Photo Credit to Robert Lentz “Christ of Maryknoll”
There once was a man who sought the answers to his life’s questions. The Western life pursuit of Success didn’t satisfy his longing. Traditional practice of worship sitting in a pew left him cold. He cashed in his 401k and went searching. He followed gurus in India in “Eat, Pray, Love” fashion. He spent time cross legged with Monks in Thailand humming “Om.” He even climbed a mountain and spent a year in solitude. Everything helped, but it was as if this itch wouldn’t go away no matter how much he scratched, it all seemed like it was just the surface. He wanted to go deeper. He wanted his spirituality to be real, felt, whole.
Finally, the man heard of an old wise man who lived in Mexico City. The man was immediately skeptical. Weren’t the holy men supposed to live life in monasteries, temples or impeccably high cliffs? The address that he had been given led him to a busy corner in a rough part of the city. He arrived in the late morning. He looked around, surrounded by abandoned buildings where squatters were just waking up and beginning to gather at the only business in sight – a 7 Eleven. He watched as the homeless entered the establishment, each got a cup of coffee, and then came back out into the parking lot where they gathered in a circle. Together they seemed to be sharing personal issues and struggles. He then watched as they held hands in prayer, sang a song, and then with a collective “amen” they parted.
The man saw what was happening. “This must be the group the man leads.”
He chose one of the homeless men that he assumed was the leader and began following him. This man went two blocks down the street to a dilapidated apartment complex. Walking into one of the apartments as if he owned it, he began working on the plumbing using tools he pulled from his pockets. All the while a small group of children and a mother holding a baby watched on. They all smiled at the man who had followed the homeless plumber into their abode. They even offered him something to eat and drink.
After many hours work, when the plumber was finished, he looked at the man. “What are you doing here?”
“Are you the wise one I seek?” The man asked.
The plumber stood up smiling. “I am not the one you seek, but I know him.”
“Will you take me to him?”
“Come tomorrow morning, get a coffee at the 7 Eleven, and he may show up for you.”
The man did exactly that. He arrived, followed the homeless men into the 7 Eleven, got his cup of coffee, and joined them in the circle. Again, they shared from their hearts about the struggles they were going through. They shared tools of their trades so that each had what everyone needed that day. Every time for each instance, those gathered offered support and encouragement. Again, they prayed, sang a song. And again, they parted to go off to work.
Confused, the man followed a different man, one he felt sure was the leader. This one turned out to be a carpenter working on a nursery for a day care. The next day he followed another – who was a retired teacher who volunteered time at the local school as a tutor.
He followed each of them. The lawyer who did pro bono. The elderly man who read books at the library all day to kids who gathered. The brick mason who was re-pointing the bricks at the post office. There were all kinds of workers, each using what he had in his pockets to help the community around them.
After he had followed each of them, none of which admitted to being the leader, he grew frustrated. “Exactly who in God’s name is the leader here!” He exclaimed.
The plumber, the first man he had followed, walked over to him and frowned. Then he slapped the man in the face. The man was shocked. “God is our leader. Everything we do is in his name. After all this time, if you don’t see, you can’t possibly be shown.”
Though no one told him to leave, the man left the circle. He went to one of the abandoned buildings and wept. The next morning, the sun beamed through the windows and warmed his face, awakening him. He got up, went into the 7 Eleven, and gathered as if he always had in the circle. There, he expressed his love for God. There he sang his heart out to God. There he said Amen. And then he left, to find need in the community that he could provide for.
God called us to be Holy as God is Holy. Like today, the early church struggled with what it meant to be holy. Did it mean avoiding sin? Did it mean spending time in prayer, meditation, worship? What about good deeds? In the conversation of grace, where do good deeds come into play? A conservative branch of the church has always emphasized God’s forgiveness as and repentance as all that is necessary for salvation. A liberal branch of the church has always emphasized social action, missions to help save not just the soul, but the physical body as necessary for salvation. In the early Church, the book of James already answered the question. Both are required.
I can’t do good on my own… I’m just a vessel for God’s love to flow to the world.
Personal Holiness is showing our Love for God. More precisely, it’s sharing the love of God with God.
- Worship and prayer – not just asking but spending time with God!
- Forgiving yourself
- Devotions and Fasting – limiting actions so that what you do matters more
- Not posting that obnoxious post on Facebook that you know is going to be controversial just to be controversial
- Giving money to support the ministry
- Reading the Bible
- In general, not being a jerk about faith, but enjoying the compassion and love that Christ pours out upon us all freely.
Social Holiness is showing our Love for Neighbor, sharing the love of God with others.
- Sharing mercy in missions
- backpack ministry to feed kids in poverty on the weekend
- Mission Garden to provide fresh veggies
- Impact 757 and going to Waverly on UMVIM trips
- forgiving others especially when they don’t deserve it
- visiting or writing notes to someone who’s world has shrunk to the size of their home
- Sharing God’s vision of justice and kingdom in a broken world
- Does God desire freedom for those enslaved to drugs, debt, or a system that is broken? Yes!
- Does God want us concerned for refugees and immigrants? Yes!
In the Super Bowl of life, God has a bias, it is always for the underdog. To be holy as God is holy requires us not just to have faith, but to do faith. Our faith must have action attached to it.
Here’s the thing, though, “No Social Holiness, No Personal Holiness.” James, “Someone might claim, you have faith and I have action. But how can I see your faith apart from your actions?” Truly loving God causes God to love through us to our neighbors. Truly loving our neighbors causes us to truly love God. If all we do is get our cup of coffee and join the circle for songs and prayers – we have personal holiness. If all we do is go out into the world and be good people helping others – we have social holiness. Faith without Works is dead. Works without Faith is turning grace into a merit badge or a brownie point.
Be holy as God is holy. Love God. Love neighbor. This is the Gospel. Amen.
Vows for a Wedding
Here I stand.
I stand behind you in support.
I stand beside you in the toughest moments you will ever face.
I stand in front of you to defend you from harm.
Here I sit.
I sit by the phone waiting for you to call.
I sit at the table sharing a meal and sharing life.
I sit in your cheering section, with your family grieving, and at hospital bedside, waiting.
Here I kneel.
I kneel to pick you up when you fall down.
I kneel to pray in your behalf to God.
I kneel to ask you to marry me.
Here I am… forever yours.
from Isaiah 42:1-9
The little boy and girl were as close to heaven as they were to the earth. Jessica and Jerome: fraternal and inseparable twins they were. At age seven, they looked at the world through double lenses of reality and fantasy. It didn’t take much in their eyes to turn a play house into a castle or a tree with low hanging branches into an attacking dragon, and behind the castle, a puddle of mud into a swimming pool.
They each took turns cannonballing into the mud and the muck. She first noticed that you could turn it into a slip and slide if you ran first. He figured out that you could ball up the mud and throw it (even at her). They were in the ecstatic giggles and youthful joy when mother’s voice called them to dinner. “Lord have mercy, how did you two get so dirty? You both will have to have a bath before dinner.”
That’s when the buts showed up. “But mom, we don’t want to.” “But mom, do we have to?” “But mom, we look alright to each other.” And in a tone that warned her that teenage years were approaching far too quickly, “Mother!”
And we understand these feelings all too well in our spiritual journey. As Christians we see the word through double lenses. We see the world as it is. We see the racism that persists in our nation from generation to generation. We weep at the funerals of police officers that have been ambushed while striving to serve and protect. The greedy horde while the poor starve. Nations are shutting doors to immigrants and refugees in irrational fears based on the same nationalism and prejudice that fueled the Nazi party almost 100 years ago. The world seems to be playing its own version of Hunger games and we are all in the arena.
But as Christians, we also see the world as God believes it could and should be. Love that sees difference of culture and skin tone not as a bad thing but as an a reflection of God’s own diverse love and color. Righteous anger at those who abuse power, manipulate crowds with fear, and use tragedy as a means to fuel their own agendas. Compassion for moms and dads who just want a safe place from war, rape, and unrest for their children to grow up and have it better than they did.
And in all of this God asks us to take a bath. Our Lord invites us to awaken within our baptismal waters and be transformed by them. Jesus wants us to be changed by his Grace, to be transformed in his Compassion, to use these waters shared with us as a gift. God invites us to be more than a people who worship in wishes? God invites us to be love in action. God calls us to raise our voice for the voiceless, give our strength to the weak, and lift up those who have been pushed down.
And that’s when the buts show up. “But God, we don’t want to.” “But God, do we have to?” “But God, we look alright to each other.” And in a tone that warns of our tendency to rebellion, “Father!”
Isaiah preaching to the people about the Messiah speaks of who God is. “He will bring justice to the nations.” Our Savior brings peace and wholeness to the world. “He won’t cry out or shout.” Our Lord doesn’t call attention to himself. God doesn’t have an ego or need all eyes on him. “He won’t break a bruised reed; he won’t extinguish a faint wick, but he will surely bring justice.” He won’t brush aside those who are bruised and hurt. The smallest and most insignificant light is still precious in his eyes. The weak will be made strong, the poor will be rich: this is God’s Kingdom, a revolution through spiritual practice.
Isaiah, preaching, gives a word from God about who we are. God is an all-powerful God who has chosen to share that power with us. “I, the Lord, have called you for a good reason… I’m giving you as a promise to the people, as a light to the nations.” The Lord who created the heavens, the one who stretched the sky from east to west and north to south, the one who breathed life into your lips wants you to be the change. God calls us to be the life in this world of death. God calls us to be the hope in this despair. God calls us to be the new beginning in the end of endings.
We are the folks who have taken a bath. Jessica and Jerome didn’t want to take a bath. So their mother gave them a different option. A little liquid soap up into water balloons, a two water guns, and mom with the hose and bath time was no longer a chore but had become a transformed moment of joy, love, and memory.
We are the folks who have taken a bath. We’ve been given a gift in our baptismal waters. We are God’s promise to the nations. We are God’s lights of joy, love, and testimony. As we remember our Baptism today, let’s not just be wishful worshippers. Let’s be the changed, the transformed, the renewed, those who have been washed in God’s love. Amen.
We are marked by sin from birth.
Just as greedy and dirty as a clump of sod.
We are marked by sin in life.
Just as selfish and muddy as a worm.
But something has changed, someone changed…
God loved us. God changed us.
God’s love is a free gift to us, always and forever.
Wash us, Free us, Change us!
We are marked as God’s beloved.
We have done nothing to earn this!
We are marked as God’s people.
We will live as God’s disciples!
from Isaiah 60:1-6
Harry was terrified of the light. It wasn’t the light itself, but rather what if the lamp went out. Harry worked in an old lighthouse, the kind that ran on oil. The great light came from an Argand Lamp. The oil was put in the reservoir at the top, and then it came down through a sleeve to the wick in the glass cylinder. That meant to light it you had to lift up the glass. All the fumes from the oil mixed with the air. When you lit it, “WHOSH,” it came alive with light reflected through the lens and out to sea.
Harry’s job was to keep the light lit. To keep the light lit, you had to refill the reservoir every four to five hours. Harry rarely missed a refill, in fact, he was usually early. He hated relighting the lamp. The whosh always scared him. Harry was scared of the light.
A lot of us are scared of the light. We don’t mind basking in it, feeling the warmth and the comfort. But don’t ask us to reflect it into the world. Don’t ask us to allow the light to shine in the dark places in our lives. Don’t ask us to have the light shine bright enough that we stand out. And many of us are afraid of sharing the light with friends, neighbors, and coworkers.
In our passage from Isaiah, that was the issue with the city of Jerusalem. She had been so long in the darkness that she was now afraid of the light. She had seen good times. Remember back in King David’s and Solomon’s day the city had been a jewel for all Judah. The temple had been built alongside the palace. Trade was booming, everyone was filled with good feelings
She had seen bad times. She had seen times without gold and frankincense. Times that were as dark as they had ever been. Exiled from their land, the temple had been destroyed, and the dynasty of King David had come to a disastrous end.
She had seen ugly times of darkness. It felt as though God’s light no longer shined. Adrift at sea. Alone. I don’t have to tell you, in today’s world, the darkness is real. In the midst of all of this, God commands Jerusalem to reflect his light, his glory, his grace.
God created us to reflect God’s light into the world of darkness. That means we feel the warmth and the comfort of Emmanuel. But that also means we have to “Arise or Get Up and Shine.” It means we have to allow the darkness within our own lives to be found out by the light. It means we have to be brave enough to stand out in our spirituality. It means we shine the light for others.
Harry was terrified of the light. One night during a storm, Harry found himself snuggled so deep in sleep that he slept through the time to refuel the lamp. He awoke with a start to the sound of a ship’s bell. Over the waves, the wind carried it’s clanging sound. As Harry ran up the spiral staircase, he could almost hear the worried yelling of the captain to his men on board the ship. “Find the light! Search the horizon! The shore must be near!”
Harry shook and quivered as he quickly refilled the reservoir. He took the glass cylinder off of the wick. The smell of oil mixed into the air. Harry looked beyond the lens out into the darkness. There was a world of darkness counting on him to share his light. Counting on him to be brave, to have courage. What was it the preacher had told him when he confessed of his fear. “There is a world of darkness out there, arise and shine! You will see and you will be radiant, filled with joy!”
Harry lit the light. Whosh! He carefully put the cylinder back onto the wick. He bravely walked out onto the catwalk from where he could see the light piercing the darkness and reaching out to warn the ship of the shore rocks. In spite of the cold rain and chill of the wind, Harry found himself warm and comforted. The light was shining. The boat was safe.
Arise and Shine is God’s call on us. God shines light upon us all, just as the Star of Bethlehem shined upon all humanity. Bringing together the multitudes, bringing together the diversity that is our nation and people. It would be so easy to bask in the warmth of that light and continue about our business as usual.
The Wisemen did no such thing. They saw the light. They reflected it back into the world through their actions. They couldn’t remain where they were (they had to find the Christ child). The light caused them to worship and the light caused them to share (they brought gifts, offerings, generosity).
Church, it is too easy to be a dim wit Christian or a low watt disciple. When we lay down on the beach of our spirituality and simply absorb all the rays of sunshine God is sending us, we are not fulfilling our calling. God called us to be mirrors: to reflect his love, to reflect his grace, to reflect God’s light to the world in darkness.
For a mirror to do what it’s intended to do… it has to let the light shine on all of it – no dark hiding places. It has to let the light be reflected – it doesn’t keep it for itself. The mirror has to be willing to be a bright spot in a crowd of dark spaces.
For us as Disciples of Jesus Christ, it is very much the same. We have to be willing for the light to shine on our own darkness. We have to be willing to let the light be reflected. We have to be willing to stand out in the crowd. We have to be willing to welcome the multitudes.
We’re called to be like the Wise Men… to see God’s light, to be changed by God’s light (we can’t stay where we are), to worship and share God’s light. Don’t be afraid of the light. “Arise, Shine!” Isaiah says. “God’s light is on you. See it and be radiant!” Amen.
Lord in your mercy hear us as we gather in worship:
We are broken.
Our connection with you shattered by neglect.
We are broken.
Our relationships with one another stained by guilt and power.
We are broken.
Our society systematically abusing and using the least and the helpless.
We are broken.
Our ears deaf to cries. Our eyes blind to tears. Our hands immobile to serve.
We are broken, but we are not hopeless.
Lord, heal us from the inside out.
Heal our souls that we might begin the work of making the world whole.
There are some Christmas Traditions that won’t die – like going to church on Christmas Eve. The tradition I grew up in didn’t go to church on Christmas Eve. Midnight Mass sounded too Catholic for them. Instead, my family’s tradition was to open our gifts from ma and pa on Christmas Eve knowing on Christmas Day we would go to the extended family Christmas. The one where you got all these gifts you didn’t want from Aunts and Uncles you wouldn’t see again until the next family gathering.
The irony is the first Christmas Eve service I ever went to was in a Catholic Church. I was at college in Danville. Two of my good friends were Catholic, so when they invited me, I went. The priest was very open and joyful. He didn’t care that I wasn’t Catholic. So when the time came for me to receive communion, I went forward with everyone else. And that’s when I encountered the wafer.
I’m not sure what brand of dissolvable cardboard the priest gave me, but it wasn’t bread. Bread has flavor. Bread has texture. Bread travels down to your stomach with a sensation that is real, sensual, and gratifying. Not so with the wafer. It had no flavor. It had no texture save the distinct realization by my tongue something had been placed on it with a micro-measure of weight. And after it dissolved in my mouth, I’m not sure any remnant made it any further down the pipe.
I’m not trying to poke fun at our Catholic sisters and brothers. I respect their understanding and practice of the Lord’s Supper. Yet it occurs to me that many times that wafer represents my own experience in spirituality. It lacks flavor. There are times that I can’t tell you the last time I tasted the joy of the Lord’s presence. It lacks texture. There are long places in my own life where I don’t feel as if God is with me; quite the opposite of Emmanuel. It leaves me hungry.
At the first church I served as pastor, I was reminded of this by a 4 year old boy named Cody. It was an ordinary Sunday with ordinary hymns. You might say we were going through the motions. I’m sure it was the first Sunday of the month, because we were having communion. Folks were coming up to the rail in groups as was tradition. They knelt and received a torn bit of bread which they were invited to dip into the cup. But the ordinary disappeared when little Cody received his bread.
“Is that all I get?” He had said it as any 4 year old would have said it. Quiet enough that the entire congregation heard him. Loud enough to embarrass his mother and father. But what struck me was his honesty about the hunger. He didn’t come here for wafers or crumbs. Cody wanted the flavor, the texture, the fulfillment. Cody wanted the feast, all that God would give him. Cody wanted to experience God at the table.
You may be asking what does this have to do with Jesus, the Stable, the Manger, etc. God didn’t offer us fast food solutions, but instead offered us a full multi-course feast in this babe, in this birth, in this life, in this death, and in this resurrection. He could have been born in a palace, yet he chose a stable. He could have had Angels announcing his coming to all humanity, yet he chose shepherds in a field. He could have picked any town – Rome, New York, Washington DC, yet he chose Bethlehem, a Hebrew word that translates as “House of Bread.” He could have had the best Tempurpedic, double down, plush bed for his crib, yet mother Mary laid him in a manger – fancy word for a “feeding trough” for animals.
We didn’t come here for a little snack or a bit of fast food. We came here for the whole experience of who Jesus is. Tonight we celebrate his coming to us. Tonight we are invited to experience the whole of who God is in a little child laid in a manger. Tonight we are invited to experience the whole of who God is in a candle light dinner of a little bread and a little wine. Thank God some traditions won’t die. Amen.
Advent Candle Readings
Note: I’ll be using these at my Midnight Mass service for 2016. They could be used in separate services, however, for future years. Please feel free to edit the places of conflict mentioned under the Candle of Peace.
We light this candle in hope.
Hope for salvation from apathy and hatred.
Hope for change in our hearts and minds.
Hope for holding hands instead of holding wounds.
Hope to warm us in the dark of night.
We light this candle for peace.
Peace for hearts shell-shocked with grief.
Peace for places like Aleppo, Mosel, and Yemen.
Peace for Police and Protester.
Peace to shine in the dark of night.
We light this candle for joy.
Joy for a family finding a place for the birth.
Joy for a baby born in a stable.
Joy for shepherds sharing good news.
Joy to comfort in the dark of night.
We light this candle in love.
Love for Emmanuel, God with us.
Love for Jesus, Savior born this night.
Love from God; Love come down.
Love to bring light in the dark of night.
Light this candle for Christ.
Christ, the Child who gives us Hope.
Christ, the Promised Prince of Peace.
Christ to whom the Angels sing – “Joy unspeakable!”
Christ, God’s Love. Emmanuel. God with us.
Jesus, Love divine that came down from heaven.
Jesus, Joy that awakens each heart this night.
Jesus, Peace to quell the fears and wars of humanity.
Jesus, Hope in this darkness.
God lights this Candle for you and me.
God lights this Candle giving us the best gift possible.
God lights this candle to comfort us in the warmth of hope and joy.
God lights this candle to shine peace and guide us to love in the dark of night.
God light this Candle for Christmas, and may its flame never extinguish.
(CC) 2016. Worship’s Wake, Nathan Decker