December 29, 2019
The Rev. Joanne Blair
Ecclesiastes 4: 9-12; 1 Corinthians 12:12-27
Though Christmas Day has come and gone… we are still in the 12-day season of Christmastide, and so we continue to joyfully play and sing our favorite carols. Music is such an important part of our lives, and more and more, studies show that music not only affects our spiritual and cognitive health, but it also contributes to our physical health as well. So… I think we should take a moment and thank Andrew for contributing to our wellbeing!
This is the last Sunday I will stand in this pulpit to share a message. And as I prepared for today’s Reflection (note it is a personal reflection and not a sermon) … I couldn’t help but think of how music corelates to today’s reading from Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth. Musical notes need to work together and support each other to form a pleasing harmony, and this was not the case in Corinth. For the church in Corinth had become a hot mess. Because it was the site of one of the greatest commercial trade centers in the ancient world, Corinth was a very populated and diverse city to begin with. The church was comprised of Jews, half-Jews, and pagans … and all the cultural and behavioral differences that came with that … including the question of who was better and more important than whom.
Paul’s use of comparing the human body to a community of people was not original ... as it had been used many times in the past to support the status quo. For society in general, and certainly true in Corinth, was the idea of hierarchy. Those at the bottom of the social ladder should obey and support those at the top of the ladder, and all should accept their place and stay there. But Paul uses the metaphor in a new way. Paul reminds the church in Corinth- and reminds us here today- that we are each a member of the body of Christ. And we each have an integral part to play. The point is not how big our parts are… the point is that we all have parts. And each and every part is to be honored.
I have shared this story with you before, but please indulge me to share it again. This is one of Aesop’s fables and is called “The Fable of the Belly.”
One day it occurred to members of the body that they were doing all the work while the belly was having all the food. So, they held a meeting (presumably without inviting the belly) and after a long discussion decided to strike work until the belly consented to take its proper share of the work. So, for a day or two the hands refused to take the food, the mouth refused to receive it and the teeth had no work to do. But after a day or two, the members began to find that they themselves were not in very active condition. The hands could hardly move, the mouth was all parched and dry, while the legs were unable to support the rest of the body. Thus, they found that even the belly in its dull, quiet way was doing necessary work for the body, and that all must work together, or the body will go to pieces.
Paul prompts us to remember that the body of Christ is not only diverse, it is designed to be so. And for Paul, there is no such thing as belonging to the body without participating. And while some parts may be quieter, or less visible than others, all are crucial.
It is impossible for me not to be nostalgic today. Last Sunday at the 8:30 service, I participated in communion from this side of the table for the last time. And as I spoke the words of institution, I was reminded again that someone had shared their gift of service to come in on Saturday and prepare the elements for us. Parts of the body, working together. When someone is dealing with a challenging time in their lives and would appreciate a person to quietly walk alongside them, we are able to offer a Stephen Minister. A person who has gone through hours and hours of training in Christian-caregiving, to confidentially sojourn with another. Parts of the body, working together.
In times of illness, grief or anguish, I have had the privilege of wrapping a hand-knit shawl around someone to let them know they are loved and being prayed for. They are always so grateful, and they thank me. But I am just the messenger. I don’t even know how to knit! But a group meets together regularly and lovingly donates their time, talents and supplies to make these shawls. Parts of the body, working together. I could speak all day on the plethora of service and support that stems from this congregation, often quietly and behind the scenes. Parts of the body, working together.
Last Sunday, this congregation honored Roger and I -- lovingly and lavishly honored us -- with a beautiful reception for my very-soon-to-be retirement as your Associate Pastor. And as we stood before you, and I looked at the long line to greet us, I thought: Where else would we be surrounded by so much love? And the answer is: Nowhere. For we are united in love. We are all part of the body of Christ, and what greater love is there than to be united in that? And what occurred to me is that we have always known your love. I, myself, have been at First Pres since I was 12 years old and you have loved me and supported me through all the various stages of my ages ... of which there have been many.
We have all been different parts of the body at different times, and it will continue to be so. And what Paul would have us know is that whatever parts we play with whatever gifts we have… they are given by the Spirit and designed for the good of the body. We are all equal parts of one glorious body united in love. The body of Christ. Every Christian is a part of the body of Christ on earth. And it is only when we affirm the importance of each unique part of the body, that we truly build and strengthen the whole Body.
We do not abandon our individuality. Rather, we are like musical notes that join together to form a harmony. May our tune always be pleasing to Christ… and may we share it with the world.
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
December 22, 2019
Isaiah 66:18-21; Luke 2:8-14
It was sitting in a St. Louis car museum looking for someone to love on it. It was a 1954 Corvette Roadster. It needed someone to love on it because it needed considerable work. The interior needed replacing. One of the engine’s cam lobes had worn off. The electrical wiring needed repair and replacing…meaning none of the dash lights worked. The old automatic transmission was in need of parts and it was even missing some small screws around the headlamp. As I said, it needed someone to love on it if it was to ever be brought back to life…to become as good as new. Fortunately, that 54’ Vette found the perfect person to restore it…our own Mark Reuss. Mark did all of the work himself, lovingly and carefully replacing the interior and repairing the mechanicals. In the end, the 54” was as good as new. Probably as beautiful and functional as when it rolled off the assembly line the year before I was born…just thought I would throw that in. And I know that Mark is not alone in these kinds of endeavors; of taking an older car, or perhaps a piece of furniture and restoring them to their original condition. It is an act of love and passion…the same kind of love and passion that God has for restoring this world…this creation…this universe. And we know this because the scriptures tell us that this is what God is doing in the world; that God is going to fix what we broke.
This image that God is going to repair the world is what this book (the Bible) is all about. It is the story of a loving God who cares deeply for heaven and earth and desires that they be made as good as new. We can see this in Isaiah’s words, “For as the new heavens and the new earth, which I will make, shall remain as before says the Lord.” I realize that it might seem strange to talk about repairing and restoring both heaven and earth, but what the scriptures tell us is that human sin broke not only this creation but it impacted heaven as well, when it broke the intimate relationship that is supposed to exist between God and creation. One way to think about this is that heaven and earth are not supposed to be two separate realms, but a single entity in which God is so close to human beings that we get to hang out together. We get to live in unity. And it is that reality, that potential closeness with God that had given the people of God hope. And if anyone needed that hope, it was the people of God, because they not only saw the brokenness of creation, but they were living it. Their nation had been crushed by Babylon and people taken into exile. When the people returned under the Persians they were still opposed and persecuted by their neighbors. Survival was a daily struggle. Under these conditions the people struggled to hold on to their belief that God still loved them and had a plan for them…so they looked for the promised sign that the restoration was about to begin.
What I mean by a sign is that throughout the writings of Isaiah, there were promises that the people would know that the restoration project was about to begin when they received “the sign.” We see this in verses 18 and 19 where Isaiah writes, “For I know their work and their thoughts and I am coming to gather all nations and tongues and they shall come and see my glory, and I will set a sign among them…” The only problem with this waiting for the sign was that Isaiah was never abundantly clear as to exactly what that sign was to be. So the people kept looking for that clear sign that said “God at work.” Was the sign their return from exile in Babylon? No nothing happened. Was the sign the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem? No, nothing happened. Was the sign the desecration of the Temple by the Greeks? No, nothing happened. Was the sign political independence under the Maccabees? No, nothing happened. The failure of all of these signs caused many to give up and lose hope. But there were still those who looked, who waited, who longed for the sign that God was going to restore the heavens and the earth…and so it was to some of those who waited, to some shepherds in the fields, that the sign finally arrived.
Most of us know the story. The shepherds and in the fields watching their flocks by night when the angel appears and says, “This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in the manger.” Even the Charlie Brown Christmas special knows this part of the story. But what we may not have known was the reference point for the “sign.” What did it mean that there will be a sign? A sign of what? Now you know the answer. This is the sign that God had long promised, that God would begin the loving and careful recreation of heaven and earth. God would begin the restoration of a universe in which humans and God could hang together in love and blessing. The sign had arrived, but it would not be the one and only sign. I say this because Jesus’ ministry was pretty much one big sign of this restoring work. How so? When Jesus healed someone, they were made good as new. When Jesus forgave someone, they were as good as new. When Jesus cast out the demons from the man in Gentile territory, he was made good as new. When Jesus fed the hungry, they were made good as new. In a sense, just like Mark worked on each part of the car that needed restoring, Jesus worked on each part of humanity that needed restoring, body, mind and soul. And finally, the greatest sign of all, which was the cross which culminated Jesus work of making it possible for all of humanity to be joined as one. This is why in the Gospel of John all of Jesus mighty acts are called signs.
Unlike Mark’s restoration of the 54’ Vette, which I suppose is finished, God’s restoration of creation is an ongoing project. It is a slow, deliberate and loving project in which God is engaged. And it is a project in which we are invited to partake. We are invited to participate in God’s work…by helping to connect heaven and earth. I realize that may seem a bit odd but remember that the goal of this restoration is to have heaven and earth connect so we can hang with God. And we get to do that by lifting up and pouring out. We do this by lifting up those around us and those far from us, to God in prayer. When we do this, we are following Jesus’ example of praying for himself, his disciples and the world. The image often used is that prayers ascend like smoke drifting into the presence of God. It is as if our prayers help to focus heaven’s attention on the needs of the world. The second part of this is that we pour out God’s love into the world around us. For you see as we connect with heaven through prayer, worship, and meditation, it opens a highway for God’s love to be poured out upon us. This love allows us not only to love God but to love neighbor in new and amazing ways. And when we do, we too become signs. We become signs that God’s recreative work is in progress and by so doing we offer hope to an often-weary world.
My challenge for each of us then on this Sunday before Christmas is to ask ourselves, How am I being a sign to the world? How am I lifting up and pouring out so that God’s universal creation looks a little bit more like it is as good as new tomorrow than it does today?
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
December 15, 2019
Isaiah 35:1-4; Matthew 2:1-7
It is just about everywhere…Christmas that is. In virtually every nation on earth, whether in public or in private, people will be celebrating Christmas. They will do it in many different ways, in many different languages. They will follow traditions dating from the second and third centuries to those only recently created. It will be a world-wide celebration. But have you ever asked yourselves, how and why? How and why did the birth of a child in a tiny town in rural Palestine become the focus of so much joy and celebration? How did, not just the story of Jesus, but the faith in Jesus move from a tiny band of Jewish followers to encompass more than a billion people of virtually every nationality and language on the face of the earth? I suppose that there are many different reasons, but what I want to offer you this morning is that there are three that were and continue to be crucial to people deciding to follow this Jesus and to celebrate his birth. And these three reasons can be found in this strange story about the astrologers who came looking for the one whose birth was foretold in the heavens and the story that is told to them about a Jewish messianic prediction.
We begin with the fact that Jesus is one of us. Jesus, this one of whom angels will sing. to whom billions will pray, is one of us because he is born in a small town, Bethlehem, just like most of us. The wisemen have come to Herod’s court because that is the likely place one would find a new king…especially in Judea. Herod the Great was the brutal dictator who would not hesitate to kill his own children to hold on to power, so a new king must be born in the palace. But Jesus is not born there. He is not born even in the capitol city of Jerusalem. He is born in a small, out of the way, barely known and pretty much ignored town. And because of this he is not born as the gods of Olympus, or the Caesars of Rome, but as an ordinary child. He will be one of us because he grows up like us. He will nurse at his mother’s breast. He will fight with his brothers and sisters. He will skin his knees and get into arguments. He will learn a trade. He will be one of us and because he is one of us, he will understand what it is like to be ordinary; to be poor; to be thirsty; to be hungry and to die. People will follow him and celebrate his birth because he is the one who understands them completely; because he is one of us.
People will follow him and celebrate his birth because he is the ruler who sets people free and doesn’t oppress. For Jesus is the ruler, the prince, the king who will come from among us ordinary people. Across the centuries people have understood the golden rule. Those with the gold make the rules. It has been true in every society and in every time and place. And because of that the majority of the world’s population now, and across time, have found themselves oppressed by rulers and ruling classes, that use and abuse the powerless. But here in Jesus comes the one who will be our ruler, our champion, our liberator. He will be the one who will work to level the playing field by giving worth and value not only to those who have the gold, but to those who do not have it. He will be the ruler who sets free, through his life, death and resurrection. He will be the ruler who gives every human being worth and value. He will be the ruler who judges not based on a bribe or status, but on the quality of one’s character and the totality of one’s life. He will be the ruler who forgives rather than condemns. People will follow him and celebrate his birth because he is the people’s ruler bringing forth a kingdom of love, peace and justice.
Finally, people will follow him because he is the one who cares deeply about them. Jesus is the one who will shepherd his people. The image of the shepherd is one that has almost universal appeal, because it reminds human beings of the one who cares not just about the flock, but about each sheep within it. In rural Judea where this story was first told, the people would have known that a shepherd knew the name of every sheep. The shepherd knew the quirks of every sheep. The shepherd cared for each of the sheep. And this is what people discovered about Jesus. Jesus was not about holding rallies so as to gather the largest crowd. Jesus was about caring for each person. He cared about the blind man calling to him from the side of the road. He cared about the woman whom no one else could heal. He cared about his friend Lazarus. He cared about the dying daughter of a Centurion. He cared about the children and invited them to come and be blessed. He cared about those who betrayed and killed him. Everyone matters to him and so people will follow him and celebrate his birth.
The appeal of Jesus is universal. It is an appeal that transcends race, culture and language. It is world-wide because every human being wants to know that somewhere, there is one with power, who values them for who they are, and desires the best in life for them, even in the most difficult of circumstances. This is why in places such as Iran, China and other nations where being a Christian can lead to imprisonment or even death, people still follow Jesus and will celebrate his birth; because they find in him one who understands them, works for them and cares for them. And so this is out challenge, the challenge I offer that we do the same for all that we meet during the week; that we try to understand them, work for them and care for them in the name of Christ, so that they too might want to know this one who came to change lives and to change the world.
The Rev. Bethany Peerbolte
December 8, 2019
Jeremiah 29:1-7; Luke 1:5-20
Mary and Elizabeth’s pregnancies are solidly linked because of who their sons would grow up to be. Elizabeth’s son John would teach and prepare the world for the teachings of Mary’s son, Jesus. Both women were thrilled to be pregnant, but the atmosphere that surrounded these two pregnancies were vastly different. Elizabeth and Zachariah had been waiting a long time for this child. They had prayed and begged God to send them this boy. With every month that went by without a pregnancy Elizabeth felt the weight of disgrace. That is how she describes her situation, she calls it the disgrace she has had to endure. For Zechariah to be a priest with a direct line to God and not be blessed with a child was deeply frustrating for him. So once Elizabeth knew she was pregnant joy filled their home. I can imagine her preparing for the baby. Of course, first she would have told everyone she knows the good news. She would have received hugs and had exciting conversations. At home Elizabeth probably made a corner into a nursery. She must have stockpiled essentials. All the good nesting instincts fulfilled.
Mary was not able to act on her nesting instincts. How could she plan for a baby when she was just starting to plan for a wedding? Instead of relief from her partner she has to wait for Joseph to decide if he will keep her around. When an unwed woman got pregnant there is no excitement or hugs. Mary probably got stares and whispers, people pointing and rolling their eyes. No nursery could be set up because Mary had no idea where she would be living.
Mary finally gets so uncomfortable with the atmosphere she is living in that she decides to go see Elizabeth. As she walks through Elizabeth’s door the rain cloud over Mary’s head is swept away by an enthusiastic greeting. “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb! This amazing welcome is so refreshing it releases Mary to praise God with a song so incredible we have given it the name “The Magnificat.” The love and joy Zachariah and Elizabeth exude is so comforting Mary stays for another three months.
Some of us who have family coming in for Christmas might not want to replicate Elizabeth and Zechariah’s welcome. We are barely able to handle the weeklong visit let alone it stretching into three months. But we do want to be people who others find welcoming. We want to exude the Christmas spirit of peace, hope, joy, and love in this season. This story of Mary and Elizabeth is a prime example of why we want that kind of presence – it makes a difference. We all want to make a difference. We know it is our calling as God’s family to bless the communities we live in, but the amount of need in our community is overwhelming.
I have a weakness for animal rescue videos. Essentially, they are all the same though. An animal is found in dire need of help. Rescuers step in to care for the animal. In the end the animal is clean, healthy, and running around like the happiest creature ever. In all these videos there is a moment where the tension of hope and fear is replaced with joy. It is the tipping point where the animal is more healed than hurt.
Unfortunately for many of our community’s hurts we have not reached the tipping point. I’m sorry to have to say it but we will not solve food insecurity in 2019. This will not be the year we end homelessness or get every rape victim justice. Even with all our efforts there are still children sleeping on floors and people who went hungry this Thanksgiving. That realization can be derailing. The thought that creeps into our minds asks, “why try if there will still be people hurting and in need?” Assessing everything that needs to be done can paralyze our will to help.
This feeling of inadequacy will do one of two things. For some of us it will cause us to work more, give more, push past our boundaries and drive ourselves into the ground, depleting all our resources for the sake of trying to fix the problem. The little efforts slip out of focus as we strive to achieve a bigger impact. For others, seeing the massive amount of work our community needs will drive us into our homes and tell us to shutter the windows. If we can’t make the world out there perfect, then let’s disengage completely so we don’t have to feel bad. This reaction convinces us that nothing we do will be worth the effort, we can only give $5 or one hour, what use is that. If we can’t fix the problem, then let’s do nothing.
This week as I was watching animal rescue videos I saw one that intrigued me. It was about a pitbull who was found in bad shape. She needed bandages around her face and front legs and her whole upper body. She was so sweet even though she was in a lot of pain. The bandages needed to be changed regularly and one day the vet staff decided to cut little hearts out of her old bandages, which were pink, and stick them on top of the new blue bandages. It made the pitbull look like she was wearing a cute polka dot sweater and not half a body worth of bandages. When her foster mom took her home the reactions of the community changed significantly. Where before, people would see the dog and say from a distance, “Ooohhh, no! What happened? Poor puppy!” now they were greeting the dog with smiles and pets saying, “How cute!” Their emotional reaction changed the pitbull’s whole demeaner. She perked up! The thing that most intrigued me in this video was that her tipping point came early on her healing journey. She was still very much in pain and in danger of regressing, yet, the reactions from the community were the thing that made the most difference. When the atmosphere changed from concern and fear to hope and joy the dog’s healing also took a turn for the better. That is what Elizabeth does for Mary. Her own joy creates a space where Mary can truly heal and get ready for Jesus’ birth. The minute Mary walks in the door and is greeted with Elizabeth’s joy her healing begins.
This is the power of community. We all know people who walk into the room and change the atmosphere. Their presences is enough to change how others feel. Psychologist call this “affective presence.” I think this is why so many non-Christians celebrate Christmas. The atmosphere around Christmas is contagious and everyone wants to be a part of the joy it creates. Some of us are Mary. We have been dealt something in life that has caused us to want to recoil from the world. We worry people won’t understand our situation and will judge us. That we will be whispered about and pointed at. We may have even had these fears confirmed and had people speak poorly of us. Some of us are Elizabeth and we have had a hard go at it but find ourselves in this moment blessed beyond our imagining. The hard days have paid off and we are filled with joy.
When these two situations share community with one another God is able to work in and through both of them. It isn’t a one-way street. Mary is healed by being in community with a joyful Elizabeth, but also remember how Elizabeth felt like a disgrace. Finally getting pregnant showed her God’s blessing but the thing that fully healed her was being visited by Mary. When Mary greets Elizabeth, she feels deeply honored to have the mother of her Lord visit her. Her feeling of disgrace is completely healed.
Neither of these women is doing anything extraordinary. They do what they can for one another. That’s what a good community does.
This advent we will hear about the Christmas spirit inspiring grand shows of generosity and kindness in our community, but don’t let them dominate your attention. Our community will also show the Christmas spirit by leaving snacks for delivery workers, letting someone cut in line, and giving a dog a pat on the head. These moments matter. We may not even feel like we have done anything. You may be the only person to smile at that cashier or the only car that will let someone into the lane they need to be in. Imagine what moments like these could mean if we all did them. And on our worst days how much nicer it would be to live in a community where kindness flowed so easily.
We all want to make a difference in our community. The grand gestures are wonderful, but in the pursuit of helping do not undervalue the simple kindnesses. And do not get discouraged when your invitation is not accepted or when your hospitality is not returned. Your efforts are worthy whether they are received or not, because when we are in community there is no telling where that ripple will travel.
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
December 1, 2019
Genesis 17:15-22; Luke 1:26-38
The obituary made it appear that this was the perfect family. The deceased was a beloved doctor who gave himself to his patients. In fact, he died suddenly at the home of a patient whom he had gone to treat. His obituary offered a glowing description of Dr. Hodge and of his three sons. Two were physicians and the third was a District Attorney in Rayville, Louisiana. By all accounts his was the perfect, successful family. The only problem was that my grandfather, John Hodge, after whom I am named, along with his four siblings, were missing from that obituary. Why that matters, is that Dr. Hodge with the perfect family, had a first wife, my great-grandmother, whom he evidently never divorced and five other children, one of whom was my grandfather. It turns out that my great-grandmother fled a husband with an explosive temper and raised her children on her own working as an itinerant school teacher, often struggling to put food on the table and shoes on her children’s feet. The most interesting part of this is that this story was buried and hidden from me and my siblings until I came across it last year. I suppose it might remind us that our family is not as perfect as we would like it to be. Our family is in fact, as imperfect as all other families.
The pressure to have and be the perfect family is something that I had assumed was a modern phenomenon. Something that had only arisen in our day and age. Yet, the more I read and research the more I realize this is nothing new. Which for me is fascinating because…and I hate to break it to you…there never have been any perfect families. And this includes the first families of the Bible. What do I mean by that? Let me enlighten you. Adam and Eve. They disobey God. They blame each other for the great fruit incident. Then one of their sons kills his sibling. First, there is Abraham and Sarah. Abraham doesn’t trust that God will give him a son with Sarah and then laughs, as does Sarah, at the suggestion. Oh, and Abraham gives Sarah away twice to protect himself. Next, there is Mary and Joseph. For many of you I may be treading in dangerous waters here…but bear with me. Mary is an unmarried pregnant woman. Joseph is a reluctant groom, who only goes through with the marriage because of angelic intervention. Mary gives birth in a stable because Joseph forgot to go on Inns.com and make a reservation. Once Jesus is born, they become enemies of the state and then refugees. Once Jesus is a little older, they lose him in Jerusalem. At thirty, Jesus leaves home and his mother, abandoning his role as head of the family. Finally, Mary and her other children seek out Jesus to bring him home because they believe, as the Greek says, he is out of his mind. These are not perfect families, which I believe is part of the point of these stories; that it is the point of Christmas, that God uses imperfect families to help save the world.
Adam and Eve are our distant relations and they gave birth to humanity, even though they are imperfect. Abraham and Sarah, for all their imperfections were those who received, and to the best of their ability lived out the covenant, which is still at work today. Mary and Joseph, for all their imperfections, reared Jesus, taught him the Torah and loved him. None of them were prefect and yet God worked in and through them to make the world the way God desired it to be. And by not being perfect, these families made it clear that it was God’s work in and through them, and not their own perfect work, that saved and changed the world. The problem for us is that there is still this pressure to be the perfect family…and especially at Christmas. We are to be Norman Rockwell and not Griswold families from the Christmas Vacation movie. We are to have the perfect tree, the perfect ornaments on the tree, the perfect lights on the house, the perfect family picture, the perfect Christmas Card with the perfect family picture, the perfect gifts, with the perfect wrapping with the perfect tag on the perfect wrapping on the perfect presents. The pressure is on. The pressure builds. So, what I want to do for you this morning is to help you relieve the pressure. I want to do that by inviting you to repeat after me…you don’t have to but you are invited to. Here goes.
“I am not perfect. My family is not perfect. But that is OK. It is OK because God uses imperfect people. Because God uses imperfect families to save the world. So God can use me and God can use my family to transform the world.”
There, the pressure is off for this Christmas. It is off because we know that God can and does use imperfect people and imperfect families to do God’s will in the world. My challenge for you then is to ask yourselves this question over this week. How is God using me as a less than perfect person; how is God using my family as a less than perfect family to help change the world for the better?