Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Church staff and families enjoy a Christmas meal at the parsonage. (Matt is especially enjoying the meal)

Trees ablaze with the sunset over WUMC fellowship hall

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Christmas Day Sermon

Sermon Texts
Isaiah 9: 2-7
John 1: 1-14

Over the past weeks of the Advent season, we have looked into the faces of the cherished figures of the Nativity. During the first week, amidst the celebration of the Hanging of the Greens, the Angels were our focus. We asked ourselves what kind of signs we might be given by the angels we might knowingly or more likely unknowingly encounter in our own lives. The next week, we focused on the role that the shepherds and livestock played in our great story, and how they were open to God’s announcement of incarnation because of their willingness to “keep watch” and “listen.” Then we focused on Joseph, the silent guardian of God as a baby. We looked at his great witness to follow God’s promptings and the miracle of his belief and faith in the message brought to him by the angel. Last week we reflected on Mary’s Song of Magnification of the works of God. And today we turn our attention to the manger. That centerpiece to the nativity story—and what it holds: The center of the whole world. John’s prologue is revered by many as the most beautiful words of the entire Bible. It tells the story of our Christ in a unique way in the Bible. Whereas Matthew and Luke tell the story of Jesus’ humble beginnings in the manger, and Mark’s hurried gospel doesn’t even reflect on the Christ’s origins, John’s Gospel tells that Christ as the Eternal Logos or Word was with God and Part of God before the Creation of the world. It is from John that we learn that this man traveled around the lakes and mountains and cities of Palestine 2000 years ago was no ordinary man, but instead the “Word in Flesh.” It tells that how everything was created through the Word, and that therefore all creation was known by him and all creation has a connection to him. God creates by speaking, and the Word is the manifestation of that aspect of God. We also learn that this creative Word is Light—as Isaiah says, the “people who have walked in the darkness have seen a great light” Isaiah goes on to talk about a child who will one day be born who will bear this light, and John identifies this light as the person whose birth we celebrate this day. Last night as I read this scripture as our last lesson to the lessons and carols service, we enacted the scripture as it was read. We began in darkness, as we heard about the Word being in the beginning with God and nothing else. This was before the creation of anything, including light and darkness. And then I lit the Christ candle as we heard about the Word’s life being the light of all people. As the light went around the room and illuminated the faces of everyone present, I read the words that contain the whole Gospel in two sentences, “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. 14And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”I enacted this part of the service last night because I wanted us to hear it and understand it as being true and present in this moment with us. John doesn’t tell the story of something that happened a long time ago and is merely an occurence of the past—John writes about a light that shines in darkness. The darkness of time or place does not overcome the light that continues to shine. This is the amazing thing about the Gospel. WE have walked in the darkness. We come from all walks of life. Some of us are old, some of us are young, some of us are hometown people, some of us are transplants from another place, some of us are rich, some of us are poor, some of us have loved, some of us have loved and lost. Here’s what we all have in common—we have all walked in the darkness. Though it would seem that some of us have sinned in greater frequency or greater magnitude than others, we have all been born with something missing in our lives, a “God shaped hole in our hearts” as some people call it. Isaiah and John calls it darkness. But the good news is this, we have seen a great light, and furthermore, that Light comes to us to receive. Graciously, the Light has come toward us and continues to come toward us. As long as we reject the great filling light in our presence, we will continue to walk in darkness. As long as we refuse to forgive and love and share and make peace, that “God shaped hole” will continue to be a God shaped hole. Why? Because God loves us so much that God gave us freedom. The light is not invasive. It is persuasive, like a friend holding a candle toward you for you to light your candle on. And if we do light our candle with the Light of God, IF we do allow our soul to be ignited with the awesome power of love and forgiveness and peace and sharing, our faces will become illuminated in the presence of the Living Christ. We will finally see ourselves and our neighbors as Children of God. This is the message that the Living Word would have us understand. After all of creation was spoken into being through the creative power of the Word and Breath in Genesis 1, there is a pronouncement that is as creative and life giving as our identity: God is happy with God’s creation and exclaims, “It is good!” Yes, we are children of God from the very beginning, but we enslave ourselves to lesser parents. We walk in darkness and we look to other sources for parental comfort, don’t we? We make ourselves “Children of Exclusiveness” or “Children of Posessions” or “Children of Beauty” or “Children of Hollow Happiness.” Jesus says later in John’s gospel that “this is the judgment of the world, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light.” Why do we love the darkness rather than the light? Because the light comes to earth in a feeding trough…The Light takes a cross on his back and asks us to as well. The Light asks us to change our direction in life. We fill the God shaped hole with other things, and we think we are full until the little cracks appear in our carefully tailored lives. God’s light continues to shine in our direction though, and it continues to come to us. All we have to do is dip our candle toward the one being offered to us. All we must do is dip our heads down and ask for forgiveness. All we must do is forgive others as God forgives us. When we take on the light, our burdens are taken on by that little child laying in a manger. He is willing and able to carry our load. As things become lighter in our lives, we may even find ourselves sharing the light with others. We may turn to the person next to us and offer the Light of Christ to them. In so doing, the brightness grows! God’s Kingdom is made manifest on earth, and more faces glow with the good news of the Word and Light. Just as we saw last night, the Light comes in the flesh because the Living Christ is alive in our flesh. The very enactment of the Christmas story in our midst is shown in Our faces glowing in the candlelight as we sing hymns declaring the wonder and mystery of God’s humble birth. The Light becomes brighter through our sharing, and more people in the shadows are able to see it. But for us to share the Light and be the Living Christ, we must walk toward the shadows. This is what Christ exhibited in a life in which he was reprimanded by the “holy men” for going into the houses of tax collectors and prostitutes. This birth that we celebrate today is not just a birth in a stable 2000 years ago, it is a birth waiting to happen. Every moment holds the potential for this birth because this birth is the birth of the Light in the world of darkness. The darkness cannot overcome it, and as long as we hold the candle of our faith in front of us, guiding us, we cannot be overcome. Even in dying, the martyrs of our faith were able to shed light on the darkness. As we gather to share this sacred meal together, let us imagine ourselves receiving the light just as we did last night with candles. We take this meal for the same purpose—to bring more fuel for the fire, to help the light shine brighter through our participation in the Living Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. The Light of God wants to enlighten your life because God wants you to know who you really are—a shining faced Child of God! Amen.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Church members go Caroling

On the evening of Dec. 18, several families from the UMC visited many of our shut ins with some Christmas Carols and cookies made by our Junior youth group. It was a touching experience for all involved as we shared Christmas cheer with our beloved senior members of the congregation. Thanks for participating everyone!

Advent 4 Sermon, Mary's Foolish Song

2 Sam. 7: 1-16
Luke 1: 39-56

Today’s Old Testament scripture is a good prelude to our focus on Mary because it is a prophetic account of God’s desire for a dwelling place in the world. David looks with guilt upon his palace when he remembers that the Ark of the Covenant, which was thought to be the unique dwelling place of God, still resides in a tent. The prophet Nathan assures David that he should not presume to build God a permanent dwelling place because this God prefers the mobility of a tent. He tells David that it is not we who build God a house, but God who chooses a house within us. It is in people, not things, that God wishes to live. In the Christmas story, we learn that God chooses a young peasent woman to live in in a very unique way. The Gospels tell us that like the tabernacle, the Holy Family is constantly on the move while Mary is pregnant and after Jesus is born.
If we were totally unfamiliar with Christianity or the story of the nativity, we would still be aware of Mary’s presence and perhaps her role in bringing about the great incarnation of God. All we have to do is go to the US Post office and ask for a Christmas stamp to know that this woman is the “lead role” in the Christmas story. If there were a Nativity movie that earned an Oscar nomination, Mary would definitely qualify for the “Best Actress” whereas most of the other characters would probably only qualify for the “Best Actor in a Supporting Role.” Today’s Gospel lesson would undoubtedly be the soliloquy that would earn her the coveted “little gold man.”
The song she sings is one of the most beloved pieces of scripture in the Bible. Mary, glowing with the news of her pregnancy, rushes to visit her cousin Elizabeth. Elizabeth doesn’t squash her excitement with a raised eyebrow or suspicious questions about the origins of the baby, instead she exclaims with joy and prophetic zeal. “Blessed are you among women, and the fruit of your womb! What makes me so special that the mother of my Lord would come to visit me?” She tells Mary that she is also with child, and the two babies they are carrying are connected in a very special way, because the two are going to change the world together.
Then Mary erupts into a song the church calls by its first Latin word—Magnificat anima mea Dominum. My soul “magnifies” the Lord. The Magnificat is a song of great awe and wonder and intimacy with God. If anyone is qualified to sing it, it is definitely the woman who is carrying the very incarnation of God in her womb. The song is radical, it is bold, and some would say it is foolish.
The foolish song of Mary celebrated a God who doesn’t really seem to stand up to the test of “reality.” Perhaps Mary just has her head “buried in the sand,” but it does not seem that God ever “brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.” Israel had a long history of being dominated and subjecated by whatever Empire happened to be controlling the trade routes of the time. At the time Mary was singing her song of praise, Israel had been dominated by the Romans for 63 years. For a very short period proceeding that, Israel was ruled by a family of Jewish warlords who sold the priesthood to the highest bidder and weren’t exactly “lowly.” The Greeks, Babylonians, Assyrians, Persians, Egyptians all had a chance to rule over Israel. Did Mary simply make bad grades in her History and Social Studies classes at school?
What about the idea that God “fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich empty away?” When has this ever happened? There may have been times when the hungry have been filled with good things, but I don’t know when the rich have ever been sent empty away, except perhaps in the Marxist revolutions! Is Mary a Marxist? We all know that system of government just doesn’t work!
Perhaps it is because I was a child who desperately wanted to be an archaeologist and would dig in my back yard and out in the field by my house with all my tools, but upon reading this passage of scripture this past week, I literally pictured Mary’s soul as a magnifying glass. I mean, she does say that her soul “magnifies” the Lord! But perhaps Mary’s song, Mary’s faith and joy and glowing pregnancy is indeed a magnification of how things really are. You see, with a magnifying glass, you can see quite a bit of detail that is imperceptible to the unaided eye. If I look at the bulletin with the magnifying glass, I can see the places the printer put more or less ink on each letter.
To return to the foolishness of Mary’s song, her proclamation that the “Lord has looked with favor on the lowliness of His servant, and that the Lord has blessed her” on the surface would seem to ring hollow in her ears as she watched her son 30 years later go off on a rambunctious mission that she herself would try to talk him out of, and that in return Jesus would seemingly disown her in favor of his ragtag band of fishermen, tax-collectors, and prostitutes. But through her magnifying glass, Mary perhaps can see that no matter how much a mother would cling to her son, and that no matter how horrific the sight of him hanging on a cross for the very things she tried to talk him out of, his life was lived for her and for the world in a way that no else could have.
So how does all this reconcile? We wouldn’t be here today if we just shrugged our shoulders at these inconsistencies between the proclamations of her song and the facts. What is the key to Mary’s foolish faith? IF we hold up the magnifying glass of our faith, how does her song ring true? Perhaps our magnifying glass could see a small detail that might uncover the meaning of her foolishness. Her song sounds a little less ignorant when we consider something called Kairos.
You see, Kairos is a Greek word for a type of time. Kronos is an aspect of time that we can measure. Kronos is the clock that this world operates on. Kairos on the other hand, is an aspect of time that moves at a different pace. It is not measureable. It is a quality of time that some theologians say is apprehended in the mind of God. It is the quality of time that is spent rocking a baby, or holding a dying person’s hand while they exhale their last breath.
Whether you know it or not, Time is a central aspect of this season. Advent itself means “coming.” We wait for something that has already happened, and at the same time has not yet happened. The magnifying glass of our faith gives us the sight that God’s time is fundamentally different from our own. In the mind of God, something that we are waiting for is already realized. God plants the vision of what has been realized in our minds and draws us nearer to it, but we must take the initiative to grasp that vision. This is what Jesus means when he grows up and says to the Pharisees in Luke 17: 20, “The Kingdom is not coming with signs that can be observed…the kingdom is already here in your midst and you do not see it.”
Though Mary’s song sounds ignorant or foolish or even idiotic at first glance, if we realize that Elizabeth and Mary are “filled with the Holy Spirit” when they are making such proclamations, we might be able to understand that they are seeing more deeply than what is on the surface. They are viewing the world in Kairos time. Kairos encourages us to wait and have joyful anticipation for an event that happened 2 millenia ago.
When we hold up the magnifying glass of our faith, when we see the great detail and complexity of a life lived in hope and anticipation, we begin to understand that what we know as wisdom in this life is great foolishness compared with the great transcendent wisdom of our Father.
When we look at the idea that the hungry are given food and the rich are sent empty away through the magnifying glass of faith, we can see the details of truth that show us our riches and belongings are distractions from the path of Christ and that a heart hungry for truth and justice can be much more filling than one hungry for more possessions. Through the magnifying glass of faith, we can see that the proud and powerful are indeed brought low by their insatiable egos, while the lowly are lifted up by their example of humility.
Ultimately it may not be Mary’s song that is foolishness, but what we generally perceive to be “the hard facts” that are “foolish.” When our hearts beat in Kairos time, it is more apparent that the things we generally put a premium on are worthless and the things we spend our life ignoring are precious jewels. Christmas is a time when this truth attempts to break through the veneer of our common distractions. God born in a barn….A poor virgin being impregnated by the Holy Spirit…Wise men from the East tracking down a star only to find a poor peasant boy, and then giving him gifts of gold, frankincense and muihr. The circumstances all bend our expectations—they prepare us to receive a great gift, which is beyond us and at the same time in our midst, behind us and at the same time before us, within us and at the same time around us.
The story of Christmas turns our usual ideas of power and importance and glory and all on its head, and Mary’s song celebrates this great, insane vision of a world in a way molded by the prophets, and brought to a new kind of reality in the life of the little baby she carries. Though the church may have lost touch with the revolution this song calls for, it is still captured in the fervent anticipation of advent, when we wait for the coming of a man who would boldly proclaim The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." and would understand that reality within his own heart. This we believe is the nature and presence of Christ. When we strive toward this mission, we strive toward Christ’s mission, and Christ becomes born anew in our midst! Thanks be to God, amen!

Monday, December 12, 2005

Church on Christmas Day

Written by a Methodist minister in Arkansas>>Yes, Virginia, We Are Having Church on Christmas>>Dear Virginia,>Thank you for your letter. I understand why you are shocked and>puzzled that the church where you attend has canceled services because>Christmas Day falls on a Sunday this year. You are absolutely correct>in saying Jesus should be the "reason for the season" above all. In>fact, the word "Christmas" itself is a combination of two words,>"Christ + Mass" which describes a worship service dedicated to the>remembrance of the birth of Jesus. From looking at its origins,>therefore, a Christmas without a worship service is not really>Christmas at all. For hundreds of years the majority of the world's>Christian communions have found the time to hold worship services for>Christ on His birthday, on whatever day of the week it happens to>occur. After all, it is not OUR birthday is it?>>Most of the churches that I know of who are canceling their services>are the large, urban churches which we have come to know as>"megachurches." These churches have become large by catering to the>consumer mentality of our culture. Their decision is a reflection of>this. On the national news the other night I saw where Willow Creek>Community Church near Chicago and a number of other well known huge>churches, as well as Fellowship Bible Church in Little Rock have>canceled services for what used to be a high holy day, saying they>wanted people to spend time with their families. But one employee from>Willow Creek let slip the real reason for the>cancellation: She said "it would not be an effective use of staff and>resources." Since they anticipate low attendance, they feel it would>not be worthwhile to pay the orchestra, sound and lighting crew,>custodians, and other costs which add up to the cost of holding a>worship service in a huge church. In other words, the decision was an>economic and financial decision rather than a spiritual one. I cannot>tell you why these churches could not just be honest with us about why>they are not holding services on Christmas Day.>>The last time I remember Christmas falling on a Sunday was 1994. As a>pastor I privately wondered if very many people would come to church>that day. To my delight and surprise, we had almost the level of>attendance as usual, with a number of guests. Many of these guests>were family members from out of town. Knowing this is a family time,>they said what better thing to do with your family on Christmas than to>worship the living Lord together, as a family? The one hour worship>service did not seem to detract too much from the exchange of gifts,>consumption of food, watching of television, or any other traditional>experiences of family. If Christmas is more about family for some>people than about Christ, they might view Christian worship as an>intrusion on their family time. But there are some people who say>"Let's keep Christ in Christmas," and really mean it. They honor Jesus>by keeping Him first in their families, and in turn they find that>their families are blessed. They do not feel or act as though they are>having to squeeze the baby Jesus into their busy Christmas schedule.>>Those who attended church on that Christmas Day in 1994 enjoyed a very>simple, quiet, holy time with their Lord, a most meaningful time of>worship and adoration. It was kind of like the Holy Birth>itself: Nothing elaborate, just a time of intimacy with the God who so>loved the world.>>No, Virginia, I don't really think our commercial and consumer culture>has completely taken over the minds and hearts of those who still>cherish the holy days of the Church. For my part, I will be in church>that day and I will be delighted to worship with whoever wants to come.>I hope for everyone, whether they come or not, that the day will be>most holy and blessed for them. Remember the Gospel. "The light shines>in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome the light." And it>never will.>> Yours in> Christ, Bro. Bill

UMC kids and moms let invite parade goers to "not leave the gift unopen." Inside the big box was baby Jesus in a manger. Our float was judged "most inventive, best concept, and most enthusiastic" by self proclaimed judge Nathan Mattox

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Advent 3 sermon---joseph

Lamentations 3: 19-26
Matthew 1: 18-25

We worship a man who knew himself as Yeshua bin Yosef—most of us know him as Jesus. bin Yosef means “son of Joseph.” But who is this man who gave his name to our savior? Who is this man who was the quiet guardian of God incarnate? Who is this man who no doubt instructed little Jesus in the Law and carpentry? One description that sticks out in my mind about the character of Joseph is from the “Best Christmas Pageant Ever,” (which I have been in enough times to fill the role of every male Herdman). In this play, Imogene tells whichever brother it is that is playing Joseph in a dramatization of the nativity that “He got an easy part, all he has to do is stand there and keep his mouth shut!”
Many of us have the image of Joseph as an older carpenter. Some of us may have heard that Joseph was a widower, and that Mary was his second wife. This is never mentioned by the 4 gospels of the New Testament, but it was a tradition of the early church based in large part by the Protoevangelon (or Pre-Gospel) of James—a non-Canonized document purported to have been written by James, the brother of Jesus and later disciple and head of the church in Jerusalem. Although scholars refute the book’s actual authorship by this James, the book is the earliest record of a belief in the adoration of the perpetual virginity of Mary and the idea that Joseph was an older widower.
The book reports that James and the rest of Jesus’ brothers and sisters who are mentioned in the Gospels are actually children of Joseph by a previous marriage, and that Jospeh was a celebate man during his marriage to Mary. Much of this lore was constructed to ease the theological discomfort that the “Theotokos” or “mother of God” had ever been spoiled by something as revolting as sex with her husband. Despite the fact that Matthew’s gospel tells us Joseph refrained from sex with Mary “until” the baby Jesus had been born, there is a philosophical underpinning to this idea based in the fear of the body and sexuality called dualism, which says the spirit is pure and the body corrupt. This idea is not rooted in the faith of God in the scriptures, but instead in Greek “dualistic” philosophy. It is also not the point of the sermon, but just an interesting sidenote.
We do know that Joseph is not mentioned in the Gospels after the journey to Jerusalem when Jesus was 12 years old (presumably for Jesus’ Bar Mitzvah). So he possibly did die when Jesus was relatively young. Of course the Gospels never tell us this either. The fact that the greek word used to describe Joseph’s occupation is more appropriately translated as a “skilled artisan” means that the popular conceptualization of Joseph as a simple carpenter may be an artistic invention. Basically, Joseph is a phantom figure in our faith history. We know that he must have taught Jesus his profession, because we know that according to Mark 6:3. Jesus was a carpenter (or perhaps a skilled artisan) as well. IN the inventive mind of Nikos Kazsantzakis, the author of LTOC, Jesus is not only a carpenter, but is contracted by the Romans to make crosses on which they crucify radicals and dissidents. Jesus’ profession in that novel makes him a social outsider and dramatically casts ironic foreshadowing on what we know as Christ’s fate……..Whoever Joseph was, and whatever role he had in teaching Jesus, we can learn from him quite a bit simply from the small amount of information we have about him.
Many pastors, theologians, and NT scholars refer to Mary as the “first disciple.” She is the first who receives news of God’s incarnation in the world and the wonderful gift that is in store for us. She is the first disciple and she is a vocal disciple. When she hears the news, she runs to her cousin and tells her about it, then they break out into song together. Her fiancé Joseph is not known by much of anything, but today I believe we should start thinking of him as the “second disciple.”
The second disciple is a quiet one. Not a word from him in all the Gospels. While the other Gospels deal with Mary’s encounter with the angel and the news she received, Matthew focuses on Joseph’s visits from the angel. While Mary bursts into song at the news of her bodily and spiritual participation in the incarnation, Joseph awakens from a dream, hears the call, and sets his eyes toward Bethleham, then toward Egypt, then toward Nazareth. He merely hears and acts—no commentary, no argument, no discussion. Joseph’s quiet faith and determination to not abandon his commitments is a good example for us today.
I’d like to explain what I mean by the title “The Art of Getting out of the Way.” As we are hopefully aware, responding with silence and action is not “getting out of the way.” Yes, Joseph does seem to be “supporting cast” in the great story of the nativity in our popular conception. However, Joseph’s response to the news received is far from getting “out of the way.” Joseph had tremendous responsibilities, and was used by God in the fulfillment of these responsibilities.
My original idea in titling this sermon the “Art of Getting out of the way” was that Joseph had enough courage and enough faith to “let go and let God” as the popular saying goes. Many times, it seems like we celebrate only those who are called to voice the faith: to put it into song, or speak about it in front of others. The words “Witnessing” or “Evangelism” probably conjure up images in our minds of talking with people about faith, hope, and salvation. Joseph is an inspiration to those of us who may not feel so compelled to express our faith with words and song, but with quiet action. He quietly and boldly stands behind Mary when the news gets around town that Mary is pregnant. He could have easily and honorably broken his ties with her and gone on with his own life. But he didn’t. He accepted his responsibility without a word of argument or question.
In a sermon in Harvard University's Memorial Church, Peter Gomes talked about the particular role that Joseph had to play in the Incarnation: He writes,
the miracle of Christmas, (dare I say it?) is not the virgin birth of the creeds. The miracle to which our attention should be drawn at this holy season is the fact Joseph believes what he hears and acts upon it. Miracles some say, are things that happen in the absence of evidence to explain them. Well, that's not a miracle at all. That is merely a mystery, or an as yet unexplained phenomena, or unbelievable fantasy. The Bible is not concerned with unbelievable fantasies. The miracle here is that a sensible, reasonable, pragmatic, and good man, a man named Joseph, acts contrary to the evidence that surrounds him on every hand. He sees the evidence. He understands it. He knows its implications and he acts contrary to it.
Faith is not life lived in the absence of evidence. Faith is life lived contrary to the evidence on hand. The evidence on hand is that people are nasty, brutish, and short: most of them are anyway. The evidence on hand is that they will do you in. The evidence on hand is that good guys and good gals come in second, third, or fifth. And yet the gospel tells us that we love our neighbors, that we hope for peace in the middle of war, that we believe that peoples' better natures will overcome their lesser natures. That is faith contrary to all the evidences surrounding you. That then is why this is an example of faith: life lived contrary to the evidence. And, when he could have cut and run he stayed and he played. And, it was as an active participant in the great drama of the incarnation that he played, not as a potted plant. Clear in his conscience as to what his duty now was, with a little help from the angels, he did it. And, for that we must give him credit, praise and pride of place.
Therefore, we remember Joseph this Sunday, this Sunday before we remember Mary. William Willimon points out that most of us can probably identify more with Joseph, the second disciple, than with Mary, the first. Most of us are ordinary. We live and work in some rather drab places. We are rarely the first to get the news, when God makes some large move. We mind our own business. But then, in to many an ordinary life, God intrudes, comes upon us. And even if you are not good with words, couldn't burst into a hymn if you had to, if you will at least whisper, yes, then that makes you like Joseph: A disciple, somebody who is willing to follow the strange and unexpected movements of God in Jesus Christ wherever that takes you. And that, friends, is enough.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Work on the Christmas Parade Float this Friday and Sat @ bus barn

IF you decide to come, bring some boxes and Christmas wrapping paper so we can make a bunch of gifts that the kids will be pretending to open on our float. Also, if you have spare Xmas lights--bring those too!
Contact Kim at 637-5494 if you have questions

Monday, December 05, 2005

UMC members on a Heifer Project Hayride. The Living Nativity was also beautiful (but I left my camera in the car.)

One of the newest "members" of the church--Little Hudson Davis with proud papa Kevin.

Rev. Mattox delivers the Ministerial Alliance's gift to the community of Waldron to the Public Library for display. The gift was given in gratitude for all the hospitality shown to the Hurricane Evacuees. The passage from Hebrews reads: "Be careful to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing so some have entertained angels unawares."

Dec. 4 Sermon--Shepherds and Livestock: God's Royal Guests

Psalm 46
Luke 2: 8-20

The shepherd lifestyle is one of foul odors and ill repute. Long days and nights of waiting and watching are punctuated by the occasional thrill of chasing off a coyote or some other animal hungry for some easy prey. Shepherds aren’t the strongest, aren’t the smartest, aren’t wealthy or noble. Yet our God seems to have a high regard for them. The heroes of our faith are shepherds: Jacob, Moses, David. The prophets even see God as a shepherd, tending the flock of Israel. Jesus verifies that the prophets are right, because he says that he is a shepherd, even though we know his profession is carpentry.
We also see in the nativity story that Jesus is born amongst the animals in a stable. He’s put in a feeding trough instead of a cradle. The fact that God incarnate is more appropriately born in a stable among cows and donkeys and sheep and that his first human visitors are poor, crude shepherds tells us something very important about our ideas about power and glory and importance. What we generally regard as royal doesn’t fit the mold that God defines for us in the very birth and life of Jesus Christ.
Even though we know that God came into the world in such a way, we tend to whitewash the story in our imagery. The shepherds in the field visited by the angel have clean headdresses on, we probably don’t think of the smell they carry. The livestock in the stable kneel gracefully in the clean hay. We probably don’t think of the smell of donkey sweat or animal droppings corrupting our picture. This is one reason I decided to use a modern picture of some Afghan shepherds on our bulletin cover today. I like the fact that they’re sitting on the rocky dirt, smoking a cigarette with the little lamb playing in their company. To me, it pulls my mind’s images out of the same old characters that are usually found out in the pastures “tending their flocks by night.” in our nativity ideal. What is it about shepherds and livestock that appeal so strongly to God?
In our Wednesday night Advent study this past week, we are reading a book called “Where Heaven Touches Earth” by a UM pastor in Shreveport named Rob Weber. Our first week of study focused on the shepherds activity of “keeping watch.” Despite the common image of shepherds on a grassy hillsides with a full moon illuminating the scene, Weber points out that many nights clouds must’ve obscured the light of the moon, or there was a new moon and not much light. Shepherds must’ve had to develop another way to “watch” their flocks in case of these kinds of occasions. Many of you who have farms or ranches know how the shepherds “Keep Watch” don’t you….they listen!
Advent is a time for careful listening, active anticipation. Waiting in this case is not a passive activity. Advent Waiting is making room, clearing the path. The hymn that we sang this morning is an ancient hymn telling the story of each beast’s contribution to the event where “Heaven Touches Earth.” The simple beauty of the hymn tells of each animal speaking with pride about what they could give as a gift to the holy family. Though we may sometimes think animals aren’t really worth God’s attention because they are somehow “lower life forms” perhaps it will give us a good dose of humility to know that God does use animals. The story of Balaam’s ass I told the children is not the only part of the Bible where animals play a key role in getting across to humans what God wants them to know. God’s response to Job tells us that animals occupy the mind of God just as humans do, and we might do well to be as attentive as they are. If we are to take a note from the shepherds and the livestock, we may understand that a key to our Advent preparations is to tune our ears to the silence, listening for the angel choir.
Weber points out that in this day and age we have much to distract us from the silence. Those of us in the Advent study commiserated with one another when we talked about how we tend to cover up the silence with “background noise.” Why? Because it makes us more comfortable I suppose. The silence often sounds hollow and it makes us feel empty. So we fill it up, we turn on, tune in, and drop out as they said in the 60’s, (So I’ve heard.)
Recently I played a little game with the youth where I gave them an advertising slogan or a familiar image from a commercial, and they rang a bell to see who the first person would be to get the advertising company. I remember when I wrote the slogans, I sat down at the computer and mentally spewed forth the questions and answers in a purge of “mental space.” Isn’t it amazing that most of us can probably rattle off a whole litany of commercial taglines and slogans, but very few of us have committed the scriptures to memory?
It is amazing to me that John Wesley and other people of his time had the entire Bible committed to memory. You often see on television Victorian era people reciting long poems from memory. I don’t have any poems committed to memory. I don’t have any scriptures longer than a couple verses committed to memory. But I can tell you that Burger King lets you have it “your way.” I can tell you who the “Great American Road belongs to” (And that one has been off the air for 15 years or more—that little bit of information has occupied a little chunk of my memory for 15 years or more!”
I can tell you what kind of insurance a duck is trying to sell me and what kind a little green lizard is trying to sell me or what kind is “like a good neighbor.” I can tell you who is the King of Beers, who “tastes great but is less filling,” or what is Australian for Beer. I can go on, but the point is that perhaps you can identify with me. My mind has been bought with entertainment. Some sociologists say this American culture is “entertaining itself to death.” In many ways we are. We’re trading our own authentic creativity for pre-packaged sound bites of corporate creativity designed to help us spend our money.
Advent asks us to “keep watch.” It invites us to prepare. How do we prepare in such a crazy, image laden world? We turn off, tune in, and drop everything. Actively anticipating takes our undivided attention. The shepherds were accustomed to active anticipation because they had to defend their flocks from predators. To do that, they had to know what to expect. We too know what to expect. We have been given the Good news. We know to look for God where we might least expect to find God. Jesus was born in a feeding trough. God chose to become incarnate in a little baby, born in precarious circumstances to parents of little means. God’s sign to the outcasts was as direct as a visit from a heavenly being. To the powerful kings and sages, God merely put a star in the sky—A subtle sign that something important was happening.
There is a saying that “The universe is filled with miracles and surprises simply waiting for our wits to become sharp enough to notice them.” IN Elizabeth Barrett Browning’ s words, “Earth’s crammed with heaven,/ and every common bush afire with God; / And only he who sees takes off his shoes; / The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.”
This poem for me illuminates the meaning and practice of Holy Communion, which we celebrate this morning. If we gaze with awe and wonder, if we look with Advent eyes at something as common as the bread and juice, we might see that it too is afire with God. This ritual was instituted by Jesus to assure us that he would always be with us. The miracle of Christmas is that God comes to the world “In the flesh,” The miracle of the Eucharist is that this person of God who came to us “in the flesh” is still with us by the power of the Holy Spirit in this very act of eating bread and drinking juice. Jesus tells us that by participating in this ritual we are eating his flesh and drinking his blood. Though this may sound odd to our ears, I think of Jesus speaking here from his Divine nature. If we are to think of the bread, we might picture the soil growing the grain, the fields of wheat bending in the wind, the hands of laborers harvesting the fields and turning the wheat into flour. We might picture the contributions of all of these things coming together to produce this loaf. This wide range of images associated with bread keys us into the diverse nature of God’s presence in the world. Christ’s body is visible to the Advent eyes even when we think we are observing something mundane. If we think of the juice, we might think of the hillside vineyards fed by the rain. We might think of that vine taking the moisture from the air and the ground and gathering it in the sweet juice of its fruit. Why is it sweet? So that it will be eaten and the seeds within will find new life in new soil. What a miracle! The blood of Christ does indeed course through the entire process that brings this cup to our lips.
If we embrace silence and attune ourselves to the quiet miracles going on right under our noses, we might just be able to perceive the divine reality in the simple things we usually overlook. Bread and Wine, Babies and Mangers, flesh and blood. These are gifts to us shepherds. If we see the light, will we travel to the stable? Will we go from there and spread the news far and wide like the shepherds in the scripture? That is up to us! Like the shepherds, God has invited us to be special guests at the birth of his Son. And it happens right here………

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Advent 1: Angel Sermon, Nov. 27

Angels are perhaps the most visible part of our religion in American culture. Everywhere you turn you see angels: Books on angels, tv shows about angels. When I think of angels, I always think about War Eagle and craft fairs, because my mom always brought home an angel for her collection from craft fairs. My mother actually has a Christmas tree solely devoted to her angel ornament collection. You no doubt might think of Cary Grant as Dudley the angel in the “Bishop’s Wife” or Henry Travers as Clarence, the angel earning his wings in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” At a religion bookstore I worked at in West Hollywood, we had a whole section on angels. So, what is it about these emissaries of God that appeals so strongly to our culture? What does the Bible really say about angels?
One thing that is not usually shown by our culture’s representation of Angels is the fact that they are by most accounts fairly terrifying. The first words out of an angels mouth in the Bible is usually, “Do not be afraid.” There are many accounts of angels in the Bible, but one that perhaps expresses best the otherworldly nature of these beings is Ezekial 1. Here is a detailed account of Ezekial’s vision of what is called a “cherub” and it is not quite as benign looking as a little fat baby with wings and a harp.
What angels are is always played down by the Biblical texts. The most important thing about them is the message they bring. Angels are shown by scripture to be the emissaries of God. Bruggemann describes the distinction as being like political representatives of the Almighty power in heaven who come to earth bearing the Divine’s message. IN fact, the word angel simply means messenger in Greek.
Angels offer encouragement, hope, assistance. Sometimes, what they bring is met by humans in struggle—As is the case with Jacob wrestling with an Angel on a riverbank. Our scripture this morning tells us that Mary is at first troubled by what the angel Gabrielle has to say to her.
Take the angel on the front cover of your bulletin. This is a picture of Gabrielle, and look what the angel is carrying. Is Gabrielle coming to the hanging of the greens service here at the Methodist Church? The branch in Gabrielle’s hand is a reference to Isaiah 11, where the great prophet tells of the coming of a man who will not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; 4 but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.”
The branch the angel is carrying is the “branch that will grow out of the root of Jesse,” which is another way of saying “Messiah.” The message that Gabrielle brought to Mary was that she would bear the Messiah. Though Mary does not wrestle with the angel who brought her word of the son she would bear, the news does create some strife and hardship for her life and for Joseph’s life.
The message is clear to us today as well. Christ is born among us! Are we waiting on a dramatic divine encounter in the middle of the night to hear the news of Christ’s presence, or can we be content with the subtle miracles that tell of Christ’s birth in our lives? Hebrews 13:1-2 tells us that simply by showing hospitality to strangers, some have entertained angels unawares. If we live the life of hospitality in our hearts, if we let the hope of this Christ child born to Mary surround us and infuse us, we too will live among angels and be graced by their presence. There is a song by an artist named Ben Harper called “Waiting on an angel.” In it, he references this saying from Hebrews, and declares that he’s waiting on an angel—one to carry him home. Are we preparing our heart for the season of waiting with joyful anticipation? Waiting plus joyfulness = hope. The message carried by the angels is quite often not an answer to a question, but rather the instilling of hope. Mary was asked to bear a son for nine months for the sake of world. We are asked to bear our patience and remain hopeful.