Monday, January 31, 2011

January 30, 2011-- Blessed

Matthew 5:1-12

Rev. Sarah M. Varnell

INTRO: UMW Sunday- scholarship, mission, invitation to join.
The heart of UMW is for mission, especially to children and women throughout the world.  It is my hope that their example will set the pace for us as we consider our role in God’s kingdom.


The scripture passage from Matthew that we just heard is famously referred to as “The Beatitudes.” Maybe you are as familiar with these “Beatitudes” as you are with the Apostles’ Creed, perhaps you are like “what in the world is a beatitude?” It might be helpful for me to ease your wondering, because if you’re like me, just because you “know” doesn’t guarantee you are jeopardy worthy. The word “beatitude” is latin for “blessing.” Blessing is something we encounter in our culture in a variety of contexts...

Bumper stickers are interspersed throughout the morning rush hour that read: “God bless America,” and then there are the seemingly rebuttal bumper stickers that read, “God bless everyone, no exceptions.” Politicians are even expected to end their speeches, “God Bless America.” Banners hang from public venues that pray, “God bless our troops,” and Big Lots readily sells metal signs to hang in our kitchens that read: “God bless our home.” We also “Bless” people when they sneeze, a tradition leftover from our ancestors, and in casual conversations we refer to “blessings in disguise.” Many of us believe that the fruit of God’s favor and blessing is success and luxury. “Wow,” we say, “they sure are blessed.” And then, of course, there’s the southern version of sugar-coated insult that precedes, and somehow cancels out gossip... “God bless his or her heart...”

I think I’ve confessed this to you all before, but I love to listen to controversial talk radio and TV, including famous and obscure preachers. Much to my kind-hearted husband’s chagrin, I especially love anyone with whom I might find disagreements, and I spend precious brain cells arguing into wide open air that doesn’t respond to my passion. As you might imagine, growing up, my parents accused me of being able to argue with a barn door.
Recently I watched the opening of the famous, Joel Osteen’s mega church, in which he said, “We have full victory in Jesus to live our best life now, to have victory in family and work and finances!” Thanks to my sermon preparation; I grabbed the bible on our coffee table and started to recite, and pray even... But Jesus says to us today, blessed are the poor in the spirit... Blessed are those who mourn... Blessed are the meek...I don’t think that is what Pastor Osteen had in mind in his christian-lite pep talk.

Blessing means: to be in favor, to sanctify, to consecrate, to protect, to extol. Abraham and Sarah were blessed, but I doubt the experience of full-blown baby labor in Sarah's 90 was their idea of a good time. The Israelites were blessed, but I doubt that being enslaved by the Egyptians or wandering around in the dessert felt like favor. Often, “to be blessed” is to be assured of God's presence in our lives.

Jesus, surrounded by the women and men that followed him, went up on a hillside and began a very long sermon with a comforting and grace-filled set of promises. These are not meant to be principles, but an oasis of spiritual water in the midst of a dry age. Like most of Matthew’s community, the people that gathered at Jesus’ feet in this moment were Jews, living under Roman occupation, forced to pay high taxes with little benefit, making their living in labor intensive jobs, and they relied heavily on the Rabbis of their day to teach them the holy scriptures. 

They were Jesus’ present community, but let’s not forget the future of those who would hear... as we are also invited to lean in on the edges of the circle. For as much as we have in our society today, for all the luxuries, technology, and is never enough. For all the food that we create, and the medical miracles we perform, we cannot solve the world’s problems, we cannot find peace, and we cannot prevent the pain and death of our loved ones.
We, like the earliest disciples, are in need of an oasis of spiritual water in the midst of a dry age. Join me with your own thoughts, in God’s grace, as I humbly offer some definitions and distinctions...

Jesus begins, “ Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The Message, a paraphrase of the bible by Eugene Peterson, modernizes “poor in spirit” to “people at the end of their rope.” Does that tap on the heart of anyone among us?

He continues, “ Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” Some of us know what it is to wake up with a headache and an empty heart, because our mourning spilled into our sleep. We have lost grandparents, mothers, fathers, spouses, friends, and children, and our hearts constantly ache. Some of us mourn our past discrepancies, unable to open our eyes to the light of tomorrow. Some of us just mourn the pain and brokenness of the world.

Next, Jesus proclaims, “ Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” These are those that the world deems weak, or spineless. We are the trampled, and the last to be acknowledged. Some of us feel this all of the time, some of us feel the powerlessness of it less often. Jesus says, its the meek who will inherit what others do their best to take from us.

Jesus says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled.” Who doesn’t wish for fairness, especially when they hold the short straw? Or, the families that know first hand the pain of this world’s inequities that perform violence on their loved ones. We are the rule-followers, people who struggle with judgement, and they are also those that hunger for the day when all will be well. Jesus promises, satisfaction.

He continues, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy,” these are people that give us a break when we don’t deserve it.  John Wesley calls the merciful the “tender-hearted,” those whose heart bleeds for other people’s pain and who want nothing more than to offer a cup of sugar when their neighbor comes knocking.

Jesus says, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” This is not unscathed heart that has not felt or seen or carried difficult things, because purity is something God gifts us with...and with purity comes a new pair of spiritual glasses to see and name God’s movement in the world around us.  As CS Lewis is attributed to describing God as the wind-we cannot see the wind, but we can see where it has been. 

Jesus continues, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God,” peacemakers implies an active role, it is not the passive peacekeepers, often, these are the everyday people who step outside of ourselves long enough to provide for another rather than take from another.

And then finally, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  In the words of Martin Luther King Jr, “It is not the words of our enemies that we will remember, but the silence of our friends,”  These are those who live their lives with the conviction that silence is not an option when faced with injustice in the world.  These are people who live in the kingdom of heaven, and live their lives as though it is in its full reality.

As I was preparing this sermon, I was up to my eyeballs in commentaries, asking the question, “What does this have to do with the 21st century Christian?” Wrong question, I should have been praying, “I’m listening and looking,” and I would have seen that this is God’s grace in Jesus Christ, hoping and promising.
In one of the commentaries on my shelf, which belonged to the Rev. George Armbrister, guidance lifted off of the page from the past in a segment that he underlined, it read: “Jesus’ righteousness is more than the sum of his commandments: it is a total attitude of mind, body, and soul, a particular kind of character. Those who are praised in the Gospel are men and women that are not yet perfect, but they are converted.”

Lord knows that our presence today is a step toward our conversion...we bring our poor spirits, our sorrows, our weaknesses, our hunger for justice, our mercy, our purity, our peacemaking, and our persecution. We are citizens in the kingdom of God, living in the kingdom of this world.
May we have enough conviction to take one more step forward into God’s future.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

January 23, 2011 - Making Light of the Darkness

Making Light of the Darkness
Matt 4.12-23

    In the world of computers, there are APPLICATIONS and there are APPS. APPLICATIONS are the software that turn your computer into something amazing: like a Word Processor A spreadsheet turns it into a mathematical genius. An APPLICATION like Microsoft Access can organize a Fortune 500 company. Most of us already know how to use a few APPLICATIONS and figure that we will learn others as we need them – all the while hoping that we never need them. In the old days, companies delivered APPLICATIONS with 2" thick books filled with instructions. In the old days, Geeks were the people who really read those books. Everyone else learned just enough to do our work; it was enough. The learning curve is steep, but the payoff is high.

    APPS, on the other hand, are little programs that do one task quickly and elegantly. They are supposed to be so simple that all they require is a feature list. Those of us with smartphones live in the world of APPS. If an APP requires a book, no one will buy it.

    With this mindset of APPLICATIONS and APPS, we approach the Christian faith. It comes with a Bible that is thicker than the user-manual for DOS; therefore, it must be an APPLICATION. But, in Bible School we teach our children to sing their faith, so it must be an APP. Which is it? Complicated beyond the reach of ordinary people? Or “user friendly” so that we can lose the book just like we lost the book that came with DOS?

    The saving grace of the Christian faith is that it was first understood by storytellers. So, maybe there is a lot to learn, but most of that learning comes in the stories this faith tells.

    12 Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. This is hardly a powerful beginning for the Son of God. Instead, he “withdrew” – he slipped out of town to get out of sight. And worse, he withdrew to Galilee.
    Galilee was the untamed section of Palestine, a wild, unruly place with bandits and terrorists wandering the countryside. The population was considered by the pure religion of Jerusalem to be uncouth and religiously semi-literate because Jews in that area had to tolerate pagans around them. It was called "Galilee of the Gentiles" because there were Roman towns among the Jewish ones. From the Greek and Roman ruins still to be seen in Galilee, the Jews had been reduced to a remnant. They were not the dominant culture or religion, and they had to put up with a lot that Jews in Jerusalem did not.

        Before moving back to Knoxville, we lived in Cleveland, which is the county seat of Bradley County, Tennessee. While we lived in Bradley County, I learned that the boundary area, where the county line lies along the Georgia state line, once had a lawless reputation. In an area called Buck’s Pocket, bootleggers were common. At a time when the law in Bradley County was little more than a Sheriff and maybe a deputy, people in Buck’s Pocket could go a long time without seeing the Sheriff, who kept himself mainly in Cleveland. The locals talked about their lawless past with some affection. Despite the bootlegging and such, they generally considered the people around them to be good neighbors. They found ways to get along.

Such was the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. When he heard that John had been arrested, Jesus withdrew to Galilee.

    [B.] But, he did not go there to hide out; he does begin.  Jesus’ first words are, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (4.17). Then, his first official act is to call to discipleship two fishermen, Peter and Andrew, (4.18-20) and then two more fishermen, James and John. They are the sons of Zebedee (4.21). Two of these fishermen were pulling their nets from the sea while the other two brothers were mending their nets, along with their father. “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”

    It all happened quickly. Jesus comes along and suddenly the fishing careers are over. And by the time poor Zebedee can look up and figure out what is happening, he has lost his entire fishing crew! Such was the compelling authority of this Jesus. There was no time to look into fringe benefits, work hours, and surely not time to say, “Well, let me think about it, and I’ll give you my decision by tomorrow by noon.” There was no time for that, nor did they apply for the job of “disciples” as other Rabbis might expect. Jesus summoned them, and they responded in obedience.

I.  Jesus did the calling: “Follow me!” “Come here!” says the Greek text. There is almost a stern, “You’d better hustle it” quality to it all. In Jesus’ case, He always takes the initiative when he calls people into discipleship. Someone has said of this calling by our Lord that “There are no applications for this commander’s army. Discipleship was – and it is to this day – a gift, a sheer act of God’s grace.”

    Be certain, God does not run a draft lottery where only certain numbers get selected. Jesus said, “I call all persons unto myself.” Jesus does the calling, and his call goes out to every living one of us. He does it through the Gospel, and the very fact that you are within hearing at this moment is a gift of God’s grace to you. Discipleship is not an offer we make to Christ. His call creates the situation.
    Paul says it well: “You are the people of God; He loved you and chose you for His own.” (Col 3.12a).

II. Most of us were not called to Christ and to discipleship in a dramatic fashion.

    Instead, most of us came to faith much as James and John, Peter and Andrew did. They were busy, productive people. They were not worried about the hereafter; they were not misfits; they were not deep depression. Like us, they had a living to make, and they were busy making it. As it happened for the disciples, Jesus comes into our busy lives and interrupts our plans with a call to set all that aside and make his calling the first loyalty of our lives. Following Jesus is going to cost us something: our neatly planned lives, our comfortable prejudices.

    B. I find that most, if not all of us, will hear Jesus call us to some task, some ministry, some new direction. Curiously, Jesus’ call to Peter and Andrew, then to James and John, was not for them the call to faith. Instead, theirs was a call to follow him as disciples. The understanding will come after they have been taught. The faith will come after they have seen. At this point, Jesus calls them simply to follow as disciples.

    [C.] There is an old saying: “JESUS DOES NOT CALL THE QUALIFIED; JESUS QUALIFIES THE CALLED.” Think about it: If Jesus can use the help of a fisherman, he can use us!  To a fisherman he says, "Follow me and I will make you fish for people." Still, the point is not, "Help wanted - Fishermen Only!" Any of us will find places of services in God’s kingdom. You and I were meant to become a part of the work of Jesus Christ to bring light to a dark world right whoever and wherever we happen to be. 
        +The carpenter's invitation reads, "Follow me and I will make you build up people." 
        +The accountant will hear it as, "Follow me and I will make you help people know they count."
        +The teacher will hear, "Follow me and I will make open the eyes of children to the great thinking that people have done about God’s ways.
    +The physician will hear, "Follow me and I will make you a healer of people's souls."

III. These disciples left their nets and their boats to follow Jesus. And the greatest adventure the world has ever seen began. In the years that would follow these four disciples will see far more than they could hold:

        1. Other disciples were called, two more, then one from his tax table, and still another was called along the road. Before long, there were twelve men. There were women, too – women who heard something that burned within them, and so they followed.

        2. They will hear him teach. Much of his teaching is recorded in the gospels. I love to imagine what it was like to walk with Jesus along the road and hear him teach. Imagine sitting among the crowds that came wherever he stopped – the crowds hungry to hear a Word from God.

        3. They will be witnesses as Jesus heals the sick. The blindman was given his sight, lepers were cleansed of their disease, demons were cast out. Imagine the stories these disciples could tell when they were old and still so excited about Jesus that their eyes filled with tears at the memory:
        +of disabled people dancing,
        +of a little daughter restored to life,
        +of Lazarus called from the tomb.
        I believe Jesus calls us to be healers, too. Do you think that Jesus expects us to touch lepers? Jesus believes that in his name we have the power to raise up the Gabby Giffords of this world to walk again.

        4. They will be there when the Temple leaders come to discredit him – to put him in his place:
        +Trying to catch him in his words;
            +Trying to prove that he does not keep the Holy Law of God as he should. They are quick and well-practiced at dispatching pretenders. But, they have never dealt with the Son of God before.
                What they fail to understand is that he has no interest in beating them if beating them is just an attack on their faith and their convictions. They fail to see him watching them for some sign that they are truly getting it when he speaks of God’s love which seeks out its own. They fail to see that he is the most disappointed that they cannot hear the invitation offered even to them.

        5. The disciples who were called that day will still be there when he breaks the bread and shares the cup at his Last Supper. They will hear the Son of the Living God address them as: “Friends.” They will sit in dumbfounded wonder as he shoves the wash basin along the floor to wash their dusty feet with his own hands.

        6. And they will be there:
        +when they think they can go no further.
        +When they deny to the crowd at the High Priest’s house that they know him.
        +When they run for their lives when his life is being beaten out of him in Pilate’s dungeon.

The truth is that the life of those disciples was not so remarkable:
    +they were not unusual preachers or leaders,
    +they could not work miracles very well,
    +storms rattled them so that they feared for their lives.

The disciples were not so remarkable on the day they began – except that they heard the call of Jesus. And, when Jesus’ life among them was over, and they were utterly defeated, they reacted the way any of us would have. They were no better and not particularly worse. Watching from a distance, it appeared that the story was over and the dream was finished.

    But, when Jesus’ life among them was over and they had run in fear, Jesus, who called them at the beginning, met them again. And there he said, “I call you again, and now I send you to all the world in my name.

    Called! Christians are called – sometimes at the beginning of their journey of faith, long before they understand much and long before they can speak with eloquence. It is along the journey that they find the understandings and the words to give voice to all that Christ has done in their lives. Other Christians are called far along in their life of faith. Perhaps they have begun to wonder if they will ever be called to any more than being Sunday faithful or to singing in the choir. Often it is late, when we have given up expecting a task that it comes. A need appears. A wrong must be righted. An evil must be challenged. And we are called to step forward, sticking our necks out in the name of the Savior who risked his life for ours.

    One more thing: the calling is not always ours to receive and carry. Sometimes, our task is to recognize the calling in those around us. Imagine the possibility that people around you in church this morning are called to the service of the Lord. In their witness and in their service Jesus is among us. Wherever the followers and disciples of Jesus are found, He is here – in the witness, the service, the love that they bring in Jesus’ name.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

January 16, 2011 The Baptism of Jesus

Let me tell you about Jesus - His Baptism by John
Matthew 3:1-17

    This week, Dennis, a friend for 30 years or so, called me – all in a panic.  He said, “I just ran into you wife at the hospital.” I said, “That’s great, Dennis. I know she was happy to see you.”
    He said, “We were both leaving, so I walked out to the parking lot with her. We talked the whole way.” I said, “I’ll check with her later to catch up on the news.”
    He said, “You don’t understand. When I was leaving and saying, ‘Goodbye,’ I called her ‘Carol.’” I let this news sink in for a moment. I said, “Dennis, her name is ‘Celia.’”
    He said, “I know now, but at that moment, I just couldn’t think of it. I called her ‘Carol.’ Please tell her that I’m sorry.”
    Later, I figured out that because he has my number, not hers, in his phone, he called me to deliver the apology. I assured him that I would carry his regrets... to Celia.

    Who gets to name us? I mean, who gets to present us to the world: giving us a name or a title or by repeating out reputation to strangers? One of the challenges that Jesus faced was that people around him already had an idea what he should be and what he should do.
    +The prophets had been telling about a Messiah for years;
    +Under the oppression of the Romans, the popular idea of a Messiah was mostly looking like a military leader to overthrow the Roman occupation;
    +Of course, Jesus looked physically like an ordinary man, so other people expected him to do what every other man did;
    +And we are no different: we need Jesus to be and do certain things; other roles that meant a lot to Jesus might not mean anything to us.

We all carry around different pictures of what our Jesus should be and do, depending on our past experiences. In other words, when God takes human flesh in Jesus, our idea of Jesus may not be the same as his.

    [APPLIC:] This has a very personal application for us, too. Who gets to name you and me? Who gets to tell us and everyone else what we are supposed to do and stand for?
    Imagine that Jesus has come to walk among us.  What is your expectation of what Jesus should do or what Jesus should say? But wait! Is the job description ours to write? Or is it His job description to write? Let’s begin here: Who gets to name Jesus?

    John the Baptist breaks upon the scene. He is out in the wilderness at the Jordan River, preaching, whipping up expectations. Actually, he’s smart to stay out in that wilderness. If he comes too close to town with his talk of a Messiah, the Romans will put a stop to his work. They understand that the world he proclaims is a challenge to their leadership, but, as long as he stays out in the wilderness, he is not much of a threat.

        +First, John reminded them of an ancient prophecy: “Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.” His words are the ancient words by which Israel called for the coming of the anointed King.
        +He challenged the religious leaders, the Pharisees and Sadducees, for failing at their job of leading the people to faithfulness.
        +He called on people to bear fruit worthy of repentance.
        +He warned them that God can raise up the offspring of father Abraham from the very stones beneath their feet.

But, then John moved to a subject far more political in the eyes of the Romans and maybe in the eyes of the Jewish people who came out to hear him:
        “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me. I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”

John did everything in his power to stir up expectations around this unnamed and unidentified Messiah. Israel has been watching for and hoping for such a Messiah throughout the years of occupation. But, everyone knows, including John, that the Romans will never put up with this challenge to their rule.

    But John is out in the wilderness – far enough out that they cannot nab him easily, though they will arrest and execute him soon enough. For now, however, he is stirring up the people and stirring up expectations.
And word is getting back well enough that people are going out to hear him and beginning to believe that he might just be right this time. The excitement is growing. He is stepping on toes, as they used to say in the country. He challenged the establishment – the Pharisees and Sadducees. Whether they took-it or not, we will never know. But the effect on the crowds was electric. They were in at a fever pitch of expectation, looking for the Messiah.

    Now, in this vibrant state of expectation, Jesus comes from Galilee to be baptized. To anyone along the way, he was just another earnest believer who came to hear John and maybe moved to seek baptism for himself. Maybe he would become a disciple of John; maybe he would just go home more earnest and committed to God than he came. To the people along the way, Jesus did not appear unusual in any way. If the people had been taught to expect the Messiah to appear, Jesus of Galilee did not fit the profile. He arrived along with many others, but no one noticed until John noticed him.

    John took one look at him, and all of John’s fire and excitement drained out him. When Jesus came close enough, John said to him, “I need to be baptized by you. And do you come to me?” What did John see that all the others missed? Plainly, John recognizes Jesus as the One who is to come.

    [REFLECT] Think about this encounter between John and Jesus just a moment. John has been telling the crowds that the Messiah is coming with power and with fire. But, when Jesus stands before him and he recognizes him as the One, John is strangely humble. After all this, we expect him to start whooping and hollering that he has found the Messiah. We have been taught to expect him to shout to the crowds that the very one that he has been announcing stands before him. How would you react if you met your hero?

    [PAT SUMMIT] I love the Lady Vols, and Pat Head Summit is one of my heroes. I watch her during the women’s basketball games as much as I watch the play on the court. But, one night in a restaurant near campus, I ran into her. She was sitting at the next table. I was as dumbfounded as any nine-year old. I just stared; I could not think of a thing to say to my hero.

But, when John met Jesus, I don’t read his response the same way. His response was not the deer-in-the-headlights look that I had the night when I encountered the Coach. He said to Jesus what he needed to say:  “I need to be baptized by you. And do you come to me?” There is a humility in John that knows he is suddenly not the main character on this stage; it is Jesus.

    Theologically, John’s humility is the right thing to do. John cannot name or define Jesus to the crowds and certainly not to Jesus himself. Jesus must through his life and ministry define himself. This is the reason the Gospel is the whole story of Jesus from beginning to the end. He defines himself, his work, his ministry, his role upon this earth.
[TEXT-3] So, why does Jesus need to baptized? 15 Jesus answered him, "Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness." There is a lot of debate over this response.
        +There certainly was no law that said that Jesus had to be baptized by John in the Jordan.
        +No one would say that Jesus was a sinner who needed forgiveness based on John’s baptism.
        +And yet, we are uncomfortable suggesting that this was merely a symbolic act with nothing of substance in it.
        +By going into the water of baptism, he identifies with the sinful humanity he has come to save. Leon Morris, in his commentary on Matthew’s Gospel, says it this way:

    Jesus might well have taken a position up there in front standing beside John and called on sinners to repent. Instead, he goes down into the waters of baptism with the other sinners, affirming his solidarity with them, making himself one with them in the process of the salvation that he would in due course accomplish(2).

    [TEXT-4] Now, God the Father speaks from heaven:

    16 When Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.**"

    This is one of the *Trinity places* in the Bible: the Spirit descending like a dove, the Father speaking from heaven, and the Son receiving this pronouncement of his identity.

    A. First, the Father speaks from heaven and says: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” If you ever wondered where Christians get the idea that Jesus is the *Son of God*, here it is. On the day of his baptism, Jesus came up out of the water and heard the Heavenly Father address him as “my Son, with whom I am well pleased.” It does not get any plainer than this. This continues and confirms his birth of Mary by the Holy Spirit. This will be confirmed again on the cross when Jesus will say, “Father, into thy hands, I commend my spirit.” Here at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus is affirmed by the Father as the Son.

    B. Second, the words we keep reading: "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased," are quoted from one of the “Songs of the Suffering Servant” found in Isaiah 42. Remember, Matthew writes his gospel long after the events he is reporting; he is reflecting on the life of Jesus which has changed his life. Later in his gospel, Matthew will quote this same passage more extensively in Matt 12:18-21.

18 "Here is my servant, whom I have chosen,
    my beloved, with whom my soul is well pleased.
I will put my Spirit upon him,
    and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles.
19 He will not wrangle or cry aloud,
    nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets.
20 He will not break a bruised reed or quench a smoldering wick
    until he brings justice to victory.
21 And in his name the Gentiles will hope."

    On the day of his baptism, at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus cannot be defined by John, no matter how excited John and the crowds might be. He is the Messiah who must define himself. The only additional detail comes from Matthew’s choice of this quotation from the prophet Isaiah. Based on this prophecy, Jesus is the Messiah who is marked by *servanthood*. We will not understand what that means until he has gone to the cross at the end of his ministry. We definitely cannot understand what servanthood means here on the first day of Jesus’ ministry. We have to see the whole story of Jesus Christ unfold.

    [APPLIC:] The truth is that we hardly understand what the servanthood of Christ means. We are trapped in our expectations about power and authority.
    +We want to be there when the President comes to town;
    +We want to know the people who cast the votes that make the laws;
    +We want to stand close as the big decisions are being made;
    +We want to sit at the table and watch the operators in town make it happen.
    +Man! If I could just get an invitation to the Governor’s Inauguration!
Even John loves the signs of power just as much as we do. Remember what he told the crowds?

    "You brood of vipers!
        Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?
    God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.

    One who is more powerful than I is coming after me;
    I am not worthy to carry his sandals.
        He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
    He will gather his wheat into the granary;
        but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."

Like John, we are looking for a mounted conqueror who will ride in and take charge. But, Jesus is the Messiah who chooses to come as a servant.

[POEM: He Comes a Servant]
We watch the road for the rising dust of a thousand soldiers,
    But, he slips into town with no more ceremony than a street sweeper;
We demand signs and measure the crowd response with Gallup and MSNBC,
    But, he patiently kneels beside the one the crowd never even counted.
We demand charisma of leaders who represent our hatreds without a stammer,
        But, he is too busy to notice,
    quietly picking up the broken pieces of the ones trampled in the crowd’s stampede.
We raise a clenched fist against our enemies,
    but all he will raise is a bleeding, nail-scarred hand.
We expect the best place at the table,
    but on the way to the choicest seats, we stumble over him,
        already kneeling before us with nothing more than a basin and a towel.
We come looking for a conquering hero,
    But Jesus came, and he still comes, a servant.

[CONCL] Let me tell you about Jesus. He was baptized by John in the Jordan. He came on the day that John told the people to expect a raging, righteous, take-no–prisoners Messiah. But, he would not let John or anyone else in the crowd name him. His name, Son of God, came from the Father. And his task, Servant, was the name that he lived and died to fulfill.


2. Morris, Leon. The Gospel according to Matthew, Pillar New Testament Commentary, p. 65.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

December 26, 2010 God in the Flesh

It’s the day after Christmas Day and all is well with the world! Or at least we would suppose it to be so…We brought our gifts and that was all well and good. But is this day any different than any other?

There is no time of the year, no holiday, that is more over, more quickly…than Christmas.

After all the buildup, all the anticipation, all the silent nights, morning comes! We rush down the stairs and around the tree. We tear into the packages and spill out the stockings. Some treasures have been piled away for the future and we’ve eaten the traditional breakfast.

And it’s over.

I don’t know about around your house, but at ours, by 10AM Christmas is so over. No, I mean really over.

Psychologists speak of how over Christmas can be, of how there can be a significant psychological and emotion let-downs immediately afterward Christmas. Suicide rates climb, hospitalizations for depression increase. The joy we once felt quickly turns to sorrow.

Family and friends are no longer gathered round, they’ve just gone back to their places and routines.

And that Christmas spirit that seems to heal old wounds and cover a multitude of perceived sins, fades quietly but ever so quickly.

Christmas is so over. But is Christmas really so over?

The gospel writer of John doesn’t think so! Maybe you can guess where I'm going with this Christmas message. This is a season for great gift giving and I hope that you have given and received some wonderful gifts. But there is a greater giving than even our greatest gifts. It is giving that is personal, the present that is presence. Christmas can’t be over because the presence of Christ, God with us, is not over.

Our God is a giver of so many good gifts. We owe our lives, our families, homes, our gardens, our food, everything to this giving God. Yet, today we gather at our church (itself, a gift of God) to wonder at the glory of the greatest of God's gifts God.
Our gospel lesson says it most eloquently: The Word, the eternal Word of God, God from God, Light of all Light, the One who cast the stars in their courses at creation and flung the planets into being this God has "become flesh" and moved in with us. John does not say that Jesus was a messenger from God, or that the Christ was an ordained representative from God; rather, John says that he was God. The Word was God.

You see, that's what we wanted, even though we did not know that's what we wanted. All our restless striving, our rushing here and there, our grabbing and getting, our buying and accumulating, all was an attempt to find what we need to have light and life. There has been something just a bit too frenetic, a bit too driven and relentless about all of our preparations for the season. We have spent too much on ourselves and our children. We have expected too much of the holiday.

Yet this day, as John announces to us, in majestic cadences, “In him was life and the life was the light of all people true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world,” we realize that what we need and desire the most is God. What we need is a gift. What we need is not that which we can order through a catalogue or save up money and buy. What we need is that which must come to us as pure gift.

And this day it comes to us, He comes to us, the Word who was with God, and who is God, coming to everyone, enlightening a darkened world.

That's what John's gospel says. God came to dwell with us, literally in the Greek, “tented among us.” This is the wondrous opening hymn of the gospel. God with us.

Things between us and God were not good, and always have been bad. God tried. God sent us the prophets to tell us the truth, gave us the Holy Scriptures, the great stories of the faith. But now God gives himself. God comes to us as Jesus the Christ.

Before this story is done, we will see God with us, walking among us, speaking to us, teaching us, guiding us, forgiving us, raising us. God in the flesh will lead us down a path we could not, would not have taken by ourselves. Then the story ends with our coming to the God who has come to us. The last book of the Bible, Revelation, we hear the hosts of heaven sing, "See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them."

That is the end of the story, the point of it all God will be with us and we shall be with God. When Revelation says that God's "home" will be with us, it's the same word that John uses to describe the coming of the Christ. God will be at home with us, will tent with us, tabernacle among us. God with us. It's the whole point of the Good News. It's why today we sing the very best and most joyous of our songs.
"The word became flesh and dwelt among us". The creative power of God, the wisdom of God, the Holy One became a human being and dwelt among us. That is the central message of Christ ... the core mystery of Christianity ... what we Christians call, the "Incarnation" ... God with us, Emmanuel.

The first handful of verses, in John's Gospel, set the coming of Jesus in beautiful poetic verse ... John reduces the Gospel into profound prose ... yet in reducing, John does not diminish the Gospel. His introduction to it does not compress Jesus, but entices us to ask more ... who is this word of God for whom all things are made?

Who is this true light? Why would God wish to become a human being?

It is a good question. Why would God become a human being in Jesus? Why would God enter into this world and live among us ordinary people? Why would God not stay outside of human reality ... away from the mess and the muck, the suffering and the confusion? Because human living is certainly a challenge ... and the older a person gets the more one realizes that most people are really just flying by the seats of their pants. I know I am.

What is the right thing to do? What is the best course to take? Or maybe we don't even ask the question and just let life carry us along from this thing to the next, with no rhyme nor reason. Amid all of life there seems to be confusion ... often we just don't get it ... we walk in the darkness more than we think.

This one born in a stable, who walked among us, healing the sick, casting out the darkness, sharing meals with the outcast, and showing us the way. In the end, he was abandoned on a cross. Amid human folly and human failure, we tried to extinguish God. Darkness, our darkness, makes every attempt.

Yet, the darkness could not and has not overcome it. God's glory would not be reduced by human pride nor human folly. On the third day, the tomb was found empty, the light of God had overcome the darkness of humanity on that cross. Even the darkness of death could not overcome the light of God's love through Jesus Christ.
And that is the glory we have seen and many have experienced, in follow this crucified God. People who have walked in darkness, who have seen the light of Jesus Christ. Amid the foggy and confusion of life, people who have glimpsed the light of God in their lives.

And at those time we know, that amid the mystery, God's creative plan is at work in the world. Through following in the way of Jesus we come to see who God really is. This God who's home is a stable ... whose throne is a cross ... this King of the Universe who stoops lower than a slave, to wash his followers feet. This God who is willing to go to a cross ... to redeem the world. This Jesus Christ who feeds us with his body and blood. This God of love who is willing to call people who have walked in the darkness ... and claim us as children of light ... this God who is beyond our comprehension, but ever willing to call us friends. This is the God we see ... and because of this Christ child, we see that God's glory is with us ... we are not alone.

Sometimes I need to be reminded why we celebrate Christmas over and over again. After all, didn’t we do this last year? So I read again the Christmas story, and think about Mary and Joseph, angels, shepherds, and wisemen, wonder as they wondered, and ponder these things in my heart.
Christmas can be over if we choose, but instead I wonder if something else can happen.

One of my favorite books this time of year is to read from poet Ann Weems in her “Kneeling in Bethlehem.” (1)

In one place she writes,
I must admit to a certain guilt about stuffing the Holy Family into a box in the aftermath of Christmas. It’s frankly a time of personal triumph when, each Advent’s eve, I free them (and the others) from a year’s imprisonment boxed in the dark of our basement. Out they come, one by one, struggling through the straw, last year’s tinsel clinging to their robes. Nevertheless, they appear, ready to take their place in the light of another Christmas. The Child is first, because he’s the one I’m most reluctant to box. Attached forever to his cradle, he emerges, apparently unscathed from the time spent upside down to avoid the crush of the lid. His mother, dressed eternally in blue, still gazes adoringly in spite of the fact that her features are somewhat smudged. Joseph has stood for eleven months holding valiantly what’s left of his staff, broken many Christmases ago by a child who hugged a little too tightly. The wise ones still travel, though not quite so elegantly, the standing camel having lost it’s back leg, and the sitting camel having lost one ear. However, gifts intact, they are ready to move. The shepherds, walking or kneeling, sometimes confused with Joseph (who wears the same dull brown) tumble forth, followed by three sheep in very bad repair. There they are again, not a grand set surely, but one the children can touch and move about to reenact that silent night. When the others return, we will wind the music box on the back of the stand and light the Advent candles and go once more to Bethlehem. And this year, when it’s time to pack the figures away, we’ll be more careful the Peace and Goodwill are not also boxed for another year!

That’s why several years ago I decided not to pack up the nativity anymore. The temptation is great, to box it all up and say Christmas doesn’t matter until the stores start playing the music again and weather turns cold. But I just can’t do that anymore. I need Christmas and the presence of the Christ child all year long.
That's the difference. That’s why these days are different. That's why we sing. And why Christmas is most definitely not over. God has moved in very close to us. Christ is born!

(1) Kneeling in Bethlehem, Ann Weems, 2004.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Choir at Church Street

Dear Church Street Friends:
Thanks to the inclement weather, we are in for a special treat! The UT-Martin Choir is in town, and due to weather their concert venues have cancelled on them. This is our gain! They will be apart of worship at Wed Noon, beginning with a prelude at 11:50am, and singing for the greater portion of worship (until 12:30). Lunch will follow as normal ($5.00). Wednesday evening they will offer a free concert at 6:00 in the Nave. We hope you will come to worship or to the concert or both to take evaluate of this unique opportunity.
***if Knox County schools are closed, we will go on as planned (assuming the weather does not get any worse), be SAFE and come join us if you can! Blessings!

Sunday, January 9, 2011

January 9, 2011 - Three Professors on a Road Trip

Matthew 2.1-12

    Is the Christian faith just for children and just for the child in each of us? Is faith robust enough to bear the weight of mature living? Or is faith just a pretend game of what might make the world right and good if wishful children drew the picture?
    The Magi of the Christmas story have always been thought to be the critical thinkers of the Gospel story. Take them away from bathrobe dramas of Christmas and let them speak of the decisions and insights that drew them to Christ from other cultures and nations. What can they teach us about an intellectually rigorous and thoughtful life of faith in the God revealed in Jesus Christ?

    Some years ago, a physician in the congregation, who happened to sing in the choir, said to me: “You know, I don’t believe all that stuff in the Apostles Creed anymore – if I ever did.” Now, he was talking to me: “When you put the creed into the worship service, I used to stand there without saying anything. But, because I’m in the choir and everyone can see, I have started to mouth the words so nobody will know that I am not saying them along with the rest.” Then, he asked me his question: “Should he mouth the words or just stand there without saying anything? Which is more honest?”
    I told him, “It’s not your creed. It is the church’s creed. It is one of many ways that we proclaim and teach this faith in Christ.” You don’t say the creed in church because you agree with every word; you say the creed to let it echo around your soul and sink into the deepest places in your heart. That way, you too will hear and be called to this faith that is greater than your own.

    *I am a believer*. When I hear the Apostles Creed, I’m eager to join in the familiar words of the creed. Both the evidence for faith and the mystery around faith feed my soul. I have watched as miracles unfolded: I have seen hope in the face of overwhelming disappointment, I have witnessed generosity from people who gave no clue that such was hidden in their character, and I have been awed by contagious confidence in the face of loss and grief.

    Yet, I know that many among us struggle to make sense of this Christian faith, and that others have withdrawn from church because they could not make sense of it.

        1. We have spoken over the years of a *leap of faith* which was required when we reach the end of the evidence. For many, that leap is not just one intellectual leap which takes them to a green pasture of confident faith. Instead, religion seems to require of them one leap after another until they are not sure when they last stood on solid ground. Maybe this struggle to make sense of the mystery of faith is yours, too.

        2. For others among us, the social battles in this country in which religion has aligned itself with political parties and offered a take-it-or-leave-it position have taken a toll on our faith. A list of such issues includes: abortion, race, creation and politics. You can probably name others.

        3. Over the years, we have all been disappointed by some of the highest profile religious leaders in the nation who have proven to have feet of clay and appetites for the very vices they preach against.  We who stand as leaders in the church bear a great burden. Like it or not, we are the public face of the church.

    4. Illus: Does the Church Matter?
            There was a small Midwestern newspaper which ran a story which began this way: “We are pleased to announce that the tornado which blew away the Methodist Church last Friday did no real damage to the town.”
            Ouch! Perhaps our failure today is not that we will twist the mind of some vulnerable soul into doing terrible crimes but that we might be irrelevant and without impact (2).

The last twenty years have been difficult ones in which to be a thinking Christian.

    How do we hold onto faith when seemingly every religion has inspired the highest aspirations of the human spirit but also the cruelest punishments of human prejudice?

    We are thinking people. How do we hold onto an ancient faith with its reliance on mystery and trust in the unseen when we have become grown ups with the modern, intellectual skills of learned people? This is the question I want us to explore today.

    Let’s turn to the Biblical story of the Magi visit. Tradition holds that the Magi, who came to worship at the birth of the Christ, stand as faith examples for modern, thinking people. Tradition sees these Magi as representatives of the most learned of their day. They are not the conveniently handy shepherds, practically driven from the fields by the angels to visit the stable. With all the religions of their own nation and people at their disposal, the Magi left home and safety to follow this star, to worship this child, to honor this King. You might think of them as three professors on a road trip. Three professors, with all the credentials, with all their appointed chairs of learning, left home and university driven to find and worship this Child whose star they had seen in the east.

    That they watched the stars and discerned the importance of one certain star is a sign of their learning. Like all non-Jews, who do not have the scriptures, they receive their revelation of God through nature. It is not much, but in their hands, it is enough for them to begin the journey to find the Child.

    The stop in Jerusalem to consult the high priests and religious scholars was theologically necessary. Because they do not have the scriptures; they have to ask those who have the Word of God from scripture for the answers that nature cannot provide. The theological point is this: Saving faith does not come merely by observing nature; saving faith comes as we deal with the Word of God in scripture.

    POINT: Notice the not-so-subtle correction here for those who claim that they can worship God just as well on a beautiful golf course or at the lake or hiking in the mountains. Like modern magi, we can see a witness to God in the majesty of nature, but nature can only take us part of the way. The full teaching which is required for faith comes only through the Word of God – in scripture, in worship, and in preaching. //

III. The learning of the magi is central to their role in the gospel narrative.
        +The magi, because of their learning, saw and realized the importance of the star.
        +The magi, because of their resources and place in society, were able to make this trip.
        +The magi, because of their cultured ways, were able to move successfully between cultures and peoples that they met along the way.
All of these qualities are important to us and our self-image as well. But the first quality is the one I want us to linger over.

    *The magi, because of their learning, saw and realized the importance of the star*. Their learning was a *necessary part* of their faith journey, not a hindrance to be overcome. Too often faith is offered as something outside of the intellectual work we do every day. You know the mind games we play:
    +Believe this, but don’t think about it too much.
    +Hold onto this idea, but don’t examine it.
    +When you have gone as far as science and skill will carry you, it is time to turn to faith.

 In contrast to these games, my hope is that we will offer a faith that requires the best intellect we can offer as we seek what it is to live as Christians. Because of their learning, the Magi saw and realized the importance of the star.

IV. Example: Two places where the Christian faith requires us to think deeply:
    A. The human tendency is to focus on the problem or opportunities that lie in front of us. “Keep the main thing the main thing,” is the bumper sticker version of this. We specialize in professions; everyone is a specialist. The quantity of information we must master to do any given job is too great for one person to master and know everyone else’s job, too. So, we focus; we specialize. The downside of such specializing is that we focus to the exclusions of other matters that deserve our attention as well. We become . . .
    +Single issue voters;
    +The singer who only sings one style of music.
    +The professor who only wrote one book and hasn’t had an original thought since.

In contrast to such narrow vision, life requires broad vision. We must see the big issues even as we excel in our personal fields of endeavor.    
    Walking with God teaches us to see the broad range of possibilities that God sees. Whenever we study the scriptures or pray, we realize that God keeps . . .
    +seeing all the people and will not narrow the focus to any one nation, category, or race;
    +seeing the poor stranger outside our doorways as well as the friends whom we welcome inside.
    +hearing the cry of the voiceless for freedom and justice,
    +stopping to heed the cry for mercy from the blindman along the road – even as we hurry on to meet our next big project.

To walk with God is to see people and issues broadly as God sees; to walk with God is to hear what we could conveniently skip. And this requires the greatest wisdom we can muster.

V. The second place the Christian faith requires us to think is at the point of sorting out the claims of others who already claim faith. We who stand within the faith must listen critically to the claims of fellow believers.
You see, certitude is not the same as well-informed insight.

   [Jacques Ellul] described the posture of faith this way:
        Faith is a terribly caustic substance, a burning acid. It puts to the test every element of my life and society; it spares nothing. It leads me inescapably to question my certitudes, all my moralities, beliefs and policies. It forbids me to attach ultimate significance to any expression of human activity. It detaches and delivers me from money and the family, from my job and my knowledge. It’s the surest road to realizing that “The only thing I know is that I don’t know anything” (4).

The truth is that every one of us must be a theologian thinking deeply about life and faith and the commitments that shape our lives. A Twitter-based theology will not serve the present age. We must think carefully; we must simply think.

VI. A caution: We cannot make an idol of intellect.    The third place Christian faith requires us to think is in setting the balance between intellectual rigor and heartfelt belief. These two must journey together. Intellectual effort alone becomes arid and lacking inspiration. Heartfelt faith without critical reflection grows unwilling to examine its implications. But, together they are a source of joyful strength. At its best, intellectual effort clarifies the claims of heartfelt faith. Heart-faith sends us passionately to the study to comprehend the height and depth and the width of the fullness of God.

    Several years ago, while he was Dean of the Chapel at Duke University, Bishop Will Willimon, wrote an article for Good News Magazine with the title: “While I Am (Even Yet) a United Methodist.” His third reason for remaining so speaks to our question today:

    Christianity is about a relationship with Jesus Christ. Recently, [Willimon] spent more than an hour with a student who is trying to decide whether or not Christianity is worth believing or only a bunch of superstitious hooey. [He] explicated for him our major beliefs. [He] contrasted this faith with some other faiths. [He] pointed to the centrality of Scripture. Finally, [He] told him, “Look, when it comes down to it, it’s all about Jesus. It’s about being summoned by Christ to work for him and with him in taking back the world for God. The rest of this stuff is ancillary, subsequent, and secondary. It’s about trying to walk with Jesus.”
    Among all the things that the infamous “Jesus Seminar” is wrong about, they got this one thing right: it’s about Jesus. Against all vague New Age spirituality, evangelical Christians know that we can’t make Jesus over into anything we want. Against all biblical fundamentalism that would remake the faith into a desiccated system of abstract ideas, we see our job as (in Wesley’s words) “to offer them Christ.”
    Jesus never said, “Agree intellectually with me.” He said, “Follow me.” John Wesley’s heart-warming experience at Aldersgate is deep within our Wesleyan imaginations. That teaches us that we are at the heart of this faith when we can say, with Wesley, that “I  knew that Jesus had died for my sins, even mine….”

    [Willimon concluded his point with this story:] So last Sunday, a student emerged from Duke Chapel saying, “You are such a Methodist!” [He] asked this Midwestern Lutheran what he meant by that. “Lutheran preachers explain things to you. You never explain anything. In your sermons you always go for the gut, always expect the congregation to have some sort of experience, to get intimate with Jesus. That’s so Methodist!”
    [Willimon smiled.] Guilty as charged, by the grace of God (3).

2. “Is the Church Important?” Illustrations Unlimited, p. 448
3. Willimon, Will. “Why I am (even yet!) a United Methodist,” Good News Magazine
4. Ellul, Jacques. Living Faith: Belief and Doubt in a perilous World, translated by peter Heinegg.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Please disregard the announcement on WATE, Church Street UMC is having all worship services and meetings tomorrow (Sun, Jan 9), see you all there! If it is unsafe for you to be out in the weather, please stay at home and be safe.