The Rev. Dr. John Judson
February 12, 2017
What was God thinking? What was God thinking when God sent Jonah on this absurd mission? The people of Nineveh were evil. They were some of the most brutal people to have ever marched across the middle east. They had devastated God’s people, killing hundreds of thousands. What was God thinking when God sent Jonah to preach repentance to them that they might turn to God and be saved? It made no sense. What was Jesus thinking? What was Jesus thinking when he told this story about a rich man going to hell and a poor man going to heaven. This made no sense. Everyone knew that to be rich meant that you were favored by God and to be poor meant that you were cursed by God. So it made no sense then at the end of the story when the wealthy man ended up in the pit and the poor man ended up in the bosom of Abraham. What were God and Jesus thinking?
My hope is that all of you here this morning could answer those questions. That you would know what they were thinking. You would know that God’s plan for creation is that everyone, and every nation be blessed. This was the task given to Abraham and his descendants. That all nations, not just one or two, but all nations would be blessed. So when Jonah is given the task of going to Nineveh he is carrying out the promise and task given to Abraham’s family; Jonah’s family. He is ensuring that all nations have the opportunity to be blessed. We would know as well that Jesus and later the entire New Testament focus on the obligation of God’s people to serve the poor, the hungry and those in need. We would remember that Jesus said, “When you do it to the least of these, you have done it to me.” Perhaps we would even remember the words of James, “Faith without works is dead.” Yet, what if…what if there is something else hiding behind these two stories? What if they are in fact about hell?
I know that the instant I say the word, hell, that in most of us, something happens. For some of us it will be that our minds are instantly filled with images. Images from novels, perhaps Dante’s Inferno, or from television or movies. If you watch shows like Supernatural or Grimm, you will have seen their images of hell. For others of us, perhaps what happens is that we have a visceral reaction; something deep in our gut, just kind of tightens. For those who grew up in more fundamentalist denominations or in denominations in which hell was a constant companion, the word created a sense of fear that always hovered in the air. It was a weekly dose of, as my Baptist friends call it, turn-or-burn sermons intended to make people toe the line or else. With all of that in mind, I want to offer us a very different image, or concept, of hell. So, take all of those images and emotions, and set them aside for a few minutes and consider another way of understanding hell. That hell is not about a final destination, but it is a reality that we create for ourselves when we separate ourselves from God and others. Let me say this again, that hell is not about a final destination, but that it is a reality we create for ourselves when we separate ourselves from God and others. To understand this, let’s turn to our stories.
The story of Jonah is one which is centered around a single word, and that word is down. When God makes contact with Jonah and asks him to help save the people of Nineveh, Jonah runs from God by going down. He goes down to the coast. He goes down into a ship’s hold. He is tossed overboard and goes down into the sea. Then he goes down into the belly of the bog fish. Then, even after he has saved thousands of lives, and helped to turn a nation from evil to good, he still goes down. He sits down and is angry. In other words, Jonah has created for himself his own personal hell. He is angry. He is bitter. And he is these things because he has gone down, trying to separate himself both from God, the source of his life, and from others, the people of Nineveh whom he hates. Jonah finds no joy, only pain and frustration, because he is no longer connected to God and to those whom God loves.
The same theme runs through the story that Jesus tells. Yet here it is not that the rich man creates a hell for himself, but for Lazarus. Each day the rich man walks by Lazarus as if Lazarus does not exist. He allows Lazarus to waste away and become so low that only the dogs lick his wounds. This is hell for Lazarus. And the rich man creates this hell because he is completely disconnected from both God and neighbor. We know that he is disconnected because the Torah makes it clear that the people of God have obligations to feed, clothe and care for the poor. By not doing so, it becomes apparent to Jesus’ listeners that this man has no connection to God in any way…and so the justice of God is that he will experience the hell that he had created for Lazarus.
These two stories then can be seen as cautionary tales; tales that warn us that if we disconnect from the love of God and form loving others, we may find ourselves in our own living hell. Yet they are also stories of hope. They are stories of hope because they show us that we can make a different choice, one of connection that offers us and others a bit of heaven on earth. This is the choice that was made by the people of Nineveh. They chose to reconnect with God and their lives were transformed. This was the choice of Lazarus at the gate. Though the story does not explicitly say so, the implication is that he is open to being connected to God and when he dies he finds this connection and thus experiences a new life; a bit of heaven. It is through those connections to God and neighbor, that little bits of heaven are formed here on earth.
She was one of the very first people I went to visit after I was ordained. My senior pastor asked that I go meet her along with the other people in the same nursing home. When I arrived I found her in bed, awake and welcoming. As I left the visit I was aware that I felt better than when I had arrived. Over time as I visited her I learned that she had been married, but had had no children, that she was constant in prayer, that she was beloved by the staff because she cared about them and their families and that she was always in bed because she had arthritis that crippled almost all of her body and left her in pain. One day I asked her how she did it. How was she able to be such a light to others when she was in constant pain? It was simple she told me. “I have a choice, “she said. “I can choose to be miserable. Or I can choose to be happy. I choose happy.” Her choice, even in the midst of her daily pain, was to remain connected in love to God and others. It never made her pain go away, but it created a bit of heaven on earth for herself and everyone who entered her room. She was and is my hero.
I understand that our lives are complicated. They are complicated by depression, and disease; by family and work dynamics; by politics and perceptions. There are forces around us that we cannot control. Yet these cautionary tales, are also hopeful tales. They remind us that a living hell is not inevitable. That we have the power to choose to be connected to, or disconnected from God and neighbor; that we have the power to create a bit of heaven for ourselves or others, in the here and now. My challenge to you then is this, to ask yourselves, “How am I connecting in love with God and neighbor, such that I am creating for myself and those around me, a bit of heaven on earth.”
Rev. Amy Morgan
February 5, 2017
Ezekiel 34:1-16, Luke 5:27-32
Do any of you have a favorite children’s book? One that you’ve read over and over again, to your children or grandchildren? Or maybe you have one that you read as a child so many times you’ve memorized it.
There was a time when the youth group read Moo, Baa, Lalala so many times to my son over the course of a weekend that I think we all have it permanently imprinted on our brains.
Some of these books have a message that, for whatever reason, spoke to us – as children or adults. Something that resonated with how we experience the world. And we needed to hear it again and again. Maybe it even took on different or deeper meaning at various points in our lives.
Well, preaching is kind of like that.
I’ve been preaching here at First Presbyterian for ten years now, and after looking back on all those sermons this week, I discovered that I’ve been basically preaching the same thing over and over. Month after month, year after year, sermon after sermon, I’ve been preaching about the sovereignty of God, the brokenness of humanity, and the gracious invitation to join in God’s work of reconciling the world through Jesus Christ. That’s it. Same sermon. Ten years.
Through three presidential administrations, through economic recession and recovery, through tragedies on a global, national, and personal scale, through relationships and trust built up over years or in short, intense experiences, I have preached the same sermon to you all.
You might be tired of it by now.
But it’s the sermon that I need to hear. Again and again. And it takes on new and deeper meaning at various points in my life. So I’m going to preach this sermon once more, at least.
Listening to today’s scripture passages, we might be tempted to think this is “Law and Order: Ripped From the Headlines” kind of stuff. I’m sorry, but when I read about those terrible shepherds, growing fat by devouring the lost, weak sheep, I went straight to my daily newsfeed and found all kinds of sermon material there. Scores of public figures emerged for me when I read about those self-righteous scribes and Pharisees judging Jesus for including everybody and healing those most in need.
But before I could start railing against those shepherds and Pharisees in our society, I had to hear God’s word to me. You see, you may think that preachers are preaching to their congregations. But any preacher worth their salt will tell you they are preaching to themselves first. We are telling the story we need to hear over and over again. And we hope it does you some good, too.
So those shepherds, those scribes and Pharisees – who are they? Well, Ezekiel is addressing the leaders of Israel, which, being a theocratic society, necessarily meant the religious leaders of Israel. And you pair that with this little Jesus story where the religious leaders think Jesus shouldn’t be hanging out with the riff-raff, and there’s nowhere to point the finger except right here.
As a shepherd of God’s people, I’m supposed to make sure you are healthy and well-fed and safe. And I wish I could look back over the last ten years, or look out at you all right now, and say I’ve done a bang-up job. But I know that many of you are soul-sick; many of you are starving for meaning and purpose and love and hope; many of you are lost and fearful and under attack. I know this. I talk to you. I hear you. I know you.
This may sound like I’m just beating up on myself, because pastors are really good at that. But I am perfectly comfortable identifying with the neglectful shepherds in Ezekiel. I am happy to own up to what I’ve done and what I’ve left undone over the last ten years. Because God makes this awesome promise. God promises to come and care for the sheep – to seek them out and rescue them and feed them. And God promises to destroy the fat and the strong and to feed them with justice.
This is a hopeful promise for me. God will do what I cannot, and God will destroy what is self-serving and self-righteous about me and feed me with justice. That is good news. God is sovereign. We are broken. But we are graciously invited to join in God’s work of reconciling the world through Jesus Christ.
So I’ve claimed my place in this story, I’m a shepherd who needs God to step in and take over. But we’re Presbyterian, friends. And what that means is that every single person who has been claimed by God in baptism has also been called by God to be a shepherd to all the sheep of the world.
I may be a shepherd of this flock here at First Presbyterian Church of Birmingham, but you all – we all – are shepherds of our households, our neighborhoods, our workplaces, our communities, our cities, our state, our nation, and our world.
And if you think it’s tough being a pastor, being a shepherd to the faithful who come here week after week to hear the Word of God and pray and work and be in community – ooh – try being a shepherd beyond these walls. That’s your job. Mine, too. And that ain’t easy.
And I don’t know that we’ve done a great job. Do our families, our neighbors, our colleagues suffer from soul-sickness? Are they starved for good news?
In my experience, our children somehow think it is more important to us that they get a scholarship to a top-ranked school than whether or not they are committed to love and justice and peace. They’re no fools. We aren’t sending mixed messages when we pressure them to bring up their math grade but don’t apply the same force around sitting with kids who are outcast at lunch. Our messages to them are loud and clear. They know what we shepherds want from them. Does that make us bad shepherds? Does it make us good parents?
Our neighborhoods are filled with stray sheep, prey for the wolves of loneliness and fear. If I don’t know my neighbor, I don’t feel responsible for them. They can wander off, and I wouldn’t even notice. They can be devoured by depression, abuse, illness, or any number of invisible struggles, and all that matters to me is that their house sells for more money and improves my property value.
God forbid we should talk about religion in our workplaces, but I’m going to bet we’ve all discussed politics in the last few years. Wouldn’t religion be the more agreeable of those two taboo topics these days? But the life of the shepherd is easier if we don’t have to share the thing that nourishes us. We save it for ourselves. If we tell others about it, it costs us something. There is a price we’re not willing to pay to stand up for our faith and its values in the “secular” world. Does that make us bad shepherds? Does it make us good citizens?
And I wish I could tell you which politician or policy at any level of government, from the city of Birmingham to the UN, was going to represent the values of the kingdom of heaven. I’ve got my hunches and opinions, of course. But even I am old enough to know that history has a way of playing out and judging our actions that not even the wisest of us can foresee. And I know that we would rather point to a politician or a political party and accuse them of being bad shepherds than shoulder that identity ourselves.
If our cities, our state, our nation, and our world do not experience the good news that God is sovereign, that humanity is broken, and that we are graciously invited to join in God’s work of reconciling the world in Jesus Christ – we are the bad shepherds. That is OUR work. Our work is to trust God to be God, and not claim that power for ourselves. Our work is to acknowledge the brokenness we see within ourselves and to see the suffering of others. Our work is to see where God is active in the world and jump in and get our hands dirty.
Instead, we look at one another, at one another in this very room, and say, “how can you call yourself a Christian and…” There’s no way Jesus should be hanging out with him. Or her. Or them. They are tax collectors. And sinners. Isn’t it good news that Jesus is eating with them? Isn’t it good news that Jesus is always eating with the people we judge to be unrighteous and unworthy?
We read this story in Luke and think that Jesus is saying that the tax collectors and sinners at the table are the ones who are sick and in need of physician, the sinners in need of repentance. But what if his comment is really an invitation to the scribes and the Pharisees to sit down and join the meal, to admit their own sin and seek out healing for their soul-sickness? What if the righteous ones are those who invited him to dinner and came out to eat with him?
We have failed as shepherds, all of us. The sheep have scattered. The wolves are gobbling them up. But we have an invitation. To sit down with Jesus and be fed with justice. To be healed of our soul-sickness by the Great Physician. To let God destroy our self-righteousness. To trust the Good Shepherd to take care of the sheep in ways that we have not. It’s good news. God is sovereign. Humanity is broken. We are graciously invited to join in God’s work of reconciling the world through Jesus Christ.
Our opinions will vary about what that looks like. Do you acknowledge God as Lord of your Sunday morning or Lord of your investment accounts? Do you see the brokenness of humanity in the global refugee crisis or in the hopelessness and despair that opens the door to radicalization of a religion? Do you see God’s work in the world, and commit to joining it, in small acts of kindness, in marches and rallies, or in waiting and hoping?
You may be surprised to hear this, but I say yes to all of it. That is why I am so privileged to serve as a pastor, a shepherd, at Everybody’s Church. There have been many times in the last ten years when I have not been certain if we could hold the tension, hold the space, that allows me to preach the same sermon and let it be heard in different ways. No time more so than now, I think.
So I’m asking you all, as a gift to me, if you have any honor or respect for the work I’ve done here over the last ten years, to hear this sermon one more time today. To hear it with your own ears, your own worldview, your own politics and opinions. To know that it is a message for you, and for the person next to you, and the person on the other side of the aisle. That it is a message for your family, and your neighborhood, and our cities, our state, our nation, and our world.
Turn to your neighbor, right now, and tell them, “God is sovereign.” Turn to another neighbor and tell them, “Humanity is broken.” Church, we are graciously invited to join in God’s work of reconciling the world in Jesus Christ. That means that, with the help of God, we can be better shepherds. We can look out for one another. We can feed one another. Turn back to your neighbor and tell them, “With God’s help, I will be your shepherd.”
Starting here and starting now, we can be better shepherds. To one another. And to our families. And our towns, and state and nation and world. In every action, every commitment, every vote, every conversation, we can be better shepherds.
We can start by coming together and eating at this table, where Jesus Christ is the host. Here, the hungry sheep will find good pasture, and the fat shepherds will be fed with justice. Here, the tax collectors and sinners find a welcome, and the scribes and Pharisees hear the invitation to sit down and repent.
Here, we will be told the same story Christians have been telling for thousands of years. May we find in it a new and deeper meaning today. May it draw us together as one flock under the care of the Good Shepherd. May it heal our brokenness. And may we be fed with justice. Amen.
Rev. Dr. John Judson
December 18, 2016
Genesis 12:1-3, Matthew 1:1-17
It is for me a haunting kind of picture. It is black and white, taken sometime around the turn of the last century. In it are multiple children, all dressed in threadbare clothes, loosely gathered around a young woman, hair bedraggled, cooking on an outdoor fire with an old cast-iron skillet. The children are all barefoot and the home, if you can call it that, behind them, is no more than loose boards on a frame. The woman in this picture is my great-grandmother. One of the young boys, my grandfather. The setting is rural Louisiana where that part of my family is from. The background is that my great-grandmother was an itinerant school teacher. She would walk, with her five children, from community to community, seeing if the people had a small house, or shack, some money and a willingness to pay her to teach their children in the local one room school house. Often her pay was no more than enough food to keep her children fed. Then she had to take on her sister and her sisters children as well. But the one question to which I could never get an answer was why was the woman, who was married to a doctor, struggling to put food on the table. My grandfather would not say. All he would ever allow was that there was “a series of unfortunate incidents” that had caused his mother to flee. It is not hard for us to read between the lines and sense that those unfortunate incidents probably included abuse. Somehow this was the messy part of our family’s past that no one wanted to reveal.
I wonder if that’s how Mary and Joseph felt when people read this opening part of Matthew; because it shows just how messy their family was. That they would prefer that people just refer to much of it as a series of unfortunate incidents. I realize that for many of us when we listen to this genealogy of Jesus all we hear is the Charlie Brown, wah wah, wah, wah; names, names, names, names. But what we should be hearing is just how messy and scandalous Jesus’ background really is. First we have Tamar, who when her husband dies, dresses as a prostitute and sleeps with her father-in-law so she can have the child she deserves. Next we have Rahab, who was a prostitute who protects two spies in exchange for her life. Then we have Ruth, who was a foreigner who offers herself to an older man on the advice of her mother-in-law. Then we have Manasseh who was probably the worst king in all of the history of Judah. He worshipped other gods and put their statues in the Temple. And he killed anyone who opposed him. This is one messy family. It certainly does not seem like a fitting family for Jesus of Nazareth, the one true messiah. But there it is. Almost as good as having to choose death or Texas.
What is interesting about this messy family story is that the church tried to fix it so that it was not a story often retold in all its messiness. The church tried to fix it with Mary and then with Joseph. It tried to fix it with Mary by essentially lifting her out of any connection with all those people…and by lifting her out then Jesus would also be lifted out. The church did this by adopting two doctrines. The first was that of the Immaculate Conception, not to be confused, football fans, with the immaculate reception. The Immaculate Conception is the doctrine that when Mary the mother of Jesus was conceived, the Holy Spirit protected her from the stain of the original sin. Thus she was born pure and holy. The second doctrine was that of eternal virginity, which declared that she was a virgin at conception, birth, and forever. The only problem with both of these once again is the Biblical story itself. Mary, while being an amazing young woman, was still just that, an amazing young woman, living with a messy family. She and Joseph would go on to have other children and she would not completely understand Jesus’ mission. Even going so far as to once try to corral him and bring him back home.
The church tried to remove Joseph from the messiness by having him declared to be a saint. Though he is not credited with any miracles, he is spoken of as the protector of the redeemer, as the one who protected Mary from condemnation because she was pregnant and unwed. He is also seen as the one through whom Jesus’ Davidic lineage comes. In addition, we might assume he was a very patient husband since Mary was an eternal virgin. Yet even with all of that, he is the one who carries the lineage of Abraham who twice gave away his wife to protect himself; of King David who broke half of the Ten Commandments including adultery, stealing, murder, coveting and lying; and King Solomon who worshipped other gods and essentially set the kingdom on the road to ruin. In a sense then there is no escaping the messy family from which either Mary or Joseph come from. So what then? What are we to do with these messy stories?
The answer I would offer is this. We are to see this messy family story as the story God always intended to tell. For you see, God always planned that the salvation of the world would come through a messy family and not from a perfect pair of partners. Let me explain. When we read the Genesis text from this morning, we hear Abraham being promised (and all of you who have been in the Two Year Bible Trek class can say this with me) land, seed and blessing if he is faithful. He was promised a place, progeny, and prosperity. But more importantly for our purposes he was told that all of the nations would be blessed through him and through his family. In other words, Abraham was never promised that everything would be perfect, or that he would be perfect. Instead he was promised that if he were faithful to God, things would go well for him and for the world. His was to be the messy human family through which the redeemer of the world would arrive. And this is the story that is told in genealogy at the beginning of Matthew. That God had fulfilled God’s promise to save the world through the very messiness of Abraham’s family. That, in a sense, regardless of how messy things got, God was still faithful and God’s plan was still at work.
My hope this morning is that this concept that God saves the world through a messy family will come as good news to you. I hope it is good news for two reasons. First, it is that God can still be at work in our very messy world; that God does not require practically perfect people to make this world look more and more like God’s kingdom. Second, I hope it comes as good news because it says that God can use you and me, even when we and our families are messy. And this is important because we are those who have been called to bless the world, because we are part of the messy family of Abraham. By committing ourselves to following Jesus we are adopted into Abraham’s family; adopted in so that we can be blessed and that we can be a blessing to the world. So that we can continue to make a positive difference for men and women both here and around the world.
My challenge to you this morning then is this, to ask yourselves, how am I blessing the world? How in all the messiness of life and family, am I being a blessing to those near and far?
Rev. Dr. John Judson
December 11, 2016
Micah 5:2-5a, Matthew 2:1-18
I want to begin this morning with some tweets. “Our house and are fall to the army. We are trapped under bombs that didn’t stop last night.” “Hello friends, how are you. I am fine. I am getting better without medicine with too much bombing.” “I miss you. Under attack. Nowhere to go, every minute feels like death. Pray for us. Goodbye.” These are tweets from Bana Alabed, a seven-year-old girl trapped with her family in Eastern Aleppo. People have been following her tweets which not only record her daily struggle but show pictures of the horrific damage in her neighborhood. In some ways she is one of the few people inside Aleppo who has managed to personalize the tragedy of that years-old conflict that has killed more than 600,000 men, women and children. I don’t offer you these tweets this morning in an attempt to spoil your pre-Christmas celebrations, but I offer them as a reminder that these would have been the tweets coming out of Bethlehem. “Herod’s forces on their way. No place to hide.” “Infants and young children singled out. Parents weeping.” “Bethlehem will never be the same. Pray for us.”
There are some things in this world that never change…and leaders like Assad and Herod, leaders who will do anything, kill anyone, to maintain power are one of those never changing things. For those of you unfamiliar with Herod, he was the client king of Judea when Jesus was born. He was a client of Rome, who had installed him in power and given him almost unlimited freedom to kill anyone whom he thought threatened him. He killed his own people when they protested. He killed his wife and two of his sons whom he thought might be trying to unseat him. And so in our story this morning, his seeking to destroy the Christ-child, was completely in character for him, even though from the outside, this claim of a savior-king being born in Bethlehem, appeared to be bit of false news. It would have seemed that way because Bethlehem was a tiny, one-blinking-light kind of town. Nothing much to it. Yet Herod could take no chances. He had to kill the children.
This event raises for me one key question, which is, why did Jesus do it? Why did Jesus engage in this risky business of entering into the world as a vulnerable infant, risking all of God’s work in the world? I realize that this language of Jesus choosing to come into the world may seem a bit odd. Normally we think of God sending the son. Yet the Apostle Paul in his letter to the church at Philippi, tells us that Jesus did not count the power of his divinity as something to be greedily grasped and held on to, but instead Jesus willingly gave it up and became one of us. In other words, Jesus could have decided that the risks weren’t worth it. That it was too great a risk to be born as a child, in a small rural town, at a time when someone like Herod would probably seek him out in an effort to destroy him. And yet he didn’t. This is what Jesus chose. So why? The answer I want to offer you this morning is this. That Jesus engaged in the risky business of coming into the world as a vulnerable child in order to engage in the risky business of loving the world such that one day God’s peace might be made real. Let me explain.
This book (the Bible) offers us God’s plan for the world. And God’s plan for the world was for peace; not merely a lack of war, but true peace. The kind of peace that brings about the Star Trek world we talked about last week. That world in which everyone has enough. In which there is no fear, racism, sexism or homophobia. That world in which every child can reach old age. This was and is the kind of world that the scriptures offer to us as God’s end game. We see this in the passage from the prophet Micah, where he echoes the words of almost every other prophet. “And he (the messiah) shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth; and he shall be the one of peace.” Can you sense the peacefulness and abundance that this passage offers? It lets us breathe deeply. Yet what I want to offer to you is that this kind of peace can never be created by power alone; the kind of power wielded by Assad and Herod. I say that because we live in the nation with the greatest economy the world has ever seen; with the greatest military the world has ever seen. And yet we are afraid. We have no peace. The only thing that can bring this peace is love.
For you see that if Jesus came into the world like Robo-Cop, or Robo-Messiah, dressed for war to defeat the enemies of God’s people, nothing would have changed, except those in charge. Instead Jesus understood that love was the great healer. For it is in love that barriers are broken down. It is in love that forgiveness is found. It is in love that people share their lives with one another. It is in love that many become one. It is in love that peace is found. And this kind of love, that heals, forgives, reconciles and connects is vulnerable love. For that my friends, is what true love is. True love is always vulnerable because it opens itself to the other. It opens itself to being hurt. It opens itself to loss. It opens itself to pain. But only in being open and vulnerable can love be healing and transforming. And it is this kind of vulnerable love that Jesus offered to the world. It was the kind of love that risked Herod’s wrath. It was the kind of love that risked being rejected by hometown friends. It was the kind of love that risked being betrayed by his closest friends. It was the kind of love that risked being arrested, tried and crucified. This was the risky business in which Jesus chose to engage; the risky business of coming into the world as a vulnerable child two thousands years ago.
And my friends, this is the same risky business in which Jesus still engages. He still loves us. He loves our children that we baptized this morning. He loves us regardless of who we are and how we act. He risks us forgetting about him and ignoring him. Yet he still loves. He still offers his love to us and to the world, that we might become people who find peace and build peace. My challenge then for you for this week is this, to ask yourselves, how am I engaging in the risky business of loving others, in such a way that I am creating peace in all that I say and do?
Rev. Dr. John Judson
December 4, 2016
Isaiah 9:1-7, Luke 1:26-38
It seemed like it would never arrive. Every day I would rush home from school and look at the pile of mail to see if it had come. And day after day it never arrived, until, as if by some miracle, there it was; the Sears’ Wish Book. The Wish Book was not your usual Sears’ catalogue filled with the usual stuff. No, this was a child’s Christmas playground filled with toys galore. It allowed me to dream of being in a plastic Fort Apache (OK, I know, it isn’t politically correct but it was the early 60s) or World War II. But more important than the toys was what the Wish Book represented. It represented that Christmas was coming. For those of you who have lived in the north with changing seasons, snow falls, and the like, this may seem a bit odd. But I grew up in Houston where the only change in the fall to winter was going from very hot to less hot. There were no sleigh rides or jingling bells. So the Wish Book then was that annual marker that Christmas was about to arrive.
In some ways I think that the passages that we read this morning are the sort of church markers that Christmas is upon us. Whenever we read about a son being given, or about Mary being honored by the gift of her messianic child, we know that Christmas is coming. We know that one more time, we will celebrate the birth of Jesus. Yet, when we see these passages in this way, as Advent road signs, saying Christmas is just ahead, we miss the impact that these words originally held. They were not annual reminders. They were the ending of one era and the beginning of another. They were the shutting of the door on a horrific past and opening a door to a bright and amazing future. For Isaiah it was a declaration that God was acting to defeat Judah’s enemies and turn a time of war, bloodshed, darkness, and fear into a time of peace and prosperity. For Mary, the angel Gabriel’s declaration was one that signaled the end of Israel’s captivity to the Romans and Greeks and the beginning of the golden age of the Kingdom of God. These were at one time, world changing endings and beginnings.
In a sense what was ending was the way things had always been; war, bloodshed, violence, oppression, poverty and pain. What was beginning, was what my wife Cindy calls a Star Trek world. What she means by that is that in the Star Trek world, the earth has become a place of peace and prosperity. Everyone has enough. There is no money because if you need something it is provided. There is no more war because people understand that creating is better than destroying. This was the kind of world they would encounter through the open door of God’s action. The question for us this morning becomes this then, what do we do with these endings and beginnings. What do we do with the fact that this Star Trek world, this God’s Kingdom world has not arrived? What do we do if we are to honor the understandings of Isaiah and Mary, understandings of one epoch ending and another beginning? What do we do to be not simply pass by these stories as markers of a coming Christmas? I think are two things we need to do.
First, we need to believe that such a world is possible and underway; though it may not be possible to see it complete in our lifetimes or even in our children’s or grandchildren’s life times, we need to believe that in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, something fundamental changed in the universe that what was once unthinkable, a world of peace and reconciliation, is a possibility. I realize that in the current situation in which we find ourselves as a nation and as a planet, this may seem unrealistic. Yet that possibility of God’s Kingdom world is at the heart of our message to the world. This is the message that we follow the Prince of Peace, that we follow the one who makes the impossible possible. We follow the one whose life makes possible a radically renewed world in which peace is a reality.
The second thing that we need to do is to live this reality. What I mean by that is that we, as followers of Jesus Christ, as members of Everybody’s Church are called to live the reality of this new world as best we can. And if there is ever a time when we need to live into this new reality it is now. It is now because, as I have said before, this election has caused us to think, say and do things we have never done before. It has caused us to be judgmental about others because of who they voted for as if a single vote defines the essence of a person. It has caused us to see the world in terms of black and white; one candidate (you take your pick) is Darth Vader and the other Obi-Wan Kenobi. It has caused us to break old friendships and unfriend people on Facebook…though not spending so much time on Facebook might not be such a bad thing. It has caused us to be angry all the time. It is as if the old reality never left and the new reality never arrived. But it has arrived. So now we are to live into it. We are to live into it by seeing everyone through the eyes of love. We are to be those who work for the reconciliation of the world, and of our friends and family. We are to be those who demonstrate that people of diverse political, theological and cultural beliefs can be one Christ-centered community. We are to offer the world a glimpse of this new reality by being Everybody’s Church where Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals, Michigan and Michigan State, and even Ohio State fans can live and work and love the world together.
My challenge then for us all, and I mean us, including me, is to ask ourselves, how am I living this new reality among my friends, neighbors and even the strangers I meet?
Rev. Amy Morgan
November 27, 2016
Isaiah 40:9-11, Luke 1:67-79
It was a tense Thanksgiving. I’m sure we all tried to avoid it. Talk about football, the kids, the weather – ANYTHING. But the subject always comes up. Maybe it was inadvertent, a reference to something you didn’t even know you were making. But before you knew it, there was shouting, people were throwing napkins, relatives were storming out of the room. I don’t know when we’ll ever be able to talk peaceably about *turkey again.
It’s sad, isn’t it? That we can’t just all agree about turkey? Some people want to make it like it was back in the day. It was better then, they say. More honest and true. Others demand we change with the times, use the turkey-making technology available to us, incorporate a more diverse selection of turkey techniques. You can grill it, deep fry it, put it in a bag. You can even make vegetarian turkey. Which is the most horrific thing ever to those turkey traditionalists.
We can’t agree. There is too much at stake. We are talking about THANKSGIVING, people. This day only comes around once a year. You get ONE SHOT to gather with family members you spend most of the year avoiding, ONE SHOT to try to enjoy each other’s company, ONE SHOT to try to shed the baggage of old resentments. And turkey drives a stake through the heart of that effort every time. Turkey divides us like nothing else.
Because, really, turkey defines our values. You tell me how you want to cook your turkey, and I can tell you everything I need to know about you. And in times of fear and uncertainty, the talk about turkey really heats up. People who used to keep their opinions about turkey to themselves now suddenly feel called to speak out. There’s no compromising on turkey the way we used to: You can cook it in the bag as long as you use grandma’s mixture of herbs and spices. No, it’s all or nothing, this way or that, the whole enchilada. (Don’t even get me going on turkey enchiladas).
And at the end of the day, after the name-calling, bruised egos, and encampments of family refusing to speak to one another, we end up with a cold bird no one has the stomach for, no matter how it was cooked in the end. Fear makes turkey so much tougher. It makes a lot of things tougher. *Just ask Isaiah. Or Zechariah. They both lived in times of fear, fear that was real, fear that divided communities, tore apart families.
As John has talked about before, the prophesy of Isaiah was written throughout three distinct periods in the history of God’s people. The first part of Isaiah is written to a people in fear of attack, people willing to make a deal with the devil to save their collective hide. The second part of Isaiah, where we find the text we heard this morning, is written to a people who have been defeated, who are living in exile, fearful of losing their identity, their values, their faith. The third part of Isaiah is written as those exiles begin to return to the ruins of their former kingdom, fearful that they will never recover from the desolation of their homeland.
*Fear permeates each part of this prophesy. Fear that is real. Fear of loss of power, loss of place, loss of identity, loss of hope. Prophesy often emerges in times of fear. Prophets are able to answer those hard questions fear brings up: “why is this happening?” “What are we supposed to do?” “How can we change our situation?” When we are tempted to place blame, find a scapegoat, entrench ourselves in seclusions of safety, prophets call us to see God’s plan, do God’s will, and live in new ways. Brian McLaren says that prophets as the custodians of the “best hopes, desires, and dreams of their society.”
*Unlike Isaiah, Zechariah wasn’t a known prophet of the people of Israel. He’s often a minor, forgotten character in the cast of the nativity of Jesus. In fact, Luke’s gospel is the only one that makes any mention of him at all. But it is a significant dimension of his gospel narrative. Each gospel writer begins in a different way, to make a different point about the life of Jesus. Matthew begins with a genealogy of Jesus. Mark jumps right into the adult John the Baptist preaching in the wilderness. And John begins with his mystical prologue about the Word of God.
But Luke, he begins with Zechariah. Zechariah, a priest who was “righteous before God,” “living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord.” But he and his wife were “getting on in years” and had no children. Zechariah’s story is a narrative of fear. Living in first-century Palestine, under the rule of the Roman Empire, his people had much to fear. Their way of life was eroding, they were being crippled with taxes, their leaders were compromising their deepest-held values to gain favor with the Emperor.
Zechariah personally had plenty to fear as well. He and his wife were getting on in years, and they had no children. No one to care for them as they aged, to protect them in a society where only the able-bodied flourished. Childlessness not only made a couple vulnerable; it made them a disgrace. The only reasonable explanation, according to the theology of the day, was that they had displeased God is some way. They may have appeared to be righteous and blameless, but some secret sin must be keeping them barren.
When Zechariah’s lot is drawn, and he’s tasked with burning incense in the sanctuary, he is gripped by another kind of fear - when an angel of God appears to him. The angel’s first words to him are, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah.”
*Over a hundred and fifty times throughout scripture, we hear these words. Do not be afraid. When God comes to the childless Abram in a vision; when God comes to comfort the destitute Hagar in the wilderness; when Moses encourages the Israelites as they flee Egypt, facing the abyss of the Red Sea. From the Israelite prophets we hear these words. Isaiah saying, “do not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am your God.” Zechariah’s namesake, in his ancient prophesy, saying, “Do not be afraid, but let your hands be strong.” In a dream, Joseph hears “do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife.” An angel tells Mary “do not be afraid, for you have found favor with God.” The angels tell the shepherds, “Do not be afraid, for I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.”
Do not be afraid.
You’d think we’d get it. And yet. Here we are. Afraid. Filled with fear, in fact. Afraid for ourselves. Afraid for our nation. Afraid for our world.
The stakes are high. The consequences are dire. We all have something to lose. We fear that our way of life is eroding. We fear economic instability. We fear that our values are not being represented. No matter how you cook your turkey. We are all afraid.
And at the risk of being labeled a Star Wars fanatic, I’m going to quote Yoda once again. You all know this one. *“Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” My son keeps quoting this to me. And I’m grateful for the reminder.
This is more than good advice. It is a prophesy. And in times of fear, prophesy is what we need. Prophesy that calls us to see God’s plan, do God’s will, and live in new ways. *Prophets like Martin Luther King, Jr., who said that “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” *Prophets like Dietrich Bonhoeffer who wrote, “We must learn to regard people less in light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.” Prophets like Zechariah who proclaimed that God had raised up a mighty savior so that we might serve God without fear.
The Bible’s repetitive instruction, “do not be afraid,” is nothing less than an essential component to God’s redemptive plan for the creation. Because if we try to serve God with fear, what we end up with is self-preservation, which some theologians assert is the origin of all human sin. Serving God with fear means that we claim God for our side over and against our enemy rather than acknowledging God’s love for our enemy, seeing them as a fellow human being made in God’s image. Serving God with fear means that we claim God’s blessing and favor, believing that we deserve what we have been given and more, and that those who are in need are outside of God’s beloved and chosen ones. Serving God with fear is a dangerous path to the dark side, and one we have travelled many times.
The call to serve God without fear is one of the most profound calls we can hear and answer. It is the call of the prophet. It is the calling to the prophet. Zechariah’s prophesy is fulfilled in his son, John, the one who calls God’s people to repentance, who will make ready a people prepared to serve God without fear. Serving God without fear is the opposite of self-preservation. It calls us to self-sacrifice. It calls us to follow the One who would sacrifice all, who would give up his life on a cross.
So my question for us today is: are we those people prepared to serve God without fear? Can we be prophetic in this time of fear, proclaiming the love and justice, the good news of Jesus Christ?
Maybe, if we can do this, next Thanksgiving we will live into Zechariah’s prophesy. We will know forgiveness, the “dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.” We will see Martin Luther King’s prophesy of the arc of the universe bending toward justice. We will experience Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s prophesy, seeing people in light of what they suffer.
And maybe then, we can all enjoy some turkey. Amen.