January 12, 2020
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
Leviticus 19:17-18; 1 John 3:11-17
It looked like a great idea. In fact, I had always wanted to be able to do it but had no idea how or where to begin. But there it was, right in front of me, in black and white, in the latest edition of Sport’s Illustrated. It was a plan about how to learn to run a marathon. I am not sure why it appealed to be, but there was just something about the open road, the solitude of running, and running that far that made it sound wonderful. So, I began. I did a mile, then two miles, then three. I began to lower my time on three miles. Then one day, it dawned on me. This is ridiculous. My knees hurt. My back hurt. I was sucking wind. Why, I asked myself, would anyone want to do this? And so, it was back to basketball, where the longest run was down the court. I wonder how many of us have had something we have always wanted to do…maybe an exercise regime, perhaps a new diet, a new hobby…got started and then somewhere along the way decided, this is ridiculous. I am never going to be able to do this? Any of you? With that in mind, I wonder how many of us here this morning have gone through this with the desire to be a more loving person, to love our neighbor as ourselves, or as the sermon title puts it love radically, then come to the conclusion that to do so was ridiculous because it was too hard.
I ask this because loving others, especially loving others who may not love us, who may not think like us, believe like us, look like us or act like us is probably one of the hardest things human beings can be asked to do. In fact, in many ways it works against millions of years of evolutionary behavior that has caused animals and our human ancestors to protect themselves by being part of smaller, triable units and putting up walls to keep “the other” out. It goes against human traditions that encourage certain people groups to conquer other people groups in order to make “the other” be like us, to enslave them or perhaps even exterminate them. And yet this is what we are called to do, not only by Jesus, but by the Torah, the Law of Moses. In fact, the passage we read out of Leviticus this morning, has been called the heart and center of the Torah by countless rabbis and rabbinical scholars. They point out that it sums up all the love that God’s people are to have for the poor, the alien, the neighbor, the laborer, the deaf, the blind, fellow citizens, windows and orphans. Jesus will add to this list with our enemies and those who are considered ritually or socially unclean or unacceptable. It ma be then, that once upon a time we decided that loving radically was the thing to do, but then life intervened and we decided it was not doable. If that is the case for you, then I want to invite you to try again, because loving radically, loving neighbor is at the heart of following Jesus. And like Sports Illustrated, I will lay out for you a twostep plan for working toward this goal.
The first step is to treat no one as an enemy. The language scripture uses, rather than referring to someone as an enemy, is that we are not to hate another. Leviticus puts it this way. “You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin…you shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge” which is another way of saying treat no one as an enemy. And we are not to do this because when we hate, when we treat someone as an enemy, it breaks the sacred bond between ourselves and God, cutting us off from God, who is the very source of our life and our love. How this works is that in God’s relational ecology, every human being is a child of God, made in God’s image and part of God’s one human family. I cannot stress this enough, that in God’s relational ecology every human being is a child of God, made in God’s image and part of God’s one human family. And so when we hate another human being, it means we hate that persons family and we hate the one who created that family, meaning God. And in so doing, as I said, we separate ourselves from God by believing that people God wants to redeem because they are part of God’s family, are people that ought to be destroyed. The second thing about hatred, about making someone our enemy, is that it is a virus. When we hate others, it does not remain within us. It spreads. It spreads to our families, our friends, our community and our country. And in so doing we divided God’s one human community, rather than bringing them together. Step one, treat no one as an enemy.
Step two is to treat everyone as a friend. This is what love between family members is all about. Last week we talked about God’s love for us, is parent to child love. The love we are to have as neighbors, is to treat everyone as a friend. Treating people as friends consists of two parts. The first part is presence. It is that friends are present for their friends in times of need. 1 John puts it this way. “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?” And if you want to see what this looks like just go back to the “Did You Know” in the bulletin and look at the ways, you were present for people in this community. This is how we are to treat all people, to be present as best as we can, even if they are not in our immediate friendship circle. The second part of being a friend is to speak the truth in love. We hear this in Leviticus. “You shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt.” What this means is that we are to be God’s agents, as best we can, to stop people from harming us, themselves or others. I want to pause here for a moment to speak a word. One of the great sins of Christianity is that over the centuries we have taught that radical love means allowing others to do to us whatever they want to do. This is especially true for women who were told that loving their spouses or others in positions of power meant to allow those people to abuse them. This is not love. This is not being a friend. Being a friend is speaking the truth that such actions are not what God intends. Being a friend then often means standing up for the vulnerable and speaking truth to power to protect them. Step two, treat everyone as a friend.
Loving radically, loving our neighbors as ourselves, is perhaps one of the most difficult things Jesus’ followers are called to do. Yet, we can do it. We can do it because Jesus did it. I know that Jesus was fully divine, yet I also know that Jesus was fully human. Jesus got angry. Jesus cried. Jesus was tempted. Yet Jesus never treated anyone as the enemy. He treated all persons as deserving of being redeemed. Jesus treated everyone as a friend. He was there for the rich and poor, insiders and outsiders, sick and healthy. He was there for the world. He showed us how to radically love. First John puts it this way. “We know love by this, that he, Jesus, laid down his life for us…and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. So this morning as we try again to love radically I want to offer you a spiritual practice that can help. When you arise each morning, take a moment in silence. Slowly breathe in and then out. Sense your breath. Then as you breathe in say silently, “God loves the world.” Then as you breathe out, say silently, “I love the world.” And as you do, allow God’s love to fill you and cast out all hate and anger, so that you can breathe love into the world as you follow Jesus by loving radically.
January 5, 2020
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
Psalm 25:1-10; John 3:16-21
I want to begin this New Year with a quick survey. How many of you have ever used Map Quest? Google Maps? Apple Maps or any other GPS mapping system? Good. How many of you have ever had it get you to where you were supposed to go? Even better. One of the interesting things about these programs is that in order to get you to where you want to go, they need to know your starting location. Map Quest in particular asks you to specify your starting location. You can choose work, home, current location or any other you desire. It makes sense to do this or else the directions might not be of much use. And so, this morning I want to begin with that question of where do we want to start? Where do we want to begin our Following Jesus journey? I say that because the starting point of this journey will determine how we understand what it means to follow Jesus. Where then shall we start? I believe that we need to start with God, or more specifically with the love of God. Whether it is Genesis, the letters of Paul or the writings of John Calvin, the beginning point of following Jesus is always God and God’s love. So what does God’s love look like? It looks like the love of parent to child. It is not friend to friend love, or child to parent love. It is the love of a parent for a child, which is comprised of two parts. The first part is to protect the children from harm. The second part is to guide the children into becoming their best selves; reaching their full potential. I got a taste of what this looks like on our flight from Detroit to Nashville, this last week from a man I will call Window Seat Guy.
Window Seat Guy was one of those people whom we have all met, who will tell you their entire life story before you arrive at your destination. This is Window Seat Guy’s story. He had grown up in a blue-collar family and had come to Detroit as a teen to work with his Uncle in the asphalt business. He was quickly fired from that but found a job on the line with GM. Retiring after 20 years, he then became an HVAC tech. Along the way way he had eight children; seven boys and then a girl. He told us that he understood his job as a parent to first say no for his children to things that would hurt them, until they could say no for themselves. In other words, to protect them. His second obligation was to guide them into becoming mature adults. His method for doing this including contacting the teachers of each of his children at the beginning of the school year to make sure that the teachers knew that the had their back and would make sure that his children did what they were told to do. He would also drop by the school to make sure his kids were behaving. When they were not, he had them do things such as pick up trash out front of their school. If his children missed the bus, they had to walk…with him in the car following them. When they missed curfew, they had to sleep in the car in the drive way. He checked their homework every night to ensure that it was done. The results? All eight graduated from high school. Six graduated from college. One has a masters and one just graduated from law school. Parental love; protect and guide.
We can see that this is the kind of love God offers throughout the scriptures and particularly in the Psalm we read this morning. In Psalm 25 we see the writer asking God for protection and guidance. “Do not let me be put to shame; do not let my enemies exult over me. Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame.” This desire for protection is at the heart of the Biblical story, whether it was keeping Abraham safe on his journey or freeing the people from bondage. The covenant relationship is that God will be the protector of the people. At the same time, we can see the Psalmist asking for guidance. “Make me know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths. Lead me me in your truth and teach me…Good and upright is the Lord, therefore he instructs sinners in the way; he leads the humble in what it with, he teaches the humble the way…”. And God does all of this because of God’s “hesed” or steadfast love. “Be mindful of your mercy, O Lord and of your steadfast love, for they have been of old. Do not remember my transgressions; but according to your steadfast love remember me…all the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness…” The writer understood clearly the nature of God’s love as a love that protects and guides even when the children do not always follow.
It is this love, this “hesed,” this steadfast love, that is the reason that God sent the only son into the world. It is for this reason that God, the Word, became flesh and dwelt among full of grace and truth. “For God so loved the world that he sent his only so, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal love. Indeed, God did not send the son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him…but those who do what is true come to the light so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.” In other words, once again we see God’s love being poured out for us through Jesus. In Jesus god has come to protect the world; to protect the world from its greatest enemy, death itself. That by breaking the power to death Jesus, for God, makes possible lives fully lived without fear. At the same time Jesus come as the one who not only teaches the way of God as an abstract concept but embodies it in all that he does, and then he passes this way of love on to us through the gift of the Spirit. It is Jesus who brings us, as John says, out of the darkness and into the light of life. Our journey of following Jesus then begins here…with the love of God for the world as lived and breathed through God’s covenant faithfulness that culminates in the birth, life’s death and resurrection of Jesus.
My challenge to you this week then is to ask yourselves, where have I seen, or perhaps where do I see, God at work protecting me and guiding me in my life? Where do I see God saying no for me until I know how to say know, and where do I see God bringing me to the light and out of the darkness? Then remember those and give thanks.
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?
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
November 17, 2019
Isaiah 2:1-4; Galatians 3:23-29
A couple of weeks ago my wife Cindy and I learned that our daughter has joined a roller derby team. I don’t know how many of you are familiar with roller derby, but my only recollection of it was from my childhood, when I would watch it in black and white and women would knock each other down and off a banked track at great speeds. I had no idea what the rules were. I only knew it was just fast and violent and perhaps better for our daughter than rugby, which she played in college. When we spoke with Katie, she tried to explain to us the basic rules and what her position would be…which is a jammer and not a blocker. And it is the jammer who tries to circle the track faster than anyone else. Needless to say, I did not understand all the concepts, rules or techniques. But I did understand the bottom line…one team tries to outscore the other. And in many ways, this is how roller derby is like any other sport. The team or individual with the most points wins. So, while I may not be able to appreciate all of the subtleties of the sport, I at least know the bottom line. Score more, win more. And my guess is that this is very much like many things in life. We are not as concerned about all of the details as we are about the bottom line.
I had been pondering that idea of knowing the bottom line this week as I thought about the texts before us, and what kept coming back to me was a question, do we know the bottom of line of this Jesus thing we do? Do we know the bottom line of why Jesus came and what he desired to accomplish? I ask that because we come here on Sunday mornings, during the week, give our money, and it might be good to know the bottom line. Over the years, I have discovered that the answer to what is the bottom line? It is usually two-fold. The first is that this Jesus thing is about eternal life and getting into heaven. This has been the answer for the church for probably about the last 1,800 years. Evangelists, pastors and street preachers all proclaim that heaven is only for those who believe in Jesus. The second answer is that it helps us to be good people. That following Jesus’ example of his life of love, forgiveness and compassion offers us a moral compass for our lives. This answer has also been at the heart of Christian faith. But what if there is a third answer? What if there is a third answer that might actually be more central to this Jesus thing than the other two? Now I am not discounting either of the first two, but what I want to propose for this morning, is that there is a third, biblically based answer which is just as important, if not more important than the other two; and that answer is to create one, new united humanity.
To understand this, we need to return to our Old Testament lesson from Isaiah. Now Isaiah was originally a priest in the great high Temple in Jerusalem. One day about 740 years before the birth of Jesus he had an ecstatic encounter with the God of Israel inside the temple. God instructed him to remind the people of Judah of their obligations to God and to one another. This he did, even though it was not always pleasant. But along the way God also gave him visions of an amazing future…one that was almost unimaginable. And one of those visions was our passage from this morning. In that vision, Isaiah was shown a day when all the nations of the earth would flock to the mountain of God in order to learn to live in the ways of God. The shorthand for what the ways of God were would be to love God and love neighbor. And when the nations learned this way of living, then they would become one new people. We know this because they would beat their swords into plowshares, their spears into pruning hooks and war would be abolished. Though they would all remain different nations, they would, in the end be one new humanity, sharing a way of life and hope.
The question for the people of God, as the years went by, was how would this come about? How would God bring all of these nations to learn about God’s way of loving God and loving neighbor. The answer for the Apostle Paul, was that God would accomplish this, and had done this in and through the work of Jesus on the cross. In and through Jesus death and resurrection, God and made it possible for all nations to become one new people. In order to make this image come alive for us, I want to bring us back to this moment. So, let me ask, how many of you have ever rooted for a particular sports team at any level? High school, college, pro? How many of you have ever owned a jersey, cap, shirt or pin from one of those teams? Now one more, how many of you have ever seen people wearing the afore mentioned garb? Good, because what that garb shows is that people are divided over whom to root for. They root for their team and against the other team. We could see this vividly yesterday at the Michigan, MSU game. Now picture an entire society that is divided in that way. A society divided by their clothing. This was the Roman Empire. In the Empire different classes dressed differently, not simply by wealth or custom, but by law. So when you walked down the street, you could tell who was upper class and who was a slave and everyone in between. They were a divided people with some being considered more valuable than others.
It was into that divided world that Paul then said that when someone is baptized in Christ they put on Christ. In other words, regardless of what clothes one wore in the outside world, in the new world of Jesus, all those who were baptized put on the same clothes. This is why Paul could say that in Christ there is neither male nor female, Jew nor Greek, slave nor free. He could say it not because they had changed religion, or gender or status, but because they wore the same clothing. They were clothed in Christ. One way to think about this would be to imagine all of the baptized wearing a single white jersey with the words, “Beloved Child of God” written on it. They were a new people because they were a new team; a unified team; a team that had learned the ways of God together in Jesus Christ.
Why does this matter? What does it matter that in our baptisms we become one new people? That we become part of this new humanity? For me, it matters because of what is going to take place over the next twelve months. Over the next twelve months our nation will be put through incredible stress, first because of the impeachment inquiry and possible trial, and then through the election. Under normal circumstances this would not matter. But we have become a polarized society, torn apart over our president. And we are not only a polarized society, but Christianity in this nation is also polarized. Some Christians claim that our president is God’s anointed. Others claim he is the anti-Christ. And so what is going to happen as we move forward is that Christians will begin to look at each other as the enemy. We will define Christian as someone who believes like us. And this will have the potential to tear apart friendships, churches and our nation. We will all be tempted to do this. And so this is what I want you to do when you feel that urge coming on. I want you to picture those people with whom you disagree wearing their generic, white jerseys with “Beloved Child of God” written on them. I want you to remember that all of the baptized have been clothed in Christ and that there is neither Republican or Democrat, conservative of liberal, because we are all one in Christ.
The Rev. Joanne Blair
November 10, 2019
Exodus 6: 1-8; Ephesians 1:3-14
This morning we continue our four-part series on the “Images of Jesus,” today viewing Jesus as transformer. For those of you who were here last week, you’ll remember that John said the scripture he was reading from Colossians was packed full. Well, here we go again. As we read today from Ephesians 1:3-14, consider that in the original Greek, this was written as one long enthusiastic sentence of 202 words … the longest sentence in the New Testament. Gratefully, the translators broke it down into smaller sentences. Listen for God speaking…
Ephesians is the most impersonal of Paul’s letters, as he was not addressing any particular situation or crisis. This letter was intended to circulate among the churches of Asia Minor, and is a bird’s-eye view of one theme after another. It is rich with some of Paul’s reflections on God’s purposes for the world. It is challenging to reflect on today’s scripture without preaching into the whole letter, so just to give you a launch pad (should you want to delve into the whole letter when you get home), chapters 1-3 tell the story of God, and chapters 4-6 spell out the nature of our participation in greater detail.
Today’s reading, the opening piece of Ephesians, is a kind of “table of contents” to the rest of the letter. It is also a prayer, a prayer which begins and ends with praising and blessing God for what God has done, is doing, and will do. Hidden within this prayer is the story of Exodus. God chose Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to be the bearers of God’s promised deliverance and redemption for the world and to be part of God’s plan to rescue that which became broken through human rebellion. We, too, have been chosen by grace, not for our sake, but for the sake of what God wants to accomplish. By using the word “we,” Paul is including all who believe in Christ. Those who believe in Jesus are now part of the fulfillment of God’s purpose, and that includes us. Just as God chose the Israelites to be God’s people, God has now adopted us as God’s children through Jesus Christ.
We are all familiar with the patriarchal structure of Biblical times. In ancient Roman law, the family was based on the father’s absolute power. The father had power over his daughters until they were married and had power over their sons as long as they lived, and everything they owned belonged to the father. Sometimes, in order to carry on the family line, an elaborate process of adoption was carried out. When someone was adopted, they acquired the rights of their new family and gave up all rights to their old family, including any inheritance. Legally, they were considered a new person.
This is what Paul is saying God has done for us. We are a new creation in Jesus Christ. The allusion to Exodus says that we, too, were in bondage. Not to Egyptian tyranny, but to the ways of the world. And this is the new Exodus, the new inheritance, and the new wilderness wandering. “Paul sees the church doing what Israel did in the desert: coming out of the slavery of sin through God’s action in Jesus the Messiah, and on the way to the new promised land.” (Paul, The Prison Letters, N.T Wright, 2002)
We were under the power of sin and of the world … and through Jesus, God took us out of that power and into God’s. This adoption wipes out the past and makes us new. We have been transformed in Christ. God’s choice of Israel did not depend on their impressiveness or righteousness, and God’s choice of us certainly does not depend on our impressiveness or righteousness. But now, in Christ, God blesses us as God once did Abram. God destined us for adoption as God’s children through Jesus Christ.
Hopefully, we each have a personal relationship with God. But today Paul is calling us beyond that to also be the Church. The Church has been called to make known by word and example the forgiving, healing, and unifying love that is ours in Christ to all the world. And just as the wandering Israelites were led by the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night, so we are led by the Holy Spirit.
The mystery of God’s will has now been revealed. It is to bring the entire universe - heaven and earth - into unity in Christ. We are part of God’s great initiative of redemption, reconciliation, and the healing of God’s broken world. In Christ, we have been given a part in God’s eternal plan. God has drawn us into God’s work of uniting all things in Christ. We are not incidental to God’s story. By grace, we are participants in God’s story, sharing together in God’s work of redemption in Christ. This gift of God, which was given to the first few, is meant for all. Paul continually invites us to see ourselves, and God’s work among us, as a community of people, for this story is to be lived as God’s people.
I often reflect on the story of my life as a Christian, how my faith and relationship with God has evolved, and how it has affected me. I am so grateful! But Paul is calling me to step back and realize that this is God’s story and I am but a part in it. “I” am a part of “we” and we have been chosen by God to be a part of God’s unifying plan for the cosmos. With this gift comes responsibility. We are to live as representatives of Christ. We need each other to do what God has called us to do. We cannot do it alone.
Thankfully, God has not left us alone to our own devices, nor are we here without meaning and direction for our lives. We have been marked with the seal of the promise of the Holy Spirit. We belong to God. We are a new creation. In Christ, we have been transformed. We are a part of that new formation to whom Paul writes – the Church. As the Church, everything we think and say and do should represent God. The Holy Spirit will lead us. And we can be the people we are made to be.
May it be so.
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
November 3, 2019
Genesis 1:26-27; Colossians 1:15-20
They always took it to the dealership. My in-laws were dealership people. Whenever they needed their car looked at before a trip, or the oil needed changing, or the tires needed replacing, they always took it to the dealership. I have to say that I always found this to be curious because it was more expensive, and it always took more time. Yet they insisted on continuing this tradition. My impression from my conversations with them was that if a car company made it, then that same car company would know how to fix it. Which actually makes sense. After all, how many of us have hired someone to repair something because they were “factory trained”? I suppose we trust that if those who made it know more about it, then they ought to be able to fix it better than anyone else…which is why, actually, the believers in the city of Colossae had decided that Jesus was of little use when it came to fixing the world and so they had set him aside as being unnecessary in God’s restorative work.
I realize that that sounds a bit cryptic and perhaps even confusing, so bear with me. The church in the small city of Colossae, which is in modern day Turkey, was founded by some unknown evangelist or disciples who told the Gentiles there about this Jesus of Nazareth who had died, was raised and through whom a new kingdom was being established. This kingdom of the God of Israel would fix all that was wrong with the world. Instead of war, there would be peace. Instead of a socially stratified society, there would be equality. Instead of slavery and oppression, there would be freedom. And in this new kingdom, the Colossian’ Christians would be able to enjoy a fixed world. So far so good. But then something began to change. As Paul describes it, “a philosophy” began to creep into the teachings of the church. What this philosophy suggested was that only God could fix creation because only God made it; only God could initiate the Kingdom. This would make sense because the only scriptures they possessed were the Jewish scriptures that spoke of creation as an act of the God of Israel and not of Jesus. So even if Jesus were a great wisdom teacher, or a wonderful rabbi, and even if he were raised from the dead, he was still just a dude. He was simply a faithful human and nothing more. This led to the Colossians to set Jesus aside, believing that only the God of Israel could set things right.
It was into that situation then that Paul wrote his letter to them. And what he wanted them to know is that Jesus was not just a dude, though he was human. That he was more than a teacher of wisdom, though he was. That he could indeed help fix what was broken because he was the part of the creative team that brought it into being. Let’s listen again to some of his words. “He is the image, or ikon, meaning likeness, of the invisible God…for in him all things in heaven and earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers; all things have been created through him and for him…for in him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell…” What Paul wants them to understand is that Jesus was central to this remaking of creation because he was not only mysteriously present with God from the beginning but because he was intimately involved in the creative process that organized the universe. And not only that, but the restoration of a good world was possible because of Jesus’ death and resurrection. As Paul puts it, “God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of the cross.” This was so because on the cross Jesus broke the power of sin that distorts the image of God in us all, making it possible for all persons to love God and neighbor. In the resurrection, he broke humanities’ ultimate enemy, the power of death, by becoming the first born from the dead. The result of these two actions made possible the reconciliation of all things, meaning all peoples, nations, races, genders and even creation itself. In other words, the ones who brought this world into existence, are the ones who are fixing it. Jesus, the ikon of the living God, gave his life for the world, and he and the God of Israel who raised him from the dead, are working together to fundamentally change not just the world but the universe itself. Reconciliation and restoration are possible.
As I prepared this sermon, the title, Images of Jesus: Creator sounded about as interesting as dirt. It sounded like one of those esoteric discussions such as how many angels can you fit on the head of a pin, which was actually an ongoing discussion in the late Middle Ages. However, if we are to believe Paul, Jesus as creator is one of the great sources of hope for us and for humanity. He is a source of hope because as part of the creative creation team, Jesus not only had the power to begin the process of restoring this broken world but has begun its restoration. And, Jesus not only began the restoration work, but continues it in and through each of us. As Malcomb Gordon in his song, “Our Father is Waiting” sings, “how life is now is not how life will be.” This is the message of Jesus as creator, that in his infinite love and grace, he is working in and through each of us to help remake this world into what it ought to be. Jesus as creator is fixing this terribly broken world.
My challenge to you for this week then is this, to ask yourselves, how am I continually connecting with Jesus, that he might fix what is broken in me, and through me to help fix the world?