While by My Sheep

“While by My Sheep”

 

Luke 2-10 angels, shepherds, Rembrandt 1635

Luke 2:15-20 – December 22, 2019

Christmas is a wonderful time of the year, with all of its opportunities to acquaint ourselves with our Lord Jesus once more. Whether in church on an Advent Sunday, or experiencing the wonder of preparation with an Advent calendar, we have many opportunities to prepare our hearts for the arrival of Christmas during the Advent season.

But, now is two thousand years after the first Christmas. We have developed a great many rituals and observances surrounding the birth of a Baby in Bethlehem. The liturgical year has been instituted, with the season of Advent celebrated for four weeks before Christmas even happens; Advent being the time of preparation and waiting before the birthday of the King.

The shepherds around the village of Bethlehem did not even know anything special was happening, that first Christmas night. They were simply going about their normal nightly activities with the sheep. When—suddenly, as Luke tells us, the whole night sky was lit up, as bright as noonday.

Do we remember what the social situation of the shepherds was, at the time Jesus was born? I mentioned it last week, in my sermon. I mentioned that shepherds were among the lowest of the low, as far as social class was concerned. Shepherds were on the outskirts of society, the same way they usually lived on the outskirts of a town or village. A shepherd was not highly regarded by common, decent Jews at that time, at all.

This narrative from Luke chapter 2 becomes all that much more valuable, that much more unusual, with the shepherds among the first to hear about the birthday of a newborn King.

We looked at the arrival of the angel of the Lord last week, delivering a heavenly birth announcement to these most unlikely recipients, the lowly shepherds. The shepherds were so astounded by the Good News of the angelic chorus that after the angels left they talked among themselves. After discussing the news, they determined to go check things out. Or, as Luke said, “When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.’”

That is one thing our observance of Advent is supposed to heighten: just like small children, Christians are supposed to get more and more excited about the approach of Christmas. a whole month of Advent is supposed to make us look forward to the birth of the Baby in Bethlehem so much more.

Since we live in the northern hemisphere, the coming of Christmas means winter—cooler temperatures, shorter days and longer nights. This time of year is also known as the Winter Solstice; that is, the time of the shortest day and the longest night of the year. Do you think people were (and are) looking forward to the approach of more sunlight, of longer days and shorter nights? This is also an integral part of the Christmas celebration, a celebration of the return of sunlight and warmth, a harbinger of growth and green and all the things that light and life bring back into the world.

And, here we have the shepherds, stuck in the middle of all of this celebration, all this foretelling and forth-telling of God’s Good News. Isn’t that the message the angels brought to the shepherds? “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” Good news, indeed!

Although the shepherds were not aware of the deeper meaning at the time, God’s angelic witness was first delivered to those of low station. These who were outcast, the lowest of the low by society’s standards formed for us a view of God’s redeeming love.

In the same way of His ancestor, the shepherd king David, our shepherd king Jesus would shepherd His people through the lineage of His earthly father Joseph and the Oneness with His heavenly Father. The lowly shepherds who were shunned by society, yet responsible for keeping the safety of temple’s sacrificial sheep in the area surrounding Jerusalem, were thus caused to be the first to see and hear God’s great Good News. [1]

As the shepherds excitedly discussed this angelic birth announcement, they did decide to go into Bethlehem and see this newborn Baby. And, as Luke tells us, “When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.”

Tell me, does anyone here want to get on a street corner and tell others about God’s Good News? That was exactly what the shepherds wanted to do! The people on the outside, on the outskirts of the town of Bethlehem, the outcasts of society were so very excited by the Good News and by the miraculous sights they had seen.

Does that make you want to go and tell? Getting so excited about the miraculous, and yet every-day?  At once, wanting to bow in worship at the manger, and at the same time wanting to jump up and go and tell the blessed truth about Jesus?

Yes, our dear Lord Jesus is creator of al that is dark and all that is light. He is the Light of the world and the Lord of the day, and all that is green and growing. He is the Lord of darkness, too. Lord of all that is scary and fear-filled, yet also Lord of the night and nocturnal creatures, and the warm, welcoming darkness of nurture and strength.

Let us go and tell others about the blessed truth of Christmas, about how Jesus is so much more than just a Baby wrapped in swaddling clothes, laid in a manger. Our Lord Jesus is also Emmanuel, God with us.

Glory to God in the highest! Christ is born in Bethlehem. Our response? Go and tell!

Alleluia, amen.

 

(I would like to thank illustratedministry.com for their Advent devotional “An Illustrated Advent for Families: In Light & Darkness.” For this sermon, I have borrowed several ideas and quotes from Week 4 of this devotional. Thanks so much!)

For further information, see info@illustratedministries.com

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

[1] http://beambiblebounty.blogspot.com/2015/12/shepherds-joy.html

“Shepherds Joy!” Thomas Beam, 2015.

Bringing Good News!

“Bringing Good News”

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

Luke 2:9-10 – December 15, 2019

Have you ever spent two hours in a dark movie theater, and come outside into the bright sunlight? When people are in the dark for some time, their eyes adjust and become used to the warm, friendly darkness. And, being in a movie theater can also transport people into a whole new world. Then, when the movie is over and they step into the real world, into sudden bright daylight, the stark difference in dark and light can be a shock to the system, can’t it?

That was a little what it was like for the shepherds, so long ago on the hills at night around Bethlehem. Not too far from Jerusalem, only eight or ten miles down the road. That was a much different time, and much different place. Electric light had never even been heard of! Sure, after night fell and the sun disappeared under the horizon, people had candles and oil lamps. Although, those were expensive. If people did not have much money to spare, they simply went to bed with the sun, and woke the next morning when the sun rose.

Our Gospel writer Luke tells us that “There were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.”  I am certain the shepherds had some kind of night vision, especially if there was some moon shining and a clear night. I suspect they had grown comfortable with the darkness, keeping watch over their flocks by night.  

I wonder whether anyone here can remember back to a time when they were outside at night, far, far away from the city lights and civilization? Perhaps, far north in Wisconsin or Michigan? Or, maybe in the mountains of Colorado? Then, you might be familiar with that kind of night vision, being aware of all kinds of things happening around you in the dark.

Except – these shepherds had no understanding whatsoever about bright lights! I mean, like spotlights, flood lights, lighting up the whole sky! Suddenly, “An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.” What on earth – or, outside of the earth – was this sudden appearance of the angel?

Some people in the 21st century probably are so accustomed to the Christmas story that their idea of shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night is somehow associated with Christmas cards. But, it was life as usual for these working people. An everyday way of life in Palestine. What’s more, being a shepherd was not a particularly high class job. The lowly vocation of shepherd was on the outskirts of society. A possible comparison today is to think of a person selling “Streetwise,” the paper sold for $2.00 outside of grocery stores, drug stores and coffee shops here around the Chicago area.

And suddenly, the angel of the Lord came to these shepherds—came to people in homeless shelters, people selling “Streetwise,” people down on their luck, people on the edge, on the outs of society. The angel of the Lord came to them with good news. Good news. Lighting up the sky in a way the shepherds had never seen before. We can see God breaking through, in an unexpected way, to an unexpected group of people.

The message of God’s Good News certainly did not come to the people we might expect. Are they influential members of the community? Rich movers and shakers? Leaders of the local synagogues and teachers of the Law of Moses? Those would be the kinds of people who I might expect to have an angel sent to them. But God doesn’t work that way. Again, God does the unexpected, and chooses the most unlikely people to receive a hand-delivered angelic message from the Lord of Hosts, the King of Kings.

One of my favorite commentators, Carolyn Brown, is a retired Children’s Ministry educator and writer. It is her confirmed opinion that children and families need “To hear the story read or told in an important way on the ‘night it happened’ – Children like hearing the story of their birth on their birthday and celebrating other big events on ‘the very day it happened.’  So, the story which may have been acted out in a pageant and discussed in church school and read at home, feels more ‘real’ when read [at Christmas time] in the sanctuary.” [1]

Last Friday, I was so pleased to be able to welcome the families of the preschoolers here for their holiday program. The highlight of the program was a visit from Santa. Since there are children from such a variety of faith traditions at the preschool, and since this is a preschool that gets help and funding from the state of Illinois, they need to be careful not to make it all about Jesus. It’s fun to think about Santa, but how do we here in the church deal with the tales and legends about Santa?

As Carolyn Brown reminds us, “If Santa is all there is to Christmas Eve once children learn ‘the truth’ [about Santa], Christmas is just a greedy gift grab.  But, if Christmas Eve has always circled around the story of Jesus told in the sanctuary, the truth about Santa can be fit into that context and the Christmas celebration gets richer.” [2]

We can tell our children, our grandchildren, about the bright light seen by the shepherds. We can tell how the angels came to bring the shepherds the Good News that the Baby born in Bethlehem is indeed Emmanuel, God with us. Jesus is the Light of the world, God born into this world as a Baby.

Alleluia, amen.

 

(I would like to thank illustratedministry.com for their Advent devotional “An Illustrated Advent for Families: In Light & Darkness.” For this sermon, I have borrowed several ideas and quotes from Week 2 of this devotional. Thanks so much!)

For further information, see info@illustratedministries.com

[1] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2013/12/why-children-need-to-get-to-church-on.html

Worshiping with Children, Christmas Eve/Day, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2013. Why Children Need to Get To Church on Christmas Eve/Christmas Day.

[2] Ibid.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

God with Us!

“God with Us!”

Matt 1-23 Emmanuel Greek

Matt 1:18-24; Luke 1:26-38 – December 8, 2019

Have you ever had something unexpected happen? I mean, something huge. Something you never would have expected in a hundred years. Maybe, even a thousand. I know that, with statistics, we can figure out just what are the chances of having something happen. Like, a car accident, or a fall at home, or catching a rare disease. We can even figure out the statistical chances for getting hit by lightning—and a few people have even been hit by lightning twice, and lived to tell about it.

But—what about being visited by an angel? At night, when you are sleeping? Picture this—our Scripture reading from Matthew 1 tells us about Joseph receiving a visit from an angel of the Lord. Statistically, that angel probably would not even factor, because angels are not material, they are not able to be quantified by any earthly scale or system.

Regardless of whatever statistical system is used, I doubt very much whether Joseph would have been considered “the one most likely to see an angel.” And, especially when we consider what the angel had to say to him.

I wanted to focus on the sleeping part. The angel came to Joseph while he was asleep. That reminds me of someone creeping up on Joseph, trying to surprise him. Perhaps, even trying to scare him. I do not think the angel meant that at all, but the first words out of the angel’s mouth are “Don’t be afraid!”

We are considering light and dark this Advent season. Last week, we thought about different aspects about darkness that are warm, friendly, even inviting. We thought about nocturnal animals, gestating animals, and growing seeds underground. All in the warm, nurturing, friendly darkness. These examples give us a whole different view of darkness as opposed to light.

This week, we look at the angel of the Lord coming to Joseph in a dream. But, before we even start with the angel, what was the background to this Scripture reading?

We know Joseph and Mary are engaged—or, pledged to be married. I suspect that it was more than just an engagement thought up by the two young people themselves, with no one else involved. No, at that time, in that part of the world, a marriage was much more. A marriage was an alliance between two families, a merger, a joining of one extended family with another.

When two people got married, it was a long, drawn-out affair. First, both families needed to talk and negotiate. Most times, money or other kinds of valuables changed hands—some kind of dowry or bride price. The man and woman were seen to be engaged, promised to each other. But the actual, official marriage ceremony had not taken place yet. From what I see in the Scripture passage today, this is the point we are at. This is what is going on. Joseph’s family and Mary’s family have arranged the marriage; Joseph and Mary are engaged to be married.

This is where the story starts getting sad, or weird, or surprising—maybe all three. Mary tells Joseph privately, confidentially, that she is pregnant. And, this pregnancy is special. Super extra special! Mary told Joseph that God was the father of her baby.

Now, what did she say? Wait just a minute. What did Mary say? Joseph could not believe this tall tale Mary tried to tell him. And, this certainly seemed to be a whopper, in Joseph’s eyes.

What do you and I do when we have something happen that is statistically unlikely? Even, impossible? What would you or I do if we had someone tell us that they had heard from an angel, and they were pregnant. And, all this had to be kept confidential?

I suspect Joseph had really unsettled sleep for the next few nights. (Wouldn’t you?)

The Gospel reading tells us “Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.” Seriously, if Mary were tried under the law of Moses, and found pregnant before she went through with the marriage ceremony with Joseph, she could be stoned for adultery. Serious, indeed.

This Scripture reading focuses on light and darkness, too. Sailors and other travelers used the light of stars at night to find their way. The stars, of course, were made of light, but the night—the darkness—enabled the sailors to see stars clearly enough to navigate their path. Light and dark worked together to illuminate the way.

It was during one of these nights of agitation and discomfort that the angel of the Lord came to him. In both Joseph’s and Mary’s cases, darkness plays a significant role. Night tells our bodies it’s time to sleep, and sometimes, we can even have dreams. Light and dark can work together in surprising ways.

Do you remember how I started this sermon, and talked about figuring out the statistical chances for getting hit by lightning—and a few people have even been hit by lightning twice, and lived to tell about it? What are the statistical chances of two engaged people each getting visited by an angel?   

I want to remind us all about the words of the Gospel of Luke, chapter 1. “The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” 29 Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30 But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. 31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus.”

Mary and Joseph, both received word from the angel of the Lord, both at home, and both were scared out of their wits. In both angelic visits, the angels say not to be afraid.  We begin with two people who both did not understand—both were in darkness, except the angel brought light and understanding to both people.

The angelic message offers peace, even as Mary and Joseph face an unexpected future. Like the night sky for ancient sailors, these holy visits to Mary and Joseph point the way when they don’t know what to do. And we know, of course, their message is very good news.

What about us, then, today? Would we receive this same news in the same way?

Each one of us is encouraged to ponder our selves, our lives. Let me suggest that in this pondering, we have the opportunity to offer our thoughts, feelings and emotions to God. Each of us can think of times of regret and sorrow, the deep feelings, the difficult memories. And, what about those times of anxiety and deep sadness? Of desperate loneliness and fear.

Like Mary, like Joseph, each of us today has the ability to ask God to take away the distress and anxiety from us. Just like in Mary’s situation, where she accepted the angel’s news with joy. Just like Joseph, who was persuaded to continue with the engagement by the words of the angel. The angels spread light and life wherever they went.

The angels delivered important messages to Mary and Joseph. Another word for angel is “messenger,” and we can all be messengers of hope, light and life. How can you or your family deliver a message of good news today? Take a moment to think of someone who could use a message of love and hope. Then write a note, send a photo by Facebook or Instagram, draw a picture, or send a text to that person or family.

God willing, we can all be messengers of God’s light, life and hope to others.

Alleluia, amen.

(I would like to thank illustratedministry.com for their Advent devotional “An Illustrated Advent for Families: In Light & Darkness.” For this sermon, I have borrowed several ideas and quotes from Week 2 of this devotional. Thanks so much!)

For further information, see info@illustratedministries.com

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

We Know the Ending!

“We Know the Ending!”

Isa 65-17 new-heavens-new-earth

Isaiah 65:17-19 – November 17, 2019

Who likes to watch movies? I’m thinking in particular of scary movies. There’s the plucky heroine, the brave protagonist, the encouraging older character actor, the quirky supporting actor. I bet you recognize these typical parts of the horror movie formula. And, have you ever found yourself yelling at the screen, “Don’t go down in the creepy basement!” or “Don’t go up to the scary attic!” You and I could almost guess what was coming, couldn’t we? Many of them are so formulaic we already know the ending.

In the scripture reading from the end of Isaiah 65, we find out how things are going to end, at the end of all recorded time. It’s the end of the ultimate scary and suspenseful movie. Sure, there is a lot of scary stuff that happens in each of our lives, as well as really sad things and even some overwhelmingly traumatic happenings. But, there is no ultimate surprise ending to the overarching story. We already know the ending. God wins, and the whole world is re-created!

Let’s take a step back. What came before chapter 65 of Isaiah, in the original creation?

We all remember the blessed words of Genesis 1: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” That was the time of the first creation. God created everything in this world, and God made it all very good. We have God’s word on it – it says so at the end of Genesis 1:31. “God saw all that He had made, and it was very good.”

The sad—even traumatic—events of Genesis 3 happened so soon afterwards, where the spotless creation was marred by sin, and the whole world was changed, turned topsy-turvy.

Just think—creation, blessed and sanctified by God in the beginning, was indelibly altered, leaving a huge upheaval in the whole order of all created beings and created places. We are still in that in-between time, dealing with the aftermath of Adam, Eve and the apple.

All this fall, I have done a part-time chaplain internship in a busy downtown hospital. There is nothing quite so intense as a critical care unit of a busy hospital to get across the sorrow, agony and mourning of the human experience.

Here at this church last week, we prayed for a senior who was scheduled for a delicate procedure the next day, last Monday. I have not checked up to see how that dear senior is doing now, but there are several serious continuing health issues in this dear one’s life and body. I do not know whether or not there are additional concerns in this situation. All I know is that I promised we would pray for this prayer request for four weeks. That is what I could do for this dear senior, to encourage and come alongside of this dear one.

But, we all are still in the time of the first creation. We all know about that time; still in the time of imperfection, of fallenness, of crying and suffering and sorrow.

I have mentioned Rev. Janet Hunt before. She is a Lutheran pastor in DeKalb. She is dealing with a real-life experience right now, where one of the families in her congregation is reeling from the unexpected news of cancer. This heart-breaking diagnosis affects not only the young person medically affected, but the whole extended family as well.

Rev. Hunt is correct when she says that this loving family has resources, both material and spiritual. They have adequate health insurance, and live near wonderful medical care and excellent hospitals. This youth’s particular medical diagnosis is the most common, and the most treatable form of that hated disease, cancer. And still—and still, Rev. Hunt’s heart breaks “to be living in a world where mothers weep, and dads stand stoic so as to emit a sense of much needed calm, and [young people] try to hold back tears of confusion and fear.” [1]

While here in this flawed world, we groan, and we struggle; we cry and we mourn. Why me, Lord? Why us? Why are there many children and young people in horrible circumstances, both in and out of the hospital? For that matter, why is anyone suffering? Why do bad, negative, even traumatic things happen to good, loving and compassionate people?

Why, Lord? Why, oh why? Please let me know. Please, please, dear Lord, act in all their troubled lives, relational difficulties, and medical situations

As we consider today’s Scripture reading from Isaiah 65, Rev. Hunt says, “I want the world the prophet promises now:

  • Where the sounds of weeping and distress are simply no more.
  • Where little ones (and children) never die and where life is still short when we live to be 100.
  • Where hard work is rewarded with adequate shelter and enough to eat for everyone.
  • Where sworn enemies —- the wolf and the lamb — eat together.

Oh, what a world that would be, will be where not one is hurt or destroyed on God’s holy mountain.” [2] This whole reading incorporates God’s wish for the entire world. When God describes Jerusalem, God means the whole world.

Remember how I started this sermon, talking about scary movies? We wanted to warn the characters of the dangers.  But, what if we have already seen that movie for the second, third, even fifth time when we knew the ending?  Once we knew the ending we sometimes might want to tell the hero not to worry during the scary parts and sometimes want to warn the heroine to be careful when everything is going well.

In our Gospel reading from Luke 21, the disciples ask, “Teacher, when will these [dire, horrible] things happen? And what will be the sign that they are about to take place?” The Hebrew Scripture readings for this week tell us God’s final ending.  The New Testament readings advise us on how to live until the ending comes. [3] Yes, we could concentrate on the disheartening Gospel reading, and look at all the bad, awful, and even worse things that are going to happen – and even happen right now. However, I wanted to look at God’s truly happily-ever-after ending. Let us all know and look forward to God’s ultimate, Good News ending.

Yes, creation is part of God’s continuing work today, and the continuing reality of the world today. Remember the prophet’s words in verse 65:19, that sorrow and crying will be taken away as God re-creates the world. Never fear – God will wipe away every tear from every eye. No more sorrow! In this reading, we see real celebration! Praise God, we will have joy in the morning on that day! In the words of that joyful gospel song, Soon and very soon!

Isn’t that God’s ultimate Good News? Alleluia, amen.

[1] http://dancingwiththeword.com/new-heavens-new-earth/

[2] http://dancingwiththeword.com/new-heavens-new-earth/

[3] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2016/10/year-c-proper-28-33rd-sunday-in.html

Worshiping with Children, Proper 28, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2016.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

 

Have Hope in God

“Have Hope in God”

1 John 3-2 like Him, stars

1 John 3:1-3 – November 3, 2019

Some days are everyday days. Ordinary, run-of-the-mill days, days where nothing particularly special happens. Some days are like that. We all are familiar with those kinds of days. But, today is a special day in the life of the Church. Not only in the life of this church on this corner, but in the lives of all churches that observe All Saints Day or All Saints Sunday.

The day for the commemoration of All Saints started only a few hundred years after the beginning of the Church on Pentecost, to remember all the saints who were persecuted as well as the martyrs who had died for their faith. “All Saints Day was established as an opportunity to honor all the saints, known and unknown.[1]

But, what does that have to do with you and me, right here and right now? What about people who are still mourning, and grieving the loss of loved ones who have died? What can this day of remembering and commemoration possibly do for those who mourn and love and long for their loved one who has died?

I lost a dear brother last December, my brother Mike. His photo is on the table with the others, near the altar. Yes, this All Saints Day remembrance is personal for me, today. I think there might be some others here who have a very personal connection, and might even be struggling with their memories. That is the whole reason why we have gathered her today—to remember together, and to lift up these loved ones, along with all of the other friends in Christ who have died. Not only recently, but all throughout the years, throughout the centuries.

Instead of going with one of the primary Bible readings for All Saints Sunday, I felt drawn to an alternate reading, the second reading that Eileen read today. It is just a little, short reading, but it means a great deal to me. I will zero in on one particular verse, 1 John 3:2, where the elderly apostle John says Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”  

The elderly John has been traveling around for years—as best as he could—and preaching the Good News of his Master, Jesus Christ. He knows life has been tough for these scattered believers in Christ. So, he encourages them again and again in this letter.

How many people here have gotten discouraged? Perhaps you have been all alone, working at some thankless task. Or, perhaps no one is noticing you, and you feel left out, out in the cold? Or maybe even someone has been bugging you, pestering you for your faith, for standing up for what you believe in? Whatever sad or awkward situation you find yourself in, believe me, the apostles were familiar with a similar situation.

The apostle John was writing to some friends who had been dealing with some very difficult things, including the loss of some of their own congregation, their loved ones and friends. John specifically wants to lighten the hearts of his friends with these words.

Have you ever been down, and had someone blithely give you a super-sweet saying and just walk away without even seeing how you reacted to it? Perhaps even a verse of Scripture? I have. I had someone—thirty years ago, now—just breeze up to me and blurt out a verse of Scripture, and toddle away, oblivious that I was really hurting. I was devastated, and he did not notice me at all. He did not notice the true me, standing right there in front of him.

But, the apostle John is not that way at all. John hears the emotions of his friends, and he encourages them. John is honest and up front. He freely admits what he does not know. John does not know how Jesus will appear or what Jesus will be like when He returns. However, what John does know is that when Jesus does return, “we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”

I don’t know about you, but this verse gives me comfort. All of it. From John’s honesty in his not knowing, to his assurance that we shall see Jesus in that day, when Jesus returns. I do not know whether God will give us special insight, or whether our eyes will be changed to brand-new heavenly eyes. Regardless, John’s words reach down deep inside of me. John’s words comfort me in my mourning and grieving, and penetrate through my suffering and pain. John’s words encourage my heart, and give me heavenly assurance and hope.

As we remember all the saints, we might think of the “big” saints, like Mother Teresa, or St. Francis of Assisi, or St. John, St. Luke or St. Paul, the apostles. However, I want to remind everyone that Paul in several of his letters refers to all believers as saints. We all are saints, every one of us. Young, old, big, small, believers of every race and kind and way of being.

For the closing hymn today, we will sing a lovely hymn. “A children’s hymn, popular in Great Britain, “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God” suggests that ordinary people, going about their business, can be saints, that is, revealers of God’s grace whose faithfulness changes the world.” [2]  I suspect that the apostle John would wholeheartedly agree with these words.

I love the letters of John, written in the New Testament. Simple words, simply written, but oh, such profound thoughts! Listen again to verse 2: “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”

I close with some gentle words from the Rev. Janet Hunt, a Lutheran pastor in DeKalb. She writes for this special day:

May the promise and hope of this All Saints Sunday lift you.

May the music carry you.

May the familiar words hold you, filling you with comfort and confidence.

May the flickering candles remind you of the light Christ is and ever shall be: a light which we, in turn, hold and carry and pass along.

Oh, may the mystery of promise and hope and grace surround you and fill you.

And may you have at least a moment when you can simply stand still and receive all that God has for you. [3]

Alleluia, amen.

[1] https://www.presbyterianmission.org/ministries/worship/christianyear/all-saints-day/

[2] https://www.patheos.com/resources/additional-resources/2010/10/remembering-all-saints

Remembering All Saints, Bruce Epperly, Patheos, 2010.

[3] http://dancingwiththeword.com/all-saints-sunday-standing-still-in-the-mystery/ 

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Keeping the Faith

“Keeping the Faith”

2 Tim 4-7 kept faith, purple

2 Timothy 4:6-9 – October 27, 2019

Happy Reformation Sunday! Yes, we celebrate and commemorate the beginning of the Reformation on the last Sunday of October each year. It is that time of year when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther tacked up his 95 Theses, or complaints, against the Catholic Church. He put them up on the chapel door at the University of Wittenberg, where he was a professor of theology, on All Hallows Eve, 1517—or, Halloween, October 31st.

Among other things, Martin Luther wanted the Catholic Church to be faithful to God in many practices. Being faithful was really important to Martin Luther! You know who else being faithful was important to? The Apostle Paul. Eileen read the end of the second letter Paul wrote to Timothy, and Paul strongly stressed being faithful to God. Just like him. Just like Martin Luther. Just like countless saints throughout the centuries. Keeping the faith, through thick or thin, through good times or bad, no matter what.

I always get sad when I read the second letter to Timothy, and especially the fourth chapter. That is the part where Paul is being up front with Timothy. He realizes he does not have very much time left here in this world. Paul was in prison in Rome for the second time, and this time, Paul did not have much hope of being freed. This is one of the last letters he expects to write to his good friend and protégé Timothy. What kinds of important things does Paul say in these last few paragraphs?

When other people know they are going to die soon—because of illness or other tragedy, somehow time becomes much more precious. Their internal and external focus becomes more acute. I think this was happening with the Apostle Paul, right here, where he told Timothy what was most on his heart.

What did he want to communicate to Timothy? Looking at this last chapter, we find so much on Paul’s mind. I would like to focus on two verses in chapter 4: “For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”

Paul had been through the wringer, as we read when Paul wrote about many of his experiences in the second letter to the church at Corinth. He lists that he has been put in prison repeatedly, been whipped, beaten with rods, given thirty-nine lashes, shipwrecked, then adrift on the sea for a day and a night, not to mention being cold, starved and thirsty repeatedly, in danger and on the run from all manner of people, for years at a time. What is more, Paul said he would do it all again for the sake of preaching the Good News, and knowing Jesus Christ crucified.

I don’t know about you, but when I hear Paul describe everything he has been through, I am in awe. And yes, I feel so insignificant, so unworthy even to be in Paul’s presence. Paul’s whole life is one huge example of keeping the faith.

As we come forward through the centuries, and learn more about Martin Luther, we can see that for years Martin was on the run from a bunch of different groups and from people sent by the Catholic Church. These wily guys wanted to prosecute Luther before a church court, and he argued his case again and again. Martin Luther was put through the wringer repeatedly.

True story: 1521, Martin was put on trial yet again, and finally offered the “opportunity” to say he recanted what he said and had written. Luther knew his response would get him in even deeper trouble, but that did not stop him. He boldly told the emperor, his officers and some leaders of the Catholic Church that he would not move. Martin said he was captive to the Bible, the Word of God, and he could not go against God. Many people remember Martin’s famous words, “Here I stand. I can do no other.” Martin kept the faith and stayed true to God.

Have you—have I—ever felt put through the wringer for the sake of Jesus Christ? Just thinking about what the Apostle Paul and what Martin Luther went through, being put through the wringer is definitely not fun. Standing up for what is right and Godly and the God-honoring thing to do, or a certain way to pray, or even a specific way to worship God? All over the world, for centuries, any of these things could get you imprisoned or perhaps even executed. I am serious. This is not a joke.

According to Professor Dirk Lange, “Faith is not faith in one’s own abilities but God’s faith planted within us that turns us, despite the upheavals and setbacks and failures of life, into faithful workers in the vineyard.” [1] God-given and God-planted faith helped Paul and Martin to keep on going, and to keep the faith. Can that God-given faith help us to continue on, as well?

Professor Michael Jackson had such an intriguing idea about this verse. Let me share it with you: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith… all three verbs are in the perfect [tense]. Even though Paul is still alive and writing these words, he views his life lived for Christ as complete… and as my Greek teacher, Roger Hahn always loved to point out for the perfect tense – completed action that has continuing and ongoing repercussions… I like that idea – our finished lives continue to speak, to influence, to make a difference in the lives of those we have served. That’s how we leave a legacy!” [2]

Whether we have been on this earth only a few years or are in the later decades of life, how have our lives been used for God? What kind of legacy are you and I leaving? Have we—as Paul commanded Timothy—fought the good fight? Finished the race? Kept the faith in Christ Jesus? These are not simple questions. They are reflection questions, questions to ponder, and questions that I hope and pray we all bring to God.

I would like to close with some words of reflection from Joseph, Cardinal Bernadin, Cardinal of this Chicago archdiocese for a number of years. He was diagnosed with a rapidly moving cancer, which took his life. In the months before he died, Cardinal Bernadin wrote a final, short book: The Gift of Peace. I’ve read it, and it is so poignant.

I would like to read from the last chapter. “As I conclude this book, I am both exhausted and exhilarated. Exhausted because the fatigue caused by the cancer is overwhelming. Exhilarated because I have finished a book that is very important to me. As I write these final words, my heart is filled with joy. I am at peace…. I will soon experience life in a different way. Although I do not know what to expect in the afterlife, I do know that just as God has called me to serve Him to the best of my ability throughout my life on earth, He is now calling me home.” [3]

So similar to what Cardinal Bernadin wrote, Paul tells us God is leading him home, in these verses we are considering today. Just like Martin Luther, Paul tells us to keep the faith, just as he did. Just as Martin Luther kept the faith, just as Cardinal Bernadin did, too.

What is Paul’s charge to all of us, on this Reformation Sunday? Keep the faith. Know the faith, preserve the faith and see that faith in God gets passed on.

God willing, I will follow Paul’s charge. Will you, too?

Alleluia, amen.

[1] Commentary, 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18, Pentecost 22C, Dirk G. Lange, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2010. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=740

[2] Commentary, 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18 | Michael Jackson | Associate Professor of Homiletics, TNU | A Plain Account, 2016, http://www.aplainaccount.org/copy-of-proper-25c-psalm

[3] Bernadin, Cardinal Joseph, The Gift of Peace, (Image Book: New York NY, 1998) 151-52.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Suit Yourselves!

“Suit Yourselves!”

2 Tim 4-3 itching ears

2 Timothy 4:1-5 – October 20, 2019

Have you seen the comics lately? I’m sure everyone here is familiar with the comics section of the newspapers—the daily comics in black and white, and the Sunday comics in full color—even if you don’t read them regularly. Can you picture this scene from the comics? A single panel, showing two business men by an office water cooler. One looks like a boss, and he says to the other, “If there’s one thing I hate, it’s a yes-man. Isn’t that right, Baxter?”

We chuckle, because we all are familiar with that kind of attitude. I’m sure we can recognize that tendency in other forms. Getting some yes-man to tell us what we want to hear . . . not what’s good for us to hear, not what we need to hear, but instead what we want to hear.

With all the worry and anxiety, trouble and danger in this modern world, people are actively searching for good news. Many are searching in all the wrong places. Commercialism and consumerism are rampant, with many people accumulating more and more stuff and always needing to get something else, something more, something new.

Sometimes, some people search for thrills, for that adrenaline rush, for some kind of excitement in life. It doesn’t matter if thrills come from drag racing, gambling, or risky behavior, like a wild bender at the local bar. Oftentimes, these people are trying to fill a hole deep inside.

Other people turn inward, searching for spiritual fulfilment. There are many ways of experiencing some kind of spirituality, like through the martial arts, or through meditative practices. Fung shui, the Chinese method of arranging furniture is an attempt to try to find balance and proper order in this life. Sure, doing an inside job, concentrating on the inside of ourselves is a great place to start, but . . . searching for inward, spiritual fulfillment on our own just won’t work. Anyway, not without God.

We have the assurance, from our scripture passage today, that Timothy had the opportunity to know God. Timothy was instructed, from the time he was very young, in the way of salvation through Jesus Christ. His mother and grandmother were both women of faith, and Timothy grew up in a believing household, a household that put God first.

As we read further in our passage today, we find there are people who will not put up with sound doctrine. They will not even want to listen to the truth! Even when the truth is as clear as day, and presented to them in a straight-forward manner, still, some will turn away.

You probably are all familiar with that modern phenomenon—tele-evangelists, some of whom are worthy people of God. However, there are those who are frauds. Charlatans. Fakes. Preachers not of sound doctrine or biblical teaching, but instead telling their listeners exactly what they—the listenerswant to hear.

Are you familiar with the health, wealth and happiness gospel, which focuses on only a few isolated passages from scripture? This false gospel tell the listeners that God wants us all to be healthy, wealthy and happy! All the time! And even shows us the example of Job—why, didn’t God give back to Job everything that was taken away? But . . . we must have faith! And if anything is wrong in our lives, or if our house burns down, or if we get sick, or if someone we love loses a job, or if our child gets in trouble, or . . . or . . . or . . . you get the picture. Well, we just didn’t have enough faith. Oh, and we didn’t send enough money to the tele-evangelist. So, God apparently must be withholding His blessing because of our lack of faith and our stinginess.

Not so!! This is a perverse, yet skillful, twisting of the truth! I bet you can see parts of the true Gospel here in what I’ve just described, but the rest is so skillfully bent and twisted, It sounds so similar to the Good News of God we have come to know and to understand and to love. Like, and yet unlike. The true Gospel tells us that God does indeed want to bless us abundantly! And, it is an inside job! God wants to change us, to help us change ourselves, to make us new creations from the inside out, through faith in Jesus Christ.

But, what about unsuspecting folks, who get turned away from the truth in God’s Word? What did our scripture passage today say about this sort of people? It mentions that they have “itching ears.” This is a Greek phrase that can be translated several ways—another way is “having their ears tickled.” In other words, having the preacher tell you exactly what you want to hear! These people with the itching ears, who wanted nice, warm, soft, fuzzy things said to them, nonthreatening, reassuring things preached to them from the pulpit, these people turned their backs on the truth of God’s Word and of sound doctrine.

These people with the itching ears had an agenda—and that was to hear only what they wanted to hear, at all times. None of the challenging words, none of the admonishing words, none of the emotional words of Scripture. This is another form of idolatry: putting themselves first, putting God aside as an afterthought. You know the attitude—me, me, me! I’m the most important person around here! Everything needs to go my way! Nobody else counts!

As I was thinking about this text over the past days, it came to me—what would Calvin say? John Calvin was one of the foremost theologians in the Reformed tradition, the tradition we in the UCC adhere to. What would Calvin say about these false teachers, preaching a “health, wealth and happiness” gospel, or any other sort of false gospel, for that matter?

How would he deal with these false teachers, leading people astray? Checking the Institutes, I find that Calvin spoke strong words against these false teachers, saying that they, in fact, pose the greatest danger to the church. They lead people away from true scripture and sound doctrine, and are responsible for bringing in destructive heresies. [1]

But . . . that’s not what we learned. That’s not what Timothy learned. We have the “sacred writings that are able to instruct us for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” We have the opportunity to come into a relationship with Jesus Christ. How wonderful, how awesome, and how sobering that Jesus entrusted us with the message of His Good News.

Now what? The different New Testament letters do indeed tell us definite things about doctrine, about theology . . . but then . . . what do we do with all of this information? How do we put it into practice? How do we live the Christian life? Now what, in other words?

I consider the commands in this passage to be good advice to anyone wanting to follow Christ more nearly. We are to proclaim the message. Communicate the Good News!

This command may give some people pause. How can I preach the Good News? Am I supposed to go to some cable television station and get on the air as yet another tele-evangelist? Or how about standing out on a street corner, preaching with a megaphone? Both of these are valid ways of preaching God’s Good News, but I don’t think most of us here in this church could ever see ourselves doing either of these things. But there are other ways to proclaim the message.

Preach the Good News. Another way of thinking about it is . . . telling what God has done in your life. What has God done for you? How has God made a difference in your life? How has God made a difference in mine? What new things have you and I learned from the Lord lately? What an opportunity to share these things with others, with our friends, with those who might not know God in a personal way.

Do we need advanced degrees in divinity or theology to do this? To share what God has done for us? No! Oftentimes, we are excited to tell people about other things, like who won the latest ball game, or about the neighbor next door spraining her ankle, or what exciting story we just heard on the news. Why can’t I tell people about Jesus, and what He’s done for me? Why can’t you?     I can tell about God’s faithfulness in my busy, hectic life. I can praise God for helping me to walk the Christian walk, one day at a time.

Thank God we have been given this Good News! What a opportunity! What a thing to celebrate! Praise God, we have been granted salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. That’s truly something to celebrate. That’s truly Good News to share.             Alleluia, Amen.

[1] Calvin, John, Institutes of the Christian Religion, edited by John T. McNeill (Westminster Press: Philadelphia, 1960), IV.9.4.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!