerful, and are still prophetic and relevant to our lives today, I don’t want to preach about the legacy of Rev. Dr. King, instead we will spend a few minutes hearing what he had to say to us directly. Readers will be quoting directly from the words Rev. Dr. King shared in his ministry.


Who is the God whom we worship?


Reader 1:“The God whom we worship is not a weak and incompetent God. He is able to beat back gigantic waves of opposition and to bring low prodigious mountains of evil. The ringing testimony of the Christian faith is that God is able.”


Reader 2: “Christianity affirms that at the heart of reality is a Heart, a loving Father who works through history for the salvation of His children. Man cannot save himself, for man is not the measure of all things and humanity is not God. Bound by the chains of his own sin and finiteness, man needs a Savior.”


What is faith?


Reader 3: “By opening our lives to God in Christ, we become new creatures. This experience, which Jesus spoke of as the new birth, is essential if we are to be transformed nonconformists … Only through an inner spiritual transformation do we gain the strength to fight vigorously the evils of the world in a humble and loving spirit.”


Reader 4: “Faith is taking the first step even when you don't see the whole staircase.”


Reader 5: "The end of life is not to be happy, nor to achieve pleasure and avoid pain, but to do the will of God, come what may."


What is love, and how do we live it?


Reader 6:“Now there is a final reason I think that Jesus says, ‘Love your enemies.’ It is this: that love has within it a redemptive power. And there is a power there that eventually transforms individuals. Just keep being friendly to that person. Just keep loving them, and they can’t stand it too long. Oh, they react in many ways in the beginning. They react with guilt feelings, and sometimes they’ll hate you a little more at that transition period, but just keep loving them. And by the power of your love they will break down under the load. That’s love, you see. It is redemptive, and this is why Jesus says love. There’s something about love that builds up and is creative. There is something about hate that tears down and is destructive. So love your enemies.”


Reader 5: "Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that."


Reader 4: “Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy to a friend.”


Reader 3: “I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.”


Reader 2: “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.”


Reader 1: “We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.”


Reader 2: “Forgiveness is not an occasional act; it is a constant attitude.”


Reader 3: “Nonviolence is absolute commitment to the way of love. Love is not emotional bash; it is not empty sentimentalism. It is the active outpouring of one’s whole being into the being of another.”


Who are we called to be as people?


Reader 4: “Not everybody can be famous but everybody can be great because greatness

is determined by service...You only need a heart full of grace and a soul generated by love.”


Reader 5: “Life's most persistent and urgent question is, 'What are you doing for others?'”


Reader 6: “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”


Reader 5: "Hate begets hate; violence begets violence; toughness begets a greater toughness. We must meet the forces of hate with the power of love...Our aim must never be to defeat or humiliate the white man, but to win his friendship and understanding."


Reader 4: “I look to a day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

Reader 3: “In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”


Reader 2: The quality, not the longevity of one’s life is what is important.



What is Justice?


Reader 1: “I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannsit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”



Reader 2: “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.”


Reader 3: “I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality, and freedom for their spirits.”


Reader 4: “A right delayed is a right denied.”


Reader 5: "True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice."


Reader 6: “The time is always right to do what is right.”


...the time is always right to do what is right...so let us live lives that bely the question “what good can come from Nazareth?”, that defy the need to know someone’s credentials before we offer them love or care or peace. And let us live into our own callings past the questions and concerns that try to drown them out. Amen.




Pastoral prayer for human relations day from DOC

Speak, Lord,
For your children are listening
For a word of encouragement, for a word of instruction
About how we ought to live in these troubled lands.

Speak, Lord,
For your children are listening,
As we drift off to sleep in down-covered beds
In marble palaces
Or in sawdust padded pallets
On dusty floors.
We are listening, rich and poor
We are listening, young and old
For a word from you that will heal our lands.

Eternal God,
Lover of our souls, we come to you this morning hungering for something from you that will change the rest of our lives. We come hungering for honesty instead of corruption; for generosity instead of greed; we come hungering for integrity instead of intrigue. We come hungering for our neighbors to be fed and for all to have enough honest work to provide for the basic needs of their families. We come this morning hungering for righteousness to flow like rainwater and for the justice like an ever-flowing stream described by the prophets.

We come hungering and we come listening for your words to us, describing how we can participate in your great work of re-creation. We come listening for ways that we can become part of the solution and not part of the problem. We come listening in fear and trembling, praying that we will have the courage to respond and act if we hear a clear word of instruction from you.

Speak, Lord, For your children are listening…and hoping..and praying...and loving


Give us the hope of a new day, of a new way in our world. Give us the grace to know forgiveness when we repent of those things we do that harm ourselves and others. Give us love enough to love ourselves until it overflows and we love all of your people.  And help us know that Grace, Hope and Love are already ours in the legacy and presence of Jesus Christ our brother who taught us to pray...our father...





What is the Goal? October 8 2017

Here are my notes, half way between a manuscript and bullet points from my sermon on Sunday October 8. About half of this is what I actually said out loud in worship (and its only a sermon in the preaching, so I suppose these are my sermon notes, not actually a sermon). I was asked to share by a few people, so here it is.

What Is The Goal?

October 8, 2017

First Presbyterian Church Norman

  • Barry has a great talent for leaving town right when preaching is going to be difficult (and also for dealing well with preaching in difficult times when he is here with us). The last time I preached while Barry was out of town was the morning following the events in Charlottesville. And today we have our first gathering for worship following the mass shooting in Las Vegas.

  •  

  • This week we have texts that are all about the law- the 10 commandments in Exodus that we used as our confession, a Psalm praising God for the law, and Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi and words about following the law and when not to.

  • So between the world and huge violence, and scriptures about the importance and the need not to follow the law, I spent a lot of time this week staring at a blank document on my computer, unsure what there is to say.

  • So let’s begin with the story- what is said. Paul talks in today’s letter to the church at Philippi about his goal. The text makes it clear that whoever he is speaking to expects him to follow, or respects him as a leader because he followed the law of Judaism. His childhood faith. But paul goes to length to say that yes, he has followed that law, but that in Christ he has seen that following the law, at least on its own, is not how God desires our devotion.

  • And in the other story today the Psalmist tells us- the earth and its patterns are wonderful, the law is great, God is good… and then asks how can we know if we are following the law, and then the psalmist says God may I, a sinner, be acceptable to you however well or poorly follow.

  • Paul says- I followed the church’s law to a T, did everything I was told and raised to do in the church and the world, and then I met Jesus and now that all means nothing when it comes to knowing Jesus and pursuing the call I have in Christ. I’m not great at it, but the journey is enough for now.

  • Following God’s law in the Psalm is a good thing, but even in the voice of the psalmist it is only good insofar as it is God’s law (says nothing of humanity’s law) and we are only good insofar as we follow it, even though we can’t really know if we have followed well.

  • Paul he lays out his credentials as a good follower of church law. Just how well he has been raised and just how good a church person he is. And then immediately says that is all nothing because it didn’t fit with who Jesus is and what he calls us to do.

  • Both texts tell us that following, belonging to God and to faithfully doing what God asks are the right and good and righteous things to do. Both also tell us that sin will keep us from doing this perfectly, and will mean that we are confused about what it even means to follow well.

  • But both also rely on the truth that loving God and Christ, and reaching and working toward following well should be our goal.

  • I can hear in the way Paul tells his story every woman I know who have had to say at some point ‘I am educated, I work hard, I am intelligent, there is no such thing as a single kind of ‘emotional woman’, and emotions do not make my point invalid or illogical. And aside from all that I am doing what I am called to do so don’t disregard me’ I hear the voices of the teenagers I have worked with in over a decade of youth ministry struggling with why the adults in their lives would teach them that they have value and are smart and capable and then not allow them to lead or participate fully at church and in the world because they are young. I hear the people of color in my life who have to defend their value, intelligence, thoughts and their being because they are disregarded others their dress, and hair, and skin, or where they choose or need to live, how they speak, or who they love  are disregarded by white dominant culture and then have to say ‘I am a person and deserve respect no matter what vernacular I use, or clothing I wear, or where I went (or didn’t) to school. I am a person’.

  • There are times in life that all of us in frustration have to list our credentials even when we know that they should not matter because of the credentials we all share- human and beloved. And worse, when we have to list them because we know for certain that the person we are speaking to has forgotten, or has never believed that we were their equal in value and humanity.

  • Paul’s words today probably resonate with us because, while we all are human and beloved, our sins and particularly the sin of prejudice and discrimination on small or large scales mean that we do not hold on to God’s law and the life of Christ well enough to avoid this sin. Or to repent of it when we see that we have sinned.

  • In times like these when people are murdered in mass and we are happier to blame everything under the sun instead of facing that we are clearly a broken people if one of us could want to do such a thing to begin with.

    • Where our conversations turn away from the ways we have failed to show care and might better see the humanity in one another in favor of blame and excuses.

    • Where we blame mental illness in these crises instead of admitting that we have created a society where white men and boys are raised and told that rage and anger and violence are better answers to loneliness and pain and feeling inadequate than asking for help or being open enough to work through why one is in pain or lonely.

    • Where guns are so sacred a part of our way of life that we cannot see that the insane loss of life that is created with them is heresy and an abomination of God’s world and figure out a way to protect the people of God because we value our right to own these objects above the lives of the roughly 12,000 people who die a year because of their use in our nation.

    • In these times where if your credential is on the spectrum between ‘anti-gun’ or ‘in favor of strong gun-regulation’ you are called weak and selfish. If your credential is between ‘NRA member’ and ‘gun owner’ you are seen as terrifying and irrational. We, all of us out of fear, yes fear on both sides, and an inability to see one another’s perspective and experience, cease to be human and become only credentials and the judgements we attach to those credentials.

    • I don’t have an answer about how we fix this, but we must. Things need to change in our nation, people need to be seen and heard and known so that we stop being a people who create so many children who are willing to murder so many of their neighbors.

  • In times like these where we choose to see one another as the opinions we hold, or the norms we choose to follow (or don’t) the Psalmist and Paul have a lot to show us.

  • I am not a universally huge fan of Paul, but he does something in today’s text that we all can learn from. He lays out what is expected of him, and then explains in clear and concise words why they should not matter and just how he is going to follow Christ despite the world’s expectations.

  • He lays out what norms and rules he was once an adherent of, and tells us clearly why that in and of itself is not good, and was not the right thing for him.

  • He explains that none of it means much if he is not keeping his eye on the prize, eternal life in Christ. And that this is why he has turned his back on so much of what he once so strongly believed.

  • I don’t think Paul is saying that we all have to go out today and break the law for Jesus, church or civic law. What he lays out is more the idea that the goal he had in mind was wrong and needed to change. In his early years before knowing Jesus his goal, as he states it here, seems to have been piety and righteousness through perfect following of his community’s law. And now his goal is aiming for Christ’s Way. A much more amorphous and frustrating goal.

  • When there is a clear list of rules and following them is the only goal, life may not be easy but it is clear. When there is just the example and call of Christ, things are much more confusing and more difficult to figure out what it means to follow well.

  • The Psalmist tells us first that the modes of nature, the rising and setting of the sun, the movement from one day to the next even tell us of the goodness of God’s law. This to me sounds like the laws of science- Creation was made with patterns and firm, clear modes of being that do not change, and God made them and the Psalmist includes them in this poetic discussion of the law.

  • But then the poet takes it further and says that God’s law rules human behavior too, it enlightens the foolish, they bless those who follow them, and they are inherently good and righteous.

  • But then, as poets and particularly the poet of psalms often do, the point shifts. This poem begins by extolling the goodness of God’s law for nature and for us, but then the perspective turns in verses 12 and 13 “But can anyone know what they’ve accidentally done wrong? Clear me of any unknown sin and save your servant from willful sins. Don’t let them rule me.” and become introspective. Yes, says the psalmist, the works of God, the law of God are perfect and right, buuuuttt….we suck at following them. I do in particular. So help me God to not mess up too bad, and forgive me when I do.

  • The psalmist and Paul both know they need forgiveness. They both readily admit it and repent. If only we could do the same.

  • These laws they each discuss are not laws like not jaywalking or paying on time for car registration, or even the kind of law that the first or second amendments are with their more philosophical underpinnings, there is far more at stake with God’s law. Our very being is at stake. With God it’s about who we are created to be, and the goodness God gave us. Failing to follow God’s law for the Psalmist and for Paul is about righteousness and goodness, philosophical ideas that perhaps we water down with how we use those words in our time, but that at their core are about living out the calling God has placed in our lives and that living that calling will make us doers of Good and Righteousness such that others can see it. It’s about the fruit of our faith, and the ways that our faith show the world who God is. It’s about following well, if never perfectly, so that God and Christ’s love and grace are shown to the world.

  • Everyone can do it, no one can do it perfectly, but we all do it better if we do it together. But instead we are really great, all of us, at getting bogged down in the minutiae of the laws we know. We are great at getting distracted by ‘he took my toy’ or ‘she cut me off in traffic’ instead of worrying about ‘who has nothing to eat’ and ‘who never had access to education’ and ‘she is dying because she cannot afford adequate health care, and when she does it will bankrupt her family’ and ‘they came to this country without the right paperwork, they have to return to a place of poverty and hopelessness without those papers’. There are clear evils in our world, any place people die or are harmed because they are treated as statistics instead of humans, we have lost our way. Any time we let our fear of the unknown or of one another distract us from the only call that matters- to love one another, we have strayed from God’s law and Christ’s path.

  • And in these days where our nation is far more concerned with ‘what will i lose’ and ‘what ways will that inconvenience me’ over the welfare of our neighbors, we have a lot of repenting to do, a lot of small and big ways we need to return to God’s path. And lots of ways we need to hear the Psalmist and Paul and find God’s beauty and truth in the world.

  • The world was created by a loving and gracious God, who loves and cares for each of us, and maybe if we try to remember that both we and everyone we meet is equally loved and grace filled, we might do a better job of being together, of caring for one another, of less pointing of fingers and more pitching in to fix things. We would do better at finding peace and love in a world that appears to have forgotten them.

  • My prayer is that in the words of the Psalm and the words of Paul you hear a voice asking you to take one more small step toward goodness and love. That you are able, with the solidarity of our forbearers in scripture to admit when you have become distracted and repent of how it has led you away from love, and that once we all can do those things, we can be a world where there is more peace and love and care than there are violence and hatred and separation.

  • Because “ Heaven is declaring God’s glory; the sky is proclaiming his handiwork.” and because “The goal I pursue is the prize of God’s upward call in Christ Jesus.” and when we all know that these things are true, and live into them, the world will know it because of our love. May it be so.

After Charlottesville

I have been working on trying to preach more extemporaneously these days, and so the opening Biblical part of this is just my notes, used to tell the story to the congregation. The rest is my sermon focused on these days and the hate and love being lived out in Charlottesville Virginia.

 

"The Favorite Son's Dreams"  

(only because the sermon was titled before the weekend)

 

I wrote the bulletin and chose  a title for this sermon by Thursday afternoon. By mid afternoon yesterday I knew I had to throw my sermon out and start over, just as many of my clergy friends were doing in my social media world. But lets start with the Genesis text and our ongoing exploration of Genesis this summer with the beginning of the story of Joseph.

Joseph

  • Ego-assumes everyone will be interested,

  • Self absorbed- its all about him

  • Young-17 and an assistant

  • ‘Look’ is awe or naïveté

No one in this story does the right thing.

  • The story of the brother’s scorn and then punishment familiar

    • Scheme to kill him, Reuben keeps them from murder but throws him in a pit, to try and save him later.

    • Then the brothers, seeing some traders, sell him into slavery.

    • Take the coat and mess it up to tell their father he is dead, killed by a beast

    • And he is sold by the midianites into slavery in Egypt to Potiphar, and then things just start to get weird.

Notes on Luke 9:46-50

  • The story starts with these words about the disciples, those closest to Jesus competing over who is best. which shows us the world truth that throughout history we have competed with one another. Brother against brother for the love of God quite literally, and just for ego and recognition. And also points to the truth that we separate ourselves one from another in the name of knowing who is best.

  • Exactly what the brothers do, even Joseph in the Genesis story

  • And the insidious thing happening in our world today.

An evil of our culture, one we have hidden from, lied about and denied for generations reared its ugly head Friday when a group of Alt-right, Neo-Nazi, White Supremacists gathered in Charlottesville Virginia to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E Lee.

And let's not get it wrong, these men were not protesting the removal of American history from view, they were protesting the removal of a monument and celebration of  America’s racist and slavery-driven past from front and center.

These men want us to remain a nation where we hate one another, fear one another, exclude one another based only on the color of our skin. And they want us to keep separating so that they, enfleshed in white bodies, can continue to hold the power, this separation serves them most, it keeps them on top with others underneath. Three people died and many many more were harmed bodily and certainly emotionally yesterday standing up to say that this is wrong, it is evil, and it will not be who they have their nation be. And police officers stood in between, doing their jobs, even as they are often a center of the conversation about white supremacy and policing in our nation. There were clergy, and students, and parents, and teachers, and towns people counter protesting, trapped in churches surrounded by a literal angry mob with torches like something out of a monster movie, there were men and women and people running to enter churches to find safety while others held their ground in peace to keep those who would do harm out of those spaces, and yes there were those that met violence with violence in the name of protection for the ones who needed protection. And whether we think their actions are the right way to go or not, they were a real presence offering a strong response to hate.

While both the stories of Joseph and Jesus with the disciples today tell us stories of humanity’s drive to have hierarchy, to talk about who is the best, Jesus tells us the exact opposite story. It is our job to look at who is at the bottom and hold them up in our structures, it is our job, as part of The Body of Christ to be a part of Jesus’ light yoke that helps those who need it.

As a friend said on social media yesterday

“You can be neutral, or you can be a disciple of Christ Jesus. You can't be both.” these times are making that true.

And went on to quote the Belhar Confession

"We Believe:

• that the church as the possession of God must stand where the Lord stands, namely against injustice and with the wronged; that in following Christ the church must witness against all the powerful and privileged who selfishly seek their own interests and thus control and harm others.

Therefore, we reject any ideology

• which would legitimate forms of injustice and any doctrine which is unwilling to resist such an ideology in the name of the gospel.

We believe that, in obedience to Jesus Christ, its only head, the church is called to confess and to do all these things, even though the authorities and human laws might forbid them and punishment and suffering be the consequence."

--Confession of Belhar, 1986

And another friend posted another quote from Behlar

We believe “that separation, enmity, and hatred between people and groups is sin which Christ has already conquered, and accordingly that anything which threatens this unity may have no place in the church and must be resisted.” —The Confession of Belhar, 10.3

This text, which a number of people in our denomination said was not relevant to us as American when it comes out of Apartheid era South Africa, speaks to us prophetically today.

I also saw quotes used widely in Presbyterian circles from the Barmen Declaration during WWII against Nazism and the Confession of 1967 witnessing to the evils of racism and exclusion. Our tradition has clear things to say about this event and which side stands with Christ.

But when something this horrible happens, and I know it’s not the first time by a long shot, and I have not lived it before and I know some here have. In these times I am asked by friends, neighbors and pastor colleagues in communities of color if this will change how we white preachers preach, how we behave in everyday life, and how we let our fear keep us from changing racist systems and challenging racist actions,

it hurts my heart- not because I want to throw my hands in the air and say ‘well this has been going on forever, what do you want me to do” but because I know there are things I can and should do and don’t. There are things we can and should do and don’t.

  • Our fear demands we protect ourselves even when we are safe from most forms of discrimination and violence.

  • Our idea of ‘live and let live’ belies the truth that people are dying in prisons, in the streets, at the hands of those in power, at the hands of their neighbors and at the hands of those they love and we stand by.

  • Our anger at racism and other forms of supremacy is not matched by our willingness to leave what is comfortable, what is safe, and where we have power, to go and stand with those we know are mistreated, those we hear saying again and again that they need us not to lay down our lives so much as our power, and who deserve our love just as much as any other sibling in Christ.

In these terrifying times we cannot, as ones who bear the name of Christ, take his words lightly. Jesus tells us clearly that we are to fight oppression and fear, and to fight them not with the sword but with love. Love- that casts out fear, that lightens one another’s loads, and that binds us together so that we can see, anew or for the first time, that God’s way is not the way of division but the way of peace and love, not the way of slavery and White Supremacy and sin, but the way of open doors minds and hearts.

So let us take care of each other this week beloved, and by ‘us’ I mean every human you meet in person or on the internet or the news. Some of us are hurting and scared, and if you do not know someone who is in the face of these times, find someone and talk with them. Find someone who looks like you but thinks differently and ask them about that, what in their life made them believe the way they do.  Find someone who looks or lives differently than you do and ask how they are doing, try to really hear how the world is treating them and not making excuses because you are embarrassed or scared,  and then listen, really listen, when they tell you what it is like to live in a world where they are afraid of their neighbors because their neighbors act in tiny ways and big ones that look like men marching in the streets with torches in the name of white cis-heteronormative supremacy and violent hate.

Don’t offer excuses or reasons for violence, but give the world a chance to breath and to know love through who you are and who you listen to this week. For we will only do better if we know and truly care about one another across all boundaries. We will only truly be God’s people if we stop selling one another into slavery- literal slavery, and bondage to systems that oppress and imprison people who God loves for being who they are. We can only be those people if we give up trying to figure out who is best, who is greatest, and instead try to live the truth that we are greatest when we find unity in the beauty of our diversity and joy in our difference.

Go and listen. Go and care. Go and love. Today and every day. Amen.

 

 

Two sermons about saying you are sorry...

I preached the last two Sundays. Sunday June 18th I preached at my parent's church St. Paul Presbyterian in Aurora CO, and yesterday June 25 I preached in the congregation I am Interim Associate Pastor with First Presbyterian Norman OK. These two sermons have little in common other than that I preached them...and that in the end both are at their core about saying you are sorry. So lets all be better at that!

 

 Incongruously Consistent Love

A Sermon on Psalm 103, 1 John 4:7-14, Matthew 5:1-16

I bring you greetings from First Presbyterian Church of Norman Oklahoma. Thank you for inviting me to lead worship with you today.

Happy Father's Day St. Paul! When I chose today’s scripture texts with Father's Day in mind, they seemed appropriate- yes let's talk about God’s love on Father’s Day. And then in good Presbyterian preacher fashion I lived my week with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper (or my phone and news agencies websites, in good Millennial Presbyterian preacher fashion) in the other, these texts came to say something else altogether to me.

This week’s news began with the story-

  • of congress staff and a congressman being shot in our Nation’s capitol on Wednesday

  • and the deaths of many, at least 58, in an apartment fire in London,

  • and went on to include the anniversary of the  murder of 9 people in Mother Emanuel church in Charleston by a white supremacist two years ago,

  • the Anniversary of the murder of 49 people and injury to 53 others at the PULSE night club in Orlando last year by a homophobic transphobic man in the largest terrorist attack by a single attacker in US history

  • and the week also included the deaths of 57 people in a forest fire in Portugal.

  • A bombing in a mall in Columbia led to the death of 2 and injuries to others.

  • The death of Navy sailors on the USS Fitzgerald in an accident on Saturday. 

This was not a week where the news, and our history as a nation left me feeling particularly joyful and loving, and in fact made me quite sad and thinking that perhaps we all could use a timeout and a hug. I came away from the news each day more convinced that we are a broken people- racism, sexism and homophobia, are alive and well, we are unable to see one another as whole and valuable people, and death and pain are everywhere.

...Which is why I must keep the Bible in the other hand.

Scripture tells us today that God’s love is steadfast, it is never ending, and it will help us. Our theology as Presbyterians and Calvinists tells us that we are a mess, we will never fix that, but God’s grace and love have our backs. Which is wonderful...we will be ok, things can get better.

 But scripture also tells us today that God in Jesus told us explicitly that those the world that we would not bless are the exact ones God blesses...those who are without hope, who grieve, who are humble, who are hungry and thirsty, who show mercy, who are pure of heart, these are the ones God blesses. These are not the ones we seem to be blessing as as a nation and a a church. We appear to want violence, to hurt one another, to jump to conclusions instead of showing one another grace and love, we inflict our own pain and fear on one another.  And that is not God's way.

 And then we doubt those who express their pain and anger at being targets

...we tell black people that they are wrong when they say white supremacy is why at least 19 black Americans have died at the hands of white people who went unpunished since the death of Trayvon Martin, and why they are lamenting and protesting this week in the face of the acquittal of the murderer of Philando Castile. 

...we ask the LGBT community what need there is for a Pride celebration when our LGBT+ siblings still face violence, exclusion, and death just for claiming their identities and after a long history of facing legalized bullying, imprisonment, violence and bigotry for loving one another.

Many of us may not do these things explicitly, we may even try hard to do the opposite- to first offer love, care, understanding and listening, but the way our nation, our world, and our church is entrenched in these ways of being means we all participate in these patterns of demeaning one another, of excluding those we don't understand or find it inconvenient to reach out to or care for, and as long as that is true we have not really held the words of Jesus in the beatitudes in our hearts, we have not found a way to live the truth of 1st john that tell us that if God loves us, and we know that to be true, then we must love one another. That Jesus was sent to save the world, and he told us again and again, and lived as one who loved all those he met- the outcasts and the sinners, the pharisees and sadducees, the roman leadership and all those who wanted nothing more than his death. He loved them all, and asks us to love them all.

He asks us to particularly care for those who have less than us- to feed, clothe, visit, and love those who don't have what they need, but in the beatitudes he also challenges us, he says to us, and to those at the Sermon on the Mount, that God blesses the meek- in their humility the world belongs to them, not out of luck because someone else fought, or debated or ran a campaign well enough to have the world and then give it to them...no in God’s world the humble have it all. blessed are those who show mercy- they are not pollyanna or short sighted or weak, they are the ones who will receive mercy.

In God’s world all things are turned upside down. and on this Father’s Day the world could use being flipped upside down, because we are living in ways that hurt one another.

If there is something my Father (and my Mother) has taught me it is that hurting one another is never the right answer, that if we have hurt one another we must ask for forgiveness, not because the other person is obligated to forgive, but because we have broken something important and we have to start fixing it by being willing to say we have done wrong.

One of my Mother’s least favorite famous movie quotes “Love means never having to say you are sorry” and I must agree with her, the sentiment of that is totally backwards...love means you should be quick to say you are sorry...if we love one another- as father and child, as friend to friend, as child of God to child of God, then we should be first and quickest to say we are sorry and to back that apology up with actions that prove we are ready to do better, to show our love in ways that show true willingness to be in mutual relationship with one another, to love by listening, by showing mercy, by giving up power that we did not earn so that all can have a just and good life. And to show love by knowing that the God of scripture does indeed heal us- of our pain and illness, and of our -isms, God does lead us to compassion and goodness, but God gets us there when we join him in the journey. We must walk the path of repentance and forgiveness, we must ask for what we need or we have not joined those who are salt and light. We must be salty and shine our light in the world through our actions and relationships. If we do not, then it is not that God does not love us, it is that we are not looking in the right places for God's love for us. We have turned away from God’s wishes for us.

But we don't have to be alone in the journey of turning to God’s love, and in God’s grace we know that every time we turn once again toward what is Good and toward love for one another, then we find God right where we need her.

God loves us so much that he sent his son to lead us, to perform miracles for us, to live life with those the world would ignore in our midst, and ultimately to die for us and to return to God’s presence and pray for us. If that God is what a Father is like than this is a great day to celebrate- not all of us in this room have happy memories of fathers- of having a father or being one, but in a God who is in some way a father my prayer for us all is that in these oh-so broken times we can find love, comfort, caring challenge for our broken ways, and forgiveness in the father/mother/parent/caretaker God that we worship and serve because we know God’s love is bigger than our fear, than our failings, it will find us when we most need it and keep us forever. It is consistent even as it lifts up those who have faltered, and waited with those who wait, it serves those whose lives are too hard, and rejoices with those who rejoice.

So in gratitude for love let us go into a new week and pray, and more than pray- act, so that our world turns toward love and away from fear and violence, toward the love that guides us to goodness and wholeness for all, and makes us one family everywhere. Amen.

 

 

The Keeping of Brothers

A Sermon on Genesis 4:1-16, Luke 12:32-34, Hebrews 11:1-7 

This morning we have our second story from the book of Genesis. Barry and I are doing a series the whole summer long that will cover the stories from this first book of the Bible that share the foundations of so many things in our faith and our understanding of who God is and who we are. Today's story is arguably one of the most difficult of the stories we will share this summer although others coming will be difficult as well. Today is the story of Cain and Abel the first two brothers of the Bible, with many others to follow, and the story of sin as central to the life of faith.

Today's story starts almost exactly where last weeks left off. Adam and eve have been in the garden they have eaten of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil after dealings with the snake and God has sent them out of the garden. We attribute this story for the foundations of where human sinfulness begins. As one seminary professor told us, and I admit I do not know if it was his words or part of some other author's text we read for class but the explanation was that in Christian theology the story of creation and Adam and Eve Christians have come to understand as explaining what God did in the beginning of things where is our Jewish forebears would more accurately have assumed that the story was about why God did what God did. Adam and Eve is not a story that tells us how we came to be sinful people but more accurately a story about why God behaves with us the way God does. And you might notice, if you go back and read chapters 1 through 3  in Genesis, there is no mention in those first three chapters of sin itself. Those stories are not actually directly about sin they are about how people and God come to be in relationship such that God is sometimes distant but it still our caretaker and beloved creator.

 Then, with chapter 4, we move on to Cain and Abel. Adam and Eve's first children are born and they are sons. One who tills the ground and the other who raises animals to eat. Both sons bring sacrifices to God and one pleases God and the other doesn't. Now, we don't know from the story why it is that Cain’s sacrifice does not please God as much as Able’s or even that it does not please God at all just that Able’s is looked on more favorably. And instead of asking why, or what he could do better, or what it is about his brother’s sacrifice that is so good, Cain just becomes enraged. Not so unfamiliar a story.  Stories of brothers getting angry with one another are as old or older than this ancient story and are told again and again and even now.

  • Cain And Abel here in ancient scripture,

  • To Romulus and Remus in the founding of Rome,

  • to Hamlet and Claudius in Shakespeare's,

  • To Thor and Loki in both Norse myth and Marvel comics and movies

  • to Stephen and Damon in the vampire diaries,

  • to a number of situations in Game of Thrones,

  • to Michael and Fredo in The Godfather,

  • to Scar and Mufasa in The Lion King

  • To the entirety of the plot of John Steinbeck's East of Eden

Again and again we have stories of brothers being killed by brothers. And so often this story, as a scripture story- a story we hold in our holy text and say is God’s story, and our story, is one we avoid because who wants to talk about fratricide?

But in the end this is actually the story where sin enters the story of humanity for both Jewish and Christian believers. God says to Cain before he murders Abel “if you don’t do the right thing, sin will be waiting at the door ready to strike! It will entice you, but you must rule over it.” and of course, Cain does neither the right thing, nor does he rule over sin, it comes to rule him and his whole life.

So he murders Abel, and God knows it, and comes to him and says he is cursed because of his brother’s blood which he has spilled and this curse means he can never again till the land, and so he will have to wander the earth as a nomad. This overwhelms Cain and his anguish at his punishment, not at the death of his brother, is that he will find no home and that those he meets will kill him. And so God, loving Cain even in his sinfulness, puts a mark on him that will protect him, that will keep others from killing him. And so Cain leaves and settles in the land of Nod, East of Eden.

This is not a bedtime story, it is not a story of human encouragement- Cain does not repent, he does not mourn his brother, he does not show any awareness at all that he has done anything wrong or destructive. Like a child railing at the unfairness of his punishment he points out to God that his punishment will lead to Cain’s demise as well. And God- the loving and consistent parent- upholds the punishment, but gives Cain the blessing of his hand, and the protection that will keep him safe even as he is sent even further from God’s presence in Eden.

In essence  this story should be read right along with chapters 1-3, it begins as the fruit of Adam and Eve leaving the garden- these are the first children after the exile, and continues with God’s physical and guiding presences just as Adam and Eve have it, God is physically and vocally present to Cain. It is the same story, and if we are going to tell the story of Adam and Eve as the story of the entrance of sin into human existence, which is not the only way to tell the story, then we must tell the whole story including Cain and Abel. Adam and Eve do what they are told not to, but they do it in a certain kind of innocence, Cain on the other hand is told not to give in to his anger and instead marches off and kills Abel. When read together, the story is about sin and God’s love and presence beyond sin and despite it. It is about a loving creator who punishes humans when they mess up, but who remains present and active even when they do. It is the story of a family being given the chance to try again when its members ignore what is good for them. It is the story of us all. We all have times where we innocently do something even when we have been showed why we shouldn’t just because the warning didn’t seem important, and we have all willfully done what we should not, and put pride and anger first.

If these 4 chapters are a story of why we come to be God’s people and even as God’s beloved children we know a certain distance between ourselves and God. They are perhaps more like a parable or a metaphor for our situation- how we mess up- both willfully and innocently- and what God’s presence is like when we are at a distance from God because of sinfulness, then we are all Adam and Eve, and we are all both Cain and Abel. The story tells us something true about what it feels like to love God, but to know that we are broken, flawed people who know distance sometimes or a lot of the time in our relationship with God, who even sometimes create that distance with our actions, knowing they are wrong.

But Paul tells us that we also have the example here of what it means to be faithful- Abel brings what is good, and more that that what is best to God. Abel does what makes God happy, and while his brother kills him for it, God has already blessed him. And Paul lets us know that the stories we will read later this summer together- Noah and others, also show us what it is to be faithful.

And Jesus tells us the simple truth that “where your treasure is, there your heart will be too”. Simple enough, and I’m sure it's a right enough logic that we all know it’s truth. But Cain ignores this truth. Whether in giving God something less than his best offering, or murdering his brother and removing him from life, Cain has forgotten that these treasures of life- both the work of his hands and the love of family, are more important treasures than whatever gain he might have in keeping the best back, or whatever momentary satisfaction killing his brother might bring.

Cain is an unrepentant bad guy. But he is also our brother, and more than that he is Jesus’ brother. He is in the family line of Jesus, and of us all through scripture. He is part of the family, and we tell his story to remember. It is not an easily redeemed story, for he does not ask forgiveness or find it. No, this is a story in scripture where we most often shrug our shoulders and say ‘he’s a bad guy, but in the end God protects him, I suppose that is like us too’ for we know that when we mess up, and even before we repent, God still loves us.

Repentance is not about regaining God’s love, for just as at the end Cain is blessed even in his wrongdoing, so are we by God’s love. Repentance is about turning ourselves around and facing God in spirit and truth, a thing that Cain doesn’t do. Knowing God’s love and knowing its importance to us gives us something Cain doesn’t have, something Abel, even in his early death, knows. It gives us faith, it helps us believe, and it connects us to one another. So instead of simply feeling righteous about Cain, or angry at him, I feel sorry for him, as I feel sorry for anyone who keeps hate in their heart, or who judges someone else for their distinct gifts or who God created them to be- for those who judge people as inferior or sinful based on their race, or a disability, or sexual or gender identity, for their education level or how much money they have, or the language they speak, - in that judgement and exclusion they are committing the sin of Cain- the sin of deciding for God what is good and right. And if we do not ask for forgiveness and turn and face God we live every day the sin of Cain, we choose our own pride or comfort or not wanting to be embarrassed over the ultimate goodness and mercy we know we will receive if we just say ‘I’m sorry’ and listen for God’s encouragement about how to make things right and live in God’s love renewed.

The sin of Cain is also murder of course, but more than that it is murder and pride, murder and his own way of acting like God doesn’t matter, his lack of faith. He holds as treasure his own autonomy, his own strength separate from what God has done for him, his own abilities above his love for his brother. And at the conclusion he is both made a nomad and blessed by God in his obstinate actions. He is, even as he is punished, still God’s child and descendant of the Garden. He is still loved. So in this sad story, this story of family strife and judgement, there is still hope. Hope that when we act like Cain, we can find our way to the words of Jesus, to the faith of Paul and make amends, and walk refreshed and renewed in God’s love. May it be so. Amen.

Shepherding Tradition: Scottish Reformation Sunday 2017

Shepherding Tradition

First Presbyterian Church

Norman, OK

May 7, 2017

a sermon for Scottish Reformation Sunday

 

As a young pastor and one who spends much of my time in ministry with the young people of the church, I hear, and even have, a lot of skepticism about a topic or event in the church where we say ‘well, we do this because it is tradition’ I immediately have many questions-

  • who decided it was tradition?

  • how many times has it been done before?

  • Why was it first done, and are we doing it for the same reason now?

  • what about it makes it important enough to be a tradition?

  • could it still be tradition and good if we changed it in some ways?

  • who will it (upset and why) if we change a tradition

  • and who might we reach and include if we did change it?

 

And often, if I ask these questions out loud I get responses about respecting the past or the history of the church. Which, for me leads to a whole other set of questions-

 

the past of the church includes

  • the crusades,

  • slavery,

  • women as property or second class citizens,

  • the forced conversion of native people and Indian schools in the US that separated innumerable children from their families and forced them to give up their culture, language and homes

  • institutionalized practice that means people who are vulnerable in culture because of their race, gender, sexual identity, age, education level, mental or physical ability or language are further made vulnerable because the church says they are not worthy of being leaders or included at all in the church.

But our history also includes

  • moves toward equality for all people,

  • education for those who didn’t previously have access to education,

  • food, water and shelter for those who lack them,

  • the attempt to create good relationships between people of very different cultural, language, or religious backgrounds,

  • civil rights activism that makes our nation safer and more equal a place to live for all people.

  • and the eventual inclusion of peoples previously excluded from leadership in the church.

  • As well as the story and witness of Jesus Christ and those who knew him best. The only thing that really distinguishes us from other social or civic groups.

 

So in the end the core questions become which part of history am I supposed to respect, and which am I supposed to ignore or repent? And what makes something a tradition and worthy of staying a tradition? This is a fundamental question that people in the church have asked for a long time, and because it comes often from young voices or from those not primarily in leadership in the

church this is a concern that often gets disregarded as pollyanna, or shortsighted, or rabble rousing, or unaware. But these questions are also the voice of our heritage, and of the very reformers from whom we take our name as Reformed Christians.

 

Now it might sound, with this beginning that I am most worried in today’s sermon about the opportunity to change the church, and throwing tradition out the window. And that is not the case. In fact I believe that both Jesus in today’s text in John and the Scottish Reformation and the Scots Confession have things to tell us that would encourage us both to hold tradition and to be skeptical of it.

 

First when we read the story and John we hear a story about sheep, and pastures, gates and thieves. Not necessarily very relatable in our time, but when we pair it with the 23rd Psalm, familiar words in the Old Testament, we see that this language would have been very traditional in Jesus's time and faith community. Just as we read these familiar words with different images than we are accustomed to with the children this morning, images that make scripture more real to our lives and realities, so Jesus even more changed what the scripture had to say to those he ministers to. Making it more real and relevant to them.

    In the preceding passage to this one Jesus is speaking to the Pharisees and to those who are his biggest denouncers, so here when he uses the vernacular of their faith tradition speaking of himself as the shepherd in the gate he's using the language they can understand because it is traditional. However he's using it in a new way. Naming himself the shepherd and the gate and saying that there are those who will try and come into his sheep pen from other ways to mislead and harm the sheep. And that he has the shepherd will protect those who are in the fold. Revolutionary language to ears who know that God alone is the shepherd and who are hearing this from a man they suspect believes he is the messiah, he is basically saying so.

 In Christian tradition the story and the further text about sheep and Jesus in the following verses are used some of the main scriptural a witness to the fact that Jesus Christ is the only way to be in God's kingdom. That is the traditional interpretation. However much of the scholarly work that I read this week in preparation for the Sermon indicates that perhaps that is a hasty and possibly even problematic way to interpret what Jesus says here. Multiple commentators I read speak of Jesus’ words here as being emphatic yes, but emphatic that those who have come before were false prophets and leaders, and that he is the true one who has come at this point. That his words here and the place they come from does not necessarily indicate that he is saying he is the only one, that comes from other parts of Jesus’ words, but instead that he is the only one right then speaking this truth and living God’s way. The thieves and the bandits in the Story might even be speaking about those Pharisees themselves from the previous chapter.

  Whether this other way of interpreting this text works for you or not, it speaks to the idea that even our understanding of particular scriptures changes over time, the way that we understand scripture must respond to the world that we live in, even as we use it as the primary guide toward what God needs and wants us to be and do. for much of our history as a church we did not have other faiths or Christian traditions as serious companions in the world or even as people in large numbers to interact with and now that we live in a world dominated by multiple religions and ways of being in each faith community as well as ready access to one another it is important to take what we learn about one another as God’s children in the world and apply that to how we understand what Jesus has to say to us, and apply Jesus words to how we engage with those communities. As our tradition distinctly calls us to engage the world even as we strive to allow our faith to make us, and thereby the world, new, different, and better because of what God means in our lives and what we do in the name of our faith in the world. Not throwing away tradition, or God’s Word, keeping the blessings of belief that Jesus as our God, guide and friend, but understanding that the way we read together must be dynamic and able to respond to the needs of all of God’s people. When we share and are lovingly critical of one another's understanding of things, we open space for the spirit of God to change us, to open us to who God is in the world and in our lives in new ways.

      And that is exactly how we come to celebrate the Scottish Reformation. A group of people who in the midst of great turmoil in the church and the world, knew what they believed in what God called them to say about their faith, even in the face of death and jail for saying it. This reformation happened at a time when much was in upheaval and the world and the church as they knew it was changing. The opening lines say “We confess and acknowledge one God alone, to whom alone we must cleave, whom alone we must serve, whom only we must worship, and in whom alone we put our trust.”

 

Lofty words, and formal sounding and possibly stuffy to our modern and postmodern ears, but at the time revolutionary and confrontational words. Even here with this confession that has been in one form or another a part of our Presbyterian heritage since its writing in 1560- but it was written as an affirmation of faith yes, it parallels the structure and content of the Apostle’s creed, but it also was a refutation of the rule of the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots and the ongoing battles between her and the parliament of the time over what the state religion should be. It includes many things which we as Calvinists and Presbyterians still hold true today-

  • that from God alone comes salvation,

  • that Good Works do not determine our salvation but are a grateful response to the grace we cannot earn, but have in Jesus,

  • that the Church in the world is God’s and that we are sinners, unable to save ourselves no matter how hard we try.

But as a text it also includes things that we no longer believe-

  • that women who preach and lead the sacraments are evil and working for satan (at least I hope you don’t believe that),

  • that Jewish people are satan followers and not a part of God’s family,

  • that the Catholic church is corrupt and evil

  • and that all churches that either do not baptize infants, or in which a pastor does not personally examine everyone who comes to comunion ahead of time for their worthiness are not a part of God’s true church,

  • and that leaders- kings and other civil leadership, are ordained by God, and to be followed unquestioningly-

certainly not things we believe in our time and place.

This is why it is good to remember another legacy that comes to us from the time of our heritage with the Scots Confession, that we are a Reformed and always Reforming people- which in its original meaning did not mean we were always changing or throwing out tradition, but instead that we were in a constant state of self examination for what the Spirit was guiding us to do, and in fact, in its origins the cultural assumption of the re-formation was that we would return to the root of our faith, and most likely to older ways of being and living faith if we were doing this reformation well. As a fundamental part of our traditions, it means we are, or should be, always ready to change, but to do so always with God’s guidance and the voice of history as a part of how we choose to change. This Reforming tradition should probably make us all uncomfortable, just as Jesus’ words and actions often should...if we return to his guidance we hear both that he is the shepherd and the gate who will give us abundant life, but also that he has sheep in other pastures that we don’t know about, that he calls us to carry his yoke which will be light and good, but that any time we do not feed, clothe, visit, or care for one of our siblings in the world we have done so to him as well. An uncomfortable balance, we are loved but called, cared for but always meant to care for one another.

The heritage of being a follower of this Jesus, and the heritage of our Scottish roots and Reformation faith mean that we should probably always be a bit intimidated by what it means to be God’s child, that we should know that we are God’s while also knowing we fall far short of deserving that distinction, that we will inevitably get things wrong and so we must repent and try a different path when we do, and that our lives are in God’s hands to protect as a shepherd, to guide as a community within the pasture, and to lead as the one who knows where we are going.

Our reliance on scripture gives us a story to tell and a path to lead us, our history with the confessions, at it best, show us both the goodness and truth of our tradition and, at our worst, the ways that history, culture and human fallibility can lead us astray- they give us both hope and humility, and the two together make us who we are as Presbyterians, Reformed Christians, and God’s people in our particular history and context.

Both Scripture and Confessions guide us toward what story we will have to tell next, and give us the opportunity to tell it in new Confessions rooted in tradition, scripture and the guidance of God. We do not know where that will lead us, but we do know its re-formation of us as a people will be ours and God’s journey to take together. So let us continue to follow the Shepherd down this path, and see what adventures of faith it might take us on, as it took our predecessors in faith on theirs.

Good Friday Meditation

Good Friday Meditation

April 14, 2017

First Presbyterian Church Norman, OK

 

What is so Good about this night? Etymologically there are two explanations of how we came to call this day ‘Good Friday’ the lesser one is that it is a corruption of God Friday the most commonly believed explanation is that it is meant to be synonymous with ‘holy friday’. But whether tonight is the worship and storytelling of ‘good’ or ‘holy’ I have always found the name and implications of the name to be a struggle.

What could be good about the public execution of God? I know there are plenty of ways to answer that, but taken on its own merit, without regard for the resurrection, I find very little that makes me comfortable saying that the death of Jesus was good or holy, other than that Jesus himself was good and holy. And we killed him for it.

This Lent has been one of the hardest I have lived personally. My dear friend Deirdre died on Thursday March 23, 22 days after Lent began and following a heart attack that happened the evening of Sunday March 5, just 4 days after Ash Wednesday. So I have walked nearly all of Lent knowing that this night would come and that tonight’s story would be different this time, it's walk and details would be closer this year, its poignancy and horror more real for me this time. And I walked toward tonight hoping that in the story I might find peace and recognition.

Because that is the paradox of being a follower of Christ- knowing that in a real way there is still brokenness, sadness, and even horror in death- That is why we tell tonight’s story. Jesus’ death, the death of those we love with all that we are, or the horrors of the deaths of people across the world when our nation bombs other countries...it’s all horrible, every lost life, lost to malnutrition, unclean water, epidemic, or warfare, to old age,  cancer, AIDS, by gunshot or bombing, by suicide, or public execution. Every single one is a tragedy, a scandal, is worthy of our mourning. But we don’t mourn them all. We largely only mourn the ones whose names and faces we knew or the ones that include so many souls we can no longer ignore them. And in this I can find goodness and holiness in the death of Jesus. In that he lived life like us, as we know, but he also died, and died in such a shameful, public, undeniable way that there is no question that he did it. If he had died at home, or been executed in a way that was not so public, or had lived to an old age, we might not be able to find solidarity with God in his death.

The horror of this experience is shame on all of us, all who follow him, for we in small ways and systematic ones, behave just like Judas and Pontius Pilate, and the soldiers, and the crowd shouting ‘Crucify him’, the fear and shame filled Disciples. But so is the holiness, for we also, as his people, catch glimpses of solidarity with God in the holy moments of life and of death, we see what is True past our own fears and misconceptions and perspectives, we join with God in mourning when life is lost. And in those ways we see the holy, we know the Truth and we are convicted again that the work of the cross that is done for us is not about a sacrifice made, wholly separate from us,  to give us all freedom from sin, but to free us from bondage to sin, to give us the freedom to act a different way, because he acted differently.

We will celebrate the miraculous and the Godly part of this story on Sunday. But tonight we dwell with the final and most human act of Jesus the man. In death Jesus was the ultimate human- his frail human body died, and left behind its physical brokenness. And we don’t know what it is like after that,  we don’t know the experience of death except in the holes it leaves for those of us who remain here.

Jesus tonight leaves that hole in us, that space where we miss him in everyday conversations and in big ‘help me’ moments, and in spaces of quiet when we are alone and think of him- just like the holes left by those we love now when they die. And we know he will be the one, because he is God, who returns and fills that hole on Sunday. But for now, for tonight and for tomorrow, we are left in the midst of the story- the story of our lives, and the end of his….to sit in the darkness and feel the hole in our spirit left by his absence in these good and holy days. And its ok, because feeling those holes, we remember...we find solidarity in knowing that Jesus, just like everyone we have loved and lost, loves us, wants goodness and holiness for us, and keeps us with him even in death.

Keeping Up With Jesus: A Palm Sunday Sermon

 

Keeping Up With Jesus

A Palm Sunday Sermon

Jessica Dixon

Sunday April 8, 2017

First Presbyterian Church

Norman, OK

 

Matthew 21:1-11 12-17

“All glory laud and honor to the Redeemer king to whom the lips of children made sweet hosannas sing.” It's Palm Sunday, a day that we do up with great pageantry and joy, a day that we remember Jesus is triumphant entrance into the city of Jerusalem. The day we tell the first part of the story of the week of Jesus walk towards a cross on a hill, and an empty tomb. Today we remember that Jesus was acknowledged as the King, as the Son of David, the one sent from God, while he was here with us, this one time by the crowds. Not just his Disciples and those closest to him, but the people of the holy city as well... The day we remember that they understood it all wrong.

Jesus tells his Disciples to go and get the donkey and the colt, so that he might fulfill the prophecy, they make things ready and he enters the city to fanfare. But what comes next? Today’s lectionary text, the first 11 verses of the 21st chapter of Matthew is only the first half of the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. We leave out the second half because it is far less comfortable, and if we are honest it makes our ‘Hosannas’ ring a bit empty.

In Matthew the rest of the story of Palm Sunday is Jesus enraged flipping tables and calling the sellers of offerings crooks. In the short walk from Bethpage to the Temple, Jesus goes from being a friend and teacher to the disciples, to a long awaited king and prophet to the gathered crowd, to a religious revolutionary in the temple. Can we keep up with that walk?  

In an article from Presbyterian Outlook from 2005 that circulated in my preaching circles this week the author  Kristine Jane Jensen sites  “Jewish philosopher, Abraham Joshua Heschel, once wrote that “religion begins in mystery, but ends in politics.”” She goes on to explore how this walk of Jesus that we do up every year, was really a revolutionary act, and not just a religious revolution but a political one. She says of this beginning of the Holy Week story “On that first Palm Sunday, Jesus would have ridden his gentle steed down the Gethsemane Incline, across the Jericho Road, and up the rocky slopes to the city that he loved. He would have entered through the portals of Solomon’s temple and perhaps passed the courts of the gentiles and women, finally coming upon the sight of merchants and bankers exacting exorbitant rates of exchange from the poor. If there had been any doubt of his impending confrontation with Roman and Jewish authorities, Jesus’ scathing rebuke and upending of the money tables sealed his fate. In the few thousand meters between Gethsemane and Jerusalem, the man of mystery became a force that would redefine political power for all time.”

She goes on to say

“Jesus evolves from the patient healer of two blind men sitting by the roadside into a man driven to honor his father’s house by cleansing the temple of those who would debase it by bilking the poor. From the tranquility of the garden he would return to within the week, to the chaotic streets of the city that would break his heart, Jesus was transformed that first Palm Sunday from a man of mystery to a revolutionary.”

In the short space from Bethpage to the Temple, and a thousand feet from Gethsemane to the Temple Wall, Jesus, I am quite certain intentionally or at least consciously, began his walk toward the cross. And his Disciples, the people in the streets, and even the Temple leadership and those he healed there, missed what was happening. The joy and hope of those in the streets, the outrage of the dove sellers in the temple, the righteous indignation of the chief priests, and the anticipation of his closest followers miss that the story being lived out before their eyes, the life they can reach out and touch, is not walking the path of worldly power, kingly privilege, marshal might, or priestly piety as they know it, and as they expect from their Messiah. He has come to be the Lamb of God, he knows what is ahead, and the horror of the coming days.

Would we be able to walk that path with him and know the Truth of God’s way, when those who were there could not?

And can we blame Jesus for flipping tables? He, himself, will be the ultimate sacrifice, supplanting any need for us to have money changers and usurious merchants selling doves and other sacrificial animals in the temple. He gives us what we can not get for ourselves without the corrupting influence of commerce and power. He gives us God’s presence and peace. Knowing what is ahead of him he walks into the temple and kicks out those who make a mockery of what he is about to do. And what do they say? “Do you hear what these children are saying?” they are angry that he would allow children to praise him, even angry that he is living the prophecies.  Missing out at every turn.

If we are paying attention, we realize we know something no one but Jesus knows in this story- we know that he is going to die. Even the Disciples who have heard him say it over and over, hold out hope that it will not happen, and are in denial. But we know, the path he has begun walking begins with ‘hosanna’ and those words on the lips of children and townspeople will turn to ‘crucify him’ before the week is out. They are not able to walk the path he has begun. They become bystanders not to the glory they expect, but instead to simplicity and sacrifice, to peace and justice made out of injustice.

The truth is, we enjoy shouting ‘hosanna’ just like they did. We like it because it is clear. It declares the Lord-hood of Jesus, it makes us feel good to be on the right side of things. But if we cannot bear witness to an upper room, prayer in a garden, betrayal, arrest, torture, and public murder, then we cannot keep up with Jesus. Jesus lives those things alone, for even those closest to him are confused by his words at the last supper, they fall sleep in the garden of prayer, betray him for financial gain and deny that they know him for their own safety. By the time Jesus reaches the cross he really is the Man of Sorrows, but that loneliness, begins for certain by the time he enters Jerusalem to shouts of adulation for they are right, but they do not understand. No one could keep up. We can’t keep up.

So we shout ‘hosanna to the Son of David’ with great joy- and we should, for that is who he is. But we also know the rest of the story once the crowds disburse, once we leave worship. So go into this Holiest of Weeks and remember.

Go into this week and walk the path of Jesus.

Shout ‘Hosanna’ today

      but hear ‘this is my body, broken for you’ on Thursday,

           and shout ‘crucify him’ with the crowd on Friday,

                  and mourn with the women on Saturday,

                         so that you might return here next Sunday knowing the full power of ‘he is          

                              risen’/’he is risen indeed’

Power that comes not only from the joy of God’s redeeming resurrection, but from the whole of the walk of a Palestinian Jew from birth where there was no room for him, to refugee status in Egypt, to Baptism in the Jordan, to teaching and performing miracles as an itinerant Rabbi, to this very moment and shouts of ‘Hosanna’, and on through the horrific, painful walk up Calvary. The grace that comes in ‘hosanna’ are yours today and always, because he walked a path we cannot keep up with, and he did it for us who love him and chase after him even knowing we cannot hope to keep up. Amen.

Mountain Top Faith

Mountaintop Faith

Sunday February 24, 2017

First Presbyterian Church

Norman, OK

Exodus 24:12-18, Matthew 17:1-9 

Today is transfiguration Sunday. A day when the church calendar, in preparing us for the beginning of Lent this week, gives us the story of how Jesus and God prepared themselves and the disciples for Jesus’ coming death and resurrection. Our story begins today with the words “six days later” and any time I come to a lesson plan or sermon lectionary text that begins this way or with “next” or “After that” I first go back and read the story that came before so that I know what happened six days before, or after what. In the case of the story of the transfiguration of Jesus in Matthew what happened six days before was the foretelling of Jesus death to the disciples. For the previous week to this story, jesus’ closest friends have been processing his words that he is to die.

And then, six days later he takes Peter, James and John up the side of a mountain, and all it tells us is that there he is transfigured- he shines bright as the sun and Moses and Elijah appear with him, talking to him.

And then comes the part where our human story enters this miraculous God story- Peter says to Jesus ‘let me build shrines here- one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah. This, from a human friend of Jesus’ and the one who, in the previous story was not only told that his friend will die but that once he is gone, this one will be in charge of his people- he will be the rock of the church. This one says ‘hey, let’s stay here. Let’s stick with this moment when your godliness is visible, we are safe, and in some way life makes sense’. But his dreams of safety and clarity and long term stability are, as they regularly are with Jesus, immediately turned on their heads. A booming voice comes from the sky and says “This is my Son whom I dearly love. I am very pleased with him. Listen to him!”- a familiar refrain in the Gospels with the addition this time of ‘listen to him’.

The Spirit has come and reminded these humans that Jesus is God’s and that he is dear to God and ended with a reminder that they are to hear him. So then Jesus tells them to get up off their knees (I imagine they were understandably agog at this whole thing- Jesus shines, the patriarch and prophet appear with him, and then the Spirit and voice of God come- one's ego would have to be particularly large not to notice how big a deal all of this is) and he tells them to not be afraid- a voice we also hear again and again throughout the whole of scripture- when humans encounter the divine- from angels, to symbols of God, to God’s very self, the first assurance they need is not to fear.  

And then things are back to normal, in a movie I imagine it like when Dorothy wakes up and everything has gone back to black and white. She is confused, she knows they were all with her, but also that it can’t be what it seemed. The disciples walk back down the path, and I imagine, just as with all euphoric or ‘mountain top’ experiences, they begin to feel let down. They feel the return to everyday and are a bit disappointed that what Peter asked cannot happen- they can’t remain at the top of the mountain with Moses, Elijah and Jesus, they can’t spend all their time hearing clear instructions from God’s Spirit. No- life Goes on, lions, and tin men, and scarecrows are really just neighbors, yellow brick roads are in scarce supply, and the battle of good witches and bad ones is far less clear...Dorothy, just like the disciples returns to life and has to figure out what to do and be after the big technicolor experience.

And then, when we reach the spot where things seem down, Jesus adds one more idea- they can’t tell about him and what has happened until he has died and been raised. I would imagine this is tough for Peter James and John. Why can’t they tell?

I have always wondered this- as an evangelist people- ones who are called by the story of God and Jesus to go and tell, to make disciples, to invite people to the table and faunt, why can’t they tell right then?

And I think the answer is very complicated- what could Jesus want for them that would mean they couldn’t tell yet? What more do they need to tell this story?I think of times I have learned ideas and stories that were revolutionary to me- when I began to learn about how LGBT people are treated in our world and the injustice and hate that folks face every day of their lives. Or when I began to learn the realities of current racism and the realities of daily small microaggressions and huge injustices like today remembering the 5 year anniversary of the murder of Trayvon Martin,  I began to learn the language and tools of anti-racism and the deep rooted and profound ways people of color in our nation and world know the world to be a different and scarier place than those of us born with the privilege of white skin. Or even when I started studying the geometry of Euclid in college and discovered that math can be not just useful but also beautiful… to say nothing of the mountain tops in my faith.

But each of these times I saw a shining new thing, if I had metaphorically come down from those mountains and shared right away I would have done a disservice to the thing I wanted so desperately to share, and also to those I wished so thoroughly to know the beautiful and hard new thing that I knew. No, in each of those cases I needed to wait, to take my new transformation and not just share it, but to continue to learn and to ultimately keep showing up, bearing witness, and learning.

I have always thought of Jesus words to the three here to be somewhat harsh- how could he ask them not to give the world the thing they had been given? But in reflecting on the story this time, I see that perhaps he is actually asking them to care for themselves so that they can tell the best story, the most true story, possible when they do tell it. They have more to learn, to experience and to share together before they are ready to tell this transformation story.

They can already tell the story of Jesus and of God- that they know Jesus is God, that they know he has come to set us all free, that his life is to end to save us all, but right now the story of the mountaintop and the story of how his visible transformation has transformed them has to wait, because it has to be completed.

So perhaps this is not just the story of the transfiguration of Jesus, but the story of the transfiguration of Peter James and John- the story of how they begin to be the ones who truly can tell the world the story of this man, this God, who would give up everything, even his life, so that we might all have love and freedom from the bondage of sin and death. Perhaps Jesus words at the end of the story are words we might want to heed in these days- are there places in your life where you are seeing a new thing, a new and painful and beautiful thing- if so is it perhaps a time where you need to show up (literally or figuratively) every day- bear witness, offer your presence, add your story to the bigger one, but where you are called to speak only for yourself for now, and not to tell someone elses’ story because you don’t know enough about it yet?

In these strange and hard times it is easy (especially for us privileged ones who have always had a voice) to want to tell the story of people whose stories we see drowned out by the common story- to tell their story for them so that it is heard instead of demanding that they be given the space to tell their own story. In these times it is hard to remember that just because we have ‘seen the light’ doesn’t mean we know yet how to share it, that perhaps we should leave the telling to those whose light we have seen and show up to be partners where our stories can shine light instead of stealing another’s lantern to shine it in a new place.

Maybe Jesus asks them not to tell his story yet because he has more story to tell himself- the story of a table set and all invited, the story of bloody sacrifice at the hands of the government aided by the voices of religion, the story of broken hearted friends visited in miraculous ways and cared for by their God...they can only tell his story once they have lived it.

They can only tell his story once they have seen it all- good and bad, scary and comforting, disappointing and miraculous- because before that point they would tell the wrong story.  Coming of the mountain they would tell the story of joy and protection, of the power of God in vibrant technicolor and the clear presence of the patriarchs and prophets- but what they, and the people, need to hear in that story of wonder, the only way the story has lasted all this time to be here for us to consider today, is in knowing that that mountain top was followed even for God by some dark valleys, some scary alleyways and in the end by death and the miraculous overcoming of death by a God whose love is so much bigger than even death.
So church,

What mountaintop have you come down from?   

    What story are you still living but cannot yet tell?

       What story of mountaintop, cross, and resurrection is yours to tell in these days?

 

Salty and Blinding- a sermon on Matthew 5:13-20 and 1 Corinthians 2:1-12


Salty and Blinding

Sermon from January 12, 2017

First Presbyterian Church Norman OK

 

1 Corinthians 2:1-12and Matthew 5:13-20

You are the salt of the earth! Don’t lose your flavor! You are the light of the world! Don’t hide your brightness, instead let it shine for all to see! 
...I’m done now right? 

Today’s Gospel text is a part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, and I always feel silly preaching about a sermon...especially a sermon Jesus gave. What more is there to say?
    But of course, in good Presbyterian and pastor fashion, there is always more to say. Like what does it mean to be salt or light? Jesus says to those hearing him, and has said to the church for two thousand years that we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world...but unless we all magically become NaCl or both particles and waves simultaneously, we cannot take these words literally. What did it mean in his time to say we are salt and light? And what might it mean for ours?
    First lets look at the conclusion of this section, what does Jesus say it means to be salty and let your light shine? He says “so they can see the good things you do and praise your Father who is in heaven.” So this salty and blinding thing is about what we do, and how it helps others to praise God. So it's both about our behavior and how we are in community. But what might that mean practically for those of us who believe in and follow him in our lives in our time? We are all, at surface asked to be salty and bright. We are asked also to follow the law of God and do good. But what does that mean about our faith and following Jesus? 
Last week (when this was actually the lectionary text) my aunt preached a courageous sermon about her journey right now with depression, and how this language about being salty can be damaging to us as faithful people when we struggle. When our bodies, our brain chemistry or our physical ability, betray us it can feel like we have lost our saltiness. And pairing those things- mental health, physical health, disability, with this text can often lead us to ableism and to the idea that if we are not healthy or able-bodied like we once were (or even if we never were) than we have done something wrong- because our salt is no longer salty and we are then only to be ‘cast out’ in Jesus’ own words. But I don’t think that is what Jesus means here. Jesus is speaking about faith in action. And these bodily struggles of mind and being can cause us to struggle in our faith too, but is that actually a detraction from our faith and its saltiness? -- it certainly can feel like it, but that is perhaps not what Jesus is talking about either. This saltiness is not alone, it is paired with the light- that we are to display to the world. And we display it, as Jesus says by doing good. So this, as so many things when it comes to faith and Jesus, is complicated- it's not only about what we believe and how much faith we have, it's also not only about how correctly we behave with one another in the community of our siblings in faith and in the world...no the answer must be found somewhere in between... Isn't that obnoxious? 
 I, and I assume often the disciples and others who followed Jesus, sometimes hear his words and want to say
“BUT WHAT DOES THAT MEAN? can’t you just tell me what to do?” and here, perhaps, Jesus goes on to do just that. In verses 17-20 he goes on to talk about following the law, and how we should do it with faithfulness and righteousness. This seems like a complete non-sequitur to the much more flowery words about salt and light, but I think it could be the answer Jesus gave the crowd about how to do this salt and light thing in the hard times. I think, Jesus being a teacher and pastor, foresaw their questions, and ours, about how to struggle with being a beacon or seasoning, and gives us an answer. It's not any easier than those things, but it does give us tools. He says be salt! Be light! But when you feel neither flavorful nor bright...follow the law and the prophets. Even when your light has found a bushel basket instead of a lamp stand, even then, when you are tired or hurting or distracted. Even then, God has given you the law of your people. And it can help you find your way back to saltiness and light. 

And then, when we add in Paul’s words for today, we might hear a few echoes of Jesus’ idea about faith and living. In the second chapter of 1 Corinthians, Paul talks about the manner in which he preaches- without care for being an expert in speech giving, or wisdom. Instead he says he cares about speaking with the spirit and with power. 
Now, I think this is a difficult thing for us “frozen-chosen”, often highly educated, and when it comes to church and worship focused on ‘quality preaching’ (by which we mean in-depth exegesis and historical/critical method is applied, and the one preaching as a 3 year masters in all that it means to be a pastor, and that the sermon is preached in a tonally and stylistically engaging way) Presbyterians to understand or relate to. I think here Paul is in one sense saying that those things- the education level, stylistic and theological training of the preacher- do not matter. And I agree with him. He goes on to talk about how the Spirit and God have engaged humanity, how God changes things, and has prepared the world for those who love God. God’s wisdom is in secret, and that the world’s wisdom will not know God’s wisdom. 
He also says that God does all of this goodness and newness for those who LOVE God- hear that again- God does all of this for those who Love God. Not those who study God, or who show up at every worship service available, or who bake the most casseroles for potlucks, or attend the most Sunday School classes, or ask the best questions at Confirmation, or attended the most committee meetings...here Paul doesn’t even say those who have fed the most hungry people, clothed the most naked people, helped the most imprisoned people, visited the most lonely people (although Matthew 25 makes a good argument that that might be Jesus’ yardstick for who loves God). No, here Paul’s main distinction is that loving God is all that defines us as faithful people. 
He writes these words to the church in Corinth. Who were deeply divided about what teacher or pastor to follow and which one was RIGHT (in all caps). Paul here reminds them that it's not about that, both that Jesus is the only litmus test for a good teacher and a good follower, and that being divided by which teacher to follow is exactly counter to what Jesus and the call of God in their lives would want. 
What on earth do you think Paul would think of all our denominations? The fundamental question of faith that the people of Corinth seemed to be fighting about was which teacher to follow, and the answer Paul gives is that that is the wrong question. The inkling of an answer he gives might be- love is the only test- love for God and for one another, and that is (to get back to Jesus) the summation of the Law and the Prophets. And, in Corinth it looks like they are failing that test by being divided by who to follow- ...How are we doing on that count church? How are you doing in your life? I hear lots of talk in church- at meetings, from our youth, at Presbytery, at conferences- in passing comments and ‘jokes’ about other denominations- critical and often snarky and not very nice things. 
I hear these things from our youth, which means we are all saying these things or they wouldn’t have them to share- that ‘those churches pastors aren't as educated’, ‘their congregations not as organized’, ‘their service too inward focused’, ‘their theology too restrictive’, or ‘too strange’...but what do those things matter? If I meet someone who also claims Jesus Christ as their lord and savior, and who loves God, then they are my brother or sister or sibling in Christ...and if that is true than I should get over thinkinking first “well, they follow that pastor or theology, so we won’t agree” My faith in Christ is not only dependent on the particularities of my theology, it is dependent on the love I feel for God that goes into my bones, that invades all that I am and all that I do. And if you say the same is true for you, then you are my sibling. 
But let’s be real, none of us actually act that way, and there are real, deep reasons that are important too that make that so. 
If a person’s  church denies the humanity of people based on who they love or the particularity of how their bodies were created, or where they were born, then we have a deep difference of theology about who and how God loves people,
 if that person’s church wouldn’t let me preach because I am a woman, then we have a big difference in thought about how God’s wisdom works through all people,
 if that person’s church insists that my faith in Jesus is not enough for me to join them at the Lord’s table, then we have a difference about who God welcomes,
 on and on…
these are vital differences that mean we have many churches in the world...but they are also not enough that our faith should be labeled by them. I am a Christian, a lover and follower of Jesus Christ, and the fact that I am and have always been a Presbyterian only means that maybe we have a common (or different) vernacular for how we talk together about being lovers and followers of Jesus. We have particular issues to discuss and confront- and it is important that we do so, but we are called today by Jesus and by Paul to do that work together as the Body of Christ.
Today Paul talks about what it means to find unity in the church, and to be faithful to the wisdom of God and not of the world, Jesus talks about what it means to show your faith to the world- to know the love of God and to give it to the world. Simple enough, right? Go and love God, do good, and when all else fails follow God’s law and calling. We are done right?

But then we step away from our bibles, we leave worship, and I am paralyzed, I bet many of us are, by what that means in these days to be faithful in our world… for me I walk into the world and my brain goes crazy...
does it mean I should or shouldn’t go to a march? Am I excluding people I love by deciding and acting on my understanding that a particular political reality of our time is too much to stand for and joining others in marching in the streets? 
Does following Jesus and showing the love of God mean I should or shouldn’t call my representative’s office every day to let them know how i feel about what is going on in our nation and they way they choose to represent me in voting? 
Does it mean I should do nothing and stay out of the way because I can see people on all sides being hurt in my life by what is going on. 
Does it mean I should be writing intractable caps locked diatribes on Facebook just like the friends I know on both sides of our nation’s politics do?
 Does it mean I should closed down my facebook altogether because it clearly doesn't accomplish anything to yell into that void?
How do I protect the people in my life who I love but who are being called names by our president and whose lives are clearly less important to him and our leaders than some perceived safety for others.  
How do I use the privilege I have as a white person, an educated person, a person with wealth, a person with physical vitality or with the privilege of being cis-gender and straight so that those who don’t have those privileges are not harmed or killed for not having them? 

Fortunately for us all, whether we call ourselves Presbyterians or Baptists, liberal or conservative, whether we think or nation is headed in the right direction or not, have the same call on our lives we have ever had as ones who claim the name and the love of Jesus...to Love God and one another, and to show forth our faith whenever we can by doing good in God’s world. 
So when we are overwhelmed by things- the way our bodies and minds are created or happen to be working right now, or how the politics of our nation seem to invade every part of our lives with difficulty and fear, we know that we have that love and God’s community to fall back on, and have that love and community to challenge us to do better, to work with us when we need to heal, and to work toward unity in the Body of Christ and peace and justice in our world...just like Paul reminded and the church in Corinth, and just like Jesus asks us all in the Sermon on the Mount. 
So let’s go and be salty and blinding in our love and goodness, today and all days! 

Epiphany, New Year and 2017

January 1, 2017 sermon

Epiphany Sunday

First Presbyterian Church Norman

Magi on the Way

A sermon on Matthew 2

 Happy New Year! In the world (or much of it anyway) it is a new year today, and in the church it is the Sunday we celebrate the visitation of the Wise Men/Magi/sages from the east to see the toddler Jesus. Epiphany Sunday is one of my favorites (although I think I say that a lot) and often a strange Sunday in the life of the church- we have lived to abundance both the religious story of a child-God born in a manger, and the secular story of abundance of things, and food, and family. Both stories often leave us feeling worn out, overwhelmed, and unprepared to return to the ‘real world’ of our daily lives and even for the return to the daily life of the church. Which is why I give thanks every year for the story of the Wise Men.

These mysterious characters from the east enter the story and help us to dwell in some of that confusion- where is the child now? What place does he have now that he is here and no longer just a promise from God? What was his life like and how did the world know and treat him?

The Wise Men help us have glimpses of the answers to all of these questions, and also allow us to hold on to the story of Christmas for one more week, after all today is only the eighth day of Christmas.

However the story also truly challenges us to live into the new year of the World’s calendar in new ways. For there is a great honor and glory and joy in the story of the Wise Men and their visit to Jesus, but there is also the coming of prophecy that means fear and death and sadness for many.

The Wise Men come to visit Jesus in the beginning of chapter 2 of Matthew with the part of the story we are most familiar with. Eastern sages following a star come to meet the king of the Jews, and first they meet the living king, the one that the world recognizes, a man named Herod and he lives in Jerusalem. They go and visit him and they ask such a strange question ‘where is the newborn king of the Jews?’ This question makes perfect sense to the visitors, their work as eastern mystics and magi and kings (however we defined them) probably meant that they used astrology to figure out that this king was coming, and they knew what they had seen, something so important it brought them from far away.

But to Herod as a political figure put in place by the Roman empire to help keep the Jewish people under their thumb this news was a major threat. Even though he was a Jewish leader, the fulfilling of this prophecy was not a welcome event, it threatened his power, his position, and his understanding of who he was in the world. The coming of the king of the Jews meant far more to him than the joyful work of God in the world, it meant quite the opposite in fact. And so he schemes, and the Wise Men don't see it, so when Herod sends them off to meet Jesus after they hear the prophecy that the child is to be born in Bethlehem they don't know that he has ulterior motives when he asks for them to come back and tell him what they have seen.

So the Wise Men go on their way they had to Bethlehem and they meet the child with his mother and they offer him gifts gold, frankincense and myrrh.  These gifts hold twofold importance and symbolism in the story. All three are gifts that one would give to a king indeed, gifts that were for powerful, rich, high class people; but they are all also in someway related to the knowledge that one will die for both frankincense and myrrh are tools used in the rituals around death in the cultures of the Middle East where the story took place. But it is no doubt that they were gifts of great honor, brought by strangers, who came to meet him because they saw him in a prophecy. But they came thinking that they were going to meet a king or probably more likely the child of the king, who already held power by the world’s understanding, even as a child.  And in the end they find a child staying with family in the bethlehem countryside. Not at all what anyone expected.

 

Then, an angel shows up again, tells them of King Herod's intentions, and sends them home by another route. And most of the time when we tell the story in Christmas pageants and Christmas eve Worship that's where the story ends. But it's not actually the end of this part of Jesus’ life or story of his family.

The second chapter of Matthew is one story, or one whole piece of the story of Jesus beginnings, and we generally only like to read the first half. The rest is not friendly, fun, or easily told as a fun story to put in the Christmas pageant, so we often leave it out altogether because it is too hard to tell.

These magi show up with their convictions and their predictions and it turns out to be true- the prophecy that the Messiah will come, has come true in Bethlehem. While this is a great blessing to us in the story, and was a great blessing to the people back then, it is nothing but a threat to the powers-that-be at the time of Jesus.

So the next thing that happens after the Wise Men get their warning and go home by another way is that Joseph gets a warning too. The warning comes from an angel and tells Joseph to take the child and to escape to Egypt and to stay there until that he's told otherwise, because Herod will search for the child and try to kill him.  Joseph and the family get up in the night and take the child and go to Egypt and stay there until the death of Herod. Probably about seven years.

Not long after they leave, Herod’s rage turns to murder. He send soldiers to kill all the children in Bethlehem and the surrounding country who were two years old and younger. The murder of the innocence was foretold in the prophet Jeremiah in words that express the grief and great tragedy of a community under the oppressive force of a king only out for his own good. The murder of the innocence is one of the most difficult stories we tell in the life of Jesus up to the resurrection. And in some ways possibly even more difficult than that story- Jesus was an adult, he had agency, he was God, and could make the choice to allow his life to end the way that it does, the many children of Bethlehem and their families did not have that choice. This mass murder is one of the most difficult parts of the Gospel and that’s probably why it is a story we often overlook.

The discomfort Jesus causes  both Roman and the Jewish leadership throughout his life become very significant in his ministry. But here we hear a story about how that disruption begins long before he has the ability to engage with them or do anything or create this discomfort on purpose. Just being born does that. Even after Herod's death things are not safe for them in Bethlehem and so Joseph takes them back and they settle in Nazareth instead. Just being alive and present makes Jesus a problem long before he teaches in the temple, gathers followers, or disrupts the status quo of religious and secular life.

Things are never safe for Jesus and his own homeland, they were not safe for these Wise Men visitors- important men but from far away. No, the story of Jesus is the story of all people or left out, and not just left out but ostracized, and forcibly harmed for being who they are. When even the presence of God’s self in the world is met with murder, Fear, and exile- the story of the man and the God who would come in our midst becomes, and always was, the story of the God who loves those who are most vulnerable in our world.    

In this new year, 2017, we have much to worry about- in particular a new president, new power shifts in our government- and many of our society’s most vulnerable people are feeling the greatest fear of being harmed by either our government or their fellow people that they have known in a lifetime. And in the face of their fear they have received by the broad voice of our society nothing but hushing, calls for silence, and eyes turned away from their needs. Many have also been told that their fear is unfounded, and that they should just calm down and wait and see what happens. This silencing one is a voice of our culture not actually caring about its members- those who fear should be listened to, offered solidarity and companionship in their struggles, and allowed to know, especially from those of us who follow the Way of one who was born an outcast, lived a refugee and a vulnerable child, that they are not alone or unvalued in the world. Making this the truth will be a big task in this year ahead, it will not be easy in this time, but it is our task, because Christ, the Messiah, came and lived its reality so that we might know it is our work too.

The folk and pop singer James Taylor has a song on one of his albums called Home By Another Way, about the Wise Men in which he tells us a bit about this too, and a pastor blogging in 2008 offers some context -

 

“‘Steer clear of royal welcomes

Avoid a big to-do

A king who would slaughter the innocents

Will not cut a deal for you

He really, really wants those presents

He’ll comb your camel’s fur

Until his boys announce they’ve found trace amounts

Of your frankincense, gold and myrrh’

 

And so, as we remember this Epiphany, we stand in the sandals of the Magi and are offered a choice. The choice whether to sell Jesus out for money and power and security or to sell ourselves to Jesus. The words of Joshua echo through the ages “Choose you this day who you will serve.

The words of Christ Himself remind us that we can give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, but we must never give him what is God’s.

Every day of our lives, the Powers that Be demand our loyalties. Every day of our lives, Christ offers us a choice between kings.”

 

Knowing words from two men who live life like we do- with comfort, with enough, and most of us with large measures of security. We are warned again and again by the scriptures and by poets, prophets and mystics throughout time that God’s way is the right path, the right star to follow- the way of creation, justice, peace, joy and love, and it is not the way of worldly power, human ego, and frailty.

 

So as you begin this new year

what path is the star calling you to go down?

What Herods are you being asked to face, to know and to outwit?

What exile is God giving you as safety from harm?

What new home will you find at your journey’s end when you heed the warning of angels and return home by another way?

 

Christmas is not an easy story, the story of Jesus and God’s entrance into the world, and his life lived, and ended, and redeemed should and does always challenge us if we are paying attention, and this year is no different. We each walk our own paths, and meet our own King Herods along the way- but as a community of faith, a town, and a nation we will face many struggles this year, and for me, and I hope for us here in our life together at First Presbyterian, the way of the star, the way of exile, the way of God in Jesus Christ will lead us to true Justice that comes before Peace, Bravery in the knowledge that we are God’s, Humility in the knowledge that we cannot do any of it on our own, and strength in the knowledge that ours is a way of good and love.

Christmas is a scandal, the Wise Men knew it, and we should too, and we should be led out to do the work of Christmas in the times ahead for in the words of theologian, educator, and civil rights leader Howard Thurman:

 

When the song of the angels is stilled,

when the star in the sky is gone,

when the kings and princes are home,

when the shepherds are back with their flocks,

the work of Christmas begins:

to find the lost,

to heal the broken,

to feed the hungry,

to release the prisoner,

to rebuild the nations,

to bring peace among the people,

to make music in the heart.

 

So go into this year and heed the warning of angels, choose the path of the Wise Men, and live your life in the joy of the Christmas story and the presence of God in our world- and heed the call of Jesus and the poet- to feed, to heal, to release, to rebuild, to bring peace, and to make music. Today and all days. Amen.

The Longest Night of the Year

Tonight is the winter solstice, or the longest night of the year. For many churches it has become a night for a prayer service where the hard times and emotions of Christmas are acknowledged, named and given to God as we move toward shorter days and more light in the world and in the coming of Christ in the season. I led one of these services tonight. below is much of the order of service and my sermon. I hope it can help those who read it in seeing and naming and dwelling with their struggles in this time in a way that can find glimmers of light and hope. The liturgy is taken from or adapted from a book called Candles and Conifers from the Iona community or from the PCUSA Book of Common Worship.

 

Longest Night Meditation

November 21, 2016 7:00 pm

The shining of a star  

 

Welcome to worship tonight, The Longest Night of the year. This is a night that has been noted or celebrated in many cultures, religions and contexts as a holy or significant time. It is a time of transition, an in between time, a moment for pause or celebration. In the life of First Norman it is the night this year that we hear about the star over Bethlehem. And the anxiety of Herod and Jerusalem.

The star of Christmas has always been enigmatic to me. Is it literally a star that appeared? Is it a way of talking about the astrology based predictions of the sages from the east? Does it appear and then disappear in the story or do we just no hear about it for a while? Is it a star for these eastern sages because they would not have understood an angel and needed a star instead, when everyone else got wings and glory? Whatever its purpose and place in the story it is important. It brings the final visitors to see Jesus weeks or months after his birth. It is a sign, bright and shining like neon, that God has come.

But it is not a welcome sight to everyone. These Wise Men from far away travel a long distance to see what and who it foretells and along the way they stop in Jerusalem. This makes some sense as they are looking for the king of the Jews, and unless they are exiled or occupied the People of Israel’s king has always been in Jerusalem, and in this time with Rome in power a regional king or puppet leader is in place in Herod. So they ask the king there, Herod, where the new born baby king is. So Herod calls his counselors to tell him what these men are talking about and they explain that these men are saying that the prophecy from Micah has come true.  

And Herod loses his mind. But he’s sneaky so he and sends them on their way asking for a return trip and news of what they find. Which he doesn’t get, when the Spirit warns the Wise Men not to go back to him, so eventually when he doesn't get what he wants, Herod murders all the male children to try and keep this usurping child King from taking his power. But the child is sent by God, so why he thinks that will work I don’t know, other than ego and a power trip.

So what the star foretells in the story of Jesus is both a neon sign of his coming, but also the first signs of just how hard Jesus’ life will be here on Earth. The wise men follow it with good intentions, but Herod and the leaders in Jerusalem take it as a warning, a threat to their power, and their actions following that are evil and deceptive.

Does this sound like stories of Christmas we know- Scrooges and the Grinch's, Virginia’s mother so sure the magic of Christmas doesn’t exist she doesn’t want her daughter to believe, and the whole family in Home Alone being nothing but unkind to one another- they start their stories in very un-Christmas moods, and if you think about it every Christmas movie, story and even many songs tell the story of someone who is struggling or downright unwilling or unable to hear the story of Christmas and find joy and love and peace and hope in it. It is a universal or we wouldn’t tell these stories of hurt hearts, lonely nights and unkind strangers if we didn’t all know these hard feelings to dwell even within ourselves.

Just as surely as the star hangs brightly over Bethlehem, we know that we are not ready for it- for its joy and wonder, for its love and hope, for its intrusion into our everyday stories of exhaustion and sadness and fear. We each know each year that it is too much for us. So we tell stories, from scripture and mass produced TV about how hard it is.

But, just as every Christmas story is a story of a broken person, so every Christmas story is a story of transformation, the original story is about the transformation of the world by God’s entry into it, and also the story of the necessary transformation of our human expectations about what God means for us, and who God is with us. I am sure Mary and Joseph were fearful new parents, the Shepherds continued to be poor and outcast when they returned to the fields with their sheep, and these wise men from the east went home basically unwelcomed or accepted in Jewish and Roman culture. The anxieties of all the members of the story of the first Christmas continue, the anxieties of our favorite Christmas curmudgeons also don’t just miraculously go away. No, the story transforms them not by ending fear, anxiety, loneliness and struggle, but by God’s entry into those spaces of hardship in the form of new people, experiences, and ways of seeing, and in the story of the first Christmas by the entry of Jesus into our lives.

The story of Christmas is the story of God joining in on all of what it means to be one of us. It did not mean the removal of pain and struggle, it meant solidarity in facing those feelings. So in this season as we acknowledge tonight that we struggle, all of us in some way, with finding joy, peace, hope, love and the magic of this season, even when the world screams at us that we should just be happy and joyful... we can tell a different story in return and acknowledge that God came so that we can say that we hurt, that we miss those we love, that we wish there were more relationships, or healthier relationships, that we had more time to spend, less work to do, more work to do, or more places to go.

And when we do say those things to God, and at our best to one another, those are the moments when Christmas really matters, when Christ’s presence in our midst becomes real and we can find new glimmers of hope and love, even if they still seem in short supply sometimes, we can find those spots of newness and cling to them in the dark nights and cold days when we struggle, because the baby was born not to perfect our world but to truly love it as it is, and to join us just as we are, even when that is not happy or joyful. I give thanks that the story of Christmas is big enough, the star shines bright enough, to hold us all wherever we are, and  transforms us for the better. Amen.

Advent 3 sermon Rejoice!

Third Sunday of Advent

December 11, 2016

Jessica Dixon

Sermon- Rejoice!

 on Luke 2:8-20

 

Welcome to the third Sunday of advent. I hope you all are enjoying this season in church and in life. As we approach Christmas there are more and more celebrations every day at work, school, in the community and church and  I hope at home. I, understandably, have many clergy and church leader friends in my social media, and every year about this time they (and I) all get overwhelmed with so many worship services, concerts, parties, obligations and other church stuff. Everyone does this time of year, but with pastors and church leaders the way that frustration expresses itself can be particular and funny. For instance many people in my social media feeds are super annoyed year after year that people are celebrating Christmas and it's ‘only’ the third Sunday of Advent, or they are annoyed at the color of candles used, or the order of the words those candles represent in their churches (you wouldn’t believe how many debates I have seen in the last week about Hope/Peace/Joy/Love, and we aren’t using any of them this year).

 

All of which wholly misses the point of the season as far as I am concerned. Don’t get me wrong, the liturgical stories we tell with these symbols and seasons are important. The stories we tell are important period. And if the story we tell is that the pastor is mad and stressed that we have purple candles instead of blue ones, what on earth does that have to do with the story of the entrance of God into the world as a helpless child, the witness of his teenage parents, the turning upside down of the world’s expectations in all that we know came with him? Nothing as far as I can tell.

Also,  I may be frustrated with this model of ‘we can’t have Christmas during advent’ because I’m not sure how we know what we are anticipating or hoping for if we don’t already know the story that is coming.

 

... And  I probably also feel a tiny bit guilty because  I love all the Christmas  I see everywhere. For instance, I find myself watching way too many Christmas movies these days, of all sorts- from great ones like White Christmas, Miracle on 34th street, Elf and (my favorite) The Muppet Christmas carol, to the all-to formulaic sort that air all day, every day on Hallmark channel. Every Advent I also re-read my favorite Christmas book (other than the original story, of course). It’s a book of science fiction short stories and novellas set at Christmas time by Connie Willis called Miracle and Other Christmas Stories. Perhaps my favorite part of the book, or at least where I start every year is with her introduction. It is probably why I return to this book every year, not because I love the stories of curmudgeon men turned into the characters in the clock at a toy store (a la FAO Schwartz) , or office Christmas celebrations suddenly changed with magic, or even the story of a church choir member on Christmas eve-eve finding Mary and Joseph in the snow at the door of the church and helping them.

 

It's because this introduction explains what she loves, and hates, about various sorts of Christmas stories. Beginning with her dislike for stories like Hans Christen Anderson's’ style of sad sob stories at Christmas, or her dislike for It’s a Wonderful Life. I think perhaps I love the introduction because I agree with her on this count. Neither the sob stories of Anderson or the unresolved details at the end of It's a Wonderful Life do justice to the original heart of what Christmas is about.

    Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of hardships and struggles in the story of Christmas, and I believe wholeheartedly that part of what God does for us in the story of Christmas and its continuation in the life of Jesus through the resurrection is the redemption of some seriously messy, confused, poorly lived lives (including George Bailey if he were a real person), I just don’t think it’s about wallowing in the sappy overwrought joy of so many of these Christmas stories, or on the other hand dwelling in the darkness of human tragedy or brokenness. And for me, and Willis, this is just what so many Christmas stories do wrong.  

    I believe that the story of the Shepherds, as one part of this original Christmas story is a prime example of a middle road between sentimental joy and unredeemed human hardship.

    Shepherds in the time of Jesus birth were a bit of an odd occupation. Prior to the people of Israel’s time in Egypt shepherds were well thought of, solid members of society- they did a vital task to the community and generally speaking did it with honor and love for their work. But between slavery in Egypt, escape to the promised land, and then wandering and wars through the time of the prophets the words of scripture about shepherds change in tone and character.

We of course know that King David was a shepherd as a boy (after all they find him in a field with sheep when they come to get him to fight Goliath, and he’s handy with that sling because of his work protecting the sheep) but for the most part shepherds were seen as unclean- they could not, after all, follow religious purity laws because their jobs were 24/7, and somewhere along the way gained a reputation for being shifty and untrustworthy if they were not family. If they were family it was left to the last son who was already fairly powerless and disregarded in many ways to do the job. Scripture in the Prophets and Psalms use the language of God’s shepherds or God as Shepherd as a positive even in this time, but even so, in Israel being a shepherd was not a great thing to be.

    So then we come to the Christmas story-

  • Mary and Joseph have seen angels,

  • accepted this giant responsibility

  • have made their way from Nazareth to Bethlehem

  • get there just in time to discover that they have to sleep in the garage of Joseph’s aunt’s house with the dogs and animals right as Mary goes into labor.

The story is high drama,

 

and right at that moment there is an interruption in the story to tell us that more angels have appeared- not to comfort Mary and give her some pain medication during labor, not to help Joseph support her, not to get the family to let them have a bedroom in the house, no- the angels appear to shepherds getting ready to settle down for the night in the fields with the sheep.

... Uh, excuse me. What? I thought this story was the story of the birth of God, why all of a sudden are these angels appearing to grubby, outcast, migrant farm workers? It's just weird.

    But nonetheless here they are, an angel and a huge crowd of others in attendance appear to these nameless shepherds and say “Don’t be afraid! Look! I bring good news to you—wonderful, joyous news for all people. Your savior is born today in David’s city. He is Christ the Lord. This is a sign for you: you will find a newborn baby wrapped snugly and lying in a manger.”

They begin with the standard angel greeting card- don’t be afraid. And go on to explain that they have brought great news to everyone- the savior has come and you will know it because you will find a baby in a feeding trough.

WHAT? God’s salvation to all people- foretold for eons, will be a helpless infant, and found in the feeding trough for animals? And why have the angels come to these shepherds?

At this point  I think  I would be confused and asking a lot of questions, then again  I don't actually know what the presence of Angels is like, so perhaps  I would believe them just like the shepherds do, who instead of asking a thousand and one questions leave the sheep in the fields (showing a certain disregard for their jobs) and immediately run off to find this thing they have been told about. And they do. They tell Mary and Joseph and apparently everyone else they see what has happened. Mary considers carefully what they say, and they return joyfully to their work having seen what God said would happen come to life.

To me the story of the shepherds is actually where sooo many of our Christmas movies and stories come from. Mary and Joseph, Elizabeth and Zechariah, and even later the Wise Men know for sure what is going on by the time their stories really get rolling. But the shepherds are sent to see and then tell, told by an angel, and still have to go and see it in reality before they totally believe.

How many of our non-Jesus related Christmas tales hinge on this very thing? Scrooge must be shown his past, present and future in scary detail before his heart changes, all the characters around Buddy the Elf have to meet Santa and see the sleigh fly before they can believe (except his little brother who still has the innocence of childhood), in Miracle on 34th street Virginia has to see a lot of little things about the kind old man and be given what she asks for to truly believe that he is Santa.

It seems to me that the core of the stories we tell and love in this season is personal doubt overcoming our joy. In them eventually the unfailing goodness and truth of the story of Christmas makes everything alright. In all of these stories from these Shepherds in an Israeli pasture two thousand years ago, to elves and children in the 21st century the question is not is the story good or true, but what does it take for us to believe in the goodness and truth of the story.

In the stories of Christmas- Biblical and fictional, the stories go one step beyond just the credulity of shepherds, children, and outsiders and ask what does it take not just to display this truth to the one that is told it, but how much will it take for the world to know too? What does it take to get Scrooge not just to believe in Christmas but to run through the streets to Bob Cratchit's house to share it, or for not just Virginia to believe in Santa but all of New York so that Santa doesn’t go to jail. Or for shepherds- lowly, forgotten, unwanted- to see the story, tell the story, and believe it so well that all in Bethlehem takes notice.

It is about belief and knowing the story is true, and knowing that in it we have God’s goodness, favor, and truth.

So the question for us as we join these Bethlehem shepherds is what in this season, from the religious rigor of Advent and Christmas and Epiphany storytelling, to the sloppy storytelling of a thousand Christmas movies brings you so much joy in the truth that God is good and comes to us in a newborn baby that you can run through the streets with abandon shouting ‘Glory to God’ and ‘Emmanuel has come for us’ and ‘God is good’? What brings you such joy in the season of busyness, and scrooge, and retail bottom lines, and sappy commercialism that those things don’t matter, don’t bother you, and in fact just make your heart sing all the louder once you get to silent night and go tell it on the mountain.

Whatever it is that brings you that joy, shows you the shining truth, I hope that you get lots of it for Christmas, that it is the present you asked Santa for, that it is the thing you give thanks to God for in prayer every day. Because it is, in fact, why Christ came, so that we might rejoice in God’s presence in our lives and in the joy that comes along with it. Amen.  

 

The first day of Advent

Today began a new church year. This is my favorite season. We launched a daily Advent devotional at church with a daily email with Christmas songs and lots of other ways to engage the season. Sign up for it here.

I also preached today, and had the strongest response I have yet had from the congregation. A couple of people asked if I had a shareable version of the sermon, so I am posting it below to share. I hope that Advent treats you well, and that you find some peace and conviction in these strange, scary times. 

 

Advent 1

November 27, 2016

First Presbyterian Church Norman

Rev. Jessica Dixon

Conspiring in Advent

 

 

on Luke 1:26-38 and Matthew 1:18-25


Happy New Year!

Ok, So today is the first day of the new church year. Are you ready for it? The idea that the church year begins in November confuses a lot of people each year who are unaware that our church calendar is different than the secular Gregorian calendar. In the end though I don’t think the two are so different from one another, as these first four weeks of the church calendar, and then the Christmas season that ends on January 6th are in many ways about anticipating newness, getting ourselves ready, dusting out the scrooge-filled corners of our hearts, and making a space for the baby- and not, until Christmas Eve at least, about celebrating that the new thing has come.

And that is why Advent, and its counterpart Lent, are my favorite seasons of the church year. I have always been the one who loved waiting for a new movie or book by a favorite author or director to premiere- more than I often enjoy the book or movie itself. I’m the one who loves giving gifts more than getting them- I get to work on the gift, know that the person will enjoy it, anticipate their enjoyment and then give it to them. I only get to receive a gift once.

So when Barry and I decided I would get to preach the first sunday of Advent I was really excited, and when Molly and I worked hard to get a new very fun and interesting Advent daily devotion ready (sign up for it at http://eepurl.com/coa4pn) for us all to do this year that was even better.

 

I got to anticipate the season of anticipation... Aren’t you jealous?

 

The next four weeks in one of our education options at 9:30 we will explore a series called the Advent Conspiracy. The core of this series of four lessons is to refocus our Christmas- to re-contextualize all the tinsel, bows, ornaments, trees, carols and most of all the shopping, spending, wrapping and giving of gifts so that we remember why, and for whom we celebrate when December 24th and 25th finally get here. The point of this ‘conspiracy’ is not to win some fictitious war on Christmas or to reclaim a season that already belongs to us, it is to remember that we are Christ’s followers and that in the coming of Jesus we already have the greatest gift we or our families could ever get. As such we can let ourselves off the hook for some of the busyness we make for ourselves in this season, if it does not serve to help us celebrate the birth of Emmanuel. It is about anticipating the birth of Jesus counter to the way the world nearly forces us to with red and green (the church color this season is purple) everywhere, and lights, and so much to do and be that it can be overwhelming and distract us from the power and love of the season. So let’s start this conspiracy, this anticipation, where God starts it in our midst...with Mary and Joseph.

 

Our story begins, this story of God coming to join us as one of us, with a teenage girl...I know it’s great right...I have always loved Mary because she was a woman I heard about all the time at church who I could relate to as a girl, as one who was trying to figure out what God was doing, and who tries to be faithful.

 

But then when I got older and really read her story I began to wonder, if I do actually relate to her...yes she is a young woman, a faithful one... who God uses to come into the world. Woah.  Not sure I could handle that. I think maybe she has more faith than I may ever have. Lets see what I mean with today’s story.

 

So an angel comes to Mary and confuses her and says ‘rejoice favored one the Lord is with you’..... What on earth could that mean? …..I am sure that Mary at the time- a young woman living her life, engaged to a man named Joseph, was just doing what she thought every girl did. So an angel appearing seemingly out of nowhere and telling her that she is favored and that God is with her would be quite shocking and probably very very confusing. She is so confused in fact she wonders what this greeting might mean but says nothing at all. I imagine her standing in her bedroom in her pjs (angels seem to only appear in this story at night, so while we don’t know, that’s how I always imagined it), agog at this thing that has just appeared in her room, silently staring with her mouth open, unable to say anything at all... it is indeed an odd way of greeting- in fact the angel doesn't say ‘hello’, there's no preamble, we don't even get the standard Angel greeting of ‘do not be afraid’ ..the angel is calling card... until the next verse. No, it starts out by telling her that God is with her. Huh? I imagine she just decides to go with it, listen for a while to figure out what the heck is going on.

 

Next the angel goes on to explain that she has been chosen by God, and that as God’s chosen she will conceive and give birth to a son... and that his name will be Jesus... that he will be great, and in quoting the prophets, that he will be called the Son of the Most High... that God will give him the kingdom of his ancestor David... and that he will rule forever.

 

...Now let's think about this for a minute- an

  • Angel appears and tells you that God is with you... that's weird enough on its own

  • but then the angel goes on to talk at length about how you will

    • give birth to a baby and

    • he will be the king like David

    • he will be God's son

...who on earth (literally) would believe it?

So even faithful Mary says to the angel ‘how can this happen?’ and she goes on in a very pragmatic manner and says ‘how can this happen if I have not had sex’? (since that is where babies come from)

 

And the angel, in the same way being practical, tells her that the Holy Spirit will come visit her, and “will come over her” with the power of the most high God (whatever that means)  and that in this way the one that will be born (Jesus) will be holy, he will be called God’s Son. The angel goes on to explain that this crazy thing could happen to Mary because even Mary’s cousin Elizabeth, who is too old to have a baby, has conceived a son as well, she is a woman who was labeled unable to conceive...and she is now six months pregnant...the angel says these two things prove  that nothing is impossible for God.

 

OK so at this point if I were Mary I would be on major overload...

  • the Holy Spirit's going to come,

  • it's going to make me pregnant,

  • the baby I'm going to have is going to be the king of the people of Israel

  • and have power in the world

  • and all of these things and on top of that, my cousin who is in her older years is having a baby too

I suppose at this point I would either have to believe it all...or not, either think this whole thing is crazy and not possible... or decide that God is indeed able to do anything. And we know from the story that Mary decides everything really is possible for God, because while none of that sounds like something that would happen in the real world…. instead of exclaiming  skepticism, or asking what I am sure is thousands questions in her head, or offering fear Mary says ‘I am the Lord’s servant let it be with me as you have said’ and the angel goes away.

 

So this is how Mary's Advent begins. A visit from an angel to tell her something entirely unbelievable.

 

While we always think of Mary as beautiful and serene I would imagine that any 14-year-old girl, or really anyone,  no matter how faithful, goes on from this angle visit to have a few days of freaking out- after all she has to tell her parents, and the rest of her family, and her community, what has happened. Not a conversation I would look forward to. Would she even expect to be believed?

 

“Hey mom and dad- I’m a teenager and engaged and all, but an angel came last night to let me know that I am pregnant with God’s son” how would your parents have reacted? Would they have believed that it was God’s doing? Would they have been angry? Would they have gone in to ‘fix it’ mode? Would they cry, yell, sit in stunned silence? None of that sounds fun. She has to tell everyone she knows and then wait for the possibility of ostracism and even of the community deciding, in line with the law of the community, that she deserves to be stoned to death because that is what the law requires when a woman is pregnant and not married. Who would believe that God would do such a thing with a teenage girl? Would the community believe her? If they didn’t what should she do?

 

And somewhere in there she has to tell Joseph- and hope that he understands and believes her. The story is so unbelievable in fact that Joseph, when he finds out, doesn’t believe her...well  it seems that he must actually care for her too, because he cares for her enough to try and keep things quiet instead of publicly shaming her (which is his right)- he decides that he needs to break off their engagement because clearly whatever has happened she has not been faithful to the laws of her community and to their relationship if she's pregnant then clearly someone else must be involved. Clearly Joseph doesn’t believe her, he wants to end things and send her away. If he believed her story I would imagine the angel would not have to visit him. But it does.

So here comes the angel again, this time with the standard angel calling card ‘do not be afraid’ and goes on to quote Isaiah 7, the angel uses both its authority as a messenger from God and Joseph’s faith in the scriptures to convince him that this whole thing is really what Mary says it is. Even in his love or care for her, he does not believe it until an angel not only visits and says it’s true but points out where the prophet has said it will happen.

 

That girl must have had some serious strength to face all that, even for God.

 

So now we are rolling in our Advent conspiring, Mary and Joseph, and presumably all of Nazareth, know what is going on. This baby is coming and he is God’s son, ‘or at least that whole family says that’s what is happening, but who knows’. Advent has truly started, there is serious expectation, anticipation of the coming of a child- one who will be loved and cared for, but one whose life throws some serious monkey wrenches into the plans of his young earthly parents.  

 

This year the thought of this anticipation including a fair measure of fear and uncertainty, and requiring some grit,  makes sense to me. This year Advent anticipation comes to me with a big side serving of anxiety and even fear. We are living in a time of anticipation of new beginnings-

  • a new president, and the end of our time as a nation with one we have had for 8 years, a change that no matter your feelings about our president-elect means the coming of change of the political party in charge, as well as lots of shifts in policy and new people in office aside from the president. A difficult thing any time, but particularly hard for many of us this year.

  • A time as a state where lots of other social and political and educational realities make life unsure and the future unclear.

  • And here, at First, we face new beginnings as a church- the commencement of a Pastor Nominating Committee in the new secular year, and the first steps toward hiring a new long term pastor, and all the anticipation and uncertainty that can come with that process.

Lots of these anticipations could be good, some of them are scary or at least anxiety inducing for many of us. And all of it seems totally appropriate as a place to begin Advent. Just like Mary and Joseph, we are asked to believe some unbelievable things, to trust... but to act, to find newness and renewal in the midst of times that are uncertain.

 

And like both Mary and Joseph in their walk toward Bethlehem and a manger and the coming of this miraculous child, we are asked to find hope in the midst of the mess, to stick together in the days to come, to believe messengers of hope when the come- if they are angels, magicians or poor migrant strangers… and the only way it will happen is if, just like Mary and Joseph we can find and create love.

  • Mary and Joseph love their history, trust that it is true and that the witness of the prophets, the lineage of David, and the presence of God in their history are true, real, and relevant to their lives. They show this love in trusting that history and the words of those prophets are indeed coming true and coming to life before their eyes.

  • And we must trust that our history, as murky and often problematic as it is, has love to display, and truth to illumine so that we might act well in the days ahead.

  • They love their community of faith enough to stick with them all the way through

    • strange trips away from home,

    • exile and return home to save their son,

    • and all the way to a cross on a hill and a son murdered by the government and with the consent of their faith community.

Even then, Mary loves Jesus and her community both enough to stay with them, to remain faithful to her love as a mother, and her love of her faith even in the scariest and most heartbreaking of times.

  • We are asked, just as they were, to stick with our people in love...to call out injustice and difficult truths, to speak truth to power, but to remain faithful to the love we are shown in our communities. Wherever they are.

  • They love God enough to do all of this because God asks them to. Because God does indeed send them a son, and trusts and loves them enough to know they will take care of him in the face of a world that never really wanted him to exist. God entrusts them with God's son, with God’s self, and with the love a parent has for a child. And they live up to the task and the love.

  • May our love of God help us to see what we are called to do- not just to sit and wring our hands when times are hard and scary, but to do what God calls us to. But it takes preparation, discernment, and even sometimes words from strangers, to make it clear.

  • And Mary and Joseph love one another enough to believe this crazy story and stick together through gossip, censuses, no room in the house so they have to sleep with the animals even when she is 9 months pregnant, murderous kings, being refugees in a foreign country, returning home, and eventually parenting a sassy teenager, and then faithful but opinionated, strong willed, and countercultural son- watching the world hate him, dismiss him, and eventually kill him.

 

This is a story of anticipation... of the unknown… of faithfulness and hope... of the world’s contempt... and God’s enigmatic presence... but ultimately, as with all stories of God and humanity, it is a love story.

 

It is the story of the reality of love, not love like valentine cards and candies, not heteronormative patriarchal monogamy and love defined by who and how we choose to love...no this love is something else entirely- love that can include unwed teenage mothers, impoverished nomadic shepherds who rejoice at its presence, Asian academics who will travel from far away to see God’s love embodied and give gifts of love and kingship, love that creates fear in the hearts of the world’s leaders, and is so hard to believe that the world exiles its beloved, this is love that fights hard to stay in the world, even when the world doesn’t particularly want it.

 

It is the love of a mother who carries it under her heart, who doesn’t hide it from family and her fiance, but has enough love and grit and tenacity to include them in it.

 

This is revolutionary love, infectious love, love that finds its way into all of our hearts too if we will let it. We tell this story every year, we tell it so well and so loudly even the secular world knows it, but do we, do they, really know it?

 

Every year we return to it and- if we truly listen- it renews us, it finds new places in our spirits to light up, and it connects us to one another and the whole world.

 

It asks us to have the faith and love of Mary and to trust that the things God is calling us to do in the world will be hard, will get us in trouble, but they are more than worth it.

 

It asks us to have the righteousness and love of Joseph and to do what God asks even when everything and everyone in the world tells us they are the crazy thing to do.

 

And the story asks us, just like all of its characters from Mary and Joseph to the shepherds and wise men, to act... To wait first, to pay attention, to prepare ourselves, to go where we are called, and once God asks, to act in the name of love and faith even, and especially, when the world tells us that love and faith are weak and silly, to act and prove that nothing is stronger than love, and nothing is more rewarding than faith in a world that reduces both to greeting cards and mythology.

 

So as we leave worship today and return to our daily lives, may we all have the grit of Mary, the vision of Joseph, and the love of God...as we await and prepare for the birth of a baby, the coming of a king, the indwelling of Love in the days of Advent and always. Amen.  

Psalm 139

My head of staff colleague is out of town for over a week, so it was my turn to preach yesterday. One of the lectionary texts this week was a part of Psalm 139. I am always suspicious when the lectionary cuts out part of a text, and this one is one of my favorites, so I chose to read and preach the whole thing. I was a bit nervous this week for a number of reasons including the holiday weekend, our university losing a football game (a weird thing for me to care about, but it is important here) both of which meant there would be fewer people at church, and leading on my own this week without the help of either our head of staff or christian educator. I have used most of this sermon before, more than once, but it still needs work each time to be sure it speaks to my current context, so I was a bit worried about how it would go. 

With those nerves going on it was wonderful to hear laughter at appropriate points, and other responses while I preached. Then following worship I got more compliments about my sermon giving folks something new to think about, about the whole service including the sermon being a lovely one overall, and other things, than I have ever had. One of the retired pastors in the church told me this was his favorite too, he had preached it many times, but never had preached the "If only God, you would kill the wicked" part and that my analysis was spot on.

So basically I went in feeling a bit unsure and came out feeling like the pastor equivalent of a rockstar. That is a rare thing, and so I shared it in a closed clergy group I am a member of, and in response to the story someone wanted to read the sermon. So I thought posting this and then offering it there would be the easiest way to do that.

two notes:

1. I don't write sermons for anyone else to read them, I have subsequently edited this, but it may still be hard to read. sorry.

2. I intermix the translations of the Psalm here between the New Revised Standard Version and the Common English Bible as well as my own translation and paraphrase. Hope thats not too confusing.

So here it is: 

Sermon on Psalm 139 and Luke 14:25-33

The Price of Adoration

Sunday September 4, 2016

First Presbyterian Church Norman, OK

Psalm 139 is one of my favorite scripture texts. This is true for so many reasons- beautiful hymns are made from it, it expresses something that feels like Truth with a capital ‘T’ about what it is like to know the presence of God in life, and when we read the whole thing, and not just the ‘good parts version’ that is in the lectionary, it feels raw and like what life is really like, not just the nice parts. I have preached this psalm in just about every church  have served since seminary. And every time I learn something new.

So much of the psalter is complex and expresses the wide variety of ways we humans interact emotionally, logically and physically with our God. And psalm 139 is no exception. This psalm, as John Calvin put it in his commentary on the psalms: “insists at large upon the truth that nothing can elude the divine observation”. A truth that we all probably wrestle with. In moments of fear we can all affirm with the psalmist that “God hems us in, behind and before”. God is a help in hard times, and God’s ever-presence is a comfort in moments of fear, but sometimes also can be a struggle for us to accept.

The first 6 verses of the psalm talk about a God who protects, who accompanies, who knows us. These verses have always sounded to me like the way a very articulate child would express joy and love for their parent. Everything about us is known, every moment we are known and that is good and important.

-Mommy was there when we took our first steps, said our first words, slept in our first ‘big kid bed’ and will be there forever. This is the God we want when we grieve, when we find hope hard to hold on to, when we struggle to keep our feet on the path. This is the God of childhood sunday school- of rainbows, and Jesus Loves Me, this is the part of God I often call Dad or Mom when I pray. This is a real and powerful part of who God is for each of us. This is the God we fall in love with, who cares for us and keeps us safe. We love this God, this God is easy to love and we often wish this was the only relationship we had with God.

 

but…..then we move on to verses 7 to 12- the Psalmist says Where can I go from your spirit God? Where can I flee from you? If I go to heaven, or if I go to hell, there you are. If I go as far away on earth as I can imagine, you are even there leading me and holding me fast. Even when I go to dark places to escape you, that is of no worth, because to you God- darkness is as bright as day. Not exactly the teddy bear and blankie God of those first 6 verses.

This is perhaps the God of adolescence- the God who we sometimes resent even as we worship and praise.

The psalmist here still sounds to me like the voice of a child speaking to their parent, but perhaps this child is a Middle Schooler. The child who still loves, deeply, but does not wish their parent to know everything they do. The one who wants independence to figure things out on their own without the watchful eye that both cares and leads, and sometimes micro manages. Sometimes we just want to figure things out on our own first, and then come to God with the answer, we don’t want to struggle in front of God any more than a tween wants to struggle in front of their parent.

This voice is probably similar to the one in all of our heads and in our prayers when we disappoint ourselves and believe we disappoint God. 'Gee God, life would be so much easier if I could just forget that this relationship is falling apart... that I have worked as hard as I can, and still don’t measure up at work... that today felt like every little thing that could go wrong did'. This might be the voice that nags at us that we don’t pray enough, read scripture enough, serve enough, worship enough or whatever 'enough'. This is that nagging voice of conscience that is helpful but oh so annoying.

Perhaps this is where the concrete voice of Jesus in Luke Joins us as well. In these moments of angst we might hear echos of Jesus reminding us to lay a good foundation, to be ready and strong enough to carry our own crosses. This is the voice of God that I suspect the Psalmist hears when wishing that he could escape God’s presence. The voice of God asking the hard thing, the true but difficult thing of him.

It is true in the journey of being a faithful person that God asks the unimaginable of us. To leave family, to give up our very lives, to give up possessions to do the work of following God. These times are the ones when faith sometimes feels like a burden, when we are not at all sure it might not just be easier to stop talking to God all together. But in these moments, like the adolescent chafing in their relationship with their parent, we still know God is our strength and love. Or if we forget, God (and our parents) remind us.

 

And so the psalmist moves on verses 13 to 18 then is a third voice- the voice that moves us from adolescent chafing at God’s power and love, into perhaps a metaphorically adult relationship with God. A relationship where we know, and can appreciate and praise God for being our creator, for knowing us inside and out, and still remember that all our days are God’s and have been known by God since before creation, that God’s knowledge is too heavy for us, greater than the grains of sand on the beach. Again we hear a voice that says that no matter where we turn, or how far we go, God is there. This voice moves beyond the reticence of the last one to say that this, while heavy and difficult, is a good thing. In the end God is there, even after all that struggle and challenge. God remains steadfast and present even through and certainly after we struggle. This is the voice that has experienced life, life’s disappointments and fears and failures, but comes out the other side steadfastly in awe and praise for God.

 

...Aannd then there are verses 19 to 22, probably the hardest verses for us to hear:

If only, God, you would kill the wicked!

  If only murderers would get away from me—

the people who talk about you, but only for wicked schemes;

  the people who are your enemies,

  who use your name as if it were of no significance.

Don’t I hate everyone who hates you?

  Don’t I despise those who attack you?

Yes, I hate them—through and through!

  They’ve become my enemies too.

A voice that we shy away from admitting we can relate to. The Gospel and our tradition teach us not to turn to God for vengeance, even at the sake of our own lives. Jesus died on the cross instead of turning against a faith and a culture that despised and reviled him. So I’m not supposed to be angry, right God? To live in the path of Christ is to turn the other cheek, to walk the extra mile, to pick up my cross…but what about those times it seems like evil wins out, those times despair turns to rage, the places in my heart where I’m just not sure I can be a good and faithful follower of the peaceful reign of Christ? This voice is one that says ‘on your behalf God, I hate those who do not do what you ask. Those who I wish you would make go away, those who do evil against you or your people’

haven’t we all had those moments? I know I have.

Doesn’t this voice sound familiar in this time and the rhetoric of political campaigns- such certainty in one’s own rightness that those who oppose us must be the enemy.

 

This is a story that is familiar, but perhaps the most complicated and often the most problematic part for us to accept in the Psalm.  It is a story that sometimes leads us to emphasize sin and guilt, at the sake of relationship with each other and with God.

At these moments in my life, the moments when I desperately want the rules to be followed even to the point of ignoring those around me there are two voices that come into my head-

first- my father’s- who in the moments his passionately fair-minded daughter would rage against the world’s injustices- from those who steal shovels from smaller kids in the sand box (which at 5 years old, led to the only black eye I have ever had), to the evils of encountering the KKK for the first time when I was 6 at an MLK parade, would say “Jessica, you have read the Princess Bride…Life Isin’t Fair” and remind me that in the complexity and diversity of the created beings we are, God did a wonderful thing, but often a hard thing.

And second, the voice of Anne Lamott who says “You can safely assume you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”

Both of these voices remind me that anger and even rage are sometimes part of living in a world where we have free will, where we will never agree on everything, and where evil undeniably exists. These voices tend to help me calm those prayers of anger, and turn itto something more productive... but not always very quickly.

.....I have no idea what ran through the brain of the Psalmist 2500 years ago in between verses 22 and 23, but I imagine that he had voices that were formative for him, like these two voices are the ones that are formative for me…because in a seemingly abrupt shift the Psalmist returns to verse one, but as supplication this time: “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”

This voice I imagine a bit sheepishly saying…'ok my tantrum is over. I know that I fall short of your glory just as much as anyone else, it just really bugs me that the world is unfair'. 'I give it all up to you and what you want from me. Instead of being righteously indignant, I will focus on the splinter in my eye before the log in someone else’s'.

This is perhaps the hardest part of the psalm to see or relate to. Knowing that our path is away from simple anger and toward God’s will is a huge struggle in the life of every Christian, every person. Christ calls us to follow a path that includes passion, includes struggle, pain and even indignation, but does not include God or people punishing those who annoy or even harm us just because it would make us feel better.

This shift from verse 22 to 23 may be the most profound transition in the psalm. A long psalm that includes a breadth of the internal monologue or prayer life of faithful people, arguably even the whole story of scripture and the relationship between humanity and God, but this final idea moves us from what we want from God to what God wants from us.

Poetically it is a call back to the first verse, but with the shift from statement to request. In the beginning there is the acknowledgement that God knows us, but in this final request God is engaged in the life of the psalmist. It moves from being the kind of prayer or song where we praise God or ask something of God, but don’t expect God to do anything to us, to one where praise and prayer are real, where the expected outcome of prayer and praise is not for God to change, but for ourselves to be changed by God.

While the first 22 verses of the psalm speak to the life of faith, the way that we move in our daily lives from praise to struggle to request and back, all sometimes in a moment, the transition here in these final two verses speak to the reasons we show up for worship every week, why we give our time and talents all our lives, and why we choose to be in Christ’s community…because we know that God acts in us, changes us and moves us for the better.

With the Psalmist let us affirm that we want God to move within us, not just for us, that God is the one who guides and teaches and challenges us in all situations. And with the psalmist may we ask that God search and know us, test us and lead us in God’s Way everlasting. Amen.

 

The Fourth Day

 

For the third day of this writing thing I posted a movie review of Finding Dory. So today is the fourth, and on the fourth day God created day and night, the sun moon and stars, and seasons. Today this has me thinking about the seasons of life. I visited with a family who has a funeral tomorrow at church the other day, and in the midst of hearing about this beloved family member who had died, we watched babies play on the floor. Yesterday in the office we worked on that same funeral service as well as a wedding. And this morning I had breakfast with a colleague and I talked about the ways that tweens and teens deal with grief. The kids I am meeting in my new context are still struggling with their previous pastors leaving, grieving those departures and unclear about why they happened and how to move forward.

It is actually a big part of the work I do as an interim pastor- one who comes in after someone who was in the church much longer than I will be has just left. I listen to grief, confusion, sadness and pain. I sometimes give voice to it when others are grieving and don't yet see that that is what is going on for them, they just know its hard or they are angry. Sometimes I even receive that anger when it is misplaced and becomes about anger at something I have done or said, when actually it is hurt and grief about change. It is sometimes painful for me, it is sometimes exhausting to hear and help carry those emotions for a little while. But just as being with a family when someone has died feels like a holy moment, so too does this in-between pastoring thing I am blessed to do. I spend my time hearing about people's pain and upset at the church, but in those words I also hear about why they love God, why their church is important in their lives, how they have served God in the church and in their lives, and it is a great blessing and privilege to hear where they have met God in their lives. 

Just as God created the cycle of time and seasons of life on the fourth day, I find myself appreciating the cycles of time and life today. I love participating in this moment in the life of this church, I am excited and grateful for the new life one of my best friends will bring into the world in the next days, I am enjoying figuring out what is next in the adventure of my own personal life, and grateful for the presence of my loved ones of all ages in my life today. Where are the blessings of this season for you?

Peace,

RJ

the second day...

"God said, “Let there be a dome in the middle of the waters to separate the waters from each other.” God made the dome and separated the waters under the dome from the waters above the dome. And it happened in that way. God named the dome Sky.

There was evening and there was morning: the second day."

- Common English Bible Genesis 1:6-8

Day 2 of this blog/writing thing I have chosen to do. I sat here a moment and thought 'I have too many things, and nothing at all to say today. I wonder if God felt that way on the second day of creation"

I am not one that believes that the creation stories in Genesis 1 and 2 are literal or happened, I think their truth comes in saying that God cared, created and chose to make us and all of creation as we are with intentionality, care and creativity. I think they tell us who we are with God and why we in relationship, not how we came to be that way. They are a family myth, something that is true to who we are, but not necessarily factual, factuality was never the point of telling them, truth is. But given that, I find this second day story interesting as I work on many things in my life that feel like they are 'second day-y". I have been in this place long enough it is no longer day 1, but I suppose I feel like my Transitional Ministry class last week, and this second month at FPC are very early on the second day of this call and this literal location for me. I am beginning to not just observe and ask questions, but to occasionally make a suggestion, or ask if particular people might not be helpful to a process as I am getting to know them. 

On the first day God shined a flood light, and thats what a new place and a new leadership role feel like. On the second day God made one big organizational move and made water and sky. So perhaps I am in good company in this still feeling like I'm wading in, but also being ready to do something. Even something small or very general, while still looking at the corners where the light is shining. 

That's my thought for today...

Peace friends,

RJ

A new try at this blogging thing...

Last week I attended the second week of Transitional Ministry Training. It was wonderful.

I sit at my desk in my office in Norman looking at a sheet with affirmations from my small group. A group of 5 pastors who dwelt with one another in the challenges of the church in the 21st century, our particular contexts and struggles, what it means to be pastor in the role of transitional or interim minister and how that differs from longer term ministry, the shape that God's call takes in our lives and where we resonate with one another and our churches.

We started the week on Monday as strangers, and quite different from one another in context, age, race, gender, marital statues, ministry history, denomination. If they felt anything like I did, unsure we would be able to connect and help one another.

We ended the week a valued and truth-telling group of colleagues and even friends, who heard one another's stories of struggle without judgement, and with careful ears to where God is working and where our growing edges might be. We used careful words, loving ears, and humor in the midst of hardship and confusion. We prayed extensively for one another, our prayers complimented one another aloud, we prayed for our churches and families, for clear vision, God's presence, and our own peace. We prayed with love.

I am grateful for them, and for the teaching team for the week who offered their wisdom and work in transition to us openly and with humor that helped us all to expand our vision and hopefully find focus and clarity for this murky and often difficult call. We enjoyed one another and I found rest and renewal in the beauty of Lake Tahoe and the Zephyr Point Retreat Center. Creation is a blessing to such experiences and times. 

I return home and to this call of listening and leading in the midst of change. I love my work and this place and hope that our time together is a blessing to all of us,  and can show this church and me new ways and places God is calling us each. 

The other goal I came away from my week away with is to write more. In meal conversations with folks in my Week 2 group (who had already done the first week of this class some time previously) and with others from Week 1, more than one person told me I need to write a book, and more than one person told me I should plant churches, work with campus ministry, or explore other parts of what it means to be Church now.

I realized that in particular, as the book suggestion was made for the third time, that my fear of writing was perhaps getting in the way of hearing a call from the Spirit. She has called me to this before and I have written things that never were read by anyone else because of the fear instilled by all of my primary school teachers that I am 'not good at writing'. I try to unlearn this criticism, but it is a road block that is not yet in my rear view mirror.

So for myself, and whether anyone reads these posts or not, I am going to write something every day for the next month and post it here. If you enjoy these, or learn something, I am glad, but its not really about that, its about overcoming my fear of this writing thing. Thanks for your time!

Peace,

RJ

A Big Change!

I am staring in the face of a big change. 

In the next couple of weeks I am moving to Norman Oklahoma to be the Interim Associate Pastor at First Presbyterian Church, Norman. This is a church that has faced some serious challenges over the last few years, but that I am excited to get to participate in the next phase of their life together. Everywhere I looked, and everyone I spoke with in my visit with them spoke to me of hope and readiness to return to connections that have perhaps been strained in the struggles of the last few years, and it is a huge blessing and gift to get to participate in that hope. I will be working as their transitional Associate Pastor, doing work with youth, worship, mission, outreach and evangelism, pastoral care and generally the life of being church together. 

I am very excited. I visited for the final votes, dotting of 'i' s and crossing of 't' s for four days, and to meet the community. It was wonderful, I am  blessed to get to work with these folks, and look forward to learning what life is like where things like football and huge trucks will be an everyday part of life (and will be strange for this girl who has no experience of either). This university town should provide plenty of fun and variety too for my personal life as well, and its proximity to Oklahoma City may lead to fun also. 

Life is an adventure, and this ministry call thing is dynamic and requires flexibility, and both will be put heavily into use in this transition for me. I look forward to learning new things, meeting all new people (I know  no one in OK), and experiencing a new culture, region, church and climate. I will miss Chicago desperately, and all my loves here, but I know my love of this city and its people (and the particular ones I know and love here) are life long, and leaving feels like a 'see you later' not so much a 'good bye'.

I find myself praying in this time that the inklings of love I feel for this community (as i have fallen in love with every community I have worked and partnered with) in these beginnings eventually run deep, that this community/town is one in which I can fairly quickly find a place and not always feel like a stranger, that this transitional (and therefor short term, a year or two) position might be good work for me and for the community. If you could pray/hold in the light these dreams and hopes too, I would appreciate it. Newness is always part scary and part exciting, and i feel both these days in good measure, but am blessed that it leans toward the excitement most days. I hope your life is the adventure you want it to be too. 

 

Peace,

RJ