Rev. Dr. John Judson
December 20, 2015
Micah 5:2-5a, Luke 1:39-45
I want to begin with a poll this morning. How many of you have ever seen the same movie more than once? How many of you have seen the same movie more than twice. How many of you have seen the same movie so many times you can almost repeat the dialogue? If I were answering those questions I would have to include myself in each of those categories. Early on in movie going life the one movie I had seen more than any other was Star Wars….the original Star Wars. I saw it on opening night and then seven or eight more times within a couple of months. Part of that was I saw it most of those time when I was in the Philippines and movie theatres were the only air conditioned buildings…so I had an ulterior motive…none the less, I saw it then and have continued to watch it over the years. More recently however I think the movie that I have seen possibly more than Star Wars is It’s a Wonderful Life. Even though it is not my favorite movie there is something about Jimmy Stewart finding Zuzu’s flower petals in his pockets that just gets to me.
Anyway, my question then is, have you ever asked yourself why you can watch the same movie over and over, even when you know exactly what is going to happen? The answer I would like to offer is that the writers, the directors and the actors know how to tell a good story. I believe that the ability to tell and to listen to stories is somehow a hard wired capacity in our brains, just as is language. I say this because virtually every civilization we know of, or have ever studied have stories; they are stories of heroes, of founding myths, of the animals. Stories shape who we are, what we believe, and how we make sense of life. Stories, well told stories, then touch us in ways that nothing else can. They make us laugh. They make us cry. They inspire us. They give us courage. This is why we can watch the same movie over and over again because in its telling, it does something to us and in us that changes us. It tells a story that we need to hear.
This is why I believe that the Bible has endured over the last several millennia. It has survived not because it is simply a sacred text. It has survived not because it is simply a set of rules. It has survived because it tells, for us Christians, the story; the story of God and people. It tells the story of a loving God who creates a world in which life can thrive. It tells the story of this same God who creates human beings in God’s own image. It tells the story of human beings refusing to listen to or obey this loving God and thereby messing everything up. It tells the story of this loving God not giving up on humanity but instead making a promise that God would one day redeem the world. It tells the story of God giving rules and laws in order that societies can thrive and the vulnerable be protected. It tells the story of human beings continuing to mess up. It tells the story of God coming to this world in the form of human being in order to show us the way to God through his life, his death and his resurrection. It tells the story of God sending the Spirit into the world in order to empower people to love others as they have been loved. It tells the story of God’s final victory over evil and the remaking of the world. It tells the story that has shaped the lives of more than a billion people and changed the world. It tells the story.
Like any great story though, this story has endured because the stories within it reflect and enhance the greater story; shorter stories that we can tell and retell in times of need. Like those movies we can watch over and over again, we turn to these stories to touch our lives; to change us; to encourage us. And it is to two of those stories that we turn this morning. The first is a story of hope. The second is a story of joy.
The Micah story is a story of hope. Micah was a prophet who lived at the same time as the great prophet Isaiah. He was a rural prophet, someone who had seen how the powerful were abusing the powerless, stealing land, virtually enslaving the people. Here is how he put it, “Alas for those who devise wickedness and evil deeds on their beds! When the morning dawns, they perform it, because it is in their power. They covet fields, and seize them; houses, and take them away; they oppress householder and house, people and their inheritance.” (Micah 2:1-2) These actions were in direct opposition to the Torah, the Law of God. And Micah warns the people that unless they change their ways, really bad things are going to happen. I know, I said that this was a message of hope…and here’s how. The people did not change and the bad things happened. But the hope of Micah was that God would still not give up on them. Instead God would send a new ruler, a messiah, a chosen one who shall bring ultimate justice and peace. This is the word of hope, that regardless of how bad things get, God still has a plan for the good.
Our Luke story is a story of joy. Joy is one of those wonderful Biblical words that we often overlook, even at this season when it is used so often. Joy is not just happiness. Joy is hope realized. Let me say that again. Joy, in the scriptures, is hope realized. The story of two women, who are part of a marginalized class and a marginalized people. They are Jews whose people had lived under occupation for more than six-hundred years. The people had been promised through the words of Micah, remember him, a savior, a messiah, one in the lineage of David who would save the people. This was the hope to which the Jewish people had clung for all of those centuries. And then suddenly there is this realization that the moment of liberation is at hand; that the messiah is on his way; that in this unplanned pregnancy of Mary, the promise of hope given through Micah is being realized. And because of that there is joy. As Elizabeth says, “For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy.” The hope is realized. God has not given up on the people. God is still at work…and so there is joy.
These two stories, and dozens like them, have been told and retold for more than two-thousand years. They have been told because people need hope. They were told by people whose loves had been torn apart by war and oppression. They were told by people enslaved by others and whose future looked grim. They were told by people who were fearful of the future. They were told by people who were overwhelmed by sadness and grief. And if there in one time when we need to tell these stories it is in this moment in our history. When as Amy Butler, pastor of Riverside Church in New York City puts it, “I’ve heard instead politicians threatening unconstitutional bans on immigration, American Christians spouting a call to arms directly counter to the teachings of Jesus, hate crimes and racial profiling, talk of registering people because of their race and religion. With news like this filling the airwaves, our hearts don’t fill with pride — they’re pulled away instead, toward fear.” This is why we tell stories of hope and joy over and over again; because without them there is only fear…and God’s people are not to be people of fear. We are to be people of hope and joy because that is what God in Jesus Christ gives us. That is what our story tells us.
The challenge then for all of us is to ask ourselves, to what kind of stories are we listening? What kind of stories are we telling? We are to ask ourselves this because in the end our story and the stories that it contains are all stories of hope and joy; even in the face of overwhelming odds and our own mistakes, we are to remember that God is not done with us yet. So here is the question I would like you to ask yourselves this week, “How am I telling stories of hope and joy to those around me so that our story might become their story?”
Rev. Amy Morgan
December 13, 2015
Zephaniah 3:14-20, Luke 3:7-18
We have a count-down in our household. We mark each day as it gets closer. There is non-stop talk about this coming event. Ideas about what it will be like; plans for when and where it will take place; expressions of hope. Our home is bursting at the seams with anticipation.
There are 5 days left on our count-down.
Yes, I’m aware that Christmas is still 12 days away. But in our house, we’re counting down to opening day of the new Star Wars movie.
Our dinner table discussions are filled with talk of possible plot lines, new droids and other characters, and how much money Disney is going to make off of this thing.
Now, John, the cousin of Jesus, has a count-down of his own. He’s been travelling throughout the region around the Jordan River, calling people to prepare for an epic event, the salvation of the world.
And now his fans have begun flocking to the river to be baptized by him.
Filled with excitement and anticipation, talking about their hopes and possibilities, re-hashing the prophetic prequels to this event to predict possible new plot lines – the people come out into the wilderness to be baptized.
Now, this baptism wasn’t the kind where you sprinkle water on a sweet baby’s head and walk it down the aisle to welcome it into the family of God. The gospel of Luke tells us this was a baptism of repentance. Now, in the first century, there were different kinds of baptism. The Jewish practices related to a ritual bath called a mikvah included various sorts of cleansing, typically around the life-cycle or life transitions. There were cleansing rituals related to sacrifice, and later on, a kind of immersion ritual for conversion to the Jewish faith. The baptism that is later taken up in Christianity incorporates many of these ideas along with cleansing from sin and rising to new life in Christ.
But the baptism John is proclaiming is a public act of repentance. It demands more than a desire to be cleansed, purified, and saved. It doesn’t promise the privileges of membership in God’s family. This baptism is simply an opportunity to tell the world that you have failed to live up to God’s expectations.
So why would anybody want to do this? Why are people flocking to the desert to participate in an act of public repentance? It doesn’t really sound like a party to me.
The people weren’t expecting a party.
The people knew the count-down clock was ticking. The cords of tension holding their community, their families, their government together were going to snap. It was only a matter of time. John’s invitation to preparation through repentance would have spoken right to their hearts. Something was about to happen. Perhaps some final and epic battle. And they wanted to be ready. And part of being ready meant owning up to how unprepared they really were.
So they flock to the wilderness, and John starts shouting at them, calling them names and sneering at their confidence. And we think he’s lost it. “Who told you to flee from the wrath to come?” YOU did, John!
But if we think of this in terms of that preparation for battle, this is not unlike Henry V’s St. Crispin’s Day speech or the coach in the locker room before the big game. Henry tells his men they are losers for wanting to have more troops from England rather than the honor of going into battle outnumbered five-to-one. My husband can tell you all the names he was called by football coaches during “motivational” pre-game talks. John the Baptist doesn’t let the people rest on their laurels as children of Abraham any more than Ron Rivera will let the Carolina Panthers revel in their 11-0 record when they play this afternoon. All this business about broods of vipers and axes at the root of the tree is John’s attempt to get people pumped up and ready for the main event.
And it clearly works, because the people ask to review the playbook. They want to know what they should do.
And his response is akin to Yoda’s words to Luke Skywalker: “Do. Or do not. There is no try.”
Don’t try to repent; don’t try to be a better person; don’t try to live the way God calls us to live.
Do. Or do not. But quit talking about it, thinking about it, arguing about it. It’s not that complicated, according to John.
If you have two coats, give one away. If you have food, you should share it. Tax collectors should be honorable tax collectors. Soldiers should be honorable soldiers.
John the Baptist is like the Yoda of the New Testament, training and preparing the people to encounter the Force that is Jesus Christ.
OBI-WAN KENOBI defines “The Force” as “an energy field” that “surrounds us, penetrates us, and binds the galaxy together.” I think this works fairly well as an analogy for the Messiah John is anticipating. The Force that is coming with a baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire to winnow the wheat from the chaff and burn away the chaff – that Force surrounds us and penetrates us and binds the galaxy together.
That Force knows our hearts and minds and motivations. That Force sustains us and empowers us and encourages us. And that Force will not fail to strip away our protective barrier of chaff and burn it up. It will tear down our walls and dissolve our divisions to bind the galaxy together.
So what then should we do?
Once we get to this question, this is one of the easiest passages to translate into 21st century Christianity.
If you have more than you need, give what is extra to those who need it.
Be honorable in your business dealings.
Don’t abuse your power.
Do. Or do not. There is no try.
The Force is Awakening in our world. Not with a Star Wars movie. Not with an epic battle or final show down.
The Force of Jesus Christ is awakening in each and every act of generosity and compassion. Each coat given away and each meal shared with someone in need. The Force of Jesus Christ is awakening in each and every act of justice, in each decision to do the right and honorable thing. The Force of Jesus Christ is awakening in each and every act of restraint and self-control, in satisfaction with what we have.
The count-down has begun. Not on November 1 when they started playing Christmas carols on the radio. Not on December 1 when the little doors filled with chocolate started opening on Advent calendars.
The count-down started 2,000 years ago, with a man in the wilderness, calling us to repentance, calling us to admit how far we’ve gone down the wrong path and to change our ways. Calling us to see every extra coat, every scrap of food we throw away, every little bit we skim off the top, every gripe about our paycheck as chaff in need of threshing and burning, as fruitless branches in need of pruning.
The count-down continues. It continues until Christ comes in final victory, until the Force finally binds the galaxy together – all nations and all people together, and God living among them.
We are invited, especially in this season of Advent, to live in joyful anticipation of this final redemption. Human history may seem like a never-ending series of sequels and prequels to the Jesus epic, and in a way, it is. But we live in hope that the next one will be the best episode ever, maybe even the final one.
While we wait, while we live in the count-down, we are called to act. To act with generosity, justice, and compassion. So this week, you are invited to continue participating in our Visual Advent project, taking photos of people acting in the world in ways that prepare us for the Force of Jesus Christ to awaken in our lives and in the world. You can text or email your photos to me, or post them on social media.
And as we go throughout our lives this week, may the Force of Jesus Christ be with you. Amen.
Rev. Dr. John Judson
December 6, 2015
Malachi 3:1-4, Luke 3:1-6
They were coming over. Cindy and I had been watching television when the phone rang. From the caller ID on the television we knew that it was the previous owners of our house. They wanted to come over. My response was, sure come on ahead. When I hung up Cindy wanted to know what they wanted. Oh they were coming over I replied. Immediately Cindy was up and out of the chair. Miscellaneous shoes were removed from under the coffee table. Books and magazines on top of the table were put away or straightened. The island in our kitchen was cleared of all of the mail that had been left there. Then out came the Swifter duster. Cindy did a quick once over of the sitting area and kitchen. When her preparation was done, she sat back down in front of the television. Almost immediately we saw the headlights turn up the driveway. “They’re here,” she said. I got up, grabbed the package that had been accidently delivered to our house, met them at the front door, handed them the package. They said thanks and left. If you had asked Cindy and I what the odds were that they would have come in we would have said about a thousand to one. If you had asked us what the odds were that they would come in if Cindy had not prepared, the odds would have been dead even. It didn’t matter though. If someone is coming over, we prepare.
Let me ask then, how many of you live in a home like this? As I thought, lots of you do. Isn’t it an amazing thing what we go through to prepare when people are coming over? I have decided that there are three levels of preparation. The first is when someone is just dropping by, like the former owners of our house. Level one is we straighten up the mess and do just a bit of cleaning. Level two occurs when people are coming for dinner or a party. What happens then is that we not only straighten up the mess but we clean the bathrooms, vacuum and dust so that it appears that this is the way the house looks all the time. Level three is what happens when someone is coming to spend the night. It doesn’t matter if it is our children, our in-laws or our parents. With level three all of the mess has to be dealt with including changing sheets, washing the towels and of course cleaning up all of the mess. And along with all these levels comes stress. We stress about how we will be perceived through the way in which our house looks. Once again then, how many of you have been, are, or will be stressed this holiday because of how you have to prepare? How many of you will stress someone else because you are going to visit them?
What I would like you to do this morning is to take that idea of stressing over preparing and ask yourselves, what would it be like if the one for whom we were preparing was Jesus? I ask because that because both Malachi and John the Baptist were given the assignment of preparing the people of God for the coming of God’s chosen one; of cleaning up the mess the people had made. I will not ask how many of you are familiar with Malachi because even I had to do some research. Malachi was the last of the prophets writing about 400 years before Jesus was born. The mess with which he was faced was that the priests were cheating the people. The priests were taking parts of the sacrifices that were meant for the people as well as not conducting the sacrifices in the prescribed manner. The people as well were a mess. They were not following the appropriate religious practices and were abusing the powerless; widows and orphans. Malachi then challenges them to prepare for the coming of God’s chosen one who would act like a refining fire.
We can see how successful he was in that John the Baptist comes with the same message; the people were to prepare for the coming of the chosen one who would usher in the Kingdom of God. The mess which John faced was both political and religious. We know this because Luke tells us so. The opening words of this reading appear to be a brief historical overview of who is in power. But they are more than that. They are a theological reflection on the mess of the day. There was a political mess because rather than a single king ruling the area there were two kings, a governor and another minor ruler. There was a religious mess because rather than there being one high priest, there are two; Annas and Caiaphas. Now, the reality was that there was only one actual high priest, Caiaphas, but everyone knew that the former high priest Annas actually rant things. He was the man in charge. So it was into this mess that John the Baptist was sent to prepare the people. And the way he did so was to invite people into a ritual in which they confessed that they were part of the mess, and then were baptized in order to be part of the cleanup crew; they were baptized to be part of the solution and not part of the mess. They were not only to be prepared, but they were to be those who helped prepare the world for the coming of the Christ.
In some ways this is what Advent is all about. It is about preparing ourselves for the coming of the chosen one by helping to clean up the mess of the world around us; by becoming part of the solution and not part of the problem. And if there ever was a time when the world is a mess it is right now. We are a political mess with politicians hurling hate everywhere they go at anyone they don’t like. We are in a religious mess as the church moves through one of the great transitions in its history, not always knowing which way it ought to go. We are in a cultural mess where society offers us a vision of life that insinuates that our value can only be found in what we own, wear and drive. The world is a mess. But you and I are called to be part of God’s clean-up crew as we help prepare the world for the coming of the Kingdom of God. We are to be those, who through demonstrating the love and grace of God in Jesus Christ, draw others into the work in which we are engaged. Understanding that this is not easy, I want to offer you some training material in the form of a prayer; in the form of the prayer of St. Francis. Here it is:
Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace!
That where there is hatred, I may bring love.
That where there is wrong, I may bring the spirit of forgiveness.
That where there is discord, I may bring harmony.
That where there is error, I may bring truth.
That where there is doubt, I may bring faith.
That where there is despair, I may bring hope.
That where there are shadows, I may bring light.
That where there is sadness, I may bring joy.
Lord, grant that I may seek rather to comfort, than to be comforted.
To understand, than to be understood.
To love, than to be loved.
For it is by self-forgetting that one finds.
It is by forgiving that one is forgiven.
It is by dying that one awakens to Eternal Life.
As you leave today the ushers have copies of this prayer for you to take with you. My challenge is for each of you to take this prayer, and put it some place that you will read it every day. Then allow its words to prepare you for the work in which you are engaged; the work of helping to clean up the mess of the world as followers of the one whose birth we will soon celebrate and whose power is still arising in the world.
Rev. Dr. John Judson
November 29, 2015
Jeremiah 33:14-16, Luke 21:25-36
He was the golden boy. He was the person whose story earned him the attention of the world. The grandson of Jewish immigrants he had started his business with $5,000 made from lifeguarding and installing sprinklers, well and also $50,000 loan from his father-in-law and had turned it into two of the most well respected investment houses in the nation, if not the world. His annual returns were always around 12% and because of that everyone from foundations, to the ultra-wealthy wanted him to invest their money for them. Part of the allure was that he had pioneered new computer technology which became the basis for the NASDAQ, of which he ultimately became the non-executive chairman. Even though he had a reputation as someone who lived a lavish life-style he also contributed liberally to worthwhile causes and to politicians. My guess is that by now you know of whom I speak, Bernard Madoff, the perpetrator of the largest Ponzi scheme in American history, totaling losses to investors of almost $65 billion. The question so many people have asked since was, how could smart people not have seen what he was doing?
The answer is very simple. They did not look. In fact they refused to look. No one wanted to pull back the curtain and discover that the wizard was not real. For you see that there were people in the SEC who had speaking out about the impossibility of the returns he was offering but the higher ups refused to look. And this is what human beings do. We create a narrative in our heads, about relationships, business partners, politicians and current events and then we refuse to look and see who they really are or what is really going on. We don’t want to look behind the curtain. This was true of 911, when we came to discover that local FBI agents were concerned about men linked to Osama Ben Laden getting flight training, and were told not to dig deeper. This was true of the Paris attacks. Both Turkish and Iraqi intelligence had warned the French about the possibility of attacks and no one really checked into it. Human nature is to refuse to look. It is in fact our nature to ignore those who are wandering the wilderness trying to get us to look and see what is happening.
This was the role that Jesus was playing in the story we read this morning. What Jesus saw is the pending destruction of Jerusalem. For his listeners this seemed to be absurd. After all if the Day of the Lord was approaching and the messiah was already here in the form of Jesus, then Jerusalem was safe. God would defeat Rome and all others who tried to take the land. And besides, how could God possibly abandon God’s people when they had been faithful year in and year out. But Jesus saw it differently. He saw the power of Rome. He saw the growing rebellion moving in the countryside and in the cities. He sensed that the people would not be satisfied until they were either free or dead. And so he warned his followers. He warned people to stay away from Jerusalem and flee to the country. He warned them that there will be death and destruction. What Jesus wanted them to do is to look. He wanted them to look so that they would have the strength and courage to escape. He wanted them to look so that they would be ready. It was a frightening and depressing message, which few wanted to hear.
On the surface anyway, this would not appear to be the kind of message most people would want to hear. It is the sort of thing we hear on the evening news, where everything is bad…everything is a crisis….everything should make us afraid. And if that is the case, why ought we to look? The answer for Jesus was that there was not only death and destruction coming…but there was also hope. Jesus wanted his listeners to not only see the political realities that are ahead but he also wanted them to look and see that God was still at work. He reminded them that when they are in the midst of the fall of Jerusalem to look and they will see that their redemption is drawing near. He reminds them that when the signs all point to the end of the world to remember that the Kingdom of God is drawing near and they will be saved. He reminds them that even if all appears to be lost that they will be able to find the strength that they need to live and to survive. But these things, he says, can only be seen if we are willing to look; to pull back the curtain and see what is really going on. We can only see them if we are willing to look at what God is still doing in the world.
For you see, this is how God works in the world. God does not always intervene and save God’s people from themselves, from their own mistakes, but God’s message is that if we are willing to look we will see God at work. We will see that there is hope. And this is not simply a Jesus’ message, this is the message of the entire Bible. It was the message of Jeremiah. The Jeremiah story is that Jerusalem is surrounded by the Babylonian Army; an army of power beyond the comprehension of the Jewish people. Though the people are hoping and praying for a miraculous divine intervention (does all of this sound familiar?) Jeremiah has been telling them that there will be no such intervention. There will not be one because the people have refused to listen to God and have chosen the way of violence, greed and injustice, rather than the way of caring and compassion. There will not be one because the people refused to see the reality of what God was doing and chose rebellion over cooperation. Yet even then Jeremiah says, all is not lost. There will come a time when God will bring forth a new leader who will bring justice and righteousness to the land. Look and see, Jeremiah says, God is not done.
You and I live in a moment in history when everything around is painted as being in the broad brush strokes of crisis. The news narrative offered to us is that our lives are in constant danger; from ISIS, from strangers, from…well you fill in the blank. That is all that we are supposed to see when we look. We are supposed to be those who faint with fear and foreboding. But if we listen to Jeremiah. If we listen to Jesus. We will look and see something different. We will look and see God still at work in world. We will look and see Jesus Christ changing hearts and minds. We will look and see acts of great compassion and world transforming love. We will look and see that the force of God’s love in Jesus Christ is awakening once again. We will look and see that God has great plans for the world into which we have baptized three more children of God.
The challenge I offer you then is to look, to look and see where God is still at work transforming the world and then allow what you see to create a narrative of hope in your life. Then, when you see those things, take a picture of them and send them to us that we might share them with others.