Monday, March 4, 2019

sermon - Transfiguration Sunday


For those of you that might not know, I am participating in a certification program for Community Organizing.  One aspect of this process that we have been working on, is to move a community from maintainance into transformation.  Community organizing can be applied to the greater community in which we live, such as Roxbury Township, or it can be applied in much smaller areas such as local church congregations.  I am interested in both, but for my certification program, I am focusing on us, as a local congregation.  What does it mean for us to do maintainance ministry and what does it mean for us to do transformational ministry?  I think these are great questions to ask on Transformation Sunday. 
            Maintainance ministry is what we do.  Our committees meet, we have weekly worship, we offer Sunday School and Bible Studies, we create a budget and set goals for the year in which we hope our finances will cover what we would like to accomplish.  Often times, with maintainance ministry, we look the same as we did last year, and the year before, and the year before that.  We celebrate Christmas and Easter, we sing our familiar hymns, and nothing much changes.  It is comfortable, peaceful, and trustworthy.  We have memories formed around these rituals that are meaningful to us.  We are, like Peter, people that have built alters around sacred moments to ensure that they continue to be there for us. 
            Jesus has brought these three disciples up to the mountain top, and is preparing them for the days ahead when he will enter into Jerusalem and will be betrayed by Judas, arrested, denied by Peter, and crucified.  These are not easy days ahead, and so first, before this struggle, this crisis, this horrific event take place, he appears with Moses and Elijah and is transfigured before the disciples into something divine, something sacred, a dazzling of the brightest white.  The disciples are so overcome with amazement, Peter just can’t help himself, and he desires to mark this moment for all history.  He wants to build something to commerate this moment.  And no sooner does he want to keep this moment as something that will last forever, then it is over.  We cannot capture divine moments, the holy presence, it is fleeting and changing and always moving forward. 
            But what does Jesus tell Peter in this story?  Peter, we have work to do, and we must go back down from this mountain and continue what God has asked us to do.  And so down the mountain they go, the once transformed Jesus looking just as he did before he went up the mountain but now, the three disciples are transformed, they have witnessed something unique, special, and holy.  Even the the future is going to be beyond unpleasant, they have this sacred moment to anchor them, a sacred moment that promises them God is present. 
            Jesus does not have time for maintainance ministry, he is on the go, teaching, challenging, calling for change, calling for transformaiton, very literally transforming himself to help illustrate the work that he is about.  In community organizing, transformation ministry is first about building relationships, learning about one another, listening to what the community is passionate about, what the community desires to see changed, to see transformed.  This is actually a perfect connect to our two goals this year:  Fellowship and Mission.  Fellowship is more than grabbing coffee and treats after worship, it is about the deep building of relationships with one another.  Fellowship, relationship building, can actually happen in those parts of our life together where we are involved in maintainance: Bilbe Study, Session and Deacons’ meetings, Sunday School, committee meetings, and fundraisers.   Jesus is always buildling relationships to people, not just with his disciples, but to the greater community as well.  How does he meet Mary, Martha, and Lazerous?  What about Nicodemus?  Simon Peter’s mother-in-law, just to name a few. 
            As we grow in the ways that we know each other, as we build stronger relationships with each other, as we learn what it is that we are truly passionate about, then we go into the world in ministry in that arena.  At one point in our denomination’s life, we were passionate about health care and education.  So, as the early church grew and created ministries in the United States the Presbyterian Church built hospitals and schools.  Over time, we seem to have lost our connection to many of these instututions as they have become businesses rather than ministries.  But we, at one time, transformed the landscape with these much needed community resources.  The church is still at work in places such as Africa, transforming communities with schools and medical clinics.  This last summer, we saw how Broad Street ministry was in partnership with other ministries that are seeking to bring transformation into the lives of people in the Philidelphia area.  Transformation for those diagnosed with Aids, transformation for those that live in food deserts, transformation for those that have always lived with the fear of scarcity.  Transformation even for an old church building that had closed and is now a health clinic, a soup kitchen, a clothing closet, and so much more. 
            Transformation Sunday happens the week prior to Lent for a reason.  Jesus literally faces Jerusalem and begins the journey to his final week.  But Lent is also about growth and moving forward in the faith.  Lent was used as the season of time to teach new converts about the faith and then on Easter Sunday these new followers would be baptized and enter into the formal membership of the faith.  Lent means a spiritual spring, a time for renewal, a time to be transformed.  Any time God sends God’s people into a season of 40 – God desires renewal and transformation at the end.  So, this Lenten season, we are going to focus on transformational ministry, on ways in which we have already begun the process.  We will review the New Beginnings assesement that many of you were involved with over six years ago, and continue to live into God’s calling for us. 
               

Monday, February 25, 2019

Sermon: Love Your Enemy


Love, Bless, Pray, and be Merciful

            Love your enemies, bless those that curse you, pray for those that abuse you.  There is a lot packed into these three statements.  Love, bless, and pray, just those three words can be challenging enough, but to love, bless, and pray for those that aren’t our friends, that don’t seem to be treating us correctly, that perhaps are even causing us harm.  Does Jesus really expect us to live into this?  These are things that we aren’t even sure we want Jesus or God or the Holy Spirit to do.  We want God on our side, why would we want God to extend love to those that oppose us, that want to harm us, that are greedy or violent or cruel?  Aren’t there teachings against these things?  So why would we extend love, and blessings, and prayers for those that seem to be living outside of God’s teachings?  Isn’t there even a teaching about separating the goats from the sheep?  I truly think, this is one of the hardest teachings of Christian discipleship. 
            And so, in order to love your enemy, you first have to identify the break in relationship that has caused this division.  Were you once friends?  Do you have values that are on the extremes of the other?  Did the person break your trust, disappoint you, or betray you?  Or is your enemy someone you have never even met, such as the terrorist group Isis? 
            After 9/11 there were so many hate crimes committed against Muslims, mass stereotyping was happening, and suddenly anyone that had any kind of connections to those terrorists must also be the enemy.  Trauma and fear created this incredible sense of distrust of the other and many innocent people were targeted.  And so churches began to reach out to Mosques in their community, they began to create relationships and build trust with one another and fight against the hatred and stereotypes and negativity that had formed over this horrific event.  In so doing, we put into practice the concept of loving our enemy, or at least loving our presumed enemy, extending love to neighbors in our communities instead of buying into the fear. 
            Apparently, our nation is extremely polarized right now.  I don’t know if our division with one another has created enemies amongst each other.  Every once in awhile I will read a post that a relative shares and I have to say to myself, okay, you completely disagree with this, but she is your aunt, or he is your cousin, let it go. 
            Often times, in order to love or to forgive, one first has to overcome anger, anger at a person, or an event, or some deep hurt that has not healed.    I’ve been working through a book on spiritual disciple and one of the activities was to name 50 things that you are angry about.  I was shocked at how easily I was able to name 50 things that either have angered me in the past or make me angry right now.  Some of them our personal, but some are for the hurts of the world, such as homelessness, human trafficking, and hungry children.  Anger can harm us, but it can also motivate us to make changes in the world.  In order to move yourself out of destructive anger into transformational anger, God reminds us that we have the tools of love, blessing, and prayer. 
Anger is often a response that comes out of fear.  If someone cuts you off while driving, you might become angry at that person, perhaps even honking your horn or flashing your lights at them.  But the anger is driven from the response of fear, fear that that person could have caused an accident, could have harmed you, could have even killed you.  The fear is also driven from the loss of control.  I try to be a defensive driver, always looking around me, always doing my best to be in control of the situation, but someone else’s negligence can wipe out everything I have done to keep myself safe, I am no longer in control and that creates fear. 
What is it like for us as a people to be constantly living in a state of fear and anger?  Well, it pushes us to stress which can then wreck havoc on our physical, emotional, and spiritual selves.  So, if we find ourselves continuously stressed out, or angry, or just feeling out of control, God reminds us, God calls to us, God offers us a better way.  And yes, that way involves loving your enemy, bless those that curse you, and pray for those that oppress you.  More than anything, it is going to push yourself into spiritual practices of growth and perhaps even transformation, it is going to push you into positive ways to deal with fear and anger rather than harmful negative behaviors. 
From the Book:  The Way of Forgiveness, Flora Slosson Wuellner is quoted as saying:  “Acts of cruelty and evil cannot be condoned or forgiven…When we are the victims of radical evil, we are not asked to forgive the evil act  We are asked to remember that the perpetrator, even though trapped for now in the evil, is nonetheless a child of God.”  If you have seen the movie:  The Shack, there is a scene where the father and the Holy Spirit are in deep conversation about this.  The Holy Spirit pushes the father into trying to understand judgement, it can seem so easy to judge on our part.  Murder is wrong and a murdered is an evil person.  But what kind of brokenness is going on in that person’s life, what caused the murderer to become the person he has become?  And to God, are we able to accept that that person is still a child of God?  We want to control God, we want to be the judge, we know how wrong some actions are, and yet, God calls us to love, to bless, and to pray. 
There is such a powerful scene in the movie:  Deadman Walking.  A nun becomes a spiritual guide to a man on death row.  He has committed horrible acts including murder.  The family of the deceased cannot understand why the nun is offering God’s love to this person.  In a standoff between the family and the nun, the grieving father shouts: don’t you think we could use some of God’s love as well?  His anger at her was so complicated, but it seemed he grieved so deeply that the criminal had the attention of the nun and no one came to them.  Perhaps they too needed saving. 
Again, from the book: the way of forgiveness, the reader is encouraged to start with small steps, we can’t be expected to love the worst offender of our lives right away, we need to build into the spiritual practice, we need to begin with smaller areas of disconnect and begin to grow from there. 
I also can’t help wondering, is Jesus preparing his followers for the new community of faith that will grow?  A community that crosses boundaries of culture?  A community that will include both Jew and Gentile, both masters and slaves, both women and men?  In this teaching, he is preparing where people that were once separated by rigid boundaries and social construct can now gather together as one.  How hard would it be to gather with someone you once considered your enemy but is now a part of your faith community?  In the Kingdom of God, there is no space for this, Jesus breaks down the dividing walls, he calls into question who belongs and who does not, and infuses the conversation with Love, Blessing, Prayer, and Mercy.  Let us live into being a community of faith that is welcoming to all, filled with love, generous with blessings, infused with prayer, and always erring on the side of mercy and grace.  Amen. 

Monday, February 18, 2019

sermon: Sabbath


Keeping Sabbath

In college, we had a t-shirt that said:  If God was a Davidson student, he would have played for six days and pulled an all nighter.  The creation story shares that in six days God created the world, and set aside one more day to rest, to see that all is good, to delight in the creation that was made.  God rested, and should we. 
            It has been a long time since Sunday has been held as a day of rest.  Some might remember a time when stores were closed and families would go to church and then often gather for a meal together.  Our lives are so different then the day and age of when Jesus walked this earth.  The rules governing life, society, faith cultures have softened greatly.  We still get a glimpse of it every once in awhile.  I am always amazed in this modern world when I see Orthodox Jews walking to the synagogue or when I hear stories of the rules around whether you can turn on the oven on the Sabbath. 
            Rules around Sabbath keeping exist to help us understand, to help us set aside this time as sacred and holy.  How do we differentiate one day from the next, one day from the normal work that we do, from a day that is set aside as rest, as sacred, as a gift from God?  We act differently, we follow religious guidelines, we give our time and attention to God.  I am pretty sure in the day and age of Jesus, they did not have weekends.  Having one day a week as a day of rest, as a day of no work, was a gift.  For us, it is often just assumed.  Everyone has the weekend, we all get two days off from work, well that is if you have a mainstream vocation, or don’t have to work two jobs to pay the bills.  There are millions of people that have to work all week long, that don’t get the weekend, that don’t have the luxury of slowing down and finding time to be intentionally present with God with a faith community. 
            Every once in a while, we still lament the loss of some of these rules that protected the Sabbath.  We lament that there are sports and practices and so many other activities that happen on Sunday morning.  But we have also not adapted to the changing culture.  We have set ourselves rigidly as a group that gathers on Sunday morning.  This is our time, this is the time we set aside for worship, for gathering as God’s people, for our Sabbath keeping.  But what does this do to us a as a greater community of faith, as a people called together to be in fellowship with each other?  We end up forcing families to make a choice, sports or worship. 
            I wonder how Jesus would negotiate our Sabbath struggle in today’s world.  Because Jesus pushes against the rules of Sabbath keeping that exist in his own day and age.  The two stories we have today involve Jesus doing work on the Sabbath.  He and his disciples are walking through a field and they pluck some grain and eat it.  Seems like something we might do, go out to the garden in summer and pick a few tomatoes and enjoy them fresh off the vine.  But the rules were so rigid that this was considered work, they were involved with harvesting unprepared food, and they had to separate the grain from the chaff.  They were processing their food.  Eating is allowed on the Sabbath, but not picking and processing your food.  You eat something that has already been prepared.  Jesus then points back to King David, that when he was hungry on the Sabbath, he ate, even if it was food he was not suppose to eat.  Here he says, the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.  He has not yet defined himself as the Son of Man, and so those that head this were left wondering what he meant, who is the Son of Man?  And what does this have to do with what Jesus is doing? 
            Luke has placed two Sabbath stories together here, this next one happens on another Sabbath when Jesus is teaching in the synagogue.  It seems as if the scribes and Pharisees have caught onto him, since it says they were watching him to see if he would heal on the Sabbath.  And sure enough, he does.  There is a man with a withered hand and Jesus calls out to him.  As the man comes to Jesus, Jesus speaks to the thoughts of the scribes and Pharisees and asks:  I ask you, is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to destroy it?  And Jesus heals the man’s hand. 
            Eating and healing, responding to hunger and brokenness, these are two things that Jesus lifts up as viable practices on the Sabbath.  He is pushing back against the rigid rules of his faith tradition that prohibited these actions.  Yes, we need a day of rest, yes, we need a time of holiness, but we also cannot ignore human need just because it happens to be the Sabbath. 
            And so, in a day and age where we seem to have no rules protecting the Sabbath, Jesus just might come to us and ask about our fellowship, our time together as a faith community.  Jesus might challenge us to creatively find ways to keep the Sabbath, creative ways to gather as a faith community, ways in which we are fed and healed not just physically, but spiritually, since that is worship is intended to do for us.  How are we meeting people in their hunger and brokenness?  Are there ways to create sacred space throughout the week, rather than just the few hours set aside on Sunday morning?  Sabbath keeping is about rest, but it is also about sacred connections, about seeing God at work in the world, about connecting to the sacred and finding the good. 

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Stewardship - Legacy


Legacy Giving

            The Wednesday night and Thursday morning Bible Studies have spent this past fall studying Elijah.  We have this beautiful Elijah stain glass window here in the sanctuary, so we wanted to learn more about this ancient prophet.  The last chapter of our study was called Legacy.  Elijah, through his faithfulness to God, through his work proclaiming people to return to God, he left a legacy to future generations, including us, here in this place.  The legacy of Elijah connects to the role and purpose of John the Baptist, but his legacy is also passed along through people naming their children Elijah, and it just so happened that we had a pastor named Elijah Stoddard and that this particular window was dedicated to him, so in a sense, it is a double legacy.  A legacy of Elijah the prophet and a legacy of the ministry of Elijah Stoddard.  A physical reminder to us of those who came before us to share their faith through ministry. 
            Our church building is filled with legacies.  We could take a tour and learn about those that came before us through the gifts that have been left in their names.  Today, I specifically chose Miss Grob as someone that has left us a legacy.  I reached out to Sue Anderson to see if she knew Miss Grob or had any history on her and this is what Sue has to share:
Miss Clara Grob was a first grade teacher in Roxbury.  She was my first grade teacher in the Franklin school on Meeker St. in Succasunna.  She lived on N. Hillside Avenue in Succasunna in a brick home that backyard was along our Cemetery fence.  She had lots of bird feeders in her backyard.  She would talk about the many birds in her classes.  She would give books about birds to her students for example for Christmas.  I still have mine. I remember finding it and bringing it to church to show Miss Grob.  She was shocked that I still had it like 25 years later.
        She was very tall and slender, but hunched over later in life.  She wore a hat and dress and walked to church from her home.  She always sat in the front on the left in front of the pulpit.  She left a pillow to sit on, on her pew. .She had no children or relatives.  Her students were her children.  She was very generous and left her home to our church. She was a wonderful teacher.  
            I chose Miss Grob to share today, because more and more, her name is becoming just a name on a fund.  A fund that has been our endowment fund, a fund that has been our life raft to help us through difficult years of continuing our ministry despite limited financial resources.  When she left her house, she had no idea how her gift would further enhance the work of God’s people, here in this place.  Gifts can have a ripple effect, they might be intended for one thing, such as housing an associate pastor, but through prayer and discernment and trusting in God, they can be transformed into other resources for God’s ministry. 
            Our scriptures are filled with stories of people of faith leaving a legacy to the next generation and these legacy gifts come in all different shapes and sizes.  In the story of Hannah, she is barren and she wants a child more than anything else in life.  So, as she prays in the temple, she asks God to give her a child, and in response, she will give the child back to God.  Her legacy, her way of giving to God for God’s goodness in her life, is to return what she has received, her child.  I love the story of Samuel.  Samuel, while living in the temple with the priest Eli is called by God to be the first in the line of prophets.  Hannah’s gift, her dedicating her son to be a part of the priestly class, specifically a Nazarene, is transformed by God and Samuel’s legacy is even more than his mother’s expectations, he becomes a prophet. 
            And then we have the story of the woman with the costly nard or perfume.  Those gathered together are shocked and surprised when she takes this ointment and pours it out upon Jesus.  What could she be thinking?  This perfume should have been sold so they could use the money to help the poor.  I know I have had those very same thoughts when I wrestle with stewardship decisions.  When I was in Kenya, the church I was visiting on Sunday was raising money for a church bus.  My thoughts were, you are raising how much money for a bus when there are street children right outside your doors.  Couldn’t that money be used to make a difference in the life of these children?  We can always make judgements on how we think money should be used rather than how it is being used.  So Jesus responds: “Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the good news[d] is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”  Jesus transforms her action into a legacy.  Others cannot understand her actions, but Jesus does.  Jesus understands that this is what the woman has and out of complete love and compassion and dedication to him, she literally pours out what she has upon him.  And as others scold her, Jesus says that she should be remembered always. 
            How do we pour out our lives for God?  How do we dedicate the next generation to knowing our faith?  How are we leaving a legacy for the future?  And are we willing to leave a legacy that just might look different in the future than what we are expecting?  We have legacy gifts left for specific ministries, which is wonderful, but we also need legacy gifts left to be used how the Holy Spirit is calling us to become.  In this season of Thanksgiving and Stewardship, how might you prayerfully give to the work and ministry of this church for today and tomorrow, but how might you also give for the future?  Miss Grob loved to teach, she loved children, she loved birds, and she must of deeply loved this church and her God.  She could have given her estate to Audubon for the protection of birds for the future, she could have given her estate to the school for the continuation of education, but she chose the church.  The church must have meant something very personal for her, it must have impacted her life very deeply, and my hope is that we can be that ministry to those gathered here today and for those that will gather in this place fifty years from now.  Whether you knew Miss Grob or not, here legacy is making a difference in your life today, as her gift continues to ripple out into this ministry.  Amen. 


Sunday, October 14, 2018

Steeple Dedication


Steeple:  Faith can move Mountains

            Do you have faith to move a mountain?  Well, I know how to turn a mole hill into a mountain, but faith to move a mountain?  This summer, as the carpenters and painters worked in extreme heat, to restore our historic steeple, this passage kept coming to mind.  Faith to move mountains.  And then I would add in my head, or faith to restore a steeple.  For this is so much more than repairing and painting a steeple.  This is a story of years and years of conversations, time invested, and careful discernment as to the priorities in the ministries of the congregation. 
            So, although it was not a burning bush with God’s voice speaking to us, we did have a sign from the steeple that it was time to really prioritize its restoration.  A few years ago, a board fell from it.  Yikes, what if it had hit someone?  Are there more loose boards?  From that point forward, small steps starting moving us to today.  The session approved a capital campaign fund to restore the Steeple.  A small group of members were elected at a Congregational Meeting to begin the process of receiving estimates.  Deeper conversations were held with our session and deacons discerning the ways we could use our treasure could be used to offset the costs for the steeple’s restoration.  Then, a group formed that decided to apply for a historic grant.  This dedicated group, became the Steeple committee, and pulled information from a previous grant application, updated information, sought estimates, and submitted the grant to the county.  Only to find out that a lawsuit against the county made religious organizations ineligible to receive these grants.  Defeat! 
            Except, this is a story of faith moving mountains, or in this case, restoring a steeple.  Back to the drawing board.  We had not yet officially started a campaign for the steeple, although we had already received significant gifts towards it restoration.  The energy seemed to be here, could we really do this without the grant money to help us?  The steeple committee decided to take that leap of faith.  There were no guarantees of future grants, and we had received an amazing gift from the estate of a church member towards the building.  Maybe God was talking to us.   
            The Steeple committee set a budget without really knowing what would be found once the carpenters got up to the bell tower, although we did borrow a drone with a nice camera to get some areal views of the steeple.  Again, taking a step out on faith, we moved forward.  As pledges came in, the energy increased and the reality of not only restoring the Steeple but being able to pay for this project all seemed to be in alignment.  A report was brought back to the Steeple committee and the session that there was significant wood damage, a lot of water damage, and that there was going to be a lot more carpentry work than originally thought.  Move forward, let’s do this, and do it right.  Faith moving mountains. 
            Our original two week time frame turned into three and the rain pushed us to four.  The heat caused the lift to basically melt the driveway over on the kitchen side of the building, the rain caused it to sink into the mud, and a tow was needed.  Obstacles, hurdles, but no roadblocks, but would it be finished within the month lease of the lift?   More conversations on additional costs of the lift.  And a wee bit of fear entered in as we wondered how much extra costs would begin to accumulate.  Without fail, the last day of the lift lease, work was finished!  It seemed impossible, but faith truly did move this mountain or in this case, restored a steeple. 
            So, what is so important about a steeple?  I think I said on more than one occasion, let’s just remove it.  Everything right now seems to be about finding your why. What was our why?  Well, it’s historic, it’s been a part of this church building for over two hundred years.  It’s part of our identity here in this community.  There is nothing Biblical about steeples, but they did serve two significant purposes in the past.  Before people had watches, the church bells, located in the steeple, were used to call the community together, not just for worship, but for meetings and other community affairs.   The bells needed to be up high enough for the sound to carry across the region.  Now, our steeple does not have a clock, but some church steeples, also have a clock that was used by the community and again, it needed to be up high enough so people had greater access to see it.  But we don’t need a town clock or bells calling us together, we all have watches or phones that we use for telling time. 
            So, other than its historical meaning, what does a steeple mean in this modern world?  Why not just remove it?  Well, as a people of faith, we often use symbols to signify deep spiritual meaning.  We mark our worship space with the symbol of the cross, the baptism font, the communion table, but we are people that are not just to gather inside a building for worship, but a people called to go out into the world.  The steeple is outside, it is out in the world, our bell rings out and whether you are someone that attends church or not, it is a reminder, a reminder that faithful people do gather, that people in this community do trust in God, that hope moves us forward to ensure that we have a strong and healthy community to live and raise our families.  For some, a steeple might just be a reminder of past days, but for others, it can be a symbol of hope, a symbol reaching up towards heaven, reminding us to pray, reminding us that God is at work, not just a thing of the past, but is currently present in our lives.  Some people might just drive by the church and say, finally, they have painted that thing, they won’t know the faith it took to make this day a reality.  But we know, we now we have a story to share.  The steeple I once said, let’s just remove it, now is a symbol to move of faith, a symbol of faith moving a mountain, a story of faith overcoming defeat and rising up with determination that together, we can make miracles happen.  Amen. 

Monday, August 13, 2018

Sermon Series: Dreams: Mary and Joseph


Last week I mentioned that sacred dreams occur in the scripture during major times of transition in the life of God’s people.  Dreams bringing people closer to God, dreams showing outsiders to the faith that God is the true God, dreams bringing hope to people who have little to no hope left.  Even in the darkest of times, God reaches out to God’s people and sends a message of presence, of hope, of possibilities for the future.
            And so today, we have another dream, another angel speaking to Joseph in his sleep, that Mary will have a child, a child blessed by God, a child that is proclaimed to be the son of God, the long awaited heir to the throne of David, the new branch from the stump of Jesse. 
            The dream that Joseph had, of this angel sharing with him about the birth of this child, is so transitional, that early church leaders took these stories and marked them as different.  Although the Hebrew scriptures were not yet known as the Old Testament, this dream, this birth, this transition brought about what we now call the New Testament and the Gospels.  A whole new set of holy scriptures were born through this dream. 
            For those that were here the Sunday we heard the dreams from Daniel and King Nebuchadnezzar, we heard about two separate dreams that were of future kingdoms.  There would be four kingdoms and after that God would create an eternal kingdom:  “In the time of those kings, the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever. And from Daniel’s dream:  Then the sovereignty, power and greatness of all the kingdoms under heaven will be handed over to the holy people of the Most High. His kingdom will be an everlasting kingdom, and all rulers will worship and obey him.’   We also look to Isaiah and his words about God’s future kingdom as we celebrate the birth of Jesus and how we believe he is the fulfillment of God’s promises and sacred dreams. 
            And so generation after generation have waited.  God’s people who were in exile during the time of Daniel and Ezekiel have returned home.   They have reestablished their lives in Israel but have not become the might kingdom they once were.  They have struggled to protect themselves and have found themselves conquered by the Greeks and then again by the Romans. 
There is a deep yearning in the people to have a new leader, a new king, someone that will defeat the Roman oppression and allow the people to once again live as an independent nation.  But sometimes human yearning is not what God is creating.  The angel shares these words with Mary:  He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”  This tends to connect to that yearning of God’s people.  It gives them the hope that this is the one that has come to be their new king. 
But to Joseph we are told:  you are to give him the name Jesus,[f] because he will save his people from their sins.”  There is nothing here about a kingdom or the throne of David it is a much more spiritual nature.  But Joseph knows that there is something special about this child.  Perhaps God was calling him to be a religious leader, a Pharisee or a Sadducee, someone with the authority to cleanse God’s people of their sins.   There is no king language here, no new kingdom, but still a major message of who this child will be, he will save his people from their sins. 
And so the time has come, the dreams from 500 years prior are being fulfilled, are coming into reality, God’s very presence is truly entering the world.  No longer is God speaking through dreams to bring transition and hope and purpose to God’s people, but rather is entering the world in human form, in a sacred presence, in a living dream to share with God’s people how to truly live in the world, even when there is oppression, even when there is injustice, even when hope seems scarce. 
Last week, I asked the question that perhaps we are lost in today’s world because we do not know where we fit into the story, where are we in the sacred dream sequence?  We are no longer waiting for the fulfillment of God’s promises, we are no longer waiting for the coming of the Messiah.  Some people are diligently awaiting the second coming, we hear mention of this once in awhile, all the bad things happening in the world must mean that Christ is coming soon and all of this will be destroyed and God will redeem God’s people. 
But as Presbyterians, we live into this current time understanding our place within the promises of God as disciples, as followers of Jesus, as doing what we can to live out the teachings Jesus calls us to live out.  Just as Moses gave the people the 10 Commandments, a code of living as God’s holy people, we have been given teaching after teaching to live into as we journey through these lives. 
What is God’s dream for today?  Well, each congregation, each Christian organization or agency should be interpreting this question or themselves and living into their own piece of the greater picture.  The mission that I grew up volunteering with in Maine had a statement that their purpose was something about – until we fix the last house on the last road.  The YMCA has been running commercials that state:  There's never been a better time to build a better us. At the Y, we are committed to creating a better community for all.  Also – we are not just a gym, we are a community. 
So, that is my goal for us this summer as we move into the fall, to truly spend time imagining, dreaming, wondering, what is God’s dream for us in today’s world?  Through New Beginnings, your dream was to partner with the community near and far to spread the love and joy of Jesus.  Another dream was to live more fully into what is called Missional Church.  I have shared various aspects of missional church with you all and as we journey into 2019, I want us to dwell more deeply in the understanding of missional church. 
One of the habits of missional church is to announce the kingdom of God.  The Kingdom of God, to announce the very fulfillment of the angel’s message to Mary.  Mary, your son will be the Son of the most high – and his kingdom will endure forever.  Two thousand years later, do we see that kingdom in our midst?  Do we feel God’s presence with us?  God’s dream for us to be disciples, disciples that see God at work and share those moments of love, justice, reconciliation with others.  We announce that the homeless have shelter, the hungry have been fed, the thirst have something to drink.  We announce that broken have been healed.  We announce that children that have no school supplies now have the resources they need for school.  We announce that God’s love is creating loving community where all are welcomed and offered safe space.  Amen. 

Monday, August 6, 2018

Sermon Series - Dreams - Ezekiel 1


            There is a saying:  Without vision, the people perish.  This saying was an important part of my early youth and young adulthood in connection with the ministry and mission of my home church.  Each summer, we would journey up to rural Maine and would work on housing for low-income families.  It is very much like the Appalachian Service Project that many of our local churches participate in, and perhaps a possible mission trip in our future. 
            Without vision, the people perish.  Without dreams, without hope, without the potential for a better future what would give people meaning as they look into tomorrow?  Although I am not an expert on this, people appear to be unique in that we are able to think about tomorrow, to think about next week and next year, to think about how to take care of ourselves to ensure our survival in years ahead.  Other intelligent creatures, such as dolphins and elephants, don’t have a retirement plan.  They take each day as it comes, living within their community, seeking food and companionship.  They definitely understand fight or flight, knowing when danger is at hand and working together to protect each other especially their young. 
            Over the course of human history, people have learned that they need to think about the future, that the need to plan for the changing seasons, that they need to store food and create clothing and shelter to protect them from the elements.  And somewhere along the way, people also developed an understanding that as they think about the present and the future, as they live together in family units and greater community, that a presence greater than themselves is also involved in their lives.  Life became more than just food, family, sleep, but a sense of soul, a sense of a spiritualness to life, a sense of purpose that people are part of a divine plan, a sacred journey. 
            And so we have these unique stories within our scriptures, these dreams and visions of God speaking to humans through images embedded with deep meaning.  Dreams guiding people into a future of promise, of love, of healthy and whole community.  From Jacob’s dream of the ladder, to Joseph’s dream of greatness, to Daniel’s dream of future kingdoms, each dream happens in a specific time and place and marks a significant transition in the life of God’s people.   Jacob’s dream gives him the deep understanding that God is present with him, awakening him to the sense that he has a soul, that there is a sacred quality to life, and that his future offspring are a part of God’s plan for humanity.  Nebuchadnezzar and Daniel’s dream mark a transition in the life of the Hebrew people.  They are in exile, perhaps feeling abandoned by God, but through these dreams God sends a vision, a meaning, a purpose for God’s people to stay strong that if they are able to endure, for kingdoms later, their offspring will be a part of God’s eternal kingdom. 
Imagine, having to live into a dream that is not for you but for your great-great-great grandchildren.  That’s really tough for us to imagine in today’s world of instant gratification.  Maybe, just maybe I could engage in Pharaoh’s dream, seven years of abundance and seven years of famine.   Fourteen years is not so overwhelming as potentially four hundred years to hold onto hope, and at least seven of those fourteen years are going to be good.  Maybe that is part of the crisis churches are going through today, people have lost the sense of where we fit into God’s plan.  Where are we in the grand scheme of things?  What dream are we living into?  Do we feel like the seven years of scarcity, that a famine is in our land, and we are trying to wait it out until better days arrive?  Or are we like the people in Daniel’s time where the just is no hope for us but perhaps the future generations will be a part of God’s grace? 
So, enter in Ezekiel’s dream.  Ezekiel lives in the time of exile as well.  The great Temple in Jerusalem has been destroyed.  God’s home, God’s dwelling place is in ruins.  What must that have felt like for the faithful people.  The pain, the loss, the sense of spiritual death, the destruction of hope.  What kind of future would they have and where was their God, was God dead too?  People do not do well in exile.  People do not do well when their belief system is destroyed.  People do not do well when they are forced to live within a new culture.  Unfortunately, this has happened over and over and over again through human history.   Here in our own country, we are still trying to sort through the destruction placed upon the Native American people and the impact that slavery has had upon our nation. 
And so Ezekiel has this dream, a dream of heavenly nature.  His dream is every bit as descriptive and symbolic as Nebuchadnezzar and Daniel, with winged creatures each with four faces, faces of God’s creation: human, eagle, lion, and ox.  From the birds of the sky, to the domesticated animals for farming to the wild animals of hunting, appearing together in one heavenly being.  A dream filled with a wild storm of wind and lightning and fire, makes it almost sounds like Pentecost.  And then there is the appearance of the wheels, a wheel within a wheel, Ezekiel saw a wheel way up in the middle of the air.  Now in several cultures, the sun god rode a chariot across the sky each day, was Ezekiel connecting the sun god of the Babylonian people into his dream?  I’m not sure.  But whatever his vision, he saw a heavenly being sitting on a thrown, being honored and worshipped by the winged creatures.  Has Ezekiel had a glimpse of heaven? 
Ezekiel’s role as a prophet during exile is to keep the hope alive.  It is his job, his vocation, his calling to remind God’s people that God has not abandoned them, that just because the earthly Temple where God dwells is destroyed, God is not dead.  God has a heavenly Temple, a heavenly presence and God will continue to be present in the lives of God’s people.  In times of great distress, when earthly hope seems to be lost, people will seek the promise of a heavenly life, an eternal life, a life where God reigns.  Our scriptures are scattered with these promises that no longer shall there be tears, or loss or grief, that a time will come when God’s peace reigns. 
I sometimes wonder if that is the role of the church in today’s world, to be like Ezekiel the prophet, to keep the hope alive, to remind the world that God is not dead but still very much a part of our lives or this world and that God still has a purpose for us.   Just like people in exile, we live in a day and age where so many people have lost their vision and are in one way or another perishing.  This happens though addictions – drugs, alcohol, gambling, eating, and even with our phones.  People are connected to each other and yet feeling extremely lonely.  Suicide rates are up.  As we saw in Philadelphia, homeless people are often ignored and treated as if they are not anyone’s problem but their own.  Mental illness struggles can bring people into a stage of lost hope, as well as tragedies within one’s life.  So many people are looking out into this world and wondering where is God?  And God has blessed the world, blessed communities with the church, with faithful people still holding onto hope and love and forgiveness and grace, we are called to be the voice of the prophet the voice of hope for the future the voice of God to the people. 
And yes, even us, even if we feel lost and lonely and are asking where is God in all of this, even us, we are called to dream.  We are called to embrace the sacred and come together and create a vision for the future, a dream of God’s love to be born in this place.  We are called to look around our community, to listen to the places of hurt, and respond with a vision, a dream, a purpose for how God is calling us to connect to those places of hurt and loss.  And when it feels overwhelming or when we feel we don’t have the energy or insight to move forward, God meets us and reminds us that we are loved and feeds us through the sacrament of communion.   As we break bread and share the cup, we are reminded that God has never abandoned God’s people, that sacred dreams have moved God’s people forward in a new direction and that we too are called into the story of dreams, of God immersed futures, of God’s current presence here in our lives.  That we are fed to continue the story, to dream new dreams, to remind others that God and the church are still relevant in the world today.