Let us look to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith,
who for the joy that was waiting endured the cross. (Hebrews 12:2)
As You Gather a prayer you might use:
Almighty and Ever living God, who through your Son Jesus Christ,
provided a way of redemption for all who repent and turn from sin:
Create in me a clean heart and renew a steadfast and willing spirit,
that I acknowledge my sinfulness,
may live an upright and holy life by the power of the Holy Spirit;
through Jesus Christ my Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit,
lives and reigns forever, one God, world without end.
“Lectio Divina”, a Latin term, means “divine reading” describes a way of reading Scripture whereby we gradually let go of our own agenda and open ourselves to what God wants to say to us. It dates back to at least the 12th century.
The first stage is lectio (reading) where we read the Word of God, slowly and reflectively so that it sinks into us. Listen for a word of phrase that stays with you resonates with you.
The second stage is meditatio (reflection) where we think about the text we have chosen and ruminate upon it so that we take from it what God wants to give us. What was that word or phrase? Meditate on it.
The third stage is oratio (response) where we leave our thinking aside and simply let our hearts speak to God. This response is inspired by our reflection on the Word of God.
The final stage of Lectio Divina is contemplatio (rest) where we let go not only of our own ideas, plans and meditations but also of our holy words and thoughts. We simply rest in the Word of God. We listen at the deepest level of our being to God who speaks within us with a still small voice. As we listen, we are gradually transformed from within.
These stages are not fixed rules of procedure but simply guidelines to how the prayer normally develops. Movement is towards greater simplicity, with less talking and more listening.
Some suggested Scripture for you to use:
Isaiah 43:1-3a Psalm 103:13-17 Luke 9:23-25
A Prayer upon receiving Ashes (optional)
Almighty God, you created humankind out of the dust of the earth.
Grant that these ashes may be to me a sign of my mortality and penitence,
that I may remember that it is through your gracious gift that any receive everlasting life, through Jesus Christ my Lord. Amen.
Go in peace to live for Christ,
to serve him alone and to walk in holiness and righteousness all your days,
through the grace of our Lord and the power of the Holy Spirit.
Thanks be to God!
Art Work and Lenten Poem by Jan Richardson:
All those days
you felt like dust,
as if all you had to do
was turn your face
toward the wind
and be scattered
to the four corners
or swept away
by the smallest breath
Did you not know
what the Holy One
can do with dust?
This is the day
we freely say
we are scorched.
This is the hour
we are marked
by what has made it
through the burning.
This is the moment
we ask for the blessing
that lives within
the ancient ashes,
that makes its home
inside the soil of
this sacred earth.
So let us be marked
not for sorrow.
And let us be marked
not for shame.
Let us be marked
not for false humility
or for thinking
we are less
than we are
but for claiming
what God can do
within the dust,
within the dirt,
within the stuff
of which the world
and the stars that blaze
in our bones,
and the galaxies that spiral
inside the smudge
Jan is an artist, author, United Methodist minister, and director of The Wellspring Studio, LLC.
Sermon ~ Sunday, Feb 26, 2017 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson
Matthew 17: 1-9
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.
Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him.
Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”
When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear
But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.”
And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.
As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them,
“Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
Often when a person, preacher or otherwise, does sermon prep or Bible study a useful exegetical tool is to ask oneself, “Which character in the story do I identify with?” We can do this with many of the biblical stories: The Prodigal son, the Parable of the Talents, in fact just about any of the parables lend themselves to this sort of imaginative insight.
As I read Matthew’s account of the Transfiguration I was draw to some characters that aren’t actually mentioned in the text of the story. I imagined myself standing there when Jesus pulls Peter, James, and John aside. I kept wondering, “What about the nine left behind?” Seems like Jesus was often singling out these three. Was he playing favorites? I don’t know. But there they go off on this path that leads up a nearby mountain. And I’m standing there, one of the nine, wondering, “Where are they off to now? Why them? It isn’t fair!!”
Thus the title: “Where Are They Going?” said with a bit of envy and annoyance!
As many of you know I am a mountain person. Given the options of a day on the beach, a day boating on a lake or a day pounding my feet up a rocky trail to a mountain peak, I’m up bright and early on the trail. So to be left behind as these others get to go with Jesus would have been difficult if not heartbreaking for me!
But then I wondered, if I had been there, would Jesus have thought I was ready for what he was leading the three into on that mountain?
I also wondered were Peter, James, and John, really ready for what they were to experience? Are any of us ready for what Jesus may actually be calling us to be or do? But then it has been said that God doesn’t call the equipped but equips the called.
I wonder, on that mountain top, who was transformed more, Jesus in the divine glory or the three who accompanied him? They didn’t seem to know what to do with what they had experienced. So, what does Peter do? I like the way The Message translates this: Peter broke in, “Master, this is a great moment! What would you think if I built three memorials here on the mountain. . .”
Read in a certain way this was a part of the story that seems to have brought some embarrassment to those who first retold it. Mark explains it away by suggesting the disciples didn’t know what to say because they were terrified. While Luke says they did not know what they said, being “weighed down with sleep.” And both Matthew and Luke make clear that their offer was interrupted almost midsentence by the voice of God from the midst of the cloud affirming the importance not of all three but One alone.
It`s perhaps understandable that the disciples would say this or behave in this manner. What was happening was both exciting and threatening, it was something they had never experienced before. Something they could have never imagined. It carried the risk of changing them forever!
The impulse in situations like this is to try to make sense of things, get things under control, to be busy doing something, which often means defaulting to what we always done, doing the familiar! When faced with te unexpected, the temptation is always there to hold on to what we know.
Yet how could things be the same after this? They had seen their master, teacher, conversing with the heroes of their faith, Moses and Elijah. And more than this, he had been transfigured! And they were transformed by this event.
The cloud that overshadowed them out of which they heard the voice of God, what did God say? “This is my beloved. . .Listen to him.”
What is it we hear when we listen? Jesus says, ‘If any one wishes to be a follower of mine, he must leave self behind and take up his cross and follow me.’
To listen to Jesus, to be a disciple of Jesus, is to walk with him as he makes his way to Jerusalem and what awaits him there. On this journey as we walk and we talk and we listen, our human nature is being transformed into the likeness of that same divine nature that was in Jesus.
The Season of Epiphany which we are concluding is all about the revealing of who Jesus is and this upcoming period of Lent is a time when we specially think of our life as a journey in the company of Jesus. A journey that will take us to Gethsemane, Golgotha and the garden tomb.
As we walk with our crosses on our shoulders, as we come nearer and nearer to Golgotha, we are also being transformed and transfigured. The life and the light of the cross of Christ will shine on our face. For to be filled with the divine light is our destiny. Remember “You are the light of the world!”
“Where are they going?
I might just as easily thought, “Who is that coming back with Jesus?”
Would I be ready for such a transfiguration in my life? To be forever changed?
I would like to think so.
But then who really knows until you have spent time with Jesus on the mountain, but more than the mountain when you have followed him down the path and joined him on the road, all the way to Jerusalem, carrying your cross upon your shoulder.
May we have the courage to be so transfigured ourselves. Amen!
There once was a stream which started as a small trickle high on the mountain. Dripping from the snow and ice far above the trees, it began its journey down over the mountain’s bedrock and stone-filled gullies until it reaches the forest below.
There it joyfully overcomes all the obstacles, roots and downed trees, as it runs down through the firs and pines. Eventually its pace slows as it meanders out onto the plain and finds itself in a shallow lake on the edge of a great desert.
And it is there that our little stream has to trust the wind to transform it and carry it across the desert into the life that awaits it beyond.
Over and over scripture called us to let the Spirit carry us through life’s challenges and Jesus relied on the Spirit that filled him at the Transfiguration to carry him to and through the cross into resurrected life.
May we also go forth transformed and carried to those places where the Spirit would take us.
Based on the story “The Stream” from One Hundred Wisdom Stories from Around the World by Margaret Silf (Lion Hudson, 2011).
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Sermon ~ Sunday, February 19, 2017 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson
When Tempers Flare
Matthew 5: 38-48
Just as we thought we were going to squeak by this winter, mother nature and her sister Ellie Nino reminded us of just who is in charge!
Rockhaven got blasted this past week with not one but two 18” snow storms. We still call them storms not snow “events.” And you’ve got to understand, we don’t get into all this foolishness about naming the storms either. Actually, storms around here aren’t really worth mentioning unless there is at least 10 inches, that is according to the “knights of the round table” who meet for coffee and gossip in the morning at Helen’s Diner. (Did I say gossip? I meant enlightening conversation!)
How those fellows and gals on the Weather Channel get all excited when there is the possibility of 6” of snow someplace. They’re out there standing around in these light flurries with their L.L. Bean jackets, all they’re doing is selling more ad time by naming their storms Gladys, Henry, Izzy, and Jerry.
Here a while back they named one Imogene and our Imogene Reynolds was all wound-up thinking they had named it after her. Pappy Holman told the fellas over at Joe’s Barber Shop one day that they hadn’t made a barometer that could read low enough to produce a storm that could match Imogene for intensity and personality!
Highway department was out 24 hours straight last Tuesday with the first snowstorm. They had about an 18 hour break before the second low moved up the coast and seemed to get hung up on Nova Scotia leaving Rockhaven right in the heavy snow/wind/and cold track, what was her name? Oh yeah, Ursa, which means bear! And let me tell you, bustah, it was!
Jed Carlisle and the crew were getting a bit testy by the time the second storm hit. Lack of sleep and 15-20 cups of that vending machine coffee will do that to a person. (They have one of those coffee vending machines over to the highway garage that uses those little paper cups with the playing cards on them.)
It finally reached the tipping point when some of those pesky snowmobilers came along side Jed. All they wanted to do was ride alongside or just out in front of Jed’s Kenworth 6X6. Now, with “everything down” he could clear a swath 18 feet wide except for those “idiots” on their snowmobiles. All he could think of was one of those YouTube videos he’d seen of dolphins racing alongside a boat playing in the wake. He’d like to give them a wake to ride in . . . right into someone’s mailbox! About that time they revved their engines and disappeared down a trail off toward Hobbs Pond.
He had just turned around at the end of the Christian Point Road and was heading back out, still fuming, when he saw the lights of another snowmobile coming up right behind at him. He could see that there were two people on it and they were trying to get around him. He had had enough!
Just as the snowmobile got right by his back wheels Jed began easing his big rig over into the other lane. The driver gunned his machine in a desperate attempt to pass, but it was too late. With nowhere else to go snowmobile and passengers went right up and over the snowbank and into the 3 feet of soft snow and there they floundered.
As he drove by he rolled down his window and glared at them, only to be taken aback and embarrassed to see that it was Jeff Robbins and his very pregnant wife Gloria. Jeff had one of those “how could you” looks on his face. And Gloria, it was becoming obvious to Jed, was doubled over in significant labor pains!
Seems, with all the snow the local volunteer EMS people could not get to the Robbins house with their ambulance. If Jeff could get to town, they said they would meet at the fire station. They thought they could make it from there.
Jed stopped his truck, backed up, loaded them into the cab and drove them to the fire station and then cleared the highway all the way to the hospital in Union City, some 15 miles.
Later in that same storm, Billy Whitaker was making his way across the open lands of the barrens, battling the occasional white out and he can see the light from Sean Bemis’ place. Sean is well known to the highway crew. A regular complainer about how they maintain the road on the barrens, Sean doesn’t take to it very well when occasionally during one of those wet-heavy snows the passing plow will obliterate his mailbox! Billy is very aware of this and is careful to give Sean’s mailbox plenty of berth, except, that of all places, the one car he will meet on the road across the barrens is coming right down the middle of the roadway as he approaches the Bemis driveway!
Crowded by this wide-eyed, white knuckled driver in the oncoming car, Billy ends up striking the mailbox with the plow’s side wing, only this time the mailbox doesn’t move rather it tears the side wing completely off the truck, spins the truck sideways which leaves no place for the wild-eyed driver to go but right into the side of the snowplow.
After getting out and making sure the occupants of the vehicle are okay, Billy goes to the other side of his truck to inspect the damage. What he finds has his blood boiling!
There under the new mailbox Sean Bemis had installed this fall, was a cement post with a chunk taken out of it where the side wing had struck it. I guess Sean figured he’d fixed the highway guys for good this winter! The estimated damage to vehicle and snowplow $25,000!
As winter drags on and the snow piles deeper, the gray skies seem darker, tempers become shorter and shorter, for some anger and bitterness is right there beneath the breathe, under the mutter, ready to spill out. Even with the good folks at Old First Church on the Common.
Rev. Williams has been stuck on the Sermon on the Mount for several weeks now (at least so it seems!) From the conversations over lunch after worship at Hellen’s Diner and in the Dunkin Donuts in Union City, the congregation is ready for him to move on. But the Rev. doesn’t seem want to and he reminds us when we complain that it was Jesus who said all these things and not him! So lately, I’ve been thinking about all this Sermon on the Mount stuff.
You know, we have our problems here in Rockhaven, but seems to me that in the world beyond our little village life is a bit more difficult, the issues are bigger and a bit more complicated. Here in our little town, Jed may let the frustration get to him but then after he understands the particular situation, he feels bad and clears the road the Union City. Sean Bemis and the Highway department will be the talk of town for a while and it will come up at the next town meeting but eventually they will come to a sensible resolution.
But how does one turn the other cheek, walk the extra mile, give a second coat when you have people quick to settle things with their fists or their firearms, groups instilling hate in young disenfranchised youth or you have a rogue country test firing missiles in your direction.
“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you . . .” how does one do that, really?
“Do not resist the evil doer,” its one thing for the big fellow in the sports arena being trash talked on sports radio or the male CEO in a board meeting who is being slandered by his colleagues. But “do not resist the evil doer”, doesn’t sound the same, even when Jesus says it, to the woman sitting on a cot in a domestic abuse shelter, holding her child close.
I have to be honest. I question, what can I do to impact any of these things?
I don’t know that there is unless or until I begin where I can, where I might make a difference, in my town, with my people.
And if perhaps we can have more Rockhavens in this world (Again not that we are perfect here in Rockhaven!) then we might just have fewer fists and bullets flying at each other.
If we foster more reasonable conversations over a difficult neighbor’s fence just maybe, eventually, we could do the same over patrolled borders or even razor wired DMZ’s.
After all as he said the sun shines the same and the rain (or in our case, snow) fall and waters the soil the same on both sides of an argument.
And if we Rockhavenites can practice Jesus’ teachings right here in our town, it may not be perfect, but it just might bring us a bit closer to the One who is. And maybe then we will truly believe and follow the wisdom of this Jewish rabbi we claim is our Messiah!
Want to hear Pastor Wilson share this Sermon from the Pulpit… simply double click on “Download File” listed below
Sermon ~ Sunday, February 12, 2017 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson
Straight to the Heart Deuteronomy 30:15-20 Matthew 5:21- 37
“For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus – Sermon on the Mount Matt. 5:20
This is one of those hard teachings of Jesus.
Exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees! How? They are the righteous ones.
They are the ones who know Torah, the Law. They teach it. They interpret it for us.
How could we commoners, ever attain a higher righteousness than they?
And even when Jesus goes on to clarify this greater righteousness, he doesn’t make it any easier! He begins, “You have heard it said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’ . . . but I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement . . .”
“You have heard it said ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you. Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is God’s footstool . . .”
What is one to do with these and the others Jesus taught about divorce and retaliation and love for enemies? Impossible you say? (see Mk. 10:27)
Some would argue that Jesus is using hyperbole here. And perhaps he is, especially when concerning adultery he says, “If your right eye causes you to sin, cut it out and throw it away.”
As Jesus goes on to explain what he means by a “righteousness that exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees,” he begins with the condemnation of murder found in the law. It seems extreme to use murder as a place to begin a teaching on anger. The people knew the Torah. They knew what the law said about murder, but there was no specific teaching on anger. Jesus’ comparison is clear: murder is serious and so is anger. There was a need in the first century community of Jesus as there is in today’s church to look at relationships and how individuals treat each other. And Jesus seems to be saying that there is value to life and how we value the lives of others.
This is perhaps the heart of the matter in this teaching.
The O.T. law condemned murder, but at the heart of this law lies a respect for the life of another, regard for the right of another to be, reverence for another as the creation of God.
The same could be said about adultery. The teaching is clear: a man should not desire the wife of another. The woman here has no agency, but is an object to be taken, possessed and fought over. But here too Jesus gets to the heart of the law. Jesus values the role and personhood of all people and women are people. A woman is not a thing, a property to be coveted so as to possess, but a person to whom one relates with care and respect.
Right relationship was a goal of Jesus for his disciples, for the church in Matthew’s time and for the church in ours. These teachings of Jesus come from the heart in that they are a call for this “higher righteousness” and a better way of living in community. Eugene Peterson translated Matthew 5:19-20 this way in The Message: “Trivialize even the smallest item in God’s Law and you will only have trivialized yourself. But take it seriously, show the way for others, and you will find honor in the kingdom. Unless you do far better than the Pharisees in the matters of right living, you won’t know the first thing about entering the kingdom.”
Relationships are not to be taken lightly. Now, Jesus’ command to love God and to love others as self is not stated explicitly here like elsewhere, but is central to his understanding of the Kingdom of Heaven and this “higher righteousness” Jesus calls his followers to seek.
So while, yes, Jesus is talking here about anger, lust, divorce, oath-taking and in the next section, retaliation and love for enemies, what is at the heart of it is a choice. In our reading from Deuteronomy 30 (the fifth book of Moses, the Torah, the law) Moses sets before the people a choice. Follow God’s way to life and prosperity or the way which leads to death and adversity. It is a matter of life vs. death and blessings vs. curses. And Jesus, in being the fulfillment of the Law (Matt. 5:17-18), defines this life and blessings in terms of relationships with God and with others.
Are we going to choose to make relationships a priority?
Our relationship with God over our relationship with the idols of this world. (And believe me whether we admit it or not, we live in a polytheistic culture.)
Are we going to choose our relationships with others over a society that it would seem devalues relationships. In a society that all too easily renders individuals less than because of any number of things: economic status, race, gender, sexual orientation and of late political orientation! How quickly we pigeon hole and label people. (Friends will not have anything to do with each other because of who they voted for.)
Our nightly newscasts are filled with story after story of individuals or groups who are dehumanized and rendered victims of a society that no longer values relationships and has ceased loving neighbor as self. It is easy to look at the problems of the world and name them as the fault of others but the bigger challenge comes when we dare to find ourselves in the midst and ask, “How am I contributing to this.”
Or better, “How can I bring a difference to what I observe around me?”
The prophets of the O.T. often urged the people to see the world through God’s eyes and not ask God to see the world through theirs. Jesus challenges us to do the same to see others as God sees them. A world that God so loved that God sent God’s only son to save the world.
And then Jesus challenges us to live our lives and foster relationships in such a way that this Kingdom of heaven which Jesus said has come near will come near to us and through us to all.
Want to hear Pastor Wilson share this Sermon from the Pulpit… simply double click on “Download File” listed below.
Sermon ~ Sunday January 29, 2017 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson
Last week I may have mentioned that in each of the gospels there is what many scholars refer to as Jesus’ inaugural event. This interpretive approach to life of Jesus has been around for a while and not new to this year and the recent presidential inauguration. Yet the timing of these lectionary readings does seem to make for some comparisons not just to the recent inauguration but to inaugurations in general.
For Mark, Jesus’ baptism was his inaugural occasion.
For John it is the wedding in Cana. John says this about the event: “Jesus did this (turning water into wine), the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.”
For Luke it is Jesus’ teaching in the synagogue in Nazareth. Remember what Jesus said after reading the passage from Isaiah? “Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’” And there were those who liked what they heard and those who did not!
For Matthew, when Jesus hears of John arrest t and leaves Nazareth travels to the north shore of the Sea of Galilee and there calls his first disciples is the beginning of something significant in Jesus’ life.
If this is for Matthew Jesus’ inaugural event, then it could be argued that what follows is his inaugural address. “When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying; . . .”
My fellow Galileans . . . (not exactly!)
Inaugural addresses, as we understand them give the one elected the chance to set forth their priorities for their term in office. But it is not just about priorities is also about casting their vision of what might be, what could be, what may be. By enlarge our leaders present these in positive, hopeful terms. Interestingly President Abraham Lincoln used his Second Inaugural Address to do something no president had ever done – speak in critical terms of the nation in order to name the evil of slavery, the toll it had exacted in human flesh and warfare, and the need to stay the course and resolve both the war and its cause.
So what am I doing here this morning? Am I perhaps treading into politically dangerous ground by using the concept of inaugural addresses in my message, maybe! (Pastor be careful now! I know I’ve read some of your Facebook posts!)
So hear me when I say this: I am pointing fingers!! (Bet you didn’t expect that!)
But not at any particular political party, side or view!
With all the harsh rhetoric, tensions, tweets, social media re-posts and rants both (all) sides of the political spectrum in our nation, need to listen to this inaugural address!
If we were to listen to Jesus’ address here in what has come to be known as the “Sermon on the Mount”, what sort of vision is Jesus casting?
Quite simply it is the Kingdom of God.
It is the promise of God’s aid and presence. It is also showing us God’s priorities! And all of this and more can be summarized as “good news.”
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers…
Today’s portion only included the first 12 verses. There are actually three chapters in this “inaugural address.” Further on in the Sermon on the Mount we hear things like: “You have heard it said . . . but I say to you. . .” Talk about setting priorities!
What is striking, if you listen closely, is that this “good news” is only good if you are willing to admit what is hard in your life, what is lacking, what has been most difficult, those vulnerable places. It is not good news in general, but rather good news for the poor in spirit, the grieving, the humble, the merciful, the persecuted, the peacemakers.
Do you see what I mean? God through Jesus offers words of comfort, but those words only mean something to those living with discomfort.
How do most hear these words today? We like to spend so much time acting like we have it all together. We spend money trying to “look” better, get fitter, appear younger. (Jesus will even address this a bit later in this address! 6:25ff. Consider the birds of the air …) There is so much pressure on us externally from the culture at large and internally from ourselves to not need anything or anyone that it makes you wonder, if Jesus’ message has any value or can find any foothold among today’s listeners.
Except for one thing . . . all these stories we tell ourselves and each other about being perfect, telling us we really can have it all, the commercials we pay attention to, the social media posts we “like” or “follow”, the ads that promise if we purchase this product we’ll never feel insecure again whether it is a pill or gold coins – these really are “fake news” when contrasted with the “Good news!”
So while Jesus’ message to his fellow Galileans is good news, in order for us to hear it this way it must first strike us a bad news, that we are not who we want to be, can be, and should be . . . and we never will be. Jesus comes bringing good news to those in need, and those who don’t see and admit their need will want nothing to do with him.
But when we can admit our need, when we can be honest about our deep hurts, fears, and longings, three things happen. First, we can feel an immense freedom simply by admitting the truth. Bad news when it’s true is better than a pretty lie. Second, we can receive the comfort, mercy, fulfillment, freedom that God offers. Third, we realize we don’t simply receive help and comfort, but we are also invited to offer it to others. We are invited, that is, not just to hear and receive good news, but to be good news! Next week we will hear more of Jesus’ address where he reminds his followers that they (we) are the salt of the earth to enliven the world. We are the light of the world not to be hid under a basket, a city on a hill for all to see.
This is what the body of Christ and the community of faith is – God’s agents delivering the promise of good news to all who come in need.
Afraid? Come here to find courage.
Lonely? Come join our community find friendship.
Ill? Come here- or better, let us come to you – to care for you.
Isolated? We will visit you.
Discouraged. We will listen and together encourage one another.
Now this looks and feels a little different in each and every community of faith , as we are placed in different contexts and invited to respond to different needs. But the call to be the Body of Christ – to be, that is, good news to those around us – is the same.
This is the vision Jesus sets before us in the “Sermon on the Mount” what I suggest could be considered his Inaugural Address in Matthew. It speaks to us as persons, regardless of any political affiliation. Yet, it should impact our political views. In my opinion faith should always top our politics. (I wanted to use another word there instead of “top” but thought I would be accused of something from both sided I didn’t intend!)
I leave us with a quote from Kurt Vonnegut, 20th century author, satirist, perhaps best known for his work Slaughterhouse – Five (1969)
“For some reason, the most vocal Christians among us never mention the Beatitudes (Matthew 5). But, often with tears in their eyes, they demand that the Ten Commandments be posted in public buildings. And of course, that’s Moses, not Jesus. I haven’t heard one of them demand that the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, be posted anywhere. ‘Blessed are the merciful’ in a courtroom? ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’ in the Pentagon? Give me a break!”
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Sermon ~ Sunday, January 22, 2017 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson
If You’re Not Too Busy
“Now when Jesus had heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee.”
It would be a new beginning in the life and ministry of this carpenter out of Nazareth. New beginnings can be exciting full of the anticipation of great things to come or they can be full of anxiety about things to come! We cannot really be sure how Jesus felt about this move from Nazareth to Capernaum in Galilee. While apparently compelled to make the move he must have had some apprehensions about what might await him in light of what happened to John the baptizer.
One thing for sure, it would be the start of something, different, new. And right from the onset Jesus was clear with his message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near!”
To those in Galilee of the Gentiles, a region that had been tossed back and forth between ruling empires some more oppressive than others, it was a message of good news, that this kingdom had come near (or close at hand.) This promised “kingdom” was something tangible something that was going to change their lives then and there. Yet today, many Christians have difficulty understanding the “kingdom of heaven” references in Matthew, and our misunderstandings may shape the way we respond to the call Jesus extends in this account.
N.T. Wright Anglican bishop and Bible scholar notes that Jesus’ references here and in all of Matthew are not teachings about “going to heaven.” They are not about our escape from this world to another one, but to God’s sovereign rule coming ‘on earth as it is in heaven.’
Jesus in this story is not calling people to future salvation, but to contemporary action, to fish for people! Jesus didn’t approach Simon and Andrew and later James and John and ask them if they had been saved and then repeat after him the “Sinners Prayer.” Do you know what I am speaking about? An example might be the following:
“Dear Lord Jesus, I know I am a sinner, and I ask for your forgiveness.
I believe you died for my sins and rose from the dead.
I trust and follow you as my Lord and Savior.
Guide my life and help me to do your will. In your name, Amen.”
Nothing wrong per se about this. Just, this isn’t what Jesus was doing.
What did Jesus say to them? And what did they do?
Theirs was a call to discipleship, a call to adventure. They dropped what they had thought was important and joined up with something larger than themselves.
And you noticed, Jesus didn’t just sort of wander up to where they were working or hanging out shoot the breeze with them, kick the Capernaum soil around with his feet as they discussed the weather, the last catch, the type of rope they used repairing torn nets, the latest gossip over at the Capernaum Diner. etc., and then sort of unobtrusively ask, “Say fellas, you know, if you haven’t got anything better to do, I mean, if you’re not too busy I got this idea…”
Unfortunately, no, Jesus walked up to them according to Matthew and simply said “follow me.” Now Jesus’ “come and see” invitation from John last week was more like encouraging the curious than Matthew’s calling the fishermen to “Follow me.”
Whether invitational or demanding the response in all the gospels is the same, those called follow.
Have you ever known anyone to respond to the call of God with such clarity and determination? With Martin Luther King Jr.’s holiday this past Monday perhaps we can think of or have known someone who responded to the call to leave behind the life they knew to take up the cause of civil rights. I was young at the time but I know the stories of African American sharecroppers, college students, northern priests and pastors who felt called to leave behind the life they had known and devote themselves to a new call.
A friend and mentor in things religious and forestry, the Reverend Dr. Duncan Howlett, was serving as senior pastor of All Souls Church in Washington D.C.. A passionate preacher of human rights Doc. Howlett’s sermons were regularly covered in the Washington D.C. media. Originally a Harvard educated attorney after two years of practicing law he realized, to quote Dr. Howlett, “Lawyers were interested in legal right, and I in moral right, and the two are not the same,”
In March of 1965 Rev. James Reeb and former Associate pastor under Dr. Howlett saw the violence perpetrated against the protestors in Selma, Alabama and decided to join them. A few days later while marching with them he was beaten by White Supremacists and died a couple of days after this. This horrific act went a long way toward galvanizing our nation. Duncan wrote a book about this incident called “No Greater Love: The James Reeb Story.”
Three years later Rev. Dr. Duncan Howlett determined it was time for All Souls to call a younger pastor and that because of the changing neighborhood that young pastor should be black. Which he did and the church not without some struggle called a younger black pastor, one of the first major traditionally white churches in Washington D.C. to do so.
In 1968 he retired to his tree farm in Lovell, Maine which is where my history with this man began. I learned about cultivating Christmas trees, looking for and releasing the trees in an overcrowded stand that will eventually become crop trees, the importance of landowner and local sportsmen’s cooperation. It was Duncan Howlett, who even though somewhat disappointed that I would not continue in the management of his 1200+ acre tree farm who told me that the call to ministry was “the highest and most noble of all calls.”
Duncan died at age 97 in 2003 his life still impacts mine and I often wonder what would Duncan say about this or that. And then I wish I would have the simple courage that he did to write, to say or do the things he did.
Follow Me. And they did.
Joseph Campbell, who did groundbreaking work into archetypal stories found in cultures around the world spoke of the beginning of something as a Call to Adventure. In this opening moment of Jesus’ ministry, when he has begun to call others to join him, we can see the moment when things begin to change: “From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near’” Campbell said that such moments signify “that destiny has summoned the hero and transferred his spiritual center of gravity to a zone unknown.”
Many of us have faced such a moment in our lives. Something that challenges our center of gravity spiritual or moral and this wants to shift the story from one of self to one of a larger context.
Many classic and modern stories begin with a Call to Adventure. J. R. R. Tolkein’s The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring, Bilbo in the former and Frodo in the latter are urged by Gandalf the wizard to leave behind the comfortable and set out on a quest. More recently the movie The Matrix (An illustration form which we began Confirm not Conform class.)Neo (Keanu Reeves) is sought out by Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), a man who joins others in convincing Neo that he is the One called to change the world. In both cases, characters are confronted with a call that will change their lives completely.
How we respond to the call of Jesus is significant. Simon Peter and Andrew – and later James and John – are said to have responded to this call straightaway. The Greek Matthew employees indicates a direct response. These fisherman did not pause to think it over, they did not consult their families or their schedules or bank balances.
They didn’t question whether or not they had the right qualifications, experience or background, whether they were too young or too old.
Jesus called, and they responded.
They seemed to sense that whatever it was, it was worth infinitely more than anything previous to that point in their lives.
Jesus is still calling “Follow me.” Not just to belief in him, or church membership, or even merely service for the sake of service. Discipleship is so much more.
And like with those first called, Jesus does not wait for persons to apply to him in the hopes of learning under him. Instead, Jesus is the one who seeks out followers, learners, apprentices who do not have to qualify for such a relationship, except for one quality, the willingness to follow into something which is sometimes very difficult yet bringing more joy, and infinitely more than you have known or thought possible.
I have not been the most faithful or courageous of Jesus’ followers but I can vouch for the fact that the life of discipleship has been for the most part more meaningful that most other decisions I’ve made and While I might not have impacted as many lives in the same way as my mentors the Reverend Dr. Duncan Howlett, my decision to take up Jesus on his call did impact one, mine!
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Sermon ~ Sunday, January 8th, 2017 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson
Taking Off the Bathrobe
Let me see, it was back in November right before Thanksgiving, Rev. Williams approached Leslie Jordan and Grace Holman about resurrecting the annual youth Christmas spectacle. It had been a few years since Mrs. Martha Stockman had produced, cast, and directed the Church’s Christmas pageant and no one has stepped forward to continue the tradition after Martha and Mr. Stockman moved to their son’s in Maryland.
Seems everyone was reluctant to fill Martha’s director’s chair, it wasn’t that they were uncomfortable working with the youth and children, but feared that Martha just might return and have a few choice comments about any substandard quality and talent of her replacement. There were those that swore Martha was so particular about the portrayal of the Nativity because she had worked with the original cast! Bertie Dickson (shepherd 1968-70, Joseph 1971-73) said that “No, she wasn’t there for the Nativity but for sure she was around for the first Thanksgiving! Imogene Reynolds, never one to mince words, commented that it would have been easier to continue the tradition if she had just passed away!
Leslie and Grace were new enough to the congregation not to have known Martha and so Rev. Williams thought it safe to ask them if they would consider it. Why not they said. Between the two families they constituted a full third to a half (some days) of the Sunday program.
Well, when Leslie and Grace went to the storage room to look over the props and costumes they were a bit dismayed to find the plywood props had gotten wet when the ice built up and leaked through the roof back in the winter of 06-07. Under the water faded and curled Bethlehem Inn backdrop they found what was left of the angels’ wings and halos, all the tinsel had disintegrated from the clothes hanger frames. A family of mice had nested in the shepherds and magi’s’ robes and the water had washed out the holy blue dye that Martha Stockman had insisted on for Mary’s gown.
By this time, with only three weeks to get things together, the new co-directors opted to go with simple scenery and few props, relying on the familiarity of the story to help set the mood. With a cast of green rookies (Like I said it had been a while the most recent “Mary” was now married with three children of her own!) with backdrops borrowed from the Baptist Church over on the Plains, and two rehearsals under their belts, the intrepid directors and players were as ready as they were going to be for the long-anticipated return of the children’s Christmas Pageant. They asked Rev. Williams to pray that the nor’easter predicted for Christmas Eve would track more to the north so that it might keep attendance down. But his prayers were to no avail. The low went out to sea well to the south and Christmas Eve came with just a light dusting of snow and balmy temps in the mid-20s. The sanctuary was full!
The lights dimmed as 12-year-old Billy Holman, Grace’s oldest boy middle child, read from the Gospel of Luke:
In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register. . . .
Grace Holman gave a quick nod toward the back of the sanctuary and slowly up the center aisle came Joseph and Mary. They stepped carefully up the chancel steps to the manger. Billy continued:
And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
Sarah Fulton, in her debut as the Holy Mother Mary, on cue reached into her robe to give birth to the baby Jesus. But somehow the Savior of the world had gotten lost under the multitude of folds in her robe. Let’s just say, being her mother’s robe it was bit large in just about every dimension, (Leslie had temporarily shortened tightened it using safety pins.) The holy child’s arm gets tangled in the sleeve and flips out of the meek Mary’s arms to which she very clearly cries “Son of a Biscuit!” Only it wasn’t biscuit!
Baby Jesus flies through the air striking a corner of the makeshift manger and bounces on the floor and immediately begins a raspy wailing sound. Apparently, Sarah had insisted on using her Balling Baby Boy doll for the baby Jesus! Mary trying to catch the Incarnation of God before he hits the floor, knocks over the manger, which Bobby Flanagan as Joseph tries to catch but trips on his over-length robe and with his bath towel head piece blocking his vision, falls into the manger totally crushing it. Fortunately, gasps from the congregation covered Bobby’s colorful run of expletives.
Rory Jones, the Magi with the myrrh, whose father is the Chief of the Rockhaven Volunteer Fire Department, is standing just off stage. He sees this unfolding disaster and like his dad jumps into action to save the scene.
As he hurries down the side aisle of the sanctuary, he trips over his father’s old bathrobe that with a belt hitching it up makes up his outfit. Picking himself up, he proceeds to pull the bathrobe off and flings it into Lucille MacDonald’s lap as he passes by her, rounds the corner of the front pew, bounds up onto the chancel and begins assisting Mary to her feet and then offers to help a very embarrassed Joseph try to put the shattered manger back together.
Meanwhile Mary grabs the balling baby Jesus and lifts his swaddling clothes in a very unmotherly like manner finds the switch to quiet his wailing!
It was about then that Rory realizes that he is standing in front of a full Christmas Eve sanctuary wearing only the aluminum foil covered crown and his basketball shorts. You see before the pageant he had been rather warm under all that robe so off came his shirt and outer pants. I mean after all, under that robe who would know the difference, right? There he is, Rockhaven Rebels right there on the side of his shorts, the blue devil logo for all to see!
Grace and Leslie look up from the front pew in either in alarm or on the verge of laughter; it was hard to tell. Rory looking down, sees the expressions on their faces and just shrugs his shoulders and says to the directors and the whole congregation: “Sometimes a fellow just has to take off his bathrobe!”
Leslie shoots a pleading glance toward the organ and Clara French resets a few stops and everyone soon finds their way to “Silent Night” as the chancel lights dim over the not so “still we see thee lie” Bethlehem!
Lucille MacDonald is smiling as she folds up Rory’s wise man’s robe in her lap. She’s thinking, “Oh Martha Stockman will certainly hear about this! But that’s okay. We’re doing it differently now. Oh are we doing things differently now!”
A couple of weeks later on the Baptism of the Lord Sunday, the Reverend spoke on the ninth verse of Isaiah 42. The words of the Lord through the prophet to the people of God:
See the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare.
Pastor pointed out how our faith may stretch back into history for thousands of years, but our faith isn’t just a lesson in history. It’s not enough to say “this is what we’ve always done,” or “this is what God did a long time ago.” We might have worn our parent’s comfortable old bathrobes and bath towels in the Christmas pageant a few weeks ago, but eventually those robes must come off.
Our faith isn’t just another exercise in the recalling the past. Sometimes while we are trying to recreate the past we find God breaking in and altering our plans. Sometimes we have to take off the former and try on something new.
The things that God has done in the past point toward what God is still doing today, and what God might do tomorrow. The former things have come to pass, and we should celebrate them. And know them, teach them, savor them.
Our faith didn’t just happen. It happens. Like fresh shoots bursting forth from the ground in the springtime or even after something heartbreaking, difficult, life changing as a fire, the new things of God are still happening.
The people of Israel gathered with John the Baptist out into the wilderness, at the River Jordan. The river, where the People of God had finished the Exodus, and crossed into the Promised Land. God had done something incredibly amazing a millennium and a half before John in that place.
But, John wasn’t there for a history lesson; he was there to declare the new thing that God was about to do in Jesus. And there Jesus was baptized, in those waters which had set a people free; in those waters of new life and liberty, in those waters of salvation.
God is still setting us free. God is still liberating us. There are new Promised Lands that we are being led into. We are washed in those same waters.
Eventually we may have to take the old bathrobe off, as comfortable as they may seem. Sometimes, like Rory found, they just get in the way.
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Sermon ~ Sunday, January 1st, 2017 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson
I must admit I’m not much of a fan of the so called “home improvement” shows. (Unless it is old reruns of the one starring Tim Allen!) I rarely watch the DIY channel or the Flip or flop that whatever show. Occasionally I will stay with the PBS “This Old House” if I happen upon them while channel surfing. But I’m not into any of the current popular shows like “Rehab Addict,” “Love It or List It,” “Fixer Upper,” and “House Hunters Renovation.”
To be honest much of my attitude stems from a indirect experience with the once popular Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. While we were with the Maine Sea Coast Mission, Ty Pennington brought the Extreme Home Makeover crew into our area and built a new house for a family. While this family was very deserving there were others who had in more need of a new home but their background story would have made as for as good a television! This and having experienced the crew’s behavior and the actual condition of the finished product from the other side of the television screen after the production crews left has left me a bit jaded by such “altruistic” projects by network producers!
On the other hand, I’ve have seen enough of them to know that there is often a climactic moment when there is the “big reveal!” (Another case in our modern lexicon where a verb has become a noun reveal!) The highpoint of the show is the tour by the anxious/excited homeowners and well placed cameras as the finished space is reveled after the renovation is complete. Everything that happened in the show before this moment has been scripted to help the viewer anticipate, but not quite envision, the full picture of the finished space, the remodel, the new home.
So what does this have to do with today’s Scripture readings? If we want to “makeover” this idea of the big “reveal” and apply it to our Christian faith in terms of the person of Jesus Christ, we might point to today, Epiphany Sunday as the climactic moment of the annual Advent-Christmas-Epiphany season. For sure we could be talking about New Year’s and all the potential and hope that comes with the turning of a calendar page. But without something more in our hearts it is just this: a turning of a calendar page!
Now while the story of the magi following the star to pay homage to the child Jesus may not, at first glance, seem like the first moment in which we have the “reveal” of Jesus, that’s exactly what it is.
Why? Because the reveal in this Advent/Christmas/Epiphany season is not the birth of Jesus: it comes in the confirmation, the full picture of his true identity. And this is what the Magi bring. More than gifts, their story shows us the full identity of this child who is born “king of the Jews.”
Often as preachers we will focus on the professions of the magi pointing out that they were more like what we would call astrologers today. The budding scientists among us attend planetariums shows about the science of the star. Some like to delve into dream analysis, or Herod’s narcissistic behavior, or the meaning and purpose of the gifts.
I would like to focus on the response of the magi.
From Matthews’ account, we know that these travelers from the east observed a star rising in the sky. And they understood this star to signal the birth of a king, and not just any king, but specifically, the king of the Jews.
How they came to this conclusion we’re not sure. We can read speculation from scholars and others on the subject. We can mine the history of astrology. We can explain it as the work of hindsight on the part of the author of Matthew’s Gospel. We can attribute it to science, or prophecy, or eastern religion. But the fact is we don’t exactly know how they knew. We know only what Matthew tells us: they saw a star rising and they hit the road for the land of the Jews, bearing gifts, to pay homage to a recently born king.
The way faith understands and teaches how the star participates in the story of the coming of the magi can be either a stumbling block to a skeptical mind or a point of revelation and wonder. We often explain it as some sort of early GPS system with the star moving about in the sky in a very unlike star manner. If this is the case, why the detour to Herod? Just follow the star! Yet they go to Herod and there, in a sense, tip their cards to him as to their purpose?
And it was Herod, not the star, sent them on to Bethlehem.
We are told that they did this and the news disturbed not only Herod, but “all of Jerusalem with him,” so that Herod called all his cabinet to a meeting to gather information on exactly who this child was and what his birth might mean to his reign.
After he had consulted his own consultants, he summoned the magi back and proceeded to tell them an outright lie. He sent them forth to visit the child with instructions to let him know exactly where the baby was located so that he too could supposedly pay homage to the newborn king.
Continuing on their way, Matthew tells us when the Magi entered the house in Bethlehem where Jesus and his family were staying. Overwhelmed with joy, they knelt before him and presented him with gifts. After the visit, they left for their own country “by another road.” We can conclude from the story that they took a different route to protect the child from Herod, but Matthew doesn’t say that directly. All he says is that they were “warned in a dream” not to return to Herod, and just like Joseph in the story from an earlier chapter and later in chapter 2, they acted on that dream as if it were real.
So this is all we really know. These are the hints, clues, the glimpses into the meaning of the visit of the magi from the East. The question is, what is the big reveal offered in this episode of Extreme Makeover: World Edition? What picture of revelation or completion does it provide for the readers of Matthew’s Gospel?
What does it tell us about who Jesus really is?
Although the magi follow a completely different belief system from that of the family of Jesus, or even the people of Herod’s empire, the signs they see through the window of their own religious views compel them to respond to the beliefs of this other faith tradition. Not only that, they see in this other religious tradition that in this child, the divine is not just mystically present, but touchable, tangible. Seeing Jesus for themselves not only confirms that he is indeed the one of whom the prophets spoke, but that the sign they read in the sky had led them to something very real and something very joyful. They experience the divine presence and power personally. And they respond by kneeling down before him; that is, essentially, worshiping him.
This is indeed big news, giving the people at the time a mind-expanding view of who Jesus is and how the world is different because of this epiphany of God: Jesus is not just King of the Jews; he is God’s big reveal, revelation to all people.
Isaiah saw it: In the last days the mountain of the LORD’s temple will be established as the highest of the mountains; it will be exalted above the hills, and all nations will stream to it. (Is. 2:2)
We have with the Magi the public acknowledgement by those who are very much outsiders that Jesus is Lord.
The confirmation that all the earth falls under the Sovereignty of God.
That even the heavens cooperate to reveal his identity.
Religious leaders from other lands not only recognize him as the king of the Jews, but respond to him as a divine presence in the world.
And it is a confirmation to the Herod’s of our world that this “King’s” power transcends theirs.
If Jesus can be revealed as Lord to leaders from another religious tradition, then the Lordship of Jesus can be revealed to anyone in the whole world!
First, there is Incarnation, God with us in the flesh, as a child is born to a young woman in a stable.
Then there is Epiphany, this God with us in the flesh, is for all the flesh all the peoples of the world.
I guess my New Year’s question for you and for me is this:
What is going to be our response to the good news of this Epiphany?
How, when and where has Epiphany happened in your life?
How have our lives been changed, and how are our lives still being transformed, by the big reveal that Jesus Christ is Sovereign over all?
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Sermon ~ Sunday ~ December 11, 2016 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson
Can You See It?
Well, here we are the third week of Advent! Can you believe it?
How did this come upon us so suddenly?
Well, Advent began the very first Sunday after Thanksgiving which isn’t all that unusual but couple that with Christmas Day falling on a Sunday giving us a full week of Advent after the fourth Sunday of Advent, it makes one feel like there has been a bit of a rush on the Sundays in Advent.
Not to worry. We’ve got 30 days of shopping before Christmas this year. Last year we only had 28. In 2017 we’ll have 31!! The merchandizers should be happy. Unlike in 1939 . . .
In 1939, the last Thursday of November was going to be November 30. (Lincoln’s Proclamation had actually set aside the “last” Thursday in November for Thanksgiving which in 1863 happened to be the fourth Thursday. 1 Retailers complained to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt that this only left 21-22 shopping days to Christmas and begged him to push Thanksgiving just one week earlier. (Remember this was when most stores were closed on Sundays!) It had been determined that most people do their Christmas shopping after Thanksgiving and retailers hoped that with an extra week of shopping, people would buy more.
So when FDR announced his Thanksgiving Proclamation in 1939, he declared the date of Thanksgiving to be Thursday, November 23, a week earlier.
The new date for Thanksgiving caused a lot of confusion. Calendars were now incorrect. Schools that had planned vacations and tests now had to reschedule. Thanksgiving had been a big day for football games, as it is today, so the game schedule had to be changed.
Political opponents of FDR and many others questioned the President’s right to change the holiday and stressed the breaking of precedent and disregard for tradition. Many believed that changing a cherished holiday just to appease businesses was not a sufficient reason for change. (Imagine that coming from Congress today! Not with the 1000’s of lobbyists business has in Washington!)
This idea of two Thanksgiving days split some families because not everyone had the same day off work.
And the question remained as to whether the extended holiday shopping season caused people to spend more, thus helping the economy. The answer was no. Businesses reported that the spending was approximately the same; the shopping was evenly distributed throughout the season. And for the most part, businesses experienced the bulk of shopping the last week before Christmas.
Lincoln had established the Thanksgiving holiday to bring the country together after a horrible war, but the confusion over the date change was tearing it apart. So on December 26, 1941, Congress passed a law declaring that Thanksgiving would occur every year on the fourth Thursday of November.
That was then, now, much to some’s chagrin, Black Friday has crept into Thanksgiving Day to the point where some stores are using the fact that they will not be open Thanksgiving day as a part of the good will advertising campaigns to get our support, portraying themselves as “caring about family time.”
And want more evidence? Look at the places Christmas decorations are going up as soon as Halloween is over. And if this isn’t enough we have “Christmas stores” open all year-round and Christmas Carols heard every day from Thanksgiving on! I know you thinking, “Pastor, you‘re a Humbug!” So be it! But I have my limits!
Some people wish that Christmas could last all year. (I’m not sure I could handle that!) But many of us wonder why it seems that everyone acts nicer and kinder toward each other during the Christmas season; couldn’t we treat everyone as if it were Christmas all year long? In essence, wouldn’t it actually be better if people were simply nicer and kinder to people all year long?
I would make the argument that many people are more hopeful at Christmas time, with the reason partly to do with the visions of hope our own cultural Christmas stories give us. Have you ever taken the time to consider what our classic Christmas stories are all about?
The outcast who becomes the hero . . . (Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer.)
The heartless, mean one who becomes kind and caring . . . (How the Grinch Stole Christmas.)
The miserable miser who becomes the philanthropist of joy and hope . . . (A Christmas Carol)
The hopeless one who finds out that his life matters and whose family and friends band together to give him hope . . . (It’s A Wonderful Life)
The doubter comes to believe and the lonely finds acceptance and hope in friendship . . . (The Polar Express)
And perhaps I’m stretching it a bit but even the lifeless returns to life . . . (Frosty the Snowman)
In each of these Christmas stories there is a transformation of sorts, there is repentance (in terms of the Greek word metanoia “a turning around”, there is redemption and restoration, just like in our Isaiah text today.
I have to admit as I get older I love Isaiah’s vision of weak hands being strengthened and feeble knees becoming firm, and the anxious heart no longer afraid as it is made stronger. Beyond this, in fact, what all these remarkable restorations point to: there will be a highway, a Holy road that leads to God that even a fool cannot miss, that will be full of everlasting gladness and joy as all “sorrow and sighing scurry into the night” (The Message).
So, is any of this possible? Are these Christmas stories just fairy tales, and is Isaiah’s vision just the pipe dream of an old man, a man tired of growing old, tired of life in the wilderness, tired of war? Is any of this true? Are any of these visions really doable?
I can only imagine what someone from Isaiah’s day would think if they could see a cataract operation today as the blind now see. Or, a cochlear implant, and the deaf now hear. Or, a knee replacement, or hip replacement and the lame now walk. Or, bypass surgery or a heart valve replacement as the heart is made stronger. What would they think if they saw all the trees being planted in Israel, their homeland, to help revitalize the land so that rain will return to the wilderness areas, pools of life-giving waters will become the norm, and flowers will bloom in the desert places.
You see, there is a highway that leads to God. Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” When we follow Jesus and learn what it means to truly love God and neighbor as we love ourselves, when we risk using the gifts God has given us to reach out in the love of God: the blind do see, the lame become able to walk, the deaf can hear. The land that was once barren wilderness and parched desert can spring to life again.
Our world can be such a fearful, barren, desert place without God. What better season than the season of Advent to teach people about this child born so long ago who fulfills the visions of Isaiah?
This child, wanting and waiting to be born in our hearts and in the hearts of our churches, so we can fulfill the visions of Isaiah and even fulfill some of the visions of our own Christmas stories right here, right now, today.
This child, who promised to come again so we can experience firsthand a place beyond what human imagination can imagine.
Now, that’s a vision! Can you see it? Can you believe it?
Is it one you’re willing to follow even now, even today?
1 I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.
In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the Seal of the United States to be affixed.
Done at the City of Washington, this Third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the United States the Eighty-eighth.
By the President: Abraham Lincoln
William H. Seward,
Secretary of State
One day the wilderness will blossom with flowers;
and the desert wasteland will come alive with new growth.
And God’s glory and splendor will be on full display.
With this news, strengthen those who have tired hands,
and encourage those who have weak knees.
Say to those with fearful hearts,
“Be strong, and do not fear, for your God is coming to save you.”
So go with confidence into the days ahead.
And may the love of God, the grace of Jesus Christ,
and the presence of the Holy Spirit, be among you and within you.
These days it is hard to imagine how we got along without computers and cell phones. A generation has now entered adulthood that never knew a world without these tools of technology. We live in a society where the wisdom of the past is easily outplayed by the latest bid for our loyalty. Now, there is nothing wrong or intrinsically evil in technology. Cellphones, iPads, Bluetooth this and that are merely tools. We just have to make sure we are controlling the tools and do not become ensnared slaves of some cyber – overlord.
In the days of Deuteronomy they worried about idols of gold now we have to be wary of idols made out of quartzite and a few rare earth metals.
I honestly think there are those who would quicker forget and leave their kid behind than walk out without their cellphone! A couple of times lately I walked out leaving my cellphone behind. All was good until I realized I had left it behind then I felt my anxiety level rise! I thought, “How ridiculous! Who is controlling who?” Don’t forget.
Deuteronomy 26 offers some corrective to our modern quandary with fascination and fixation with technology or anything else that might lure us away from where our focus should be. It tells of the ancient practice of giving the first fruit of the harvest and then the important recitation of the Hebrews’ story of deliverance. These are inseparable in the passage suggesting that the meaning of one (thanksgiving) frames the meaning of the other (the remembering of God’s acts of liberation).
What happens to a people’s sense of self and history when their priorities are organized around material possessions and shifting market values? Consider this from recent events: On the night of the election stock futures plummeted. People worried about the unknown. I’ll be honest, when I heard this I wondered about what this might do to the value of my pension!
Then the following day after the NYSE opened, stocks rebounded and actually gained. Many, if we’re honest, breathed a bit easier. Maybe we even breathed a prayer of thanks?! Again a part of me thought, “How ridiculous! In what do I trust?” Don’t forget.
Have we lost our identity as God’s people to the point that we no longer know why we give thanks or to whom to give it? This passage of scripture, recounting an ancient practice, is crucially relevant to an understanding of ourselves as human beings who are the subjects of God’s continual care and creative love. This story may counter the illusion that we can deliver or save ourselves through our fixation with modern technologies and unwarranted trust in Wall Street idols.
Deuteronomy reminds us that when a people forget their past, they can also lose their present and future. We aren’t to live in the past but we allow it to inform our present and future. This means that all those creeds and biblical stories are part of the church’s collective memory. Celebration and recitation are ways we fashion our identity by reenacting the events that mark the Hebrew/Christian salvation story. As in when we remember “That it was on the night of his betrayal, Jesus was at table with his disciples and he took bread . . .”
The season of Thanksgiving is a good time of year to reflect, meditate and act upon the lessons of this passage in Deuteronomy 26. And not just a quick three-day break before we enter the hectic shopping and party season formerly known as Advent.
So what does Deuteronomy say to us this Thanksgiving? One, take the time to experience and express gratitude. Have you ever known people who rarely say “Thank you,” or express a sense of gratitude for the things done for or given to them? Some live as if they are entitled to the good will of others. And from my experience it is often those who have more expect or feel entitled to more.
Thanksgiving gives us the opportunity to reverse such a way of being in the world. It is a time to take stock of our life and that of the community, to remember the unmerited good that has come our way and to repent of the ways we have squandered it. Seems to me that repentance ought to go along with our offerings of thanksgiving as we open our lives to examination; as we examine our relationship with God we will become more and more aware of those things that come our way completely unearned and undeserved: gifts of grace.
The season of Thanksgiving is also a time to remember our ancestors. In our reading for this morning the ancestors are the particular individuals who stood out as exemplary figures for the Hebrew people. Verse 5: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor . . .” This is speaking of Jacob who later became Israel, but it also reaches back to Abraham.
Thanksgiving offers us opportunities to recall those who have gone on before us. These may be treasured friends, beloved relatives, or others who have left their imprints on our lives, the life of our families, and our community. Our gratitude extends to them because through the legacy of their faith they still speak and encourage us to work for a better world.
For many in our country their ancestors came from very difficult circumstances of oppression, hunger, and terror. Many of our fellow country men and women are only a generation removed from those circumstances and may still be going on for some of their family. We are challenged to remember global oppressions, famines and wars and the ancestors who struggled against them and for a better life for their families. The work of our ancestors is furthered through our faithful efforts in our time.
This is also a time to remember the past in general. Not to dwell in the past or get stuck there but the past represents the events that shaped us directly and indirectly, in recognized and unrecognized ways. We must strive to remember the past so that we can learn from the lessons of history and move forward with a greater sense of wisdom and appreciation of past struggles. And by this I do not mean telling and retelling our grandchildren how difficult life was for us growing up. You know the whole “Walk to school, uphill both ways in the snow, year-round!” But tell the stories, honestly if possible, warts and all. (Uncle Wilkie, Trespasser Wilson)
I think about the past remembered by the Israelites in this passage: they were called to remember the time when they were wandering in the wilderness and living in tents without a land of their own. You know, we live in a land of great wealth and opportunity and all too often we take our amazing physical and financial abundance for granted. We have a promised land, and too often we take this as a sign of special blessing and privilege from God, rather than as a sign of special responsibility. Ours is a rich inheritance, but daily in our forgetfulness we rob future generations of their inheritance.
Despite the fact that we live in one of the wealthiest and most powerful nations in the world, there has never been a time in history when more people have been consumed with a search for meaning. Anxiety and fear abound – our souls are unsettled- and while spiritual fixes proliferate, the signs of our rudderlessness grow. We seem to have forgotten something. Do we need to go back to our beginning? “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor. . .
Too often it seems to me that we grabbed for the first fruits of everything and forgotten who is the “first cause or mover” and have not remembered and given thanks. We tend to worship the “American dream” rather than the One who said “This is my body . . .
Deuteronomy 26 reminds us that the “thanks” given at Thanksgiving ought to be about more than just the delicious bounty of food on our feast tables. But also a powerful gratitude for our ancestors and our past remembering these with an understanding and appreciation that informs our present actions and moves us forward bringing with us, and furthering, the best ideals of the past.
With this may we acquire a deep sense of repentance when we find we have strayed from the ways of the One who set this in motion in the first place.
“A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.”