Sermon: January 24, 2016 – Feeding the Hungry

Text: Matthew 5:6 – “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

You may remember that we have been referencing a poem over the past few weeks written by Howard Thurman, an African-American theologian titled “The Work of Christmas”. For those who may be unfamiliar or who have forgotten, let’s take another look at that poem.

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.

We have been considering this list of work that is offered and hopefully we may have expanded your thinking around a couple of these items. We have talked about finding the lost and healing the broken and today, the third item on this list is “feed the hungry”.

Of course there are a couple of ways to look at the feeding of the hungry; we have people with physical needs that are actually hungry because they lack food and lack the resources to buy food. There are also many people, I believe, that suffer from a spiritual hunger. Feeding the spiritual hunger is maybe a little trickier than feeding the physically hungry so I will be more focused on that aspect of what we do as a church than the physical hunger.

This is not to say I don’t consider the physical hunger an important part of what we do; we offer quite a bit of ministry as it relates to people’s physical needs. We prepare and serve a meal through the Salvation Army one day a month, we collect food on a regular basis for the food bank and we participate in a number of other ministries, like Family Promise or Circles that are designed to help people meet their physical needs. These things we do and do quite well.

Feeding the spiritually hungry is a little more obscure; many of us may not know exactly what that looks like, or worse yet, we think we are offering food for the spiritually hungry, but we really are not. I think this is a problem many in the church fail to recognize; we think we are offering food, but what we offer and how it is presented make it inaccessible to many individuals. The results of our failure to feed the spiritually hungry is now becoming apparent as more and more people leave main stream Christianity and look elsewhere for their spiritual nourishment. These are the spiritually hungry that self-identify as “spiritual, but not religious” and they are the fastest growing demographic currently in the United States.

I want to take just a minute and have some fun with this idea. In the movie Castaway, which starred Tom Hanks, there is a scene early in the film that I think depicts beautifully, what I am talking about. In this scene, Tom Hanks has been alone on this deserted island for perhaps 24 hours or so. He has had nothing to eat or drink that entire time and he is beginning to recognize that he needs to find food and water soon. In this clip from Castaway, our hero discovers that the island has coconuts! Let’s watch.

Play movie clip

Some of you may have figured out where I’m headed with this idea, but I think it is important for us to recognize some of the truth that is depicted in this film clip. We may offer spiritual food at times, but to get to the real beneficial part of that food requires some technique and some stripping away of things that just get in the way. Our hero struggled a little bit to access the water and the meat that was contained inside of the coconut. If he had not been starving and desperate, I think he probably would have just given up and sought food elsewhere; don’t you?

We need to think about this. I believe it is a huge problem that goes unrecognized or unacknowledged by many in the church. We offer spiritual food to the general public as a green, whole coconut without any indication about how to access what is inside. In some cases the church actually prohibits the peeling away of the outer layers and the breaking of the coconut shell; it simply is not allowed or not encouraged in any way.

There are many ways that we in the church do this, I think. But of all the ways we fool ourselves into thinking that we are providing spiritual food, I believe the worst offender is probably the Bible. We offer the Bible as a complete meal, a giant smorgasbord of spiritual food, the answer to every question and the final authority on any disagreement. We do this often without even recognizing ourselves how shrouded the true meat of the Bible actually is. We don’t recognize what is required at times to cut through the outer shells of misguided understandings and traditions and belief systems which surround this sacred text.

When we offer the Bible as spiritual food to the unchurched or the first time visitor, we need to recognize that it comes to them as a whole green coconut. We need to help them strip away the outer shells and grant them permission to do so. But that is rarely found in the church and it is even rarer to hear it preached. When we do not help them, they become frustrated and seek food elsewhere.

Just in case you are not following what I’m talking about, I thought I would provide a couple of examples. Of course you have heard this before, but generally when I offer a personal opinion or observation on something it comes with a disclaimer. These are my ideas and opinions; they don’t have to be your ideas or beliefs. That being said, there are a couple of thoughts about the Bible that I don’t think we make clear enough.

One thought is I don’t believe the Bible was dictated by God. All 66 books of the Bible represent imperfect, flawed and very human products of human authors. Are some of the scriptures inspired? Certainly, I think we can claim that, on the same level that Mozart and Bach were inspired or Martin Luther King Jr was inspired. But my belief is that the authors of the Bible retained their faculties and were not puppets on a string being manipulated by God. Further, I think most of us feel this way, but we don’t say it enough.

Another example is I don’t believe the Bible is a science book and trying to make it function as a science book is just crazy. The earth is not 4,000 years old, evolution is real and the creation stories are just that; stories. Again, I think most of us in mainstream Christianity believe this to be true, but we do not say it enough.

A third example is that I believe the Bible contains many errors and is not a reliable source for answers to contemporary questions. When we begin to discuss things like gay rights, capital punishment, the role of women, questions about marriage and divorce or even violence in our culture, the Bible, at least in my experience has little input that is of real value in these areas. I think most of you would agree with my assessment of this and it certainly isn’t a radical or extreme position, and yet we fail to really put that message out there on a regular basis.

One more example is the notion that you can use scripture to justify scripture; in other words the use of circular reasoning has no place in an actual theological discussion. But, as I have stated previously, we don’t say this enough and when we see it or hear it, we don’t challenge it or call it out. The Bible isn’t true simply because the Bible says it is true. Things don’t work that way. At least not from my perspective.

When I complain that we don’t say these things often enough or put that word out there for the visitor or unfamiliar I’m speaking of mainstream Christianity as a whole. Not necessarily this particular church. For example, I have been in a number of churches, mostly United Methodist, that share the majority of my opinions about scripture. In spite of this, however, when scripture is read, it is often concluded with the phrase “the Word of God for the people of God” or something to that effect, and often the people respond with a line like “praise be to God” or something like that.

I’m not saying that this type of liturgy is inappropriate or not meaningful; what I am saying is that we need to consider the impact that traditions like this have on a demographic that is already suspicious or disenfranchised from Christianity as a whole.

To return to the movie clip example, if we are going to feed the people coconuts, we need to tell them how to get into the coconut, give them permission to get into the coconut and perhaps demonstrate for them what that looks like. This is a large topic, too big really for one sermon or one sitting. But it is worth thinking about and worth considering in what ways we may be perpetuating belief systems or traditions that we actually don’t agree with.

So that, of course, is food for thought. Perhaps we can continue the discussion at Preacher’s Pub tomorrow, but for now, go in peace and go with God. Amen.

 

Sermon: Jan 17, 2016 – Healing the Broken

Text: Isaiah 61: 1-2

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

If this text looks or sounds familiar to you it may be because this is the text in Isaiah that is referenced in the Gospel of Luke when Jesus goes into the temple to teach. In that story the text in Luke says that Jesus was handed a scroll from the prophet Isaiah and he read these words. I wanted to use the text in Isaiah today rather than the text from Luke, because for some reason the part about bind up the brokenhearted does not appear in the Luke story. Today, I want to focus on this idea of what it means to heal the broken and perhaps expand our understanding of what it means to be broken and how to fix it.

You may remember that we have been referencing a poem over the past few weeks written by Howard Thurman, an African-American theologian titled “The Work of Christmas”. For those who may be unfamiliar or who have forgotten, let’s take another look at that poem.

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.

 

Last week we began to look at the list of projects presented here and at the top of that list was to find the lost and we talked a little bit about that. The second item on that list is to heal the broken, so today we will be focused on that idea.

About 30 years ago-I almost choke when I say that, because I remember it like it was yesterday…but about 30 years ago, I was building a house. Go figure. At this time our three boys were young and a little bit crazy, Matt, the oldest was 9 or 10, Jacob the middle one was about 7 and Zachary the youngest would have been 5. When the trusses went up over the garage the kids thought that would make a great place to build a club house-I wasn’t going to insulate the garage, so I figured it was a good place as well. I showed Matt, the oldest how to nail down scrap pieces of plywood so they could build a floor up there.

Well, either something got lost in translation, the nails missed, or something else went wrong, but Jacob-the middle one, stepped on the edge of a piece of plywood that was suspended between two trusses that was not nailed down. As you can imagine, the plywood tipped straight up in the air and Jacob headed straight down toward the concrete garage floor. As he fell, he reached out to try to catch himself and caught his arm in the crook of one of the trusses where two pieces of bracing came together. This snapped both bones in his forearm and we went to the emergency room with a compound fracture.

The doctor on call told us they would have to do surgery to re-align the bones correctly and possibly put a plate in there to hold everything in place. So that is what happened and Jacob returned to the job site a day or two later with a cast that didn’t slow him down in the slightest.

I’m not telling this story to demonstrate my incompetence as a father, although that could be argued, nor do I tell the story to demonstrate that a job site can be dangerous, although that could be argued as well. What I really want you to take from this story is that when Jacob’s arm was broken, it was out of alignment and the surgeon had to realign the bones before the cast was placed on his arm.

I want us to begin to think about our poem and the listed task of healing the broken and what that might mean in terms of being out of alignment. I happen to think that is a pretty good definition of being broken; in other words, being broken means being out of alignment.

There are many ways for us to experience brokenness, but in almost every example I can think of, the metaphor of being out of alignment rings true. With a physical brokenness the physical alignment must be restored as was the case for Jacob. But many of us experience other kinds of brokenness that are actually much harder to fix or impossible to The text from Isaiah speaks of binding up the brokenhearted. Now I’m pretty sure that a literal reading of this text is not appropriate. We are not talking about open heart surgery and actually binding up a broken heart in a physical sense; so obviously the implication for us is to interpret this text in another way. The question then becomes how do we bind up the brokenhearted and what exactly does that mean?

I believe this is where the concept of alignment can become so useful. Many of us think of trying to ‘fix’ things when they are broken. In other words, the surgeon fixed Jacob’s arm and returned it to normal. He did this by restoring the alignment of the bones, but the arm was also fixed. I think it is harder for us to heal the brokenhearted when it is a situation that cannot be fixed. Many people suffer from a kind of brokenness that cannot be fixed in a traditional sense. They may be grieving the loss of a loved one, for example, and we cannot fix that situation. Someone else might be suffering from a broken relationship that cannot be fixed and there are countless other examples of brokenness that simply cannot be fixed.

I know many of us struggle with what to say or how to help heal someone in this situation; we simply don’t know what to say or how to help. If we shift our focus from trying to fix things to simply helping to restore alignment, the task can be much easier. I think most of us know this by instinct, but it may have never been pointed out to you in exactly these terms. But when you minister to someone who is broken, for whatever reason, you are helping to restore alignment, and if you think about it in this way, I think, the task becomes much easier.

So when we are called upon to heal the broken, as we are in our poem The Work of Christmas, I think it is helpful for us to think about the healing in terms of restoring alignment. You see, when you pray with someone or pray for someone, you are helping to restore their alignment with the Divine. When you send a note or call someone, you are helping to restore their alignment with their spiritual community. When you visit with them or take a meal to them, you are helping to restore their alignment to personal human connection. You may not be able to fix the problem or the source of the pain, but you can help them move toward realignment. And moving toward realignment is the source of all healing.

Let me say that again. Realignment is the source of all healing.

Chances are you cannot bring the lost loved one back from the grave or cure the cancer or restore the broken relationship or even restore the lost job. But you can help someone move toward realignment through the simplest of acts. That is who we are and that is what we are called to do.

So I want to introduce you to a new idea that I call a “Ministry Board” that will be mounted probably in Fellowship Hall somewhere. This is a physical reminder and an opportunity for you to participate in the healing of the broken by providing gentle acts of realignment.

The board is really very simple. Listed on the board are names of individuals that are experiencing brokenness on any number of different levels. Next to each name are several opportunities to offer realignment for that individual. If there is a colored magnet in the square that represents a particular opportunity, then that person would benefit from that act of compassion. If there is an “X” through the square, then that is not a specific need for that person.

For example, you generally would not bring a meal to someone who is hospitalized or in an assisted living center where meals are already provided. In those cases, an “X” will appear in the square which represents a meal for someone in that particular situation.

To participate in the Ministry Board system, you simply take a look at the needs, decide what you can do and then remove the magnet from that particular square and move it to the pending area. You can then write your initials or name in the square indicating that you are performing this particular function, and when it is accomplished, your name can be erased and the magnet will be replaced allowing for someone else to do the same thing.

This can even be done over the phone. You can call the office and ask what tasks are available, and we can sign you up. Once the task is complete, we can also erase your name and replace the magnet making it ready for the next person.

I consider each action on this ministry board to be an act of realignment; it may not fix the problem, but it will help each individual begin to move toward realignment. As I said earlier, I think that realignment is the source of all healing.

When I first read the words in our poem about healing the broken, it wouldn’t surprise me if you didn’t really know what that looked like. It sounds great, but what does it actually mean? What does it actually look like? I can imagine these questions racing through your mind.

Well, now you know. Healing the broken means helping them move toward realignment and helping them move toward realignment looks like this Ministry Board. We can all participate in this and we can all benefit from this as we build a community together that explores our faith and experiences the Divine in new and wonderful ways.

How will you respond? Food for thought. Go in peace and go with God. Amen.

Sermon: Jan 10, 2016

Text: Luke 10: 25-37

The Parable of the Good Samaritan

25 Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus.[a] “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” 27 He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” 28 And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

29 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30 Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii,[b] gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ 36 Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

When Heidi and I first arrived in the LC Valley, we decided to live in Clarkston mostly because that is where the Habitat office was and it seemed to make sense to live and work in the same state; so we rented an apartment in Clarkston for the first year or so that we were here. Apartment living can have a few advantages, although I can’t think of any at the moment, but there is one thing that is almost always a certainty and that is you will generally know who your neighbors are-one way or the other.

As a matter of fact, I was visiting with another gentleman a few years ago that also lived in an apartment complex and he was talking about his neighbors. He said that the neighbors that lived in the apartment directly above his got up around 5AM every morning. “Wow, that’s early” I said to him. Then he went on to tell me that after they got up they would start jumping up and down on the floor. “That’s awful”, I said, “how could you stand it”? “It must have been horrible; didn’t it bother you” I asked. “Naw”, he said, “I could barely hear it; I was practicing my trumpet”.

Last week I mentioned a poem written by Howard Thurman that I thought had some interesting insights about who we should strive to become as a church. The name of the poem is “The Work of Christmas” and I think it is worth looking at again. Here is the poem:

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.

It is interesting to me that the very first item on this list is to find the lost. Notice that it doesn’t say to save the lost, or to convert the lost, or to evangelize to the lost-it says to simply find them. As if to say that finding them will be enough. Finding those who are lost implies that once found, the lost will know where they are and be able to find the rest of the way on their own.

Think about someone hiking in the wilderness that becomes lost. They went for a hike on Sunday afternoon and then failed to return home that evening, or didn’t show up for work on Monday morning. A search begins, first they find the car, then the search party has an idea of where to look, and hopefully the lost hiker is found before too much time goes by. Once found, if the hiker is in good health, the search party doesn’t have to take the hiker all the way home; once returned to the his car, for example, the hiker knows where to go from there.

I believe we often make assumptions about who we consider to be lost and what it means to find them. It reminds me of a bumper sticker I saw once that said “Not all who wander are lost” – and that is a good thing to remember.

We can also think about expanding our own understanding of what it might mean to be lost. It doesn’t have to be limited to just a couple of definitions; people can be lost in a lot of ways. Finding the lost can cover a whole lot of territory if we begin to open our minds to all the possibilities of what the word “lost” might imply. For example, the text I read a few minutes ago, a familiar story about the Good Samaritan, is one way of looking at the lost. The man who fell victim to the robbers was lost in a number of ways. He had lost his money, he had lost his ability to travel, he had lost his good health, he had lost a certain amount of dignity, he had lost the chance to arrive at wherever he was headed; he had lost in many different ways. And the Samaritan in the story found him.

I want us to look at this scripture one more time, but I am going to leave out the middle portion of the story and just focus on the question and answer about the neighbor. The lawyer asks Jesus, what must I do, and then Jesus confirms for him that he must love his neighbor. Then the lawyer asks Jesus the question; “who is my neighbor” and after the story, the lawyer answers his own question, saying the one who showed mercy was the neighbor.

I think this is interesting because it begins to turn the tables on how we think of neighbors and what defines the neighbor. We have a natural tendency to think of our neighbors as the other, but what this story is really telling us, is that we are the neighbor. We are to be the neighbor to anyone who is in need of mercy. By showing mercy and compassion for someone, we become the neighbor. Who is your neighbor? You are. To everyone.

So when we revisit the poem about the work of Christmas, I think it is a safe assumption to conclude that we are to be a neighbor to the lost. The finding of the lost I believe could be thought of in slightly different language as becoming a neighbor to anyone in need of mercy.

Now I want to introduce one more word for us to consider in this context. That word is refugee. When we think of the refugee, we think of someone fleeing their home sometimes on foot, sometimes over the water, sometimes using other forms of transportation, but generally our first thought is of a person, or group of people fleeing a particular region or country. There can be many reasons why people flee or leave their home land; it could be war, it could be natural disaster, it could be political unrest, it could be famine or drought, but for whatever reason, the place they used to call home is no lI believe we are called to be a neighbor to the refugee. That is not intended to be a political statement, although we are hearing a lot of debate recently about refugees in our political climate. Rather than a political position, I believe it to be a moral and Christian position to be a neighbor to the refugee. As a church, I believe we can do that-but not in the way you are probably thinking about it right now.

You see, I believe we have a population of refugees, right here, right now in the LC Valley. In the LC Valley we have refugees who are lost, in need of direction and who are in need of a neighbor to show some compassion and understanding. But these refugees are not fleeing their home country or their home land or even fleeing a particular part of the country. The refugees I am speaking of are fleeing their home faith tradition; you see they are theological refugees.

When the home faith tradition of Christianity has become too uncomfortable, a certain percentage of people flee. Right now, according to national statistics, that is about 30% of people who once considered Christianity to be their home faith tradition but have now fled Christianity looking for something else. This number is increasing faster than any other segment of our current population.

Can we be a neighbor to these theological refugees? I believe we can. Can we become an example of an interpretation of Christianity which will feel comfortable once more? I believe we can. Can we find these lost refugees and bring them back to a place they already know? I believe we can.

Last week I spoke of New Year’s resolutions for the church and how we might create some for this church. But I cautioned that New Year’s resolutions often fail, and we need to be precise with our resolutions and only resolve to do things we have control over and the capacity to carry out. As for precision, I would like to recommend that we find the lost, but we are precise in who we are looking for. I am suggesting we look for the theological refugees in our midst and become a neighbor to them. We can expand on this idea in other ways, but for now, let us just imagine what it means for us to find the lost and bring them back to an experience of Christianity they assumed did not exist. Let us imagine a refugee returning to a faith tradition they thought they had to flee. Let us imagine the joy and the love that can be expressed in such a homecoming. Let us find the lost, the refugees and bring them home to a place where they can be comfortable and they can be who they need to be. Let us imagine what that may look like in the months and years ahead. Just imagine what we can do.

Amen.

Sermon: Jan 3, 2016 – Why not Church Resolutions, too?

Text: 2Corinthians 5: 7, 17

for we walk by faith, not by sight.  So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!

The other day I was trying to take a picture with my smart phone. This may not seem unusual to you, but for me it is quite rare. If I’m going to take a picture, chances are I would prefer to use a real camera…but that is another story. Now, I don’t know if you get along with your smart phone or not. With me the relationship is a bit of a roller-coaster ride, one minute I really like the technology and the information it puts at my fingertips and the next minute I’m thinking about feeding it to the garbage disposal. We don’t always get along and to make matters worse, it is usually something I did wrong that makes the dumb thing smarter than I am.

So I’m taking this picture and I hold the phone up and I can’t see anything; the screen is all blurry and dark. I shift the phone around a little bit and change my grip, and then I can see myself! I’m thinking this is weird and it’s never happened before, what’s going on? Most of you know this already, but a smart phone has a selfie mode that switches the lens somehow so that the image points back at the operator. I’m not exactly into selfies, and when I do shoot one it normally involves a tripod and the timer on a regular camera…but again, that is another story. I guess somehow without realizing it, I inadvertently hit the button on the touch screen to put the phone into the selfie mode rather than the regular camera mode. Perhaps if I took pictures with my phone more often I would get familiar with how it all is supposed to work, but I don’t. It took me a few minutes to find the right button again and get the dumb smart phone back into the regular camera mode.

Of course I grew a wee bit frustrated with the entire process, but eventually took the photo I was after. Now, a week later, I am able to use the experience in a positive way as a sermon illustration; funny how that works!

This idea of pushing a button and the entire universe is now looking back at you is intriguing on several different levels. Take the scripture I just read a few minutes ago as an example. Those of us in the church have always considered this scripture about anyone being in Christ is a new creation, the old person falls away and a new person is born, descriptive of the process of what happens when someone begins to follow Jesus seriously. There are plenty of personal testimonies of the drug addict or the criminal that had a life transformation in the process of learning about and following the person of Jesus. The old life of drug addiction falls away, and behold everything has become new! This is how most of us, I believe, see this scripture. It is a valid interpretation and it is verified occasionally through life experience. But, like an onion, this scripture could also have more than one valuable layer.

I’m wondering if the church has ever taken a selfie through the lens of this scripture?

In other words, has the church ever considered that being “in Christ”, so to speak, qualifies us for rebirth and renewal and to have the opportunity to allow old things to pass away and for everything to become new? Have we in the church ever considered that this scripture when turned back toward us has the same transformative power to make things new as it does to transform the drug addict? Is it time for us in the church to take a selfie through the lens of this scripture and begin to determine what is old and needs to pass away and what the church might look like when “everything becomes new”? I think it is. Actually I think it is past time for us to do this.

One way for us to think about what might pass away as old and what might be reborn as new in the church would be for us to ponder some New Year’s resolutions for the church for 2016. People make New Year’s resolutions, so why not the church? I think we can and should make some resolutions with an eye toward fulfilling the essence of this scripture in 2 Corinthians. What would our resolutions look like if they were specifically written to help the old pass away and to bring about the birth of the new? Isn’t this what we need? Isn’t this what all the seminars and focus groups and books that have been written regarding church renewal and revitalization, isn’t this exactly what they are talking about? Finding ways to allow the old to pass away and finding other ways to welcome the birth of something new? Have we not been talking about this for decades, and yet nothing concrete ever seems to come about? Why do you suppose that is?

When people create New Year’s resolutions, they almost concede in advance that the resolutions will never be kept. It is just too hard. You resolve to lose some weight, get out of debt or learn to play the piano; and yet at the end of the year, the old resolution is forgotten and a new one is made. Perhaps the church has been following the same pattern, we just call it something different.

Perhaps one way to increase our chances of success when making resolutions is to better understand what the differences are among things like resolutions, goals, hope and wishful thinking. I believe that a resolution is something you resolve that you currently have the power and capability of actually doing. Goals and dreams, hopes and wishful thinking are something else; but a resolution, I think, is something that you currently have control over.

For example, we could make a resolution that we want to double our membership in 2016; we could make the resolution, but it would fail because we don’t have the power or the capability to actually do that. What we can control is how we welcome visitors, for example, and we can make resolutions regarding that process. If we happen to increase our membership as a result of that resolution, that would be great, but we should only make resolutions about things we can control.

Over the next several weeks, I want to explore this idea of resolving to do things we have control over. I think it would be valuable for us to begin to think about what is old and what needs to be new, and what positive steps we might take as a congregation to accomplish these things. We can resolve to do certain things we have the power and the capability of doing, and if we focus on those things, perhaps some of the larger goals and dreams and aspirations will begin to take shape as well.

As we begin to move beyond the Christmas season and into 2016, I think it is always a healthy exercise to consider what has been accomplished and what we would like to see happen in the year to come. I believe that a poem written by the African-American theologian Howard Thurman accurately points us in the direction we need to go and may help us focus on what needs to be accomplished.

Here is that poem:

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.

What resolutions can we make that will help us accomplish the work of Christmas which has now begun? That is the question we will be exploring over the next few weeks and that is also food for thought. Go in peace and go with God. Amen.

Sermon: December 27, 2015 – The True Story of Christmas

Text: Matthew 25: 42-45

42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’

I’m thinking there isn’t any other passage in the New Testament that identifies as clearly our calling to care for the poor and oppressed, to lift up the downtrodden and to bring those who are marginalized back into the mainstream of society than this passage. It seems like some of us have forgotten what that looks like or our collective fear of the other has blinded us to that need. What seems even more ironic to me is the real messages of the Christmas story echo these same sentiments, but they are often overlooked.

There are a lot of varying theological positions regarding the Christmas story. There are some who long for the evidence to prove that Christmas unfolded exactly as it is recorded in the Gospel narratives. There are others who acknowledge that some of the historical facts may be accurate in the story, but other parts are more metaphor or creative license on the part of the authors. There are of course other positions which claim the entire Christmas story is simply that, just a story, and our job is to find the meaning in the story rather than trying to prove it happened exactly in one way or the other. When we consider the Christmas story with an eye toward caring for the other, it is interesting to me that it doesn’t matter what theological position you happen to subscribe to-in this case, all roads lead to the same conclusion. In other words, I don’t think it makes any difference what you believe concerning the factual accuracy of the Christmas story; the truths that the Christmas story points out remain the same.

Let me see if I can explain this in greater detail.

A good place to begin may be at the beginning…and so I want us to first look at the choice of Mary to bring a son into this world. In the grand scheme of things, if you want to believe that the end game was to get Jesus here on earth and functional, it would have been much quicker and possibly more efficient to just have him materialize somewhere. You know, kind of like the Terminator movies where Arnold just sort of shows up in a back alley somewhere-God could have done that, but chose not to. I wonder why? Mary was a nobody, there wasn’t any notoriety to be gained through having Mary give birth. By most accounts, Mary was just an ordinary young woman; but for some reason God chose the common over the spectacular, the unremarkable over the remarkable. I think there is a truth in there for us if we choose to look for it. Perhaps God wanted us to notice the value in the ordinary, perhaps God wanted us to see the ordinary transformed into the extraordinary.

So Mary and Joseph take off for Bethlehem. I guess they didn’t have the chance to make reservations with Expedia or Priceline or even with relatives that one would assume lived in Bethlehem, because it seems they were having trouble finding a place to stay. So the last Inn they checked with was also full, but they might have mentioned the barn. Any way you look at this, it seems odd to me. Mary and Joseph were arriving in Bethlehem because of a census, they were returning to where their roots were. There wasn’t any family on either side that had an extra couch or room on the floor? I mean, this is where they were from; certainly there was an aunt or an uncle or the crazy cousin Larry-somebody? But instead they find themselves on the outside of the Inn. I think that is an important ingredient in our story. Mary and Joseph and eventually Jesus were on the outside. They were kept outside and not allowed inside where everyone else was allowed to stay. Does any of this sound familiar? Is the story trying to once again point to the ordinary, point us in the direction of those who remain on the outside? Is the story really about greatness coming to us from the most unlikely places; is the story reminding us that humanity will always divide between the outsiders and the insiders? In this case it is the outsider who is the hero. There is a truth here for us. The truth that God uses the potential of everyone, even the outsiders, or those considered outside of the norm by the rest of us. When Jesus was born he was on the outside; seems like he stayed on the outside his entire life. That is significant and it is worth thinking about. Any way you cut it, Jesus was on the outside.

Now I want to talk about marketing. This is something that I know at least a little bit about, and for all intents and purposes, God sort of blew it in this department. I mean, there wasn’t much marketing and what there was didn’t really hit the mark. Shepherds? Really? If you want to get a message out, you talk to the mayor, you get the king to issue a decree. Actually, think about it; the scripture tells us that Mary and Joseph had been informed they needed to go to Bethlehem and be counted. How did they know this? The age old and very familiar beginning of the Christmas narrative from Luke tells us that “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered”. So you see, if you want to get the word out, you issue a decree, or have Emperor Augustus issue a decree.

Now I will give God some kudos for creativity. The sky full of angels thing was pretty cool, even by today’s standards that would make a pretty big splash. But here’s the thing; nobody saw it. A few shepherds in a field someplace. What was God thinking? You go to all that trouble of rounding up all those angels and choreograph the angels and the bright lights and the voices and the singing and all that just for a couple of shepherds? It doesn’t make any sense. It’s like having the production budget for a Super Bowl commercial, having the best creative team in the world come up with a great concept, you have Harrison Ford or Tom Cruise for a spokesperson and maybe Julia Roberts or Jennifer Lopez as well, just for good measure. You produce and edit and mix this absolute blockbuster of a commercial. It is award winning in every sense. And then you have it play on some obscure college TV station that only reaches about 15 students who happen to be channel surfing at 3 in the morning.

So the shepherds are wowed by this stunning marketing effort of the angels. So what? They go to Bethlehem and check out the story and find it to be true. Now what? What exactly are shepherds suppose to do for you? I’m not certain, but I don’t think in the first century shepherds were exactly at the top of the food chain. My impression of the average shepherd was a hard working, probably poor, little bit of a loner kind of guy that if you got too close to you might notice he smelled a little funny. Why shepherds?

If you are beginning to notice a theme here, I don’t think it is a coincidence. Once again, the choice seems to be in favor of the marginalized and not the main stream. Apparently the shepherds did their job, because word of Jesus eventually got out. And once again we are reminded that the lowly, the unnoticed, the unremarkable are the stars in this Christmas story.

The scripture I read a few minutes ago has Jesus speaking of the least of these; I’m wondering where he learned that? It seems the Christmas story is packed with the least of these, and in spite of that lowly standing, consider what has happened. Is the truth of the Christmas story designed to point us toward the least, the lost, the lonely and the lowly? I think it is.

If we are to recognize any shred of truth at all in the Christmas story it must be this; in the eyes of God, there is no least. All are worthy and all are important. And if you find yourself on the outside, you are in good company and when you need to entrust a world changing message to someone, character is more important than status.

And that, as they say, is food for thought. And it is also the truth. Go in peace, and go with God.

Amen.