Each week, the Sunday sermon by Rev. David Haley, pastor of Skokie Central Church, will be posted. As the archive of sermons is completed, we will link to the archive from the blog as well.
Central United Methodist Church
Choosing Life, Part 2
Pastor David L. Haley
Matthew 5: 33 – 48
February 19, 2017
“Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
– Matthew 5: 33 – 48, The New Revised Standard Version
One of the Great Americans who died last year was Harper Lee, who wrote the 1960 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, To Kill A Mockingbird, now an essential part of a good education.
To Kill a Mockingbird was a great book turned into a great movie and there are many great scenes, but there is one scene that is particularly hard to sit through, and that is this one, where Bob Ewell, Atticus Finch’s accuser (and the likely perpetrator of the crime), spits in Atticus’ face. [Video]
In such a situation, what should we do, what would you do? Most of us know what we would do: we would teach Bob Ewell a lesson, about how not to call people names or spit in people’s faces. But in so doing, we would likely perpetuate the cycle of violence, possibly inviting worse consequences.
How many of us would even have the moral strength to do what Atticus did: at first, like us, to move toward Ewell, but then restrain himself and walk away, a bigger man than ever. Atticus did the right thing, which would have longer lasting and greater consequences.
It is just such moral strength that Jesus asks of us today, in what is surely the most challenging section of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, the famous six antitheses: “You have heard it said, but I say unto you,” regarding six representative issues: anger, adultery, divorce, oaths, retaliation, and love for enemies. Last Sunday, we considered anger, adultery, and divorce; today we consider oaths, retaliation, and love for enemies. Last Sunday we looked upon practicing these virtues as a way of “choosing life,” not only for ourselves but for others; likewise, not to do so diminishes life, not only for ourselves but for others.
The phrases in this section of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount are so familiar and beautiful that sometimes we forget how demanding they are: “Turn the other cheek.” “Go the second mile.” “Love your enemies.” “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” How lovely, yet how impossible!
I imagine Jesus’ initial hearers saying: “But we live under a brutal occupation by the Romans. You expect us to take it, to do whatever they say, without standing up or fighting back?”
In our time, I think of African-Americans suffering racial discrimination, Japanese Americans and Holocaust survivors with tattooed numbers from internment, Hispanic Americans being detained, victims of abuse, women who make less than men doing the same job; LGQBT people sometimes denied even basic rights. In short, all who suffer at the hands of oppressors. Surely, to them, Jesus’ call to forgive and to reconcile and even pray for their oppressors, rings hollow, and sounds like resignation to evil.
Let’s face it, especially right now in our society, it is easier to be mean, to bully, to hold grudges, to ignore those in need. After all, if we give to everybody who begs, we will have nothing left for ourselves. If we turn the other cheek, we will get slapped again. If we are sued, we will hire the best lawyer we can afford to fight back. If we love our enemies, we will be persecuted or killed. If we are nice, we’ll be weak, pushovers, doormats. Are we to take Jesus seriously? Taken at face value, I don’t think Jesus’ teachings would get him elected dogcatcher right now.
Through the centuries, preachers have reassured Christians, “Don’t worry, these phrases are figures of speech.” They are “ideal rules of the kingdom not practical in the real world;” an ethic for somebody other than us. And congregations have collectively sighed: “Thank God; I was afraid Jesus actually meant for us to practice them!”
But doesn’t he? With what we know about Jesus, does he sound like he is pretending? If anything, Jesus is doubling down on previous ethical teaching. As I said last week regarding anger, adultery, and divorce, it is not enough to meet the minimum daily requirements. It is not enough to say: “No murder today; check! No adultery; check!” The last time I looked, I was still married; check! In each case, Jesus BEGINS with the legal standard, but extends and transcends it’s meaning. What God asks of us is not “rule keeping,” but genuine moral and spiritual transformation.
Today Jesus elaborates on three additional issues: the swearing of oaths, non-retaliation, and loving not just our neighbors, but even our enemies.
Jesus is not talking about swearing, at which we may or may not be proficient, but the swearing of oaths, like when we place our hand on a Bible and swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, “so help us God.” Jesus is saying that, on the contrary, if we are simple and clear and truthful in all our speech, as God desires us to be, then it would not be necessary to swear oaths by all that is holy that we promise to tell the truth, THIS TIME. It sounds simple, but if you haven’t noticed, truth is an endangered species these days.
It’s the same with retaliation, striking back, walking the extra mile, blessing and not cursing. If we humble ourselves, no one can humiliate us. If we give away our coat, no one can take it from us. If we choose to walk that extra mile, no one can force us. When we are in control of ourselves, no one can have power over us. It is a moral power, the likes of which the world has rarely tried; but when it has, it has produced results such as the world has rarely seen.
Mohandas Gandhi thought so highly of the Sermon on the Mount that it influenced his nonviolent strategy against the British in India. Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement demonstrated how powerful nonviolence and non-retaliation can be in affecting social change. The images of those who marched in Birmingham and Montgomery, who faced snarling dogs and fire hoses, who rode buses through the south, who integrated lunch counters – even as they were physically and verbally abused without responding in kind – are profiles in courage as certain as any soldier who ever served in combat.
But Jesus continues: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” This is hard, especially when our eyes are filled with tears and our hearts are filled with anger. Don’t you find that we stumble over it, every Sunday in our prayers? When we struggle to pray, not just for our theoretical enemies, but for our real enemies, not only the people who make us angry, but those who would seek to hurt us? This is hard.
Why should we do it? For three reasons. First, though not mentioned in the text, there is the issue of what holding hate does to us. As Dr. King once put it in a sermon on loving your enemies:
“Hate at any point is a cancer that gnaws away at the very vital center of your life and your existence. It is like eroding acid that eats away the best and the objective center of your life. So Jesus says love, because hate destroys the hater as well as the hated.” (Loving Your Enemies, November 17, 1957)
Secondly, when we pray for someone, they become less our enemy and more someone for whom we might have empathy, even compassion, someone who we might be able to love.
But the most important reason – named in the text – is this: Because – says Jesus – this is who God is, and this is what God does. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for God makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”
As beautiful and as challenging as it is, the Sermon on the Mount is a portrait of the heart of God: God who loves the unlovable, comes among us in Christ, suffers our worst, and rises to forgive us. Turn the cheek, give the cloak go another mile, lend, love the enemy — because that is how God loves. If we want to follow this God, fleshed out in Jesus, we are adopted into a life in which – before we know what we are doing – we find ourselves loving this way. (Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 2, Jason Byassee, p. 382)
Did Jesus live this way? Yes, he did. Said the ancient Christian teacher, Hilary of Poitier: “The Lord who accompanies us on our journey offers his own cheek to slaps and his shoulders to whips, to the increase of his glory.”
Can we do it, especially in this time of polarization and vilification, can we dig down deep, summon the better angels of our nature, practice non-violence, and respond to antagonists with love? Can we turn the other cheek, not respond in kind, forgo revenge, give more than required, go the extra mile, give to all who beg, lend without limits, greet the stranger, love the enemy, and pray for our persecutors? Could we even do what Atticus Finch did? What would happen if we do?
Nobody can say what might happen as powerfully as Dr. King did. In a sermon entitled “Loving Your Enemies,” as far back as November 17, 1957 at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, Dr. King said:
“So this morning, as I look into your eyes, and into the eyes of all of my brothers in Alabama and all over America and over the world, I say to you, “I love you. I would rather die than hate you.” And I’m foolish enough to believe that through the power of this love somewhere, men of the most recalcitrant bent will be transformed. And then we will be in God’s kingdom. We will be able to matriculate into the university of eternal life because we had the power to love our enemies, to bless those persons that cursed us, to even decide to be good to those persons who hated us, and we even prayed for those persons who despitefully used us.”
Can we do it? With God’s help – and only with God’s help – I believe we can. As a follower of Jesus, I’m going to be working on it and I know you will too. Amen.
Central United Methodist Church
Choose Life, Part 1
Pastor David L. Haley
Matthew 5: 21 – 32
February 12, 2017
“You’re familiar with the command to the ancients, ‘Do not murder.’ I’m telling you that anyone who is so much as angry with a brother or sister is guilty of murder. Carelessly call a brother ‘idiot!’ and you just might find yourself hauled into court. Thoughtlessly yell ‘stupid!’ at a sister and you are on the brink of hellfire. The simple moral fact is that words kill.
“This is how I want you to conduct yourself in these matters. If you enter your place of worship and, about to make an offering, you suddenly remember a grudge a friend has against you, abandon your offering, leave immediately, go to this friend and make things right. Then and only then, come back and work things out with God.
“Or say you’re out on the street and an old enemy accosts you. Don’t lose a minute. Make the first move; make things right with him. After all, if you leave the first move to him, knowing his track record, you’re likely to end up in court, maybe even jail. If that happens, you won’t get out without a stiff fine.
“You know the next commandment pretty well, too: ‘Don’t go to bed with another’s spouse.’ But don’t think you’ve preserved your virtue simply by staying out of bed. Your heart can be corrupted by lust even quicker than your body. Those leering looks you think nobody notices—they also corrupt.
“Let’s not pretend this is easier than it really is. If you want to live a morally pure life, here’s what you have to do: You have to blind your right eye the moment you catch it in a lustful leer. You have to choose to live one-eyed or else be dumped on a moral trash pile. And you have to chop off your right hand the moment you notice it raised threateningly. Better a bloody stump than your entire being discarded for good in the dump.
“Remember the Scripture that says, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him do it legally, giving her divorce papers and her legal rights’? Too many of you are using that as a cover for selfishness and whim, pretending to be righteous just because you are ‘legal.’ Please, no more pretending. If you divorce your wife, you’re responsible for making her an adulteress (unless she has already made herself that by sexual promiscuity). And if you marry such a divorced adulteress, you’re automatically an adulterer yourself. You can’t use legal cover to mask a moral failure.” – Matthew 5: 21 – 32, The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson
The overall theme for this Sunday and next Sunday is announced not by the Gospel, but by the Old Testament Book of Deuteronomy: “Choose life!”
“Choose life” was not a bumper sticker on Moses’ car, but his final plea to the children of Israel. He reminded them that despite all they had been through, they still had a choice: to choose life by following God and God’s commandments, or to turn their backs on God, forsaking God’s command- ments. Which will it be?
But suppose when Moses said this, some seeker or smart aleck had raised his hand and said, “Rabbi Moses – exactly how do we choose life by following the commandments?” Do you mean just the ten commandments, or all 613 commandments; the 248 positive commandments, one for every bone in the body, or the 365 negative commandments, one for every day in the year? And, Rabbi Moses – a follow up question – how would you have us follow them: literally or figuratively? One might imagine Moses would have had security remove him, or ask for a localized lightning strike from his friend, God.
Ah, there’s the rub. If we “choose life,” which rules do we follow, and how do we interpret them, literally or figuratively? Do we dress like orthodox Jews, or like the Amish, or – as most of us – do we keep our faith hidden, and practice the rules in our behavior and in our heart?
In today’s reading from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, this is the question: How do we interpret and follow God’s commandments? And – perhaps even more importantly – what is the point of following them at all?
This Sunday and next Sunday, Jesus talks about six representative issues – anger, adultery, divorce, oaths, retaliation, and love for enemies. Each time Jesus says, “You have heard it said, but I say unto you.” Even though Jesus’ antithesis – as they are called – fill less than a page, entire books have been written about them, so there is no way I can address them fully in the short time we have. Let’s split them into two groups of 3 each. Today, let’s do anger, adultery, and divorce. (That sounds bad, especially in church!)
As you might gather from Jesus’ statement, there was no shortage of interpretation about how to interpret the law in his time. Not only were there the Sadducees, the Pharisees, and the Essenes, even among the Pharisees (the movement to whom Jesus was closest), there were differing interpretations, such as the schools of Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Shammei, about such things as – for example – how difficult or how easy it should be to divorce your wife. I might note it was not the first or the last time, when MEN wanted to make the rules that pertain to WOMEN.
Might I add that while we may look with amused curiosity upon the differing schools of interpretation in 1st century Judaism, it is worse today. To begin with, in a text based society – our text being the Constitution of the United States – how it is interpreted is critical, which is why the appointment of judges is so important.
In regard to religious interpretation, not only do we have more religious options (Christianity and Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and of course, NONE) we have extremely diverse interpretation just within Christianity. Not only are we Catholic and Orthodox and Protestant, there are over 200+ varieties of Protestants, and far more non-denominational churches. And among each of those of those there is the spectrum of progressive, evangelical, and conservative. Throw in the volatile mix of cultural and political loyalties in the Age of Trump, and today we have Christians denouncing and defriending each other: “My way is the way of life; your way is the way of death.” Now – more than ever – we must learn how not only to respectfully disagree but charitably disagree, without vilifying each other.
Because – in the face of differing interpretations and corresponding animosity – Jesus steps forward to say:
“You’re familiar with the command to the ancients, ‘Do not murder.’ I’m telling you that anyone who is so much as angry with a brother or sister is guilty of murder. Carelessly call a brother ‘idiot!’ and you just might find yourself hauled into court. Thoughtlessly yell ‘stupid!’ at a sister and you are on the brink of hellfire. The simple moral fact is that words kill.”
“You know the next commandment pretty well, too: ‘Don’t go to bed with another’s spouse.’ But don’t think you’ve preserved your virtue simply by staying out of bed. Your heart can be corrupted by lust even quicker than your body. Those leering looks you think nobody notices — they also corrupt.
“Remember the Scripture that says, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him do it legally, giving her divorce papers and her legal rights’? Too many of you are using that as a cover for selfishness and whim, pretending to be righteous just because you are ‘legal.’ Please, no more pretending. If you divorce your wife, you’re responsible for making her an adulteress (unless she has already made herself that by sexual promiscuity). And if you marry such a divorced adulteress, you’re automatically an adulterer yourself. You can’t use legal cover to mask a moral failure.”*
As Karoline Lewis, Professor of Preaching at Luther Seminary points out, the irony is that this section of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount demonstrates the difficulties of the interpretation of Scripture. Jesus shows us that the complexity of making sense of faith is part of faith, but – even more significantly – he also models the hard work of interpreting Scripture for new times, new places, and new circumstances. “You have heard it said, but I say to you.”
At root, what Jesus is teaching in these six antitheses, is about “choosing life.” Jesus is saying that life is diminished, not only when life is taken, but when anger and judgment and insult reign. Jesus is saying that life is diminished, when women are objectified and dehumanized, seen as existing only for the fulfillment of male sexual desire or to carry on the family name. Jesus is saying that life is diminished when women are discarded, solely judged upon their capacity to satisfy privileged and patriarchal needs, or their capacity to bear children. While it was worse in Jesus’ time, while it was bad up almost until modern times, if you haven’t noticed, there are still a lot of these attitudes out there, right up into the highest chambers of our land. (Karoline Lewis, “Choose Life,” Dear Working Preacher, February 5, 2017)
So – as difficult as these ideals Jesus taught may be – when we practice them, we choose life. Jesus is trying to tell us that God is not interested in us keeping the law for the law’s sake, God wants us to keep the law for our sake. Think of it as the fence – not keeping us out of, but keeping us in – the good life.
As difficult as they may be – when we practice them, we choose life, not just for ourselves, but for our neighbors. Rolf Jacobson, another professor at Luther Seminary, once said of Joel Osteen’s best-selling book, Your Best Life Now, that it would be a lot closer to the biblical vision of life if it had been titled instead, Your Neighbor’s Best Life Now. At its best, the Law – at its best, and especially as taught by Jesus – reveal the parental heart of a God who desires the health and happiness of ALL God’s children.
David Lose shares a story which he says captures this for him. He says his friend, Frank, who was about eight years old at the time, started an argument with his sister. Before long, arguing turned to pushing and shoving, and, soon, Frank had his sister pinned to the ground with his fist raised in the air. At that moment, his mother came into the room and told him to stop. In response, Frank reared up as only an eight-year-old can and declared, fist still raised in the air, “She’s my sister. I can do anything I want to her.” At this point, Frank’s mom swooped across the room, towered over him, and said, “She’s my daughter – no you can’t!”
This is the ethic Jesus is teaching: God’s gift of life is for ALL God’s children. “No, you can’t hoard everything. No, you can’t discriminate and exclude. No, you can’t violate and exploit. No, you can’t murder and kill. Because she is my daughter, and he is my son.” (David Lose, “Epiphany 6A: Love and the Law,” In the Meantime, February 6, 2017)
The last time I checked, the Ten Commandments were still in effect. However, according to Jesus, it is never enough to say: “No murder today; check! No adultery; check!” Still married; check!” What God designs of us is not just that we fulfill the minimum daily requirements, but that we internalize them in our heart and practice them in our lives, so that everywhere we go and in everything we do, we respect, honor, and love all God’s children: Christian and non-Christian, black and white, male and female, young and old. When we do this, we choose life. Amen.
*Jesus statement about divorce addressed the cultural situation of his time, where men could easily divorce their wives for trivial reasons, leading to a woman’s disgrace and impoverishment. Even then, the prohibition was evolving, with an allowance for divorce (sexual promiscuity) added to Matthew over Mark’s Gospel, the earliest written. Finally, Jesus’ extreme statement about divorce should be read in the context of the extremity of all the antithesis; what we often view as the moral failure of divorce, is no less than the moral failure of anger, retaliation, or loving your enemy. All these are impossibly high standards, and forgivable.
Central United Methodist Church
What Can We Do? Be Salt & Light
Pastor David L. Haley
Matthew 5: 13 – 16
February 5, 2017
“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot.
“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” – Matthew 5: 13 – 16, The New Revised Standard Version
In our changed and charged political context, where something previously unthinkable seems to happen every day, one of the most common questions people are asking these days with new urgency, is: “What can I do?”
Indeed, when decisions are being made at the highest levels of government which will affect everyone, but especially those most vulnerable, it is easy to feel helpless and impotent, not only to affect change, but even to be heard. We may write that email or letter, but what are the chances it will be read, even by a staffer, much less our elected representative?
As an illustration of the magnitude involved, the New York Times Magazine recently featured an article about the White House Office of Presidential Correspondence. To keep up with the 10,000 letters and messages that come in every day, many desperate pleas for help, it requires the orchestration of 50 staff members, 36 interns and a rotating roster of 300 volunteers. (Jeanne Marie Laskas, “To Obama with Love, and Hate and Desperation,” The New York Times Magazine, January 17, 2017.)
These days, even phone calls – said to be the best way to get elected official’s attention – don’t fare much better. Most House and Senate offices utilize interns and staffers to answer the phone. These staffers keep notes and let their congressperson know what people are saying. Those phone systems designed to handle thousands of calls a day, but in these wild times are being overwhelmed, with voicemail boxes packed to capacity, and in some critical congressional offices, phones ring without ever being answered.
As we have also seen, people are also taking to the streets to be heard, as we saw recently with the Women’s March here in Chicago and in cities around the country and the world. Last weekend, there were mass protests at airports, including O’Hare, against the new travel ban. Here in Chicago, 150 or more lawyers went to the airport to provide free legal aid to those detained without notice. I didn’t think I’d ever live to see the day when I would be inspired by LAWYERS.
Frederick Douglass (1818-1895), referred to this week by President Trump during Black History Month as though he might still be alive, was an escaped slave, who became a social reformer, orator, writer, statesman, and abolitionist. Frederick Douglass once said: “I prayed for freedom for twenty years, but received no answer until I prayed with my legs.” Sometimes this is what we must do in order to be heard, we have to pray and protest with our legs, as the recent Women’s March.
While all these are “things we can do,” let’s go one step further and ask what we should do as Christians, as the followers of Jesus, as the people of God. Today we get an answer to that, given by Jesus himself in his Sermon on the Mount. As it turns out, the answer is less what we should DO, than what we should BE, which is, salt and light in the world.”
“Me, you say?” “Salt and light in the world?” “Surely, you jest; I can barely make it through the week.” You’re thinking Jesus was talking about people like Albert Schweitzer, or Mother Teresa, or Martin Luther King Jr., people who undoubtedly functioned as salt and light in the world. But remember, as I pointed out last Sunday, when Jesus was talking that day, he wasn’t talking to the high and mighty, the educated or the accomplished; he was talking to ordinary people like us, except poorer: shepherds, fishermen, widows, the sick, the powerless, the exploited, people whom he pronounced as blessed by God. If he blessed such people and commissioned them to be salt and light in the world, surely every one of us can be salt and light too.
When Jesus said this, he was not issuing a call to change attitudes or actions, which is usually the way we hear it. He did not say, “If you want to become salt and light, do this” or, “before I’ll call you salt and light, I’ll need to see this.” He didn’t even say, “BE salt and light; what he said was, “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.” It is sheer blessing, commendation, affirmation, and commissioning. (David Lose, “Salt and Light,” http://www.workingpreacher.org, 1/30/2011)
But what does it mean to be salt and light in the world? It is common at this point – I have done it myself in the past – to talk about salt and light as universal religious metaphors. Salt is both a preservative and a spice, enhancing flavor. As for light, and that “city set on a hill,” we know about that too. It has been an ongoing idea since America was founded, that America is to be such a “city set on a hill.”
When we ask what this means, and try to translate “what we should be” into “what we should do,” we are likely to fill in the blanks with our own agendas, which may be quite different depending upon whether we are conservative or liberal, Democrat or Republican, watch MSNBC or Fox News.
But as Lutheran Barbara Lundblad points out (Barbara Lundblad, “Too Much Salt or Not Enough? What Jesus Says About Americans and Their Super Bowl, ON Scripture, February 5, 2017), Jesus’ metaphors of salt and light are not nearly as open-ended as we imagine. Salt and Light already meant something to Jesus’ hearers, they were central images of the people of Israel. So maybe Jesus chose these two images on purpose: to be salt and light means to be shaped by the ancient, life-giving law of God, such as in that powerful reading from the Prophet Isaiah, filling in the blanks about what it means to function as salt and light in the world, to be the people of God:
“What is the fast that I choose?” asks God.
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
When you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly…
So what are WE to do as Christians, in these charged and changing times? All that we have talked about and more, but the most important thing we can do is to be who Jesus says we are, salt and light in the world.
Wes Granberg-Michaelson is the former General Secretary of the Reformed Church in America. Recently, he published an article in Sojourners Magazine, entitled, Five Spiritual Survival Strategies in the Trump Era.” He said many useful things, but what he said in short, was this: “When they go low, we go deep.”
Using an historical analogy, Granberg-Michaelson compared today’s times to 1930’s Germany. In 1933, the national synod of the German Protestant churches endorsed the rising Nazi party. In response, a group of theologians and church people – among them theologians Karl Barth (1886-1968) and Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) – formed what they called the Confessing Church. They could see the problems with the Nazi Party and where it was going, but they could also see the problems that result when the church aligns itself with any political party or political ideology.
In response, two things came of this; first, the Barmen Declaration of 1934, rejecting the subordination of the Church to the State and affirming that the Church belonged only to Christ. But secondly, an alternative church structure, including “underground” seminaries to train clergy. Bonhoeffer believed the dominant form of Christianity in Germany lacked the capacity and depth to discern the threat posed by Hitler and to resist it as a matter of faith. So Bonhoeffer focused on Christian formation: shaping a Christian community that learned how to confess sins, to meditate daily on Scripture, and to develop solidarity with the weakest members of society. Bonhoeffer understood that the task was to build a fellowship nurtured by a spirituality deep enough to stand the test of that time, which became the basis for his book, Life Together.
Today, says Granberg-Michaelson, we find ourselves faced with a challenge like the one faced by Barth and Bonhoeffer. The public witness of many Christians lacks the spiritual depth and clarity necessary to proclaim the true meaning of Christian faith for the life of society in this time. Once again, we find ourselves in need of basic, enduring spiritual formation – habits of thinking, practices of living, disciplines of praying, celebrations of worship, and clarity of calling – that will equip us with the clarity and strength to follow Jesus, and to answer the question posed by Bonhoeffer: “Who is Jesus Christ for us today?”
“The lesson for this time is that Christian communities committed to prophetic witness in society endure when they learn to nurture the spiritual depth of practices that equip them for the long run. Resistance alone does not sustain a community. It requires a shared life that is rooted in a depth of spirituality that forms and shapes who we discover ourselves to be, and what we are called to do, before God.” (Wes Granberg-Michaelson, “5 Spiritual Survival Strategies in the Trump Era,” Sojourners, 1-30-2017, https://sojo.net/articles/5-spiritual-survival-strategies-trump-era )
When we do this, when we discover who we are and what we are called to do, what we discover is this: “You are the salt of the earth.” “You are the light of the world.” Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” Amen.
Central United Methodist Church
Pastor David L. Haley
Matthew 5: 1 – 12
January 29, 2017
“When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
– Matthew 5: 1 – 12, The New Revised Standard Version
In a congregation of travelers and immigrants, is there anyone here who has not at one time or another experienced culture shock?
Culture shock is what we experience when we go to a foreign country, where life is different than the life to which we are accustomed. The language is different, the culture is different, even the food is different. At first, it can be new and exciting, but soon, it loses its novelty. And so you may find yourself anticipating a meal at McDonald’s, or searching for an ex-pat English-speaking bar, as I once did in Paris, even if the other patrons are British or Australian; at least they are speaking English, more or less. To experience culture shock might be described by the title of Robert Heinlein’s 1961 science fiction classic, Stranger in a Strange Land.
The experience of culture shock; or feeling like a Stranger in a Strange Land, describes how many of us are feeling this week in our own country, in this first week of the new administration. Many of us likely thought that once the campaign was over and the reality of governance begun, President Trump would moderate his views, even as he suggested in the vacillations of his own statements.
But this week, we found out that is not the case. He does intend to build that wall between the US and Mexico, estimated to cost $14 billion. (They built one of those in China centuries ago; and in Berlin, decades ago; both failed.) He intends to abolish the Affordable Care Act, which will not only make everyone’s health care cost more, but more importantly, will take medical insurance away from 20 million people, many of whom are his supporters. Even as he threatens to “send in the Feds” to quell Chicago’s gun violence (761 deaths last year), it has been conservatively estimated that demolishing the Affordable Care Act without a replacement would result in 44,000 deaths a year. Which number most warrants “sending in the Feds?
But so far the most dramatic reversal was this: President Trump’s executive order on immigration reverberated through the United States and around the globe yesterday, slamming the border shut for real people: an Iranian scientist headed to a lab in Boston, an Iraqi who had worked as an interpreter for the United States Army, and a Syrian refugee family headed to a new life in Ohio, among others. As many as a half million legal immigrants, out of the country, find themselves locked out of the United States. But stay tuned: a federal judge has already issued a stay, if not yet on detainment, at least on deportation. I apologize to those with us here this morning who have come from such places as Iraq and Syria. We know you have suffered so much already, only now to find this: the country that has welcomed you, has now closed the door on your people, your friends and even family.
This led one of my friends to post a picture of the Statue of Liberty on Facebook, with these words: “Dear France: Thanks, it’s been great, but we’re done with this now. What address should we ship it back to?”
This week we have been reminded, of what we sometimes forget: that as Christians, we are subjects of two kingdoms: the Kingdom of God, and whatever earthly Kingdom we find ourselves in, in our case the United States of America. There are times when the values of the Kingdom of God (Christian values) and of our government align; there are other times when those values conflict. For those Christians who follow the values of Jesus, now is one of those times.
I am not talking about popular cultural understandings of Christian values, which in our country are primarily political and cultural, rather than Christian, which partially explains why 81% of evangelical Christians, 58% of Protestants, and 52% of Catholics voted for President Trump. What I’m talking about are the actual values of the Kingdom of God, as stated by Jesus, which are nowhere made clearer than in our Gospel today. Sadly, either many Christians have never read Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount; or ignore them.
In these first 12 verses – known as the Beatitudes (blessings), the question Jesus addresses is this: Who are the people blessed by God? Surprisingly, they are not the people we might think.
Surely, these words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount are some of the most beautiful and influential words in the whole Bible.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
These and the beatitudes which follow, are nothing sort of stunning. What Jesus is saying is that those honored in God’s kingdom are the exact opposites of those honored in earthly kingdoms: not the powerful and the prosperous, but the poor, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those persecuted for righteousness’ sake. I do not think this was intended to be a comprehensive list – these and these only – but rather a representative list: these are the kinds of people God blesses.
And what does it mean to be blessed, anyway? Does it mean to be showered with success and prosperity, health and happiness? To be blessed feels like standing in sunlight, surrounded by cold and darkness. To be blessed is to have someone’s highest regard, to know that you are appreciated and honored and unconditionally loved by them. Blessed means that you are special; not because of something you did or might do someday, but because of who you are.
What Jesus is teaching is radical concept; counter to popular religious teaching both then and now. Almost all of us have been taught to believe a form of Christianity that says God helps those who help themselves, that if you are prosperous and successful you are in God’s favor, but that if you are sinful or poor or a loser or gay God hates you. But as we see in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, nothing could be further from the truth.
I think it is easiest to understand if we imagine the people to whom Jesus was speaking. Those gathered to hear Jesus weren’t the high and the mighty, but people like shepherds, fishermen, poor widows, the sick, the powerless, the exploited, the kind of people Jesus loved hanging out with, his kind of people. Imagine a rural pastor speaking to her small congregation of farm folk. Imagine an urban pastor (like me) speaking to a small but diverse group of people. These are the kinds of people Jesus pronounces blessed. In other words, the people Jesus pronounced blessed that day, were people like us gathered here today.
I think back upon the five congregations I have served, and yes, there have been well-to-do people; but more of them have been ordinary people. They were people who struggle with faith and finances and relationships, even their relationship with God, not a few who struggled with both physical and mental illness. As St. Paul once wrote to the Corinthians, “Take a good look, friends, at who you were when you got called into this life. I don’t see many of “the brightest and the best” among you, not many influential, not many from high-society families. Isn’t it obvious that God deliberately chose men and women that the culture overlooks and exploits and abuses, chose these “nobodies” to expose the hollow pretensions of the “somebodies”? Amazingly, surprisingly, Jesus says these are the kinds of people God blesses. (Rev. Dr. Dawn Chesser, #Blessed: Preaching Notes, UMCDiscipleship.org, January 29, 2017)
By extension of Jesus’ words in the Beatitudes, it is not a stretch to believe that in God’s kingdom, God blesses all who come before God, hungry and needy in spirit: saints and sinners, those poor in wallet and poor in spirit. God blesses the blind, the lame, the imprisoned, the outcast, the leper, and the prostitute, refugees and immigrants. God blesses Jews and Christians, Muslims and Hindus, Buddhist and Baha’i. God blesses Democrats and Republicans and Independents. In Jesus, the blessing of God does not discriminate: God’s blessing is for you and for me and for us all. No matter who we are and what we have done, we are blessed and welcome in the Kingdom of God.
Hearing these words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, hearing what kind of people God blesses, how can we not look around, to embrace those around us, and to look upon them not with resentment or hatred, but empathy. When we do this, God’s kingdom becomes not a spiritual place far away, but whenever and wherever we bear each other’s burdens, bind each other’s wounds, and honor each other as God’s children. To be human is to be fragile and vulnerable, and so it turns out that the surprising grace of God is not to reject these things but to gather them into a divine embrace. (David Lose, Epiphany 4A, Recognizing Blessing, In the Meantime, January 24, 2017)
This is why we grieve and are angered by the recent actions towards refugees, people who have suffered so much already. It brought to mind Robert Kennedy’s words in a speech to the Cleveland City Club on April 5th of 1968, in which he said:
“But we can perhaps remember – even if only for a time – that those who live with us are our brothers, that they share with us the same short movement of life, that they seek – as we do – nothing but the change to live out their lives in purpose and happiness, winning what satisfaction and fulfillment they can. Surely this bond of common faith, this bond of common goal, can begin to teach us something. Surely we can learn, at least, to look at those around us as fellow men [and women] and surely we can begin to work a little harder to bind up the wounds among us and to become in our hearts brothers and countrymen once again.” (Robert Kennedy, Speech to the Cleveland City Club, April 5, 1968)
If we can do this, we will be blessed indeed. Amen.
Central United Methodist Church
God’s Call: That For Which We are Made
Pastor David L. Haley
Matthew 4: 12 – 23
January 22nd, 2017
“When Jesus got word that John had been arrested, he returned to Galilee. He moved from his hometown, Nazareth, to the lakeside village Capernaum, nestled at the base of the Zebulun and Naphtali hills. This move completed Isaiah’s sermon:
Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
road to the sea, over Jordan,
Galilee, crossroads for the nations.
People sitting out their lives in the dark
saw a huge light;
Sitting in that dark, dark country of death,
they watched the sun come up.
This Isaiah-prophesied sermon came to life in Galilee the moment Jesus started preaching. He picked up where John left off: “Change your life. God’s kingdom is here.”
Walking along the beach of Lake Galilee, Jesus saw two brothers: Simon (later called Peter) and Andrew. They were fishing, throwing their nets into the lake. It was their regular work. Jesus said to them, “Come with me. I’ll make a new kind of fisherman out of you. I’ll show you how to catch men and women instead of perch and bass.” They didn’t ask questions, but simply dropped their nets and followed.
A short distance down the beach they came upon another pair of brothers, James and John, Zebedee’s sons. These two were sitting in a boat with their father, Zebedee, mending their fishnets. Jesus made the same offer to them, and they were just as quick to follow, abandoning boat and father.
From there he went all over Galilee. He used synagogues for meeting places and taught people the truth of God. God’s kingdom was his theme—that beginning right now they were under God’s government, a good government! He also healed people of their diseases and of the bad effects of their bad lives. Word got around the entire Roman province of Syria. People brought anybody with an ailment, whether mental, emotional, or physical. Jesus healed them, one and all. More and more people came, the momentum gathering. Besides those from Galilee, crowds came from the “Ten Towns” across the lake, others up from Jerusalem and Judea, still others from across the Jordan.”
(Matthew 4: 12 – 23, The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson)
Week by week as I prepare sermons on what are – after 43 years of preaching – familiar texts, I look back through my files to see what I have said in the past. Thanks to electronic file storage I have almost two decades of services and sermons in my computer, and another 20 years worth in paper files before that, including sermons written on typewriters.(Anybody remember typewriters?) How many of those sermons are worth repeating? Not many, because while the substance may remain the same, the context has changed.
What I am often amazed at is as I approach a text, an idea or title will come to mind, only to discover that it was an idea or a title I used 15 years ago; somehow those neural pathways are still intact; how much longer I don’t know. How crazy is that; I can’t remember where I left my phone, but I can remember a sermon title from 15 years ago?
What I find most humbling is this: while the texts are the same; the people and the congregations and the contexts continually change. As we hear the scriptures week by week and year by year, babies are born, children and youth grow up, marriages are performed, and funerals are held. Us preachers change congregations; looking out upon a new set of faces, all of whom remain in our minds, along with those old sermon titles. Celebrations are held (Cubs win the World Series); tragedies and wars happen (9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq, Sandy Hook). And this: Presidents and administrations come and go; inaugurations are held and Presidents get on Marine One and fly away. Michele and I got married on Inauguration Day 2001, the inauguration of George W. Bush. Yesterday, on Inauguration Day 2017, the inauguration of Donald Trump; we celebrated our 16th anniversary. Every four years I wish we had gotten married on a different day.
Through all these changes we carry on; sometimes joyfully, feeling like we are making progress; at other times sadly, feeling like we are regressing. I have always liked what a pastor said years ago in his retirement speech before Annual Conference: “I’ve served under 10 presidents, thank God I’m still an American. I’ve served under 6 bishops, thank God I’m still a Methodist. I’ve served 5 different congregations, thank God I’m still a Christian.”
Through all this – through whatever happens – as the ancient prophet Isaiah said, “The grass withers and the flowers fade, but the Word of our God abides forever.” And so – in all contexts and in every circumstance of the vicissitudes of life – we sit in the pews to consider the call of God upon our lives, to ask what God is calling us to do next, in changing contexts. This is the case today, as we hear the familiar story of Jesus calling his disciples – and with them, us – to follow him, wherever it may lead.
Note that this development in Jesus’ life occurred after a downturn; when John the Baptist – who baptized Jesus – was arrested. Undoubtedly, that did not bode well for the future of the mission. So Jesus left Nazareth, his hometown, to move to Capernaum, on the Sea of Galilee, perhaps where he could “lay low.” Maybe it got him to thinking, “I can’t do this by myself; if what happened to John happens to me, where will the mission be?”
And so, walking along the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers – Simon and Andrew – fishing. Despite their lack of qualifications, Jesus called out: “Leave all thing behind, and come and follow me.” Just down the beach they came upon another pair of brothers, James and John, sitting in a boat with their father, Zebedee. Jesus made the same offer to them, and they were as quick to follow, abandoning both boat and father.
For most of us, the most obvious question raised by this story is this: How could they ask no questions, and drop everything and follow? Does that make sense to you? If a car pulls up and offers you a ride, do you get in, no questions asked, even if Jesus is driving?
It’s possible we may be missing some details, such as that they already knew Jesus. But maybe it also had something to do with the dissatisfaction they had not only with their jobs but also with their lives. As St. Augustine famously said: “You have made us for yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.”
It is not unusual – especially in today’s economy – to find ourselves in the same situation. We may be looking for a job, or we may have a job, but what we are really looking for is what we call a Job with a capital J: the real work of our lives, that which we are called for and indeed, made to do.
I have always appreciated how author Frederick Buechner’s expressed it in his book, Wishful Thinking:
“The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need most to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done. If you really get a kick out of your work, you presumably met requirement (a), but if your work is writing TV deodorant commercials, the chances are you’ve missed requirement (b). On the other hand, if your work is being a doctor in a leper colony, you have probably met requirement (b), but if most of the time you’re bored and depressed by it, the chances are you have not only bypassed (a) but probably aren’t helping your patients much either. Neither the hair shirt nor the soft berth will do. The place God calls you to is the place where your gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” (Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking, p. 95)
In light of this, as we consider our lives, this gives us three possibilities:
(1) We have a job in which we have found and are fulfilling the call of Jesus to us. I think, for example, of my teacher at the University of Chicago, Martin E. Marty, who used to say, “I can’t believe they pay me to do what I’d be doing even if they didn’t pay me.” Blessed are such people’ who – in my experience – are few and far between.
(2) Our job is not fulfilling the call of Jesus for us, and in fact, may even be inhibiting it, and it’s time to look for another. These are the people who come home from work each night, tired, complaining, and unhappy. If this is the case: life is too short to live this way; make a plan to move on!
Or, finally (3) What we do for our job is one thing (our job and not our life), and so we fulfill the call of Jesus in other ways. This last category includes those retired from a “job”, at last free to make your life count in the way of your choosing; and I’m not just talking about golf.
In the new political context, this may become more important than ever. If the government is not going to protect the environment and save the planet, not going to protect the immigrant and the stranger and the refugee; not going to work toward an affordable system of health not as a option but a human right; then it falls to us, the people, to take these causes to heart. It may well be that while we have always believed these things to be important, we were too busy earning a living to do anything about it. Now would be the time to heed the call and stand up for what we believe. As Gloria Steinem, the feminist icon said yesterday to the Women’s March in Washington: “Thank you for understanding that sometimes we must put our bodies where our beliefs are; pressing ‘send’ is not enough.” (Susan Chira and Yamiche Alcindor, Defiant Voices Fill Nations Cities, the New York Times, January 21, 2017). Despite all the pessimism I have felt recently, what we saw yesterday with the Women’s Marches around the country and the world is one of the most encouraging things I have seen in a long time; people power at its best. And just to demonstrate what happens when it’s run and done by women: 500,000 people in Washington, D.C., and not ONE arrest.
It’s like this: everyone, I presume, is familiar with the comedian and talk show host, Steve Harvey. Just last week he was invited by both presidential transitions teams – President Obama’s and President Trump’s – to visit Trump Tower and talk with Ben Carson, Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Both teams want to enlist him to help address the need for urban renewal in major cities across the country, like Detroit and Chicago.
As you might expect, there were a lot of questions about him being there, and he was asked about it. In response, this is what he said, “There are two things in your life: ‘Your career is what you are paid for, and your calling is what you are made for.’” Steve Harvey is doing this, not because of any political allegiances, but because he experiences it as a calling: he feels like this is what he was made for. Preach it, Steve Harvey! (CBS News, January 13, 2017, (http://www.cbsnews.com/videos/steve-harvey-on-his-meeting-with-donald-trump/
Whatever we are doing now, whatever we are being paid for, Jesus calls us, to that which we are made for. Whatever that turns out to be at the varying ages and stages of our lives, may prove surprising, even to us.
In my last church there was a man named Paul Woodward, a lifelong member of the First United Methodist Church of West Chicago. Paul was a Korean war vet, awarded the Purple Heart, and the town funeral director, so over the years he had served and taken care of many people. Paul just died last September, at the age of 86. (Paul and his wife Eileen’s anniversary was the same day as mine and Michele’s.)
In 1997, we had just completed a study of our old Church building and found it would cost a million dollars to get 30 more seats, which would not solve any of the problems of invisibility, inaccessibility, or parking. We couldn’t imagine how we would ever find an alternate site around West Chicago we could afford, so we were discouraged about what to do next.
One day my phone rang, and it was Paul. Excitedly, he excitedly said, “You have got to come and see this property!” It was at 643 E. Washington, one of the best locations in town. At that time, the entire back half of the lot was wooded, and there was a house on the property, so – driving by – nobody ever noticed it or imagined how large it was, 5.5 acres. It was for sale for $600,000, and – upon investigation – we found it was owned by a former church member, who would sell it to the church for $220,000. The church voted to buy the property and build the new First United Methodist Church, which is located there today.
Paul often told me, that despite all that he had done in his life, he thought it might be the purpose of his life to have found that property. Upon his death in September, I told this story to Pastor Nancy Rethford, and she shared it at Paul’s funeral.
We may know clearly, or we may not discover until late in life what God is calling us to do, that which we are made for. But I know this; it is never too late to discover and to answer the call to adventure: the call of God upon our life.
Every year when I preach this sermon, I end with the words of Albert Schweitzer, one of the most famous and respected people of the 20th century. Schweitzer, who lived from 1875 to 1965, was an accomplished organist, philosopher, and theologian. As if that wasn’t enough, he gave it all up at the age of 30 to train as a physician and go to Africa as a missionary. In his most famous theological work, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, Schweitzer said this:
“He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside, he came to those men who knew him not. He speaks to us the same words: “Follow thou me!” and set us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.” (Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, 1906, p. 40.) Amen.
Central United Methodist Church
A Question, An Invitation, A Conversation
Pastor David Haley
Matthew 1: 29 – 42
January 15th, 2017
“The very next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and yelled out, “Here he is, God’s Passover Lamb! He forgives the sins of the world! This is the man I’ve been talking about, ‘the One who comes after me but is really ahead of me.’ I knew nothing about who he was — only this: that my task has been to get Israel ready to recognize him as the God-Revealer. That is why I came here baptizing with water, giving you a good bath and scrubbing sins from your life so you can get a fresh start with God.”
John clinched his witness with this: “I watched the Spirit, like a dove flying down out of the sky, making himself at home in him. I repeat, I know nothing about him except this: The One who authorized me to baptize with water told me, ‘The One on whom you see the Spirit come down and stay, this One will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’ That’s exactly what I saw happen, and I’m telling you, there’s no question about it: This is the Son of God.”
The next day John was back at his post with two disciples, who were watching. He looked up, saw Jesus walking nearby, and said, “Here he is, God’s Passover Lamb.”
The two disciples heard him and went after Jesus. Jesus looked over his shoulder and said to them, “What are you after?”
They said, “Rabbi” (which means “Teacher”), “where are you staying?”
He replied, “Come along and see for yourself.”
They came, saw where he was living, and ended up staying with him for the day. It was late afternoon when this happened.
Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, was one of the two who heard John’s witness and followed Jesus. The first thing he did after finding where Jesus lived was find his own brother, Simon, telling him, “We’ve found the Messiah” (that is, “Christ”). He immediately led him to Jesus.
Jesus took one look up and said, “You’re John’s son, Simon? From now on your name is Cephas” (or Peter, which means “Rock”). – John 1: 29 – 42, The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson
With all that we have before us this time of year – not least wishing we were somewhere warm and sunny – do we really have time to wander around a river bank with Jesus?
And what’s with this, anyway? Here we are in Chicago in January, still traumatized from 2016, concerned about 2017 – about things like whether we’re going to lose our health insurance – and we spend three weeks in the Gospel (last Sunday, today, and next Sunday) wandering around river beds and lake shores? Don’t we have more important things to do? Don’t we have our own Chicago River and Lake Michigan shore we could wander around? But at this time of year, who wants to do that?
Whether we want to do it or not or have the time or not, that is where today’s Gospel takes us: same place we were last Sunday – except from a different Gospel – back out to the banks of the River Jordan where John is preaching and baptizing. While there, Jesus asks us a question and gives us an invitation, both of which are more important than we can imagine in the beginning of a new year.
If you’ve read the Gospel of John, you know that the Fourth Gospel, as it is called, is quite different than the Synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke. John was the last Gospel written, around the end of the first century, and thus it has a deeper, more reflective, and symbolic perspective. Someone once said that the Gospel of John is a stream in which a child can wade, and an elephant can drown. In other words, it is both simple and profound, as we find with the question and invitation Jesus issues to us today.
I don’t know if Jesus was trying to be inconspicuous, but if he was, in John’s Gospel his cover is quickly blown. Seeing Jesus, pointing at him, John yells: “Here he is, God’s Passover Lamb, who forgives the sins of the world!” It reminds me – an introvert – of my first seminary roommate, from South Carolina, an extrovert. If he was in the cafeteria, whenever I would walk in, no matter where he was sitting, he would yell in the loudest voice imaginable: “Hey, Dave, come sit over here!” If John was like this, something tells me you wouldn’t want to walk in late for one of John’s sermons.
The next day, it happens again. John is with two of his disciples, and Jesus walks by. Again, John yells: “Here he is, God’s Passover Lamb.”
Frankly, I’m not sure somebody called the “Lamb” would be somebody we’d want to follow. Most of us know how we use “lamb”: “There he goes, like a lamb to the slaughter,” we say. Does that sound like somebody you’d want to follow?
But curiosity impels them, so follow him they do. Walking away, Jesus looked over his shoulder and says, in various translations, “What are you after?” or “What are you looking for? It could also be translated, “What are you seeking?” or “What do you hope to find?” Might we even expand it to: “What do you need? What do you long for? What do you hope for?”
This is a great question, one we don’t ask ourselves nearly often enough. Which is too bad, because our consumer culture asks it all the time; not so much as a question, but as an answer. Here’s what you need: a new pair of running shoes, a new car, the newest Apple (or other gadget), whiter teeth, to lose 10 lbs. All of which can be had for a price.
Yes, we are all tempted, all the time; but deep down, we know better. Deep down we know that both our true need and our true wealth is not found in things money can buy. What better way to start off a new year by asking ourselves this question Jesus asks his soon-to-be disciples: “What do we need, long for, and hope for?
This is a simple question, but it can be difficult to answer. Some of our answers will be different, others will be the same. Reflective silence in a noisy world? Authentic relationships in a divisive society and often lonely world? Meaning in a world which often makes no sense? Fulfilling ventures of service in a “me first, for profit” world? Hope and courage when the headlines threaten fear and despair? The fulfillment of a life well lived? We would all do well to ask ourselves this question from time to time, as our situation changes in life: “What do I need, long for, and hope for?”
A follow-up question might be this: For the things that we seek in common, how might our congregation provide them? We can’t be everything to everyone, but what deep need might we meet, what purpose might we organize our efforts around, what hallmark might we lift up, which meets people’s needs? After all – even though we sometimes forget – in the church we are not in the business of selling widgets, nor even entertainment; we are about meeting people’s deepest needs: their need for meaning, relationship, community, spirituality, service, deep connections to God and others. That’s what I want; isn’t that what you want too? It is what Jesus’ followers have found in him, from that day to this.
Don’t you find their answer interesting? They didn’t answer, rather, what they said was this: “Where are you staying?” The translation suggests what they are asking is where Jesus was dwelling, abiding, remaining, hanging out? In other words, they wanted to know where they could hang out with Jesus. Which leads to his invitation: “Come and see.”
It’s revealing that in John’s Gospel, Jesus doesn’t offer an answer but an invitation, which is not informational, but relational. Might it be that when people ask questions, particularly questions about faith, they are less interested in answers or information, than in relationship? Which is a good thing, because the Lord knows we don’t have all the answers, even though we have sometimes had the pretense that we do. Instead we should be ready to offer ourselves, our time and our commitment to them, regardless of where the conversation may lead.
Right now, in a time when we are all tempted to live in our own bubbles, we need to do more of this than ever: liberals need to talk with conservatives, whites need to talk with blacks, religious people need to talk with other kinds of religious people, including those who are not religious. Let’s commit ourselves to breaking out of our bubbles in 2017, by taking the time to talk to others, by “hanging out” with them, especially those different than us and “our people.”
In John’s Gospel, Jesus invitation is both simple and profound: “Come and see.” It’s clear, it’s non-threatening, it’s relationship, something any of us could offer. For most of us, evangelism is a scary word, recalling images of being accosted by wild-eyed preachers on street corners. But really, evangelism is this: offering a simple and relational invitation to people seeking more than the culture can offer: “Come and see.” David Lose – on whose commentary I’m drawing upon for this sermon – says that the decline of our church traditions will stop the day we (1) know why we value participation in church and (2) can share that with others.
In other words, we invite people to name what they are seeking and longing for, determine to be a congregation that meets those deeper needs, and offer a simple, three-word invitation: “Come and See.” The point is not to fill our pews and balance our budget, it is to invite people into the life we experience in Christ. In the end, it is not even about us: it is God in Christ inviting all of us to a more fulfilling and abundant life than we can buy in any store.
The amazing thing is, God continues to do this even when we settle for cheap substitutes we think we can purchase. Even when we struggle to name or understand or speak of our faith to others. Even when we wonder if we have any faith at all. Even then, Jesus remains, asking us what we are looking for, still inviting us to come and see, never giving up on us.
In this week’s commentary on this text on the United Methodist Board of Discipleship website, the Rev. Dr. Dawn Chesser, the Director of Preaching Ministries (and a former clergy member of the Northern IL Conference), shared a story which will be familiar not only to many clergy, but many parents. She says that while her twenty-one-year-old son was home for a visit, he asked her, “Why are you a Christian, mom? And why are you a Methodist?” Of these questions, Dawn wrote:
“I have to admit that at first I was taken aback. How could he not know the answer? I mean, this is a young man who for the first eighteen years of his life spent every Sunday morning in church listening to me preach, and whose entire circle of support came from relationships he made through church, and whose mother and grandfather are both United Methodist ministers! Besides, he might have been on vacation, but for me it was a work day, and I was busy trying to write sermon notes. I didn’t have time for a conversation about faith.
But I made time. I stopped what I was doing, and for the first time, I talked to my son about my faith in a deeply personal way. We talked about faith for a couple of hours that day. I told him that, in part, I was a Christian and a Methodist because of the family I was born into. But at some point in my life, it became more than that, and I made a personal decision to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. I told him I loved Jesus. I told him I believed that in Jesus we see the very nature and person of God. I told him about an experience I had when I was working as a chaplain in which I felt deep in my heart that I had come face to face with the living Lord. I told him that this encounter had changed my life. I told him that for me, there was nothing more important I could do with my life than follow Jesus. My faith in Christ is the center of my being. It is who I am. I then explained in great detail why I found The United Methodist Church to be the best context for me to practice my discipleship.
As we talked over the next two hours, I answered his questions as honestly as I could. I know that he has stopped going to church and for all practical purposes has joined the ranks of the “nones” at this point in his life. I didn’t tell him his eternal life was in danger. I didn’t try to convince him that my way should be his way. I didn’t tell him he should go back to church, or be a Methodist, or even be a Christian. I simply shared my own faith with him as honestly and authentically as I possibly could, because he asked.” (Rev. Dr. Dawn Chesser, “Come and See – Preaching Notes, January 15, 2017, www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/come-and-see-preaching-notes )
A question, an invitation, a conversation: sometimes that is all that it takes. Let’s give it a try. Amen.
[As many weeks, I acknowledge my gratitude in this sermon to David Lose for his insightful commentary upon this text (Epiphany 2A: A Question, An Invitation, A Promise,” posted January 9th on his website, “In the Meantime,” www.davidlose.net ]
Central United Methodist Church
Tell Me More
Matthew 3: 21 – 22
Pastor David L. Haley
The Baptism of the Lord
January 8th, 2017
“Jesus then appeared, arriving at the Jordan River from Galilee. He wanted John to baptize him. John objected, “I’m the one who needs to be baptized, not you!”
But Jesus insisted. “Do it. God’s work, putting things right all these centuries, is coming together right now in this baptism.” So John did it.
The moment Jesus came up out of the baptismal waters, the skies opened up and he saw God’s Spirit — it looked like a dove — descending and landing on him. And along with the Spirit, a voice: “This is my Son, chosen and marked by my love, delight of my life.”
– Matthew 3: 13 – 17, The Message
Sooner or later in life, we wake up to realize we want to know more about who we are and where we come from. This may include questions about what our name means, who our family is, and who our “people” are?
Personally, I never felt the need to do this until I came to Chicago, which is what happens when you grow up in a place where everybody is pretty much alike, as I did in western Kentucky. After I came to Chicago, however, I discovered that everybody had answers to these questions. They were Irish or Swedish or Jewish or Italian or Polish or Greek or Indian or Filipino (the list goes on and on) They had an identity and a people. Who was I? I didn’t know.
As a result, in the years afterward I would ask my Dad what he know about our family. It was frustrating, because he knew very little. He would say, “I think we came from Tennessee.” It reminds me of the boy who asked his mother where he came from, only to get a long lecture about the birds-and-the bees. To which he replied, “I was only asking because my friend said he came from Ohio.”
So it happens, as we grow older, we wish we “knew more.” Many of us wish we had asked our parents and our grandparents more questions about such things, before it was too late. Rather than, say, staring at our iPhones.
Of course, in some cases, there is little or no information, and we find ourselves a person without a people or history, endlessly curious about a intriguing name in a dusty record book.
Now – thankfully – there are more successful ways to find out information. There is an increasing amount of information on the internet. In fact, by going on Ancestry.com a few years ago, I was able to fill most of my family tree back to the 1700’s; I can now confidently claim to be primarily Scots-Irish. However, the latest development and most promising development is DNA testing. It is now possible through DNA testing and comparison to track down “your people” among the world’s population. In some cases, this has revealed surprises: some people have found out they are not who they thought they were; to their great surprise others have found children they didn’t know they had. A Viet Nam veteran who had a brief relationship while in Viet Nam, discovered while comparing his DNA, that he had a son in CA. (DNA’s new ‘miracle’: How adoptees are using online registries to find their blood relatives, Tara Bahrampour, Washington Post, 10/12/2016)
The question arises, why would we even want to do this? Those of us who know who our people are, who see them every day, have no need; you know who you are and who your people are. However, those of us who feel orphaned or disconnected or unloved, have powerful incentives to do so. Because, as human beings we simply cannot live with identity and belonging and connection: “This is who I am, this is who I belong to, this is who loves me.”
Given this, I wonder if it wasn’t such questions that brought Jesus to the banks of the Jordan River that day long ago, to be baptized by his cousin John. What’s most revelatory is that because of who he was – the Revealer of God, the answers Jesus found that day, still apply to us today, in our search for identity and connecting and belonging. That answer was given to Jesus and to us by God: “You are my Child, chosen and marked by my love, the delight of my life.”
As with my question to my father, we know so little about what brought him there that day, or for that matter, what he had done since we saw him last; in Matthew’s Gospel, not when he was visited by the Magi around age 2 (which we celebrated last Sunday); but when he visited the Temple at around age 12.
Are we aware that we even have his name wrong? This person we call Jesus, was named in Hebrew/Aramaic: “Yeshu‘a. In Greek (the language the New Testament was written in) that became Greek, Iēsous, then in Latin, Iesus, passing into German and ultimately, English, as Jesus, to be slaughtered by preachers ever since. Yeshu‘a is probably looking down from heaven saying, “After all these centuries, you’d think they could at least get my name right?”
Other than this, we know very little. Born in Bethlehem, he grew up in Nazareth, the son of Mary and Joseph, a carpenter, a handyman. Very early, Joseph disappears from the record.
Which adds to the stigma about the circumstances of his birth. Such that, he is called Jesus, son of Mary; not Jesus, son of Joseph, which would have been customary. Did Jesus live under the stigma and disconnection of being a bastard, an illegitimate child, as we used to call it (not that there are any illegitimate children). If so, having heard the stories about his birth told by his mother Mary, was that part of what brought him that day to the at the River Jordan? Was he seeking – like us – seeking identity, connection, belonging, a path into the destiny to which he felt called?
Sitting here today, we might say, “If only the authors of the story had been less interested in theology, and had written more like journalists, novelists, telling us what was in Jesus’ head that day. As he looked around at the people being baptized – elderly women, tax collectors, soldiers, religious people, poor people, rich people, people crying and rejoicing; did Jesus feel “out-of-place?” No, I think the story – as the rest of his life tells us – Jesus was thinking, “Whoever I am, these people are my people.” And so – even though he was the sinless One – into the muddy waters he went, even against John’s protest: “Who me? I should be baptized by you!”
Because Jesus, humbling himself, willing made this identification and acceptance, which is why his experience became breathtaking, revelatory not only to him, but to all who hear the story: “You are my Child, chosen and marked by my love, delight of my life.” There in the muddy waters of the Jordan, Jesus found identity, and connection, belonging, and mission.
What Jesus heard at his baptism is an allusion to the text from Isaiah we read earlier:
“Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations . . .
I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness,
I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.
– Isaiah 42: 1 – 9 (selected)
Breathtaking for sure, you may say, but what does this have to do with our baptism, or the lack of it? Many of us cannot remember our baptism, being baptized as babies long ago, in churches which may no longer be standing, by people no longer alive, and – for sure – the water has long since dried.
For those of us who do remember, there was no vision or voice, as much as we might have liked, only some poor preacher like me, trying to keep from drowning us and reading the words out of a book, with little passion at that. I recently heard the story of a shy person, for whom a pastor arranged a “drive-by”: come to the front at the beginning of the service, and be baptized before anybody gets here.”
And what about those of us who say, “I was never baptized,” or “I DON’T KNOW if I was baptized?” Am I missing out? Remember, the symbol is not the sentiment, the map is not the territory. Just because you never had water applied, does not mean the love and delight of God is any less for you, than the most water-soaked person.
Because of who Jesus is, the God-revealer, willing to identify with and give himself for the whole human race, what God says about Jesus also becomes a pronouncement about us: “You are my Child, chosen and marked by my love, delight of my life.” Now, when we are baptized, when we participate in baptisms, when we remember our baptisms, even when we bathe in water, we remember God’s cleansing, forgiving, encompassing love.
Tell me more? Ultimately, because of this, we don’t have to know more, to be loved and accepted and to belong, to have a purpose in life.
Sunday by Sunday here in worship before communion, we pray the Great Thanksgivings of Thom Shuman, a Presbyterian Pastor in Columbus, Ohio. Most of us have come to love them, someday we are going to have to find a way to meet Rev. Shuman. This week, on his Facebook page, in the style we have come to love, he wrote this about Jesus baptism:
“In a world of competing voices, who should we listen to – those who shout the loudest; those who offer the most tweets; those who will say anything to grab our attention? Scripture reminds us that the servant God sent to us doesn’t yell, but quietly affirms that it is always right to do the right thing. To simply listen to that voice which calls us Beloved, and to believe it, and to live it. Even when, like John, we stammer, ‘who, me?’
In a world of competing ideologies, who will receive our allegiance – a political party, an economic way, a sports team, an individual? Scripture reminds us that our ultimate loyalty is not to the powerful, but to the weak; not to the rich, but to the poor; not to the mighty, but the fallen; not to the wise, but to the foolish. To simply give our hearts and souls to One who goes against every expectation we have of success and power. Even when, like John, we stammer, ‘who, me?’
In a world where despair threatens to destroy hope, when our fears burrow deep into us until we quake every time we take a step, and the future seems already shattered even before it gets to us – how are we to live? Scripture reminds us that it is precisely at such moments, in such places, to such people, God comes and asks us to be faithful, to trust, to walk towards the future sowing seeds of grace/love/joy, to step into the living waters where we will be changed forever even when, like John, we stammer, ‘who, me?’
Today, the day the church remembers, celebrates, rejoices in the Baptism of Jesus, we are reminded once again that we are called, baptized, named, and sent to seriously, intentionally, faithfully, hopefully follow Jesus, even when like John, we stammer, ‘who, me?’” (Thom Shuman, posted on his Facebook page, January 7, 2017). Amen.
Central United Methodist Church
Follow That Star!
Pastor David L. Haley
Epiphany Sunday/New Year’s Day
Matthew 2: 1 – 12
January 1st, 2017
“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the territory of Judea during the reign of King Herod, magi came from the east to Jerusalem. They asked, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We’ve seen his star in the east, and we’ve come to honor him.”
When King Herod heard this, he was troubled, and everyone in Jerusalem was troubled with him. He gathered all the chief priests and the legal experts and asked them where the Christ was to be born. They said, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for this is what the prophet wrote:
You, Bethlehem, land of Judah, by no means are you least among the rulers of Judah,
because from you will come one who governs, who will shepherd my people Israel. ”
Then Herod secretly called for the magi and found out from them the time when the star had first appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search carefully for the child. When you’ve found him, report to me so that I too may go and honor him.” When they heard the king, they went; and look, the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stood over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were filled with joy. They entered the house and saw the child with Mary his mother. Falling to their knees, they honored him. Then they opened their treasure chests and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Because they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went back to their own country by another route.” (Matthew 2: 1 – 12, Common English Version)
And so here we are, on the first day of the Year of Our Lord 2017. Have you written or typed that yet? Did your hand and brain refuse to work together like mine did, unable to grasp that it could POSSIBLY be 2017? After all, some of us are still struggling with 2012? That was the last time we worshiped on New Year’s Day, five years ago. Where does the time go?
The primary mood on social media appears to be not celebratory, but defiant: “Good riddance to 2016!” Some people said they wanted to stay up until midnight last night – New Year’s Eve – just so they could watch 2016 die. Another group did a movie trailer called 2016: The Movie, in the style of a horror movie: notable people die – Prince, Eli Wiesel, Mohammad Ali, John Glenn) (just to name a few), and at the end, Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), and her mother, Debbie Reynolds. Cell phones explode. England leaves Europe without explanation. And guess who the guy in the mask breaking the door down at the end is? (Clue: He’s orange!) The trailer ends with a personification of the year, with 2016 oozing braggadocio that sounds familiar: “I have the best months,” it declares, “Everyone says I’m a great year.”
Humor aside, the movie trailer stayed away from some of the worst tragedies of the year: Syria’s civil war, the fall of Aleppo, the ensuing refugee crisis; terror attacks at home and abroad; the tragic toll of gun violence here on the streets of Chicago.
Here at Central, in 2016 we suffered some notable losses: Ron Campbell, Ralph Rosales, Loretta Gut, and Ilene Konior. Others of us lost those not publicly known, but near and dear to us.
Given all this, how DO we feel on this first day of 2017? Limping along, or looking ahead? Fearful or hopeful of what the new year will bring?
This may be why, every year at the beginning of a year, we hear this ancient but endlessly fascinating story of the Magi – the Three Kings as we know them, who – led by the light of a star – journey in search of a new King who is born.
What if – like those Magi of long ago – we approach this New Year as a journey that lies before us, chronological if not through geographical. On this first day of a new year, let’s do this by asking ourselves three questions.
What is the star on our horizon?
Whatever we may or may not know about the Magi’s journey, there was a time and a place it began. Was it after a lifetime of seeking, such that they anticipated the time and place to look? Or was it serendipitous, a surprise one night while looking for other things in the night sky? But there it was, now what?
What are the stars on our horizon, beckoning us? Whatever our situation is in life, what in the year to come surprises us, draws us, leads us, and fills us with hope? Is it something new that we know, that we have learned in a book, from a friend, in a class? Is it a life experience we have had, that has changed the way we look at things? Is it a new baby or grandbaby to be born? Is it something in our bodies, our hearts, or our minds that has revealed itself to us, that we know is going to alter the course of our life?
It was exactly such a new truth Matthew was trying to teach, which is the reason he included this story. The issue of the day was whether only Jews could be Christians, or whether Gentiles (pagans) should be included too. So right here at the beginning of Jesus’ story, Matthew provocatively suggests, “O by the way, guess who were the first ones to worship the newborn Christ? Not Jews, but strangers and aliens from foreign lands. As Scott Hoezee noted in a commentary on this text:
“Matthew is giving a Gospel sneak preview: the Christ child who attracted these odd Magi to his cradle will later have the same magnetic effect on Samaritan adulterers, immoral prostitutes, greasy tax collectors on the take, despised Roman soldiers, and ostracized lepers.” (Scott Hoezee, Lectionary Commentary, 2010)
For the time and the place, mind-blowing. Time to think a different way, to feel differently, to act differently, even though we’ve never done that before. If there is anything 2016 revealed to us, it is that too many of us are locked into perspectives into which little light enters, except to reinforce the narrative we have already believe. But isn’t the point of this story this? God is always sending up new stars on the horizon, for those who see them and follow.
The second question is this, having seen a new star on the horizon, “Are we willing to follow it where it leads?”
I have always loved poet T. S. Eliot’s imaginative description, in his poem, Journey of the Magi, of the difficulties they faced:
“A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.”
Sometimes the greatest lessons we learn in life, we learn not by staying home and being comfortable, but by leaving home, moving out of our comfort zone. All through the Bible God asks people to leave where they are: Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, the children of Israel, the exile, Jesus in the wilderness, the disciples leaving their boats behind. Sometimes to find the truth, especially the truth for us, is that we must leave the familiar behind, step out of the boat, and go on a journey, just as the Magi did of old. We can’t stay at home and huddle, we’ve got to go out to where God is calling us by the star on the horizon, wherever that might be.
Churches across the country have subscribed to the “Field of Dreams” theory, which is, “If you built it, they will come.” That might have once been true, but it is not any longer. Many of us – not only in our churches, but in our personal lives – practice what Albert Einstein once called the definition of insanity: “Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” So, in 2017, we all need to ask ourselves this: “Having seen the star on the horizon leading me on, what do we need to do to follow the star which God has revealed to me? As the ancient Chinese proverb says, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
The final question is this: Having seen the star, if we are willing to follow where it leads, are we ready to be changed?
T.S. Eliot, in his Journey of the Magi, suggests that the Magi were changed, though not in a way that we might necessarily think:
“All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.”
What makes us into distinct human beings is not how we are alike everybody else, but how we are different. And we are made different by what we experience on our journey through life.
If you have ever been in love, or had your heart broken by someone you love, you will never be the same. If you have been or are a parent, having birthed or adopted or raised children, you will never be the same. If you have sat at the bedside of someone you love and watched them die, you will never be the same. No one gets out of life unchanged; but will it be for better or worse?
Consider one of those elder statesmen we lost in July: Elie Wiesel. Having survived the horrors of Auschwitz and Buchenwald as a youth, he became not only an eloquent witness for the six million Jews slaughtered in World War II, but as his citation for a Nobel Peace Prize in 1986 said: “Wiesel is a messenger to mankind.” “His message is one of peace, atonement and human dignity. His belief that the forces fighting evil in the world can be victorious is a hard-won belief.” An affirmation we all may want to remember, as we enter 2017.
None of us knows what lie ahead for us in 2017; the only thing certain is that by whatever happens, we will be changed, as surely as the Magi were changed, not only going home a different way, but as different people. Whether we will be changed for better or for worse, remains to be seen.
As people of faith, who have seen a Star, who are willing to follow where it leads, and in so doing certain to be changed, the only other certainty we have is this, the certainty that the love of God goes with us on our journey. It was best expressed by the 20th century American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr in his “Prayer for a New Year.” Let us pray together:
“O God, who has made us the creatures of time, so that every tomorrow is an unknown country, and every decision a venture of faith; grant us, frail children of the day, who are blind to the future, to move toward it with a sure confidence in your love, from which neither life nor death can separate us. Amen.”
Central United Methodist Church
A Christmas Story
Pastor David L. Haley
Today we get the rare privilege of worshiping on Christmas Day. Even though most of us are tired, having just concluded worship 12 hours ago, there is something about Christmas Day that is unlike any other. It brings to mind scenes of Ebenezer Scrooge dancing through the streets of London, or of George Bailey running through the streets of New Bedford, yelling “Merry Christmas” to all.
However, I have found over the years that when Christmas Day falls in this sequence, and we celebrate Christmas Eve Saturday night and Christmas Day Sunday morning, my parishioner’s most common advice has been, “Keep it Short.” So instead of the 45 minute sermon I had planned on the Incarnation, I want to share a Christmas Story.
Those of you who listen to Chicago’s classical music station, WFMT, may remember that each year, as part of their Christmas Day programming, the late Studs Turkel would host a Christmas program of story and song. One of the stories he would play every year was John Henry Faulk’s story about a West Texas Christmas. I made a tape of it about 10 years ago, but then in 1994, after Faulk died in 1990, National Public Radio played it, and it has become for their audience an annual Christmas favorite. (That’s where I got it from, and so you will hear their introduction.)
Let me say, this story always had a personal appeal to me for a couple reasons. First, the West Texas accent is pretty much the same one my parents spoke in West Kentucky, so this story sounds close to home for me. (If you want to hear what I talked like before I got civilized, this is it.)
Second, you need to know that my Dad, Ben Keys Haley, who died 4 years ago at the age of 91, was born in 1920, the son of sharecroppers. (To make it even more real for me, John Henry Faulk’s voice sounds a lot like my Dad’s voice.) While, as a child of the 50’s I did OK in terms of Christmas gifts (usually some kind of gun, either play or real), every Christmas my Dad used to tell me how when he was a kid he always felt fortunate at Christmas to get oranges and maybe some clothes, which always seemed unbelievable to me. Of course, I had no idea what the Great Depression was, or what it might have been to grow up then, especially in rural America.
So the story you are about to hear, told by John Henry Faulk, harkens back to a time in America, when people were poorer, when Christmas was simpler, and when the evil of segregation was still in place, but the joy of Christmas Day was no less great. Take a listen: [Readers: You may listen to the story on National Public Radio here.]
Central United Methodist Church
The Message We Need This Christmas
Pastor David L. Haley
Luke 2: 1 – 20
December 24th, 2016
“Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid. Then the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.”
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men!”
(Luke 2: 8 – 14, the New King James Version)
Welcome to all of you who have come to this special service tonight. As Adam first said to Eve on the day before Christmas, “It’s Christmas, Eve!”
Ever since I was a child I have been both fascinated by Christmas. One of the things I remember most is how I could never sleep on Christmas Eve. I tried going on long hikes in the snow, to tire myself out. But it never worked; the anticipation of what would be under that tree in the morning was so great. Do you have memories like that?
Little did I know the day would come when Christmas would continue to bring sleepless nights, but this time for a different reason: what to say on nights such as this? I realize, no one has come to hear a sermon. In illustration of this, one pastor said that once just as he began his Christmas Eve service, the electricity in the church went out. The ushers found some candles and placed them around the sanctuary. He re-entered the pulpit, shuffled his notes, and asked, “Now where was I?” A tired voice in the back called out, “Near the end!”
In reality, those of us who come to services such as this come for a variety of reasons. Some of us are genuinely thankful for a good year, for good health, for the love of family and friends. Others have not had as good a year, and put on a happy face to hide the pain or uncertainty or fear we feel. And, of course, there are many of us – perhaps most of us – who come holding both joy and sorrow, both hope and fear, in our hearts.
After all, 2016 has been a year unlike any other, which makes this Christmas unlike no other. As pastor and author Brian McLaren put it, “It’s not so easy to settle into that joyful holiday spirit when the political world mocks so many values I hold dear, from protecting our planet to caring for refugees to respecting the equal rights of minorities to upholding the value of truth.”
It’s safe to say that many of us are still trying to come to terms with the “This Thing That Happened,” (and I’m not talking about the birth of a baby) without succeeding. We read the news, we search op-eds; in the emails we share with each other, the Subject Line could be “Fear.” Even as families gather for Christmas, there will be tension around tables, due to the unresolved feelings and different opinions about what has happened, and what it means for the future, and for our children and grandchildren sitting there with us.
Even as we gather to worship on Christmas Eve, we are diverse: Democrats and Republicans; progressives, moderates, and conservatives; black and white, gay and straight, locals and strangers, people here every Sunday and people not here since last Christmas. I’m certain there are some here who don’t believe any of this stuff, who come to church on Christmas Eve to please family and loved ones. And that’s OK.
So it is in such a gathering that I get the greatest honor of all – the job of the angels – to proclaim the good news: “Do not be afraid; for see — I am bringing YOU good news of great joy for ALL the people: for TO YOU is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Christ the Lord.” Whoever you are, whatever you believe – even if you don’t believe – this message is for you: in the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, the love of God has been revealed to us: God knows our struggles, stands with us and for us, and will not let us go.
This year in particular – when we look more closely at this story we celebrate every year – we discover it is not a sentimental story about Santa and snow and mistletoe, but a story about love and peace and hope in the face of ugly and dangerous realities. Into the middle of a bad situation, the sign of God’s peace breaks into the world.
Remember the context under which the birth of Christ occurred. In the background looms an ugly political reality; an occupation by the greatest empire of the time, Rome. Their soldiers were everywhere, and everyone – including the poor – were taxed to pay for them. It was said of Rome and the Roman Army that “They make a desert and they call it peace.” And by the time this story was written – in AD 70 – they had done just that to Jerusalem: they had destroyed the city along with the Temple, the sign of God’s presence.
But don’t be distracted by that; look away from that, away from Caesar Augustus and the Roman legions way under the radar where a poor couple heads back to the man’s hometown, under edict of a Roman census. Lest we think the actions of empires do not impact the lives of ordinary people, even this story we love says otherwise. The story of Joseph and Mary’s journey reminds us how vulnerable they were, how helplessly subject they were to the whims of powerful people who neither knew nor cared about them, just as we often feel ourselves to be.
If that was the context, remember also the circumstances. Mary is expecting, and the birth is imminent. Given the promise of the child she carries, you would think they would have regal accommodations, but that is not to be. Instead – as common to the lives of immigrants and refugees – there is no place for them, not even a place to have the baby other than a barn in the back of the house.
Anyone who’s been through childbirth knows what it is like; kind of a controlled earthquake. When my Mom began contractions to deliver me, my Dad was out working in the garden, shirtless. He went to my Uncle Charles and said, “Charles, I need to borrow a shirt.” “Charles said, “Sure, which one do you want?” My Dad said, “The one you got on will be fine.” The two of them got in the car in the front seat of our car, and put my mother in the back seat, as if she might explode. When they walked into the hospital, my Uncle Charles was carrying his socks in his hand. That’s the kind of people I come from; Joseph and Mary didn’t fare much better.
AT first, no one notices, not should they, considering the circumstances. But it’s as if SOMEBODY needs to know, such that an angelic choir announces the news to startled shepherds. In modern terms, this would be like a baby born to an unwed African-American couple on the south side of Chicago; with the news announced to beat cops sitting in their squad down the street, and not over the radio.
If that was the context and the circumstances, remember the characters. Although we like to think Joseph and Mary looked like us – white people, for the most part; on closer examination, the story brings surprisingly different people together: a homeless couple from out of town and shepherds, people on the lowest rung of the social ladder. Later in the story – according to Matthew – mysterious Magi from the East arrive, neither Jews or Christians, possibly Zoroastrians, definitely not Methodists or Presbyterians. Given the presence of cows and animals, you might say all creation is represented.
All these characters intersect in the birth of this Wonderful Child, and all of them are welcome. Even if it is only a glimpse, it is a glimpse of the Kingdom this Child has come to proclaim and bring, the Kingdom of God, in which everyone is welcomed, accepted, and honored, including all of us here tonight. The message of Jesus’ birth story is a message that we need to hear, particularly this year: God knows our struggles, stands with us and for us, and will not let us go, no matter who we are, no matter the context or circumstances of our lives.
Despite the desperate contexts and circumstances in which the birth has been celebrated through the centuries, time and again it has birthed compassion and generosity and kindness and peace and justice and hope. This is what the Baby was a sign of; this is what he charged us to do with our lives.
Do you know the song, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day?” It was written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in 1863, though not published until 1865, during the terrible years of the American Civil War. Two years before writing it, Longfellow’s second wife of 18 years, to whom he was devoted, was tragically burned in a fire. While still mourning that, his oldest son, Charles Appleton Longfellow, joined the Union Army as a soldier, without his father’s blessing. Not long afterwards, Charles was severely wounded in the Battle of New Hope Church in Virginia. Longfellow once wrote, “Every man has his secret sorrows which the world knows not; and often times we call a man cold when he is only sad.” Which may illuminate why Longfellow said what he says in the poem:
I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
and wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”
The birth of Jesus reminds us, no matter who we are, no matter the context or circumstances of our lives, “God is not dead, nor does God sleep. The Wrong shall fail, the Right prevail, with peace on earth, good will to men.”
- 24 Hours That Changed the World Series – 2010
- Advent 2010 – A Life Giving Christmas
- Advent 2011
- Christmas Through the Lens of Hollywood Series – 2009
- Church at the Passages of Life Series – 2007
- Conversations with Jesus Series – 2008
- Eastertide Sermons from the Book of Revelations Series – 2010
- Fearless: The Courage to Question Series Lent 2011
- Five Practices of Fruitful Living
- Following Jesus: Do We Have What It Takes
- Heewon Kim – Pastoral Intern 2013 – 2014
- Jesus' Bread of Life Discourse – John Chapter 6
- Kelly Van Pastoral Intern 2011-2012
- Lay Sermons
- Lessons in Practical Christianity Series – 2009
- Lizzie Sherfey Pastoral Intern 2010-2011
- PoWeRSuRGe Series – 2009
- Psalms Series – Summer 2013
- Qualities of Jesus – 2015 Lenten Series
- Roll Down, Justice! A Lenten Biblical Seriew
- Season of Creation Series 2014
- Sermon on the Mount – 2011
- Stories from the Family of Faith Series 2014
- The Journey – Walking the Road to Bethlehem Series Advent 2013
- The Story of Job Series – 2009
- The Way: Walking in the Footsteps of Jesus
- Worship Series – 2008