Old Testament Reading: Isaiah 64:1-9 (NRSV)
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence--
2 as when fire kindles brushwood
and the fire causes water to boil--
to make your name known to your adversaries,
so that the nations might tremble at your presence!
3 When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect,
you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.
4 From ages past no one has heard,
no ear has perceived,
no eye has seen any God besides you,
who works for those who wait for him.
5 You meet those who gladly do right,
those who remember you in your ways.
But you were angry, and we sinned;
because you hid yourself we transgressed.
6 We have all become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.
We all fade like a leaf,
and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
7 There is no one who calls on your name,
or attempts to take hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us,
and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.
8 Yet, O Lord, you are our Father;
we are the clay, and you are our potter;
we are all the work of your hand.
9 Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord,
and do not remember iniquity forever.
Now consider, we are all your people.
Gospel Reading: Mark 13:24-37
The Coming of the Son of Man
24 “But in those days, after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
25 and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
26 Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. 27 Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.
28 “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 29 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he[e] is near, at the very gates. 30 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
32 “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. 34 It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. 35 Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, 36 or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. 37 And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”
Today begins what has come to be one of my favorite seasons in the church liturgical season, the season of advent. The word advent means, “coming,” and it was added to our church calendar to give us time to pause and reflect on the reasons why we need a Savior in the first place, and to understand why it is that the birth of Jesus that we celebrate in Christmas is such very good news. The season of Advent is a season of waiting, which gives us time and permission to recognize our longings; to admit that things are not the way they should be in our world, and to voice our hope against hope for things to get better, for our world to be restored. It gives us the opportunity to tune our ears to the suffering of God’s people throughout time, and including our own time, in order to prepare our hearts to fully recognize and receive the coming reign of Christ’s kingdom which ends the domination of the world’s powers, oppression, disorder and injustice.
Christmas is a time when we celebrate the already, and the not yet. Christ has come! And Christ will come again. And today, we are focusing on what it means to wait in hope, for what is not yet, but what we are promised will be. So as we consider what this means for us today, I want you to close your eyes for a moment and think of a time when you have had to wait for something in your life to get better, or to be resolved. It may even be a situation you find yourself in today. So take a moment, and allow yourself to feel that longing for a better day, a resolution.
Prayer: O that you would open up the heavens and come down. All around the world there are wars and rumors of wars. In our daily living, we are frenzied with anxiety and worry. We feel distant from you and from one another. We long to hear once again the assurance that you are with us. Come, Lord Jesus, come.
I’ve mentioned to you all before that my college years were years of struggle for me, as I rebelled against my very conservative upbringing and left behind a religious system that seemed focused on trying to earn God’s love by being a moral, good person, which developed in me a sense that God was an angry, vengeful, and distant God, always disappointed in me. And after years of feeling that I could never measure up, I gave up on religion altogether. As a music major, though, I could not escape God. Did you know that until the middle ages, all western music was written for one reason only, and that was to praise God, or sing about God. It was all church music! And I had grown up in a singing church and a singing family, and those songs had woven themselves into my heart. And so even as I tried very hard to discount the messages of “Amazing Grace” and “Great Is Thy Faithfulness,” their truths had taken root.
I was part of a Madrigal choir in college that presented a dinner each fall and included a concert in the style of a “Lessons and Carols” service. Our choir would sing the carols that told the Christian story, from the creation to the birth of Christ, with scripture and poetry readings interspersed. Each year, when we would sing those carols, I would feel a stirring, a longing… “Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask you to stay close by me forever, and love me, I pray.” And part of me would hope against hope that these songs, that these scriptures, were true; that there really is a Jesus who is tender and loving who was born to show us a tender and loving God; that God might love even me. In my life at that time, everything was falling apart. I needed the hope of a loving God who was willing to come down to earth, to draw near to us, to show us that love looks like being born to a poor, unwed couple, in the midst of a dirty, messy barn and being laid in a feeding trough.
In our Old Testament reading today, Isaiah was writing at a time when he and his people had returned to Jerusalem after living in exile in Babylon for a full generation. They returned to find their city and their temple, the dwelling place of God, in ruins. Everything would have to be rebuilt, replanted and restored. The life they knew before no longer existed, and they had no idea what their future held now. “O, that you would open up the heavens and come down!” Isaiah seems to be pleading with God. It is one of those heart-wrenching scriptures of lament that are sprinkled throughout our sacred writings. Throughout all of human history, humans have known pain and loss. We have reason to lament, to grieve, to cry out for God to come near. “Get down here!” we may want to shout, as if calling down an anti-social teen from their bedroom. Isaiah writes about the experience of feeling that God is no where to be found at the time. And he even wonders if God has become angry because of the way that the people have forgotten God.
This advent season is a good time for us to think about others, and possibly ourselves, for whom God may seem absent, or distant. Those who, like the Israelites, may have been exiled from their homes because of wildfires and hurricanes, or because of domestic violence, or because of war or famine or political unrest. Others may be adjusting to devastation of another kind; loss of a job, loss of a loved one, loss of a relationship, or loss of their own good health – losses which force them to adjust to a new way of living, which feels painfully like being exiled from life as they knew it. “O that you would open up the heavens and come down!” “Be near us, Lord Jesus.”
But Isaiah clings to hope as he writes his lament. He has seen God open the heavens before. He knows that in the past, God has been faithful to God’s promises. And so he holds out this hope to his people.
Like Isaiah, we may find ourselves asking, “Where are you, God?” We may not be ready to rush headlong into tidings of great joy. We may still be sitting in the darkness of the ‘not knowing what lies ahead;’ of grieving over what is no more; like those whose homes have been destroyed by recent fires, and those camped out along borders who are seeking safety and asylum, it may feel like the world has been turned upside down. And that’s precisely what Jesus is telling the disciples in the gospel reading today. Just a few verses before our reading, Jesus tells them, “you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. . . Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. . . There will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. . .But when you see the desolating sacrilege set up where it ought not to be, then those who are in Judea must flee to the mountains; the one on the housetop must not go down or enter the house to take anything away; the one in the field must not turn back to get a coat. Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing babies in those days! Pray that it may not be in winter. For in those days there will be suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of the creation that God created until now, no, and ever will be" (Mark 13: 7-8, 14-19).
I believe that people today understand this kind of suffering. There are wars and rumors of wars; there are nations turning against nations; there are people fleeing their homes and countries because of war and violence, and there are mothers who are pregnant and nursing babies, who just last week endured being tear-gassed while seeking safety. As winter approaches, we think of those in our part of the world who sleep in tents and under bridges. There is great suffering today, as there has been in the past. But Jesus says, when it feels like the sun has turned to darkness, and even the moon won’t shine its light – when you feel like the world as you know it has ended – then look for the coming of Christ, and Christ’s kingdom!
The hope we cling to during advent is the hope we cling to throughout our lives – that even when God’s people forget God, God does not turn God’s back on us! That even when we have been forced to endure pain and suffering, loss and alienation, and endings that were not of our choosing, Jesus is always waiting to come breaking into our world, once again, and again! When Jesus first spoke these words to his disciples, he told them that they would see the Son of Man coming before the end of this generation! Many have taken these words of Jesus to point to some distant, actual end of the world. But maybe Jesus is speaking to that feeling of our own person end of the world, when our fears grip us and make us forget about the hope we have in Christ. Christ comes to us again and again when we pause to acknowledge that the darkness we experience cannot overcome the Light of the World.
This Sunday, we’ve lit one advent candle to remind us that there may be dark times in our lives, but that when we cling to hope, there is a flicker of light that promises to give way to more and more light as we open our hearts to the inbreaking of Christ’s kingdom in this lifetime. Our fear would sometimes convince us that we need an escape plan – I have a cousin whose favorite response to any expressed dissatisfaction with suffering in this world is, “Jesus just needs to come back soon and take us out of this mess.” I do believe in a glorious life after this one, lived with Jesus forever. But sometimes I think we actually hurt Christ’s witness in the world by only hoping to escape from the world, instead of waiting for and joining with Christ’s kingdom of restoration in this world in the here and now. As we continue our advent preparation, we’ll consider what it means that Christ comes to bring good news to the hurting and oppressed in this life. For today, I want to leave you with the words of a Christmas song that allows us to sit with the idea of the not yet, but still coming hoped-for reign of Christ.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was filled with sorrow at the tragic death of his wife in a fire in 1861. The Civil War broke out the same year, and it seemed this was an additional punishment. Two years later, Longfellow was again saddened to learn that his own son had been seriously wounded in the Army of the Potomac.
Sitting down to his desk, one Christmas Day, he heard the church bells ringing. It was in this setting that Longfellow wrote these lines:
I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men!
And thought how, as the day had come
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good will to men!
Till, ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good will to men!
Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good will to men!
It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good will to men!
And in despair I bowed my head;
"There is no peace on earth," I said;
"For hate is strong
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men."
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep.
"God is not dead, nor doth he sleep!
The wrong shall fail,
The right prevail,
With peace on earth, good will to men!"
Would you pray with me:
“Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask thee to stay close by me forever, and love me, I pray. Bless all the dear children in thy tender care; and fit us for heaven to live with thee there.”
FIRST LESSON 2 Samuel 23:1-7
PSALM READING Psalm 132
SECOND LESSON Revelation 1:4b-8
GOSPEL LESSON John 18:33-37
Today is “Christ the King” or “Reign of Christ” Sunday. It marks the end of the church liturgical year, which began in Advent of last year. Through one year in the church calendar, we trace the story of Jesus’ birth – coming to us as “God with us,” fully human and fully divine; and of the teaching, healing, and ministry of Jesus as he walked the earth – being drawn with compassion to those who were sick, oppressed, and living on the margins of society; we recall Jesus’ death at the hands of an empire, threatened by the subversive power Jesus exhibited over their institutions; we rejoice at Jesus’ resurrection – defeating death that separated us from God; after Easter, we focus on what it means to live as Spirit-filled followers of Jesus Christ, by patterning our lives after his in the ways we offer mercy, compassion, and love to our neighbors. As we come to this “Reign of Christ” Sunday, we consider Jesus Christ as our King, reigning over the kingdom that he came to establish, and which he entrusted to us to continue building and expanding until the whole earth and all of creation is finally restored.
So before Advent begins next week, and we start to think of Jesus once more as Mary’s boy-child, or that sweet baby sleeping silently in a manger… what does it mean to think of Jesus in his full divinity? What does it mean to think of Jesus as our King? Close your eyes for a moment, and imagine Christ the King? What do you see as you look at him? How do you feel as you imagine yourself in his presence? And what do you think you would hear Jesus saying to you? Continue to hold that scenario in your mind as we go to him in prayer… for when we go to his throne room, where Jesus sits on the seat of mercy, we only need to go as far as our own heart.
Prayer: With thankful hearts we pause this day to be reminded of our grandest hope: that the calamities, the demands, even the blessings of this world do not have the last word. You are the one who was and is, and who is yet to come— a ruler of a different kind. Open our hearts to the comfort, the challenge and the mystery of this good news. In the name of Jesus Christ, your faithful witness, we pray. Amen.
Our Old Testament lessons remind us of the Hebrew people’s desire to be ruled by a king like other nations around them. The Lord grants their wish, but warns them not to place their ultimate trust in earthly leaders who will only disappoint them. But we can hardly blame them, can we? Wouldn’t it be great if we had a truly benevolent king who could be counted on to make just and fair laws, and whose responsibility was to keep the realm safe and fed and happy? But that’s the stuff of fairy tales, right? The people of Israel hung all of their hopes on King David, one after God’s own heart! But as in all human-ruled kingdoms, absolute power has the power to corrupt absolutely. And in David’s kingdom, the rule of might became right, and the kingdom became corrupted by adultery, murder, tribal infighting and a constant state of warring with their neighbors. But the Psalm tells us today that even as David reflects on his own failings at the end of his life, he still has faith that one day a true King will come, one from David’s own line who will ‘rule over people justly.’
But when Jesus came, who recognized his kingship? Who was willing to believe that this peasant child of an unwed teen, born in a barn and laid to sleep in a feeding trough was the Messiah they had been waiting for? Who was actually going to follow this nomadic tradesman who wandered the countryside, couch-surfing, hanging out with tax collectors and putting his hands on lepers and bleeding women? Who was still willing to call him “Lord” as he was arrested by the temple guards? And then, as he stood before Pilate, the governor of Roman-occupied Jerusalem, who is there to testify as his witness?
This is just as much a question for us today? What does the Lordship of Jesus look like in our lives, here is the Midwestern suburbs in North America, over two thousand years later? The problem today, as it was then, is that people expect kings and kingdoms to come complete with earthly wealth, power and control. But Jesus did not come to overthrow the earthly powers, but to establish an entirely different realm that exists more in what we think and feel in our minds and hearts than in what we can see, and taste and touch and hear and smell in the physical world. Jesus came to announce that there was an entirely new way of being – of being in relationship with God and with others. When Jesus was questioned by Pilate about whether or not he was king, Pilate’s only concern was whether Jesus was a threat to his own power. But as Jesus tells Pilate, if his kingdom was of this world, his followers would have believed in him – they would have shown up, mob-like, with swords and spears. They would have been willing to fight to free him! Because that’s what they wanted – a king that was going to stand up to the empire! That was going to rule again with physical strength and military might! And when Jesus came in all of his vulnerability, showing mercy to “those” people, weeping with friends, and now – submitting to execution?? This was not their king, after all.
So what about us? Can we believe in a vulnerable, weak, pacifist King like that? One who teaches us to love our enemies, and to pray for them, and that if they strike you to turn the other cheek? And more than that, if we say we believe in him, do we live like we do? Does the way we live our life show our allegiance to Jesus Christ as our king, by working to build and expand the peaceable kingdom? Or do we live like we’d rather wait for a king who rules with a little more earthly muscle?
Every year about this time, I start seeing the posts on social media about “Keeping Christ in Christmas.” And I have to say that I’m really tired of this one. It says nothing about our witness to who Jesus really is to look down our nose at those who don’t celebrate the same holidays we do. Did you know that when colonists first came to northern America that the Christmas holiday was banned by the religious puritans, who thought any religious celebrations were heretical?? In fact, our denomination officially came into existence on Dec. 25, 1784, because when the general conference was scheduled for that day, it was just any other day, nothing special. In fact, Christmas wasn’t even declared a federal holiday in America until 1870. So there was a time when some Christians considered Christmas itself to be very un-Christian.
I think a far more worthwhile thing to consider is how to keep “Christ” in “Christian.” How do we as Christ-followers live a life that is humble and vulnerable enough to make the King of Love our King? To be willing to give up our own control so that Christ can reign in and through us? Especially here in the U. S. A. we are conditioned our whole lives to believe in the superiority of the individual over the community. “You do you.” “Go for it!” I sound like my dad now, but here’s one of his favorites, “If it itches, scratch it.” In other words, we are indoctrinated with marketing messages all day long that are aimed at convincing us that we deserve whatever we want; that we don’t have to deny ourselves anything, we can rack up credit to support our self-indulgences, and we don’t need to concern ourselves with how our choices affect others – especially not when it comes to corporate success! Even if that means kicking the can down the road for our great-grandchildren to deal with.
When Jesus answered Pilate, he said, “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate responds by asking, “but what is truth?” Proclaiming the truth, being the truth, and even belonging to the truth are what make Jesus a king. His kingdom is not defined by earthly terms, but neither is it some ethereal, imaginary concept. Jesus comes from and belongs to God’s kingdom. Jesus lived out this Truth by crawling on his hands and knees to wash the dirty, stinking feet of his disciples; he was willing to make himself ‘unclean’ by touching the sick, hungry, homeless, and hopeless; by owning no earthly possessions that we know of; and he certainly didn’t build a castle and sit on a throne, to rule over us from a distance. He came to show us an up close and personal God, who loves us through humility and vulnerability.
Truth can be transforming if we seek it by trying to understand what it means to be obedient to Christ as King of our lives; to do that we must look deeply into who we are and what we have become, in order to try to live into what we can and should be. By looking deeply, we must look at what is right and wrong in our own actions and in our attitudes toward others and within ourselves. This means that we challenge ourselves to look beyond what we may have come to believe thus far, in order to see the truth that Jesus himself is God, is love, and is grace. We do this by coming here on Sundays – by engaging in community worship, prayer, small groups, and all the other ways we gather as people of faith to be active witnesses in the world.
The Greek form of “Christian” means “little Christ” – to live in the truth is to live as “little Christs” in this kingdom-ly realm, by living, loving, and showing mercy and compassion just like Jesus did. His kingdom comes every time we allow him to love through us, every time we share a cup of water or bread with a neighbor, every time we visit the sick or lonely, every time we bite our tongues to keep from passing judgement or making an insult; every time we welcome into our inner circle one who has been left out. And make no mistake, we do not do this because we simply agree with Jesus’s teachings – we do this by allowing our self to die along with Jesus, in order to be made new with him in resurrection, and then by allowing Christ’ Spirit to live and reign through us; to submit to Jesus as the King of our lives.
Today we have an opportunity to make or to re-make our commitment to Christ as our King in this counter-cultural way; to commit to worshiping regularly, to engaging with God daily through reading God’s word and through prayer, to giving to God out of our time, our talents and our financial resources to support and advance the mission of God’s church to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, and to be a witness for Christ in the way we live, in the way we treat others – and ourselves – and in the ways we tell others of the wonderful things that God has done.
As we sing this hymn of response, you are invited to come forward to make that commitment today. Part of the way you can do that is by bringing your commitment cards forward and placing them in the basket up front. If you’re not quite ready to make a financial commitment today, you can still bring forward your connect card, as an offering of your intentions to connect in worship, prayer, service and small groups. And I’ll be here to talk with anyone who wants to talk about any next steps in your own life of commitment to Christ. As we stand and sing, I invite you to respond as you are moved to do so.
Prayer: Dawn on us, word of truth, like the light of the morning, like a lamp to light our way. Amen.
Sermon by Pastor Melody Webb
Scripture: 2 Corinthians 9:6-15
When Thomas and I were first married, we were poor! I was still working to finish my music degree after a few too many changes in majors, and the birth of our first two children, and he was still working to finish his PhD. For a few years, we lived as a family of four on one half-time salary. Even after I finished my degree and started teaching, we barley had enough to make ends meet. And so I remember well some of the unexpected blessings that would come our way on a few occasions – a family member would give us an unexpected gift of money or some item we needed, including a car at just the time we needed it. Other people’s generosity touched us in ways that strengthened our faith and increased our gratitude and thanksgiving.
Thomas’ first job after graduate school took us to the St. Louis area, where we began to get involved in a growing church that had a strong outreach ministry. For the first time in our adult lives, we were finally in a position where we could be on the side of generosity – with our time & talents, serving in the various ministries of the church, and finally with our financial gifts. For us, it was a joy to be able to make a commitment to giving to support the ministry and work this church was doing to make a real difference in the lives of so many! About five years into Thomas’ job, though, the economy began to take a real downturn, and his company started to downsize. He was let go from his job, and our only source of income was gone.
Now a family of five, we were worried about our future. Our church family surrounded us with prayer, and we held to our faith in this time of uncertainty. We had a little money in savings, and he had been given severance pay, so we sat down and literally counted our cost of living so that we could stretch the little bit of money we had as far into the future as we could. We had to make choices about what were essentials, and cut out anything we could live without. I remember having a conversation about whether to continue giving our offering at church. We had finally gotten to a place where we had been able to make a commitment to regular financial giving for the first time in our adult lives, so we didn’t want to go back on that. We were being surrounded by prayers from our church family, and we held on to our faith that God would continue to provide for us, just as God had always provided in the past. We decided that withholding what we had promised to give back to God would be like admitting that we didn’t trust in God’s care. So we planned our giving, and added up our other expenses, and we could mark the date on the calendar about six months later when our money would run out.
Meanwhile, Thomas started sending out his resume to anything remotely related to his field, and I began substitute teaching at our church’s preschool. We were sure that Thomas would be able to get another job within a few months, before our money ran out. But as we were approaching the fourth, then the fifth month, we were starting to get worried. The one thing that was draining our resources faster than anything was our COBRA health insurance. Thomas revealed this to one of the men in our church, and the next week, the men’s group let us know that they were going to make the next COBRA payment for our family. And then, Thomas was asked if he would take on a small job with the church, locking up after some evening classes a few nights a week. And the payment for that job covered another COBRA payment. We made it six months, and again it seemed like we were reaching the end of our resources. By now, it was almost Easter. And one Sunday evening, after the youth group ended that Thomas and I helped lead, another youth group leader asked me to come out to her car – she had something for us. She said someone else had asked her to pass these on to us. When she opened her trunk, she pulled out four or five bags full of brand new church clothes and play clothes for our three kids, and toys to fill their Easter baskets. When we brought these home, before we gave them to the kids, I read to them these verses from Matthew, chapter 6:
25 “Therefore, I say to you, don’t worry about your life, what you’ll eat or what you’ll drink, or about your body, what you’ll wear. Isn’t life more than food and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds in the sky. They don’t sow seed or harvest grain or gather crops into barns. Yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Aren’t you worth much more than they are? 27 Who among you by worrying can add a single moment to your life? 28 And why do you worry about clothes? Notice how the lilies in the field grow. They don’t wear themselves out with work, and they don’t spin cloth. 29 But I say to you that even Solomon in all of his splendor wasn’t dressed like one of these. 30 If God dresses grass in the field so beautifully, even though it’s alive today and tomorrow it’s thrown into the furnace, won’t God do much more for you, you people of weak faith? 31 Therefore, don’t worry and say, ‘What are we going to eat?’ or ‘What are we going to drink?’ or ‘What are we going to wear?’ 32 Gentiles long for all these things. Your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 Instead, desire first and foremost God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
The Thanksgiving holiday provides a time each year to be both generous, and grateful; to share out of our abundance with others, and to contemplate our blessings and offer thanks. One is a natural by-product of the other. And so I want to ask you to think right now about a time that you have had the opportunity to be generous toward someone else – either with your time, with your talents or abilities, or with your money. Think about the joy and happiness you felt from being able to give in that situation. I’m going to give you a moment of silence to reflect on that, and then I’ll lead us in a prayer.
PRAYER: Now thank we all our God, with heart and hands and voices, who wondrous things has done, in whom this world rejoices; who from our mothers’ arms has blessed us on our way with countless gifts of love, and still is ours today. (UMH 102)
In our scripture today, the apostle Paul is writing to the church in Corinth. Our scripture reading comes toward the end of this letter in which Paul has been describing the poverty that exists among the Christians in Jerusalem because of a serious and wide-spread famine that has affected Judea. Paul has written to several churches outside of Jerusalem to ask for a special offering to address the poverty which has resulted from this famine. In fact, he brags in this letter to the Corinthian church that the church in Macedonia has already contributed to this offering generously “of their own accord” (8:3) in spite of their poverty. And so, as part of his urging for the Christians in Corinth to also give to this special offering, he lays out an explanation of “joyful generosity” that both results from and leads to gratitude. In this and other passages, such as the one I read from Matthew 6, generous giving and gratitude seem to go hand in hand. As one increases, so does the other! Likewise, as one decreases, so does the other. So let’s talk first about gratitude.
Robert Emmons, a University of California psychology professor and author of "Gratitude Works!," says gratitude is "profoundly basic" to the human condition. According to Emmons, "When we are grateful for something we consider its origins. Where did it come from, who was responsible for it, why and for what purpose does it exist, what should I do about it? These questions,” he explains, “strike me as profoundly religious." His multiple studies of gratitude show that people who pause to count their blessings daily report they are 25 percent happier than people who don't. He also found that thankful people exercised daily, reported fewer illnesses and had higher levels of energy and alertness.
Other scholars have studied the benefits of gratitude — there's even a program on the "science of gratitude" at the University of California, Berkeley — and researchers find that giving thanks regularly improves romantic relationships and can be a kind of natural anti-depressant. Bradley Malkovsky, a professor of comparative theology at the University of Notre Dame, says giving thanks is "spiritually good for us ... a training in connectivity, of getting beyond the ego" which helps us better our relationship with others, and with God. "If we look closely at our lives, we see so much of what we have achieved is a gift," both from other people and from God, he said.
Several of us have begun a book study that meets at 3:00pm on Mondays, using the book, One Thousand Gifts by Christian writer Ann Voskamp. This book the result of her change in lifestyle, which started with a request, or dare, from a friend to make a list of one thousand things that she loved, or that she saw as blessings in her life. You see, Ann had known profound trauma and grief in her life, which seemed to hang over her like a dark cloud! When she was only four years old, she watched with horror as a delivery truck struck and killed her baby sister who toddled out into the road just as the truck came into view. But as an adult who was learning about God’s grace, she was also discovering small changes in her faith and in her outlook on life as she began to make her list, writing down a few blessings at a time, until she realized that she was actually experiencing joy as a result of giving thanks, of reflecting on God’s blessings. And out of that joy, she found she had something to offer others again – she no longer lived out of a feeling of scarcity, as if she was always holding something back in order protect herself; but she was now able to live and to give of herself more generously in terms of giving her time and attention, of feeling more patient with others, of being more willing to overlook offenses and to forgive, and of being able to be more open and loving.
Practicing gratitude can change our lives. It can increase our faith, by helping us become consciously aware of the ways that God, our creator and sustainer loves and cares for us. Psalm 65 describes the way in which, even when we offer our silence to God as a form of praise, or thanks, that God receives all our praise and lavishes love back on us. Then psalm begins with a quiet affirmation, and then goes on to list the ways that God listens to and forgives Gods people, and how God establishes and cares for all of creation, which ends with the mountains and oceans and hillsides coming alive with songs of praise and sounds of joy. God’s lovingkindness is so good that even creation sends back its gratitude. When we reflect on these attributes of God toward us, we become overwhelmed with gratitude as well. This psalm seems to suggest that praise for the Creator is a natural response from creation, one that we can neglect when we allow ourselves to be overcome, instead, with the suffering and insecurity we experience in the world.
But practicing gratitude can change our perspective and restore our connection to God and other. I believe worry and fear are the opposite of gratitude. Worry and fear can build walls between ourselves and others; worry and fear lead to insecurity, which can drive us selfish actions, such as trying to buy and acquire more and more stuff, or to selfishly hold on to what we have; worry and fear can prevent us from living a joyful life. Gratitude, on the other hand, give us the freedom to let go, to open our hands and share, and even to consider new ideas and ways of thinking.
When we practice gratitude, we begin to see the world as God sees it – as an extravagant gift given out of the pure love of God. When we open our hearts to acknowledge life and all of our blessings as the gifts we have received from a generous God, we are more willing to be generous and giving toward others, as well. When our perspective shifts, we can begin to see our world as part of God’s growing kingdom – the already and the not yet. No, things are not always as they should be! There is still evil, and corruption, and injustice in the world. Terrible things are going to happen in the world. But in God’s kingdom, the kingdom which Jesus came to establish and left to us to grow and expand, in God’s kingdom: the hungry are fed; the sick and imprisoned are visited and cared for; the needs of the widows and orphans are met; the homeless are clothed and given shelter. In God’s kingdom, there is always abundance, new possibilities, and potential for transformation. It takes both a grateful and a generous heart to see the truth of God’s kingdom becoming reality.
And that leads me to the idea of generosity. Paul uses the analogy of planting and harvesting to help us grasp this idea. Anyone with an experience of farming or gardening can understand that the amount you are able to grow and harvest is in direct proportion to the amount of seeds that you sow, or plant, or invest. Even business owners can relate to the idea that you have to spend money to make money. So when Paul is appealing to the Christians in Corinth to give generously to the special offering that will provide relief for the Jerusalem Christians, he focuses on several key teachings from the Old Testament about reaping what you sow, and being a cheerful giver. And since Paul is quoting from the Greek translation of the scriptures, when he references Provers 22, the Greek work for cheerful is hilaros, a word which we would not have known had Paul not been using the Greek translation. The word hilaros sounds very close to our English word hilarious, because they share the same root. It refers to being a joyful, or joyous giver. God loves a joyful giver. God loves a hilarious giver! The joy comes from giving that you know will be a blessing to others; from the knowledge that just as God has given generously to us, that we can also be generous like God. That kind of giving can restore our relationship with God and with others, by humbling ourselves to put God’s kingdom and other’s needs above our own fears, worries or selfish ambitions.
Practicing gratitude can be done by journaling or writing down a few of your blessings each day. Or it can be done by setting aside a particular time for prayer that is only to offer thanks, such as we do before meals. John Wesley, who helped form the Methodist movement would pray prayers of petition six days of the week, praying for the cares and needs of others, for the church and for the world, and then one day a week, he would only offer prayers of thanks. However you choose to do it, the point is to make a plan and do it. Practice giving thanks, not just one day a year, but as part of a lifestyle of worship; as a natural response to God to acknowledge God’s goodness, mercy, forgiveness, and abundant blessings. Then see how it changes your life, your faith, and your perspective.
And practice being a joyful giver. What can you give up in order to be more available to others with your time and attention? What non-essentials can you live without so that you can be more generous with your financial gifts in order to help grow and expand God’s kingdom on earth?
You should have received in the mail this weekend a letter about our church’s ministry goals and operating budget for 2019. Along with that, you were given an “Estimate of Giving” card that we are asking everyone to pray about this week. As a church, we can look around and see the first harvest we’ve reaped from your generosity of giving toward the building of this new space. But now it’s time to image how we can use this space to connect with our neighbors, to feed the hungry, and to meet the needs of our community. It will take more than good wishes for new ministries to become a reality. There is much that we can do, as individuals, as families, and as a church, if we can let gratitude be our guide for living and for sharing abundantly – for being cheerful givers, for being joyfully generous!
God’s ultimate gift was the gift of God’s only son, Jesus. It is this gift for which we practice Thanksgiving each time we come to the Lord’s table for the sacrament of communion, or the eucharist. The word eucharisteo means thanksgiving; as Christians we are called to frame everything we do in light of the offering of Christ, so that our entire lives are lived as an expression of thanksgiving. Thanks-living can lead us to joyful generosity. May it be so!
PRAYER: O may this bounteous God through all our life be near us, with ever joyful hearts and blessed peace to cheer us; and keep us still in grace, and guide us when perplexed; and free us from all ills, in this world and the next. (UMH 102)
November 11, 2018 Sermon by Pastor Melody Webb
Scripture: Romans 12:1-2, 9-18
A pastor once told a story about moving into a new neighborhood, where she discovered that two of her neighbors had a long-standing conflict. One of these new neighbors was a professed Christian and regular churchgoer, and the other an unbeliever. One day as this pastor was out doing some yard work, the unchurched neighbor came over and began a conversation with the words, “You’re a pastor, aren’t you?” – words that she quickly realized were the beginning of a plea for her to serve as a type of referee as this neighbor began to open up about the conflicts between himself and the Christian neighbor he just couldn’t understand. He listed quite a history of conflicts over small issues, and then revealed the latest conflict which he said, “really takes the cake.” He had just received a letter from the Christian neighbor’s attorney threatening to sue him if he didn’t trim a tree that borders the other neighbor’s yard. The unchurched neighbor expressed his frustration saying, “It seems strange that he didn’t come over and just ask me to trim the tree before going to his attorney.” Then he added, “You know, I was getting ready to trim that tree, but now, I’ll gladly go to court just so I can have a story to tell about how I was sued by a Christian for not trimming an orange tree.” As he started to walk away, he ended by saying, “It’s funny how Christians say they love their neighbors – but they sure don’t hide the fact that sometimes they don’t like us!”
Have you ever had a conflict with a neighbor? A barking dog next door, a teen down the street who plays their music too loud, someone on your block who doesn’t keep their yard as manicured as the rest of you, or really inconsiderate people who park on your street just a little too close to your mailbox? These are all “neighbor” issues that I confess have ticked me off more than once in my adult life. It can be hard to live at peace with those who live right next door, or just down the street, the people you see on a regular basis, or even the people who live in the same house with you. So it can be even harder to practice living at peace with everyone – those with whom you share the road, a check-out line at the grocery store, an office or a social media network; those with whom you share a city, county, state, country, denomination, world.
That about covers the list of those with whom we as Christ-followers are expected to live at peace. It’s a very tall order. The word “discipleship” shares the same root as the word “discipline.” The only way we’ll learn to be peaceful neighbors is by practicing the Way of Jesus, who gives us peace as a fruit, as a byproduct, of living a life that’s centered on Loving God and Loving our Neighbors as we Love ourselves. As we spend this time reflecting on what this means for each of us today, I want you to close your eyes and think about the person or group of people with whom you have the most conflict today. I would ask that you lift up a prayer for them, as I lead us in a hymn of prayer:
“This is my song, O God of all the nations, a song of peace for lands afar and mine. This is my home, the country where my heart is; here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine; but other hearts in other lands are beating with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.” (UMH 437)
I mentioned earlier in this series that Fed Rogers, host of the children’s public television show, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” was an ordained Presbyterian pastor. It took him eight years of seminary classes over his lunch hour to complete his Masters of Divinity. But in those eight years, he developed a strong relationship with one of his seminary professors, Dr. William S. Orr. Because of deteriorating health, Dr. Orr spent his final years in a skilled-care facility, where Fred Rogers made regular visits, to read scripture and sing hymns, and continue learning from his mentor in the faith. On one of these visits, they had just finished singing the hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” And Fred wondered aloud at the meaning of the third verse, which says about the Prince of Darkness that “one little word shall fell him.” So he asked Dr. Orr, “What is that ‘one little word?’ This is Fred’s account of that answer:
“He said, 'Evil simply disintegrates in the presence of forgiveness. When you look with accusing eyes at your neighbor, that is what evil would want, because the more the accuser'—which, of course, is the word Satan in Hebrew—'can spread the accusing spirit, the greater evil spreads.' Dr. Orr said, 'On the other hand, if you can look with the eyes of the Advocate on your neighbor, those are the eyes of Jesus.'” (Fred Rogers conversation with seminary professor Dr. William S. Orr)
When it comes to loving our neighbor, being able to live at peace with them is the natural result of being able to look at them with the eyes of Love, with the eyes of Jesus. The fifth, sixth & seventh chapters of Matthew contains the teachings of Jesus to the crowd, known as the Sermon on the Mount. And in chapter 5:43-48, Jesus says,
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Loving and praying for one’s enemies was a revolutionary idea! It was virtually unheard of in the ancient world to which Jesus was teaching. Tribalism was very much the rule of order in that time, and if one person had an enemy, then they become the enemy of all their people, as well. I can’t help but interject here that we are hearing echoes of that same tribal mentality in our country today. The media, the caravan of immigrants, democrats, deplorables, the NRA – these are whole groups of people who have been demonized by one political side or the other. Some have outright been called the “enemy of the people.” But are they really? As Christians, do we even have enemies? If we do, I’m inclined to agree with Dr. Orr that looking with an accusing eye toward anyone is what creates an enemy out of another, out of the “Other,” and that being an “accuser” instead of an “advocate” spreads evil instead of love.
Fred Rogers took Dr. Orr’s message to heart as he developed the content for his children’s show. Remember that after Fred’s ordination, he asked that his ministerial appointment be to children through the medium of television. So he took very seriously his responsibility of be the pastor of all the children, and their families, who tuned in to watch his show, his ‘sermon’ in a way. His very first episode aired at a time when our country was at war in Viet Nam. So he used his very first week to address children’s concerns about war, to use puppets and Land of Make Believe to demonstrate how wars are sometimes created, but, more importantly, to teach children about how to sow seeds of peace. In one of these episodes, the puppets who were being attacked by those inside King Friday’s castle, which was fortified with high walls and barbed wire, decided to send “Peace balloons” over the wall, with little signs tied to them carry such messages as, “love,” “peaceful coexistence,” “tenderness,” and “peace.” In these episodes, Mister Rogers demonstrated that peacemaking can work – but that it is hard work.
Then in 1983, our country seemed to be deep in a Nuclear Arms race with what was then the Soviet Union. Many Americans were nervous about stockpiling more and more weapons of mass destruction. So from November 7 – 11, 1983, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” spent an entire week using scenarios in Make Believe Land to address issues of world conflict. This time, Fred Rogers chose to display the biblical basis for his teachings on peacemaking, by displaying on national television this scripture passage from Isaiah 2:4:
“they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.”
In the recent documentary, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” Fred Rogers is recorded in an interview saying, “What is essential in life is invisible to the eye. It is important to make goodness and morality attractive; to see people caring for each other rather than people knocking each other off all the time. The only thing that ever really changes the world is when somebody gets the idea that love can abound, and can be shared.”
After the final episode of Mister Rogers’ aired, something terrible happened in our country – the attacks of September 11, 2001. Nothing like that had ever happened on American soil, and so leading experts were called be media outlets to try to explain and to soothe and comfort. So on the Children’s Television network, there was only one expert anyone thought could explain this to children in a way that might soothe and comfort – Fred Rogers. So he went back to his old studio and filmed a message aimed directly at children, and those who love and care for them:
“We’ve seen what some people do when they don’t know anything else to do with their anger. I’m convinced that when we help our children find healthy ways of dealing with their feelings, ways that don’t hurt them or anyone else, we’re helping to make our world a safer, better place. No matter what our particular job, especially in our world today, we all are called to be tikkun olam, repairers of creation. So thank you for whatever you do, wherever you are, to bring joy, and faith, and hope, and pardon, and love to your neighbor and to yourself.”
Tikkun olam expresses the Jewish idea that even though this world is broken, it is not beyond repair. Tikkun olam holds on to the biblical belief that ever since Abraham it’s been God’s intention to work through the People of Abraham in order to repair his creation. Emile Fackenheim wrote a book after the Holocaust, based on this same idea, which was called To Mend the World. In it Fackenheim writes: “We are forbidden to despair of the world as the place which is to become the kingdom of God, lest we help make it a meaningless place in which God is dead or irrelevant and everything is permitted.” In other words, Fackenheim says to his Jewish community that even in the face of suffering, they are not permitted to give up on the world. It’s the same idea that the apostle Paul refers to in his second letter to the church in Corinth (chapter 5), when he calls Christians to be “ministers of reconciliation” as our English language interprets it.
Too often, we as Christians have mistakenly thought that God is going to give up on this world, that God’s already given up on his ‘good’ creation and will settle for a few saved souls in ‘heaven’ instead. But the first Gospel preached by Jesus’ disciples was no different than tikkun olam. The first Gospel wasn’t the evacuation of souls from this world but the arrival of a new world. The Kingdom of God. The first Gospel was the good news that the resurrection of Jesus Christ revealed that God was making good on his promise to repair the whole world through the People of Abraham. Through us. As Christian author Brian McLaren reminded us at a recent conference on Christian faith formation, salvation is not about evacuation – it’s about restoration.
Friends, loving our neighbors is the way that God has chosen to repair, to mend, to heal, and to restore the brokenness, pain, and evil in this world. Having an attitude of loving and praying for even those who hate or persecute us is the way God has called us to live at peace with others. It’s remembering Dr. Orr’s words about looking at others with the eyes of Jesus, as an Advocate instead of an Accuser, to offer forgiveness in the face of evil. Again, this is not easy – that’s why being a disciple, a follower of the Way of Jesus, requires practice in the disciplines of prayer, praise and thanksgiving, reading and reflecting on God’s Word, through the lens of the Word that became flesh, Jesus Christ, and in practicing the art of neighboring.
Do you remember the exercise we did the first week? I want you all to take out those blank index cards in your bulletins and draw a tic-tac-toe board. Write your name in the center square. Remember that this represents your home, where you live. Now I’m going to give you a couple of minutes to fill in the other spaces with the first names of the adults who live in the eight homes or condos or apartments nearest you. Ready? Begin. . . .
How did you do? Do you know more of your neighbors now than you did four weeks ago? If not, that’s ok, because I have a great way for you to get out there and meet them, starting today!
At the back of the room there is a stack of brown paper bags, and a flyer that goes with it. I’m challenging every family unit to take TEN bags today to have filled for our Combat Hunger Food Drive for the Food Bank of Iowa. The idea is for your family to fill one bag, for you to ask a close friend to fill the second bag, and that you take the remaining eight bags to your eight closest neighbors and ask them to participate in our food drive. Tell them you’ll leave the bag with them, and give them a date this week when you’ll be back to pick it up. Tell them they can leave it on their front porch if it’s easier. And then bring back the bags next Sunday, and we’ll bless them as part of our Thanksgiving offering that day before we take them to the food bank distribution center.
I want to encourage everyone to participate in this! If you can distribute the bags, but need help lifting the filled bags, let me know and we can have someone assist you. But this is a great way to go over and talk to your neighbors, to give them an opportunity to feel good about making a difference in the lives of others, and to also offer a non-verbal witness, by your actions, that being a Christian means we love our neighbors – all neighbors; even those who are hungry. And that we’re even working on liking our neighbors, as well.
I want to end with a different translation of our scripture reading for today. This translation is from The Message and says,
1-2 So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.
9-10 Love from the center of who you are; don’t fake it. Run for dear life from evil; hold on for dear life to good. Be good friends who love deeply; practice playing second fiddle.
11-13 Don’t burn out; keep yourselves fueled and aflame. Be alert servants of the Master, cheerfully expectant. Don’t quit in hard times; pray all the harder. Help needy Christians; be inventive in hospitality.
14-16 Bless your enemies; no cursing under your breath. Laugh with your happy friends when they’re happy; share tears when they’re down. Get along with each other; don’t be stuck-up. Make friends with nobodies; don’t be the great somebody.
17-18 Don’t hit back; discover beauty in everyone. If you’ve got it in you, get along with everybody.
May it be so.
Let’s pray: “This is my prayer, O Lord of all earth’s kingdoms: Thy kingdom come; on earth thy will be done. Let Christ be lifted up till all shall serve him, and hearts united learn to live as one. O hear my prayer, thou God of all the nations; myself I give thee; let thy will be done.” (UMH 437)
November 4, 2018 Sermon by Pastor Melody Webb
Scripture Lesson: Luke 5:27-32
On a “Christ and Pop Culture” podcast in 2016, Christian writer Hannah Anderson presented an episode attributed to a particular episode of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” Here is her lead-in, which helps to give us a sense of what was happening in the real world at the time in which Mister Rogers created his Neighborhood:
“When Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood first aired in 1968 on a public television station in Rogers’ native Pittsburgh, American viewers were desperate for some good news. The previous decade had brought political assassinations, the threat of the Cold War, the Sexual Revolution, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Vietnam War; and television had delivered all of it right into America’s dens and sitting rooms. With this new technology, no place was safe from chaos and turmoil. No place was simply “over there”—every place was near; every threat, local; every conflict, personal. In many ways, television shaped and escalated the conflicts of the 1960s the same way that the internet shapes and escalates current ones, simultaneously expanding and shrinking our sense of community.
"Over the course of thirty-one years and 865 episodes, Rogers would use his Neighborhood to show the world as it should be—a microcosm of kindness where neighbors love and support each other through difficult times of death, divorce, and danger. It was also a space where Rogers helped viewers confront their own fear and prejudices, leading them past them in his own non-threatening way. From the beginning, Rogers specifically challenged the nation’s understanding of race through his friendship—both on and off-screen—with Francois Clemmons, the Neighborhood police officer who just happened to be an African-American.”
In multiple interviews with Clemmons about his role on the children’s program, he remarks that he was skeptical at first about how a black man playing a police officer was going to do any real good in the real world. But Fred Rogers knew the impact he could have in teaching children love and tolerance instead of fear and hate. And so on a particular episode in 1969, the show opened with Mister Rogers sitting outside remarking about the hot day and how nice it felt to cool his feet inside a small pool of water. About that time, Officer Clemmons drops by, and Mister Rogers invites him to take of his shoes and cool his feet in the pool – with him!
At the same time, in the real world, public swimming pools had become the most recent battleground for civil rights. Like the water fountains, lunch counters and busses of the previous decades, swimming pools had become the latest “whites only” territory in America. So much so, that many public swimming pools had been filled with dirt so that new pools could be opened in “whites only” private clubs and gated suburban neighborhoods. During this time, both black and white civil rights activists begin to stage “swim-ins” in motel pools and beaches, which resulted many times in police arrests and even violence.
A now-famous photo captured a motel manager pouring concentrated hydrochloric acid into a pool of black and white swimmers, while a black woman clung to the neck of a white man while screaming in horror.
In multiple interviews with Clemmons about his role on the children’s program, he remarks that he was skeptical at first about how a black man playing a police officer was going to do any real good in the real world. But Fred Rogers knew the impact he could have in teaching children love and tolerance instead of fear and hate. And so on a particular episode in 1969, the show opened with Mister Rogers sitting outside remarking about the hot day and how nice it felt to cool his feet inside a small pool of water. About that time, Officer Clemmons drops by, and Mister Rogers invites him to take of his shoes and cool his feet in the pool – with him! At the same time, in the real world, public swimming pools had become the most recent battleground for civil rights. Like the water fountains, lunch counters and busses of the previous decades, swimming pools had become the latest “whites only” territory in America. So much so, that many public swimming pools had been filled with dirt so that new pools could be opened in “whites only” private clubs and gated suburban neighborhoods. During this time, both black and white civil rights activists begin to stage “swim-ins” in motel pools and beaches, which resulted many times in police arrests and even violence. A now-famous photo captured a motel manager pouring concentrated hydrochloric acid into a pool of black and white swimmers, while a black woman clung to the neck of a white man while screaming in horror.
It was against this background that Mister Rogers invited his black friend to put his brown feet in the water alongside his white feet on public television. When they were done, Mister Rogers even took his own towel and dried the feet of his friend. And so the entire gesture seemed to imply something beyond mere tolerance. For those of us who know and claim the way of Jesus, it calls to mind Jesus’ extraordinary gesture of washing his disciple’s feet as he gave them a new interpretation of the great commandment: “Love each other. Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other. This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other.” (John 13:34-35)
Last week, a person motivated by racial hate went into Mister Rogers’ real world neighborhood and took the lives of 11 Jewish souls while they were attending Shabbat in their synagogue. That day’s scripture reading was from Genesis 18, in which Abraham and Sarah are visited by three strangers. This passage stands as one of the great teachings on welcome and hospitality to all three of the Abrahamic traditions – Judaism, Islam and Christianity. We are told that when Abraham sees the strangers he immediately greets them, invites them into his tent, brings out water to wash their feet, and shares a meal with them. At the end of this passage we discover that Abraham and Sarah have actually been entertaining Angels – God’s messengers.
Do you remember the passage in Matthew 25 when Jesus explains to the crowd that anyone who gives a cup of water or bread, or who clothes or visits one of the least of these is indeed doing it to Jesus himself? Teachings throughout all of scripture point to a responsibility of recognizing the image of God in each person. If we are to take Jesus seriously about loving our neighbor, and about loving one another as we have been loved, then how can there be room for hate or fear of another?
In less than two weeks in our country there have been bombs mailed to prominent political figures; the shooting of two random African-Americans in a Kentucky grocery store, by a shooter who was unsuccessful in entering a predominantly African-American church with ill intent; the shooting death of 11 Jewish worshipers killed inside their synagogue by a man who was filled with hatred towards Jews and immigrants; and most recently, the shooting death of two random women in a Florida yoga studio by a man who had recently posted about his hatred toward women. I believe that we as Americans are at a crossroads when it comes to the rampant inciting of fear of “others.” And we have a responsibility as followers of the Way of Jesus to see the image of God in each person on the planet, and remember to show welcome and hospitality to the stranger and to the least of these. If we are bombarded with daily, sometimes hourly messages of fear-mongering and hatred, how does that affect us and our attitudes and actions? How can we resist these messages that are hurled at us non-stop from the 24/hour news cycle? And how can we become more open to showing God’s love and welcome toward our neighbors?
In the scripture reading from today, Jesus was welcomed into the home of someone considered by his religious community as an unsavory character, one of “those people” who had been rejected from the community. And the Pharisees, the group of ultra religious lay people of the community, pull the disciples aside to express their disapproval. But Jesus overhears and chides them. These are the people who need me! he seems to be telling them. They don’t know love and acceptance, and so I’m here to restore their relationship with God and with you! I’m here to bring the kingdom of heaven on earth, where every person has a seat at the table for the heavenly banquet – where no one is excluded or shunned.
For the next 10 to 12 minutes, we’re going to have some discussions with each other about how we are tempted to give in to the ideology of fear and hatred of others, and what we can do to overcome that as followers of Jesus; to try to encourage each other to show love and welcome to our neighbors – even the ones who don’t look like us, or think like us, or live like us.
I want you to get into pairs of two – you can move your chairs so that you face one another. And you’ll use the questions in your bulletin. Here are the ground rules:
1-Discuss the impact that the 24 hour media cycle has on your world view. What fears or assumptions have you formed about “others” based only on the news you have seen or heard?
2-Who are the people like the “sinners” and “tax collectors” in Luke 5 that are being excluded from our communities today?
3-Why is it important for us to remember that God’s invitation is for everyone? How will God’s invitation reach those who are currently being excluded, or of whom people seem to be afraid?
In several interviews over the past few years, Francis Clemmons reflected on a particular day of filming during their 25th year, in which Mister Rogers ended the show with the same words he said each day, “You’ve made this day a special day by just your being you. And I like you just the way you are.” He said only this day, as Fred Rogers spoke those words, he was looking right at him! So after filming ended, Francis walked over to Fred and asked, “Fred, were you talking to me when you said those words just now?” You see, Francis was also an out gay man, something he didn’t hide from Fred Rogers, but something he never discussed with him, because of the stigma associated with homosexuality. But Fred responded, “Francis, I’ve been talking to you for 25 years. But today you finally heard me.”
In closing, I want to ask you one final question: When is the last time you made religious people nervous because of the people you hang out with? If our call is to show love and welcome to those who don’t know Jesus’ love and welcome in their lives, how are we doing at being the one who shows them? These are all questions I want us to keep wrestling with – I believe it will help us discern the ways that God is calling us as individuals and as a church to help bring God’s kingdom of heaven on earth. Let’s pray.
How often, O Lord, have we believed that the greatest commandment is our love for ourselves solely. We have not heard the cries of those in need; we have turned our backs on opportunities to serve you by serving others. Many times we have thought only of our own wants and desires and ignored the needs of others. Help us to truly understand the commandments to love you with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind. Let us care for our neighbors both far and near. Bring us back to your loving light. For we ask these things in the name of our Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.