Saturday, July 7, 2018

A Sermon from the Mound...on Second

Matthew 5: 1-12                                                                                                       
We’re on second base now with this sermon from the mound.  We made it to first base in 2013.  I will warn you that some of the sermon is from the last time but the stories are new.  Can you guess who is on the cover of the bulletin?

In a photo taken on June 19, 1948, 70-years ago, retired Yankee slugger, Babe Ruth, poses with St Louis Browns batboy, Bill Dewitt, Jr.  At that time St. Louis had two ball clubs, the St. Louis Browns and the St. Louis Cardinals – in two different leagues. STL has always been a baseball town. Ruth was making a farewell tour of American League ballparks, and would die of cancer just two months later. Bill Dewitt is now President of the St Louis Cardinals.  From batboy to president!  His father, Bill Sr., owned the Browns when this picture was taken. Bill the Third is in the Cardinals organization with his Dad.  It was in 1952 that Anheuser Busch bought the Cardinals ball club and in 1953 the Browns were sold to a group of Baltimore investors and they became the Orioles.

Interesting, it’s history.  Now I would not call myself a die-hard baseball fan except to say, I would call myself a very loyal fan of the St. Louis Cardinals, my hometown team. 

That’s because my dad took me to my first baseball game down in the old Sportsman’s Park/Busch Stadium  in St. Louis. It was one of the 1964 World Series games where St. Louis beat the New York Yankees winning the Series.  My dad, a very patient and loving man, answered my many questions from how do you keep score on the scorecard and what’s a wild pitch to what does the BB mean on the back of the bat boy’s jersey?  Batboys are important to the game.  Maybe even it was Bill Dewitt that I saw on the field that day.

I was eleven that summer and three years later my dad passed away in 1967.  If you know your baseball stats, ‘67 also brought with it another World Series for the Cards, only at Busch Memorial Stadium, the new stadium.  And now there is the ‘new Busch stadium’ or Busch Stadium III.  Proud to say that I’ve seen great ball played at all three stadiums!

A sermon from the mound.  The mound of course is the center, more or less (there are regulations) of the field.  A Major League Baseball regulation mound is 18 feet in diameter and has ranged from a height of 20 inches, to 15 inches to the current 10 inch regulation. 

It seems to me that a lot happens on the mound; it's an important place.  Eager eyes are set upon the mound for the pitch.  It’s holy ground.  And, as of February this year there is a new mound regulation.  Coaches or managers are allowed to go to the mound 6 times during a 9 inning game.  But the 7th time – watch out, there are consequences, there has to be a pitching change.  It’s all in the mound folks, the mound.

Jesus knew that.  I think Jesus would have liked baseball.  After all we see him spitting in the mud (John 9:6), writing in the sand (John 8:6-8) talking about home, well ok, he meant eternal home, and even climbing up on the mount for a sermon such as we heard in our scripture today.  He sat down on his mound and invited people of every persuasion to hear what he had to say.   He gives them a pep talk, puts on his game face.  He winds up and then throws out the pitch:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
7Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
8Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons (and daughters) of God.
10Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
      for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

9 home runs, one right after the other!

Ultimately, the pitch, his pitch, is about the benefits of living decently in life. For life is like a game, not always easy, not always fair.  It’s a balance of skill, luck and guesswork, blessed and enriched by God in so many ways.  I like one of Eugene Peterson’s paraphrased Beatitudes, “You're blessed when you get your inside world - your mind and your heart - put right.  Then you can see God in the outside world."  Our hearts and minds need to be right so that we can envision and embody God’s love outside the ballpark.

I want to share a few stories about some baseball giants.  These stories are too good to let go by because the minds and heart of some players and manager were in the right place.  It really isn’t all about money and contracts and baseball is so much more than a game.

Jackie Robinson
Each year I show the confirmation class the movie ‘42’ the story about Jackie Robinson, the first African American to break the racial barrier in the Major Leagues. It’s a way that we begin to talk about race and the importance of it.  In 1947 Branch Rickey, the Brooklyn Dodgers General Manager approached Robinson to play ball for the club.  It wasn’t easy.

As shown in the 2013 movie, Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman was deriding Jackie in horrible fashion while on the field.  After failing to reach base, Jackie held his head high and walked back to the dugout. Jackie resisted a physical fight, but Rickey quipped:
“[Chapman’s actions and Jackie’s non-response] did more than anybody to unite the Dodgers. When he [Chapman] poured out that string of unconscionable abuse, he solidified and united thirty men.”

Dodger’s teammate and friend Pee Wee Reese (also a member of the Hall of Fame) came to Robinson’s defense and said, “You can hate a man for many reasons. Color is not one of them.”

Jackie united the Dodgers and the great cause, he united a country. He made people see him and human decency differently. He made change happen through his actions.  His time in baseball can best be summed up in a quote by Jackie.  He once said, “I’m not concerned with your liking or disliking me… All I ask is that you respect me as a human being.”

Mike Matheny/Oscar Taveras
In 2014 ST. LOUIS suffered a terrible loss when outfielder Oscar Taveras died in an auto accident in his native Dominican Republic, his girlfriend also died in the crash along with him. Mike Matheny, former STL Cardinal and Cardinals manager did not comment about the death of Oscar the night of the crash.   He explained why in his statement that the Cardinals released Monday morning:

"I was asked last night to give some words regarding the tragic death of Oscar Taveras, but I just simply couldn't.

"First of all, it felt like a bad dream that could not be real, and when reality kicked in, my words didn't even seem to make sense. To say this is a horrible loss of a life, ended too soon, would be an understatement. To talk about the potential of his abilities seemed to be untimely. All I wanted to do was get the guys together and be with our baseball family. I know the hurt that comes along with buying into the brotherhood of a baseball team. That hurt is just as powerful as the joys that come with this life.

Not to say it is even close to the depth of pain his true family is going through, but the pain itself is just as real. The ache is deep because the relationships were deep, and forged through time and trials.

"To the many fans who have already reached out with condolences, and to the many more who are in mourning, thank you for taking these players in, like they are one of your own. This level of care is what sets our fans apart.

"In my opinion,’ he said, ‘the word 'love' is the most misused, and misunderstood word in the English language. It is not popular for men to use this word, and even less popular for athletes. But, there is not a more accurate word for how a group of men share a deep and genuine concern for each other. We loved Oscar, and he loved us. That is what a team does, that is what a family does. You will be missed, Oscar."[i]

Aaron Judge
And very recently, last Monday in fact Aaron Judge, right fielder for the NY Yankees and American League’s Rookie of the Year 2017 made 10 year old James Payne a very happy little boy.  “He and his dad, Chris Payne, had brought their gloves to the ballpark as usual, and were yelling at Judge, James’ favorite player, for a baseball all game long.

Judge would finally oblige in the fourth inning, tossing one up to James, who of course was wearing a Judge replica jersey from the 2017 All-Star game.  “I figured it was done there,” Payne said. “I said thank you for making my son’s night.”  But the story didn’t end there.

Judge kept looking at the youngster and nodded that he wanted to play catch. He had to wait an inning, though.  Judge homered in the top half of the fifth before coming right back out and throwing a couple with Yankees bullpen catcher Radley Haddad.

“And then he came right over to us,” said Chris, who had pulled the ball back out. “That’s where it all started. And they weren’t really close. Judge’s angle was so low on the field and my son’s angle was so high in the stands so it’s hard to have a catch like that. But they were both on point, throwing the ball back and forth.”  You can see a video of it on the internet taken by someone sitting behind them, it’s really great. The kid is good.  It ended up on Good Morning America, ESPN and MLB Network’s “Intentional Talk.”

Chris Payne says, “It’s four throws that we’ll remember for a lifetime.”

James became an instant celebrity among all his teammates on his travel baseball club.

“It felt really good,” James said. “It didn’t really strike me until the day after on Tuesday. All the kids on my travel team were like, ‘I saw you had a catch with Aaron Judge. Wow. You’re so lucky.’”

Judge was impressed with James’ arm.  “He’s got a better arm than me,” Judge said. “He was throwing it pretty good. It’s a cool experience.”  Judge has made several fans’ days with his interactions with them on the field. “I see myself as just another person like everybody else in our clubhouse,” Judge said. “But the impact that we have on our youth and the fans, it’s bigger than we might think. That’s why we can’t take anything like that for granted. He might have said it meant a lot for him to play catch with me, but it was fun for me too.”
“If this is going to be the first time someone’s seeing me play, I want to give them a good show. I want to give my best.”[ii]

So what do we learn from Robinson, Matheny and Judge?  What lessons do we take with us from the mound?  How has Christ prepared us for life and for death through his sermon on the mount?  Here’s what we learn. 

That you should be proud of who you are because that is the way God created you, stand up for your rights and the rights of others, stand against racial prejudice and all other forms of prejudice even when it’s hard but it’s the right thing to do.  Be Christ-like in all your encounters with others.

We learn that love is deep, it’s much more than hearts and flowers and a nice Hallmark card.  Love is caring deeply with an abiding concern for those around you, those with whom you call family and those who are your family.  We learn that you only live once, life is short and we need to make every day a home run.

And we learn that we shouldn’t take anything or anyone for granted.  To show kindness to others even the kids who so desperately want to be noticed, because you just don’t know how your actions will impact them.

And we learn from Christ that the beatitudes or blessings are not just some antiquated words recorded in perpetuity but are living, breathing blessings that we would do well to remember and uphold.

Play Ball!

[i] USA Today  10/27/14

[ii] NY Daily News June 27, 2018

Monday, January 1, 2018

A Past and a Future

Ecclesiastes 3: 1-13                                                                                   

For God has put a sense of past and a future into their minds…..

I have a riddle for you…WWJDONYE?  Did you ever wonder or think about what Jesus did to celebrate his New Years Eve?  Although Jewish, and would have celebrated the Jewish new year of Rosh Hashanah, somehow back then they had to have marked the end of one Julian calendar year from the next. I think that he probably spent the evening with friends, maybe some family, I don’t imagine that it was too wild and crazy, although who knows, he was in his late 20’s early 30’s and we know those are the years for sowing wild oats.  

Maybe at midnight he went outside with some earthenware pots and stick utensils and made lots of racket, waking up the dogs in that sleepy town of Nazareth.  Or maybe him and his buddy, Peter lit off some homemade bottle rockets back behind the temple when the high priest had just fallen asleep.  Or just maybe he took that fishing boat out for a midnight cruise on the Sea of Galilee sipping a glass of fine vintage wine – you know, only the best for Jesus.  And then after a glass or two retelling some of his more intriguing and thought provoking parables to the delight of his passengers, their voices echoing loudly across the water and into the quiet valley around the sea. 

Who knows?  What we know is that years did pass one from the other.  There is a moment in everyone’s life when one year is defined from the next.  For Jesus there was one New Year’s Eve in which he knew that he would not see the next year through.  In fact he knew that it would be his last new year’s eve.  Knowing Hebrew scripture as he did so well, maybe he consoled himself with the words of Qohelet, the teacher, that “for everything there really is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven”.  His time had come.  The natural order of things in his life will soon come to a halt.  Not my will, but thy will be done he prays.

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.
What gain have the workers from their toil? I have seen the business that God has given to everyone to be busy with. He has made everything suitable for its time; moreover he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil.

So often this passage is read at funerals when someone has died to ease the pain and grief of death but it actually contains a much broader message, one of the vicissitudes of life and of assurance.  Assurance that there is order not chaos, that there is a rhyme and reason and above all hope.

Jesus, I don’t think, would have passively entered the new year, I believe that he would have taken an inventory of his life, did he honor Mary and Joseph, did he handle his power and authority with humility and not abusively?  Could he live out the rest of his life as a faithful Jew and lover of the law?  Were there relationships that he had to reconcile?  He certainly had the capacity for deep and honest reflection and prayer.  I imagine that his final new year’s eve was spent in quiet contemplation of the meaning of his life and God’s greater purpose.   He had a heightened sense of the past and the future while being in the present.
Today is the last day of 2017.  It’s time to wrap things up for another year before crossing the threshold into a new one.  How was it for you?  Close your eyes and let’s take a moment to think back on 2017.  Does it bring you joy or pain?  If we take the metaphor of a book.  Are you ready to close the book entitled 2017?  Are you slamming it shut?  Are you finishing the last chapter and reaching gently to put it down with the story lingering in your thoughts, warming your heart?  Have you even finished the book or are you stuck in one chapter?  What keeps you from reading the end of the book?  Just think for a moment….

Some years, without a doubt, are more difficult and challenging than others.  Some years bring life and some death.  Some years bring abundance and some scarcity.  Some years do result in irreconcilable relationships and some years produce much love.  Some years are wonderful and some just plain rotten and, there are years that contain it all, a roller coaster ride of emotion.

Ecclesiastes speaks of the great passages of life, some in which we have no control over, some in which we do.  It says that life is not random or erratic but really pretty orderly.  That there is a time, maybe not a reason, but a time for everything that happens and that God has put a sense of the past and future into our minds to give us hope and to let us be co-authors of our lives.  Our past informs our today but it does not have to define our tomorrow.  We do have options in what the coming year will mean.

If you need forgiveness, ask for it.  If you need to forgive, then work on it.  If you need healing, pray for it, pray for God to open your eyes to all the ways in which your healing will emerge.  If you are lost, choose a path and go down it because if it’s the wrong path you’ll quickly discover it and you can amend it, and if it is the right path you’ll find yourself skipping merrily along.  If your dreams go up in smoke, build new dreams.  And if you are just grateful to be alive then cling to it and cherish it and give thanks to God.

In the fourth quartet, ‘Little Gidding’, of T.S. Eliot’s beautiful poem ‘Four Quartets’, he writes, “For last year’s words belong to last year’s language and next year’s words await another voice.  What we call the beginning is often the end and to make an end is to make a beginning.”

2017 is an end.  2018 is a beginning.  How grateful I am that God has brought me to this point.  I hope you are too because this new year can and will bring healing and hope and new opportunity.  How can it not?  There IS another voice awaiting us in that future as Eliot pens, calling us into next year.

That voice is God’s voice.  It is heard in the angel voices, there will be joy.  It is heard through the gifts of the Magi, life is a precious treasure.  It is heard through the shepherd’s actions, I will guide you and take care of you, I will seek you out when you are lost and feed you when you are hungry.  And God’s voice is most poignantly heard in the birth of Jesus the Christ; I will redeem you and call you home.  You see God is never silent but continually speaks to us, year after year after year.

I wish for you and pray for you only the best in 2018.  May your challenges be met with God’s grace guiding you.  May your joys be shared so that others may know joy too.  May your riches enable you to do great things and may your poverty bring about a clearer vision and strength of character.

May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be and abide with you now, and all your future nows.


Mary's Hope

Luke 1:39-56  Advent IV

The sun was brilliant at Ein Kerem, a small and quiet suburb west of Jerusalem the day that I visited in 2007, now ten years ago.  It’s an artsy little community with lots of ceramic and jewelry crafters but it also has a lot of historical significance for Christians.  It is here that the current Church of the Visitation was built in 1937 completed in 1955 by architect Antonio Barluzzi.  But, of course, like everything else in the Holy Land what we see today is contemporary compared to what lies below it.  Layer upon layer of history is built into this holy place.

The Church of the Visitation is where it is told that Mary sang her beautiful song, the Magnificat.  So said Helena of Constantinople, Constantine’s mother when she declared this site the home of Zechariah, John the Baptist’s father.  Zechariah, as you remember from my sermon two weeks ago was married to Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin.  Well the crusaders took the spot and built a church over it.  By 1480 it was abandoned and it had fallen into disrepair until the Franciscans bought it from an Arab family in 1679.  They spent many years excavating and finally built the current church by Barluzzi.

So it was into the sunny courtyard of the church that I walked and found a statue of two women facing one another in robes.  Both pregnant and showing their bellies. On the wall behind them are 42 tilled versions of the Magnificat in 42 different languages.   It was quiet that day and only the sound of birds nestled in the trees can be heard.  I walked into the sanctuary and a priest sat vigilant so I was quiet, trying not to disturb him.  I sat for a good long while, only something you can do when you are not with a tour group rushing you from site to site.  I began to think of this story of Mary and Elizabeth. Both women were vessels in God’s new ordering of Judea and the world.  It is here where hope began.

It is said that after the angel appeared to Mary to tell her of the impending birth of her child, she travelled from Nazareth to this place to visit Elizabeth.  Elizabeth too was with child.  After their embrace of greeting and joy possibly they sat under an olive or almond tree and sipped tea.  Maybe they strolled along a stone path and picked up the dried pomegranates that had fallen to the ground.  Perhaps Mary glanced out of Elizabeth’s kitchen window into the terraced Judean hillside and just pondered her future and what it all would mean.  We do know that when she saw Elizabeth she expressed her joy in the beautiful song, now known as the Magnificat.

Let us now hear the Gospel of Luke telling us the story:

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.

Mary’s faith must have been great for such a young, young woman.  While other girls her age were occupied with adolescent activities, Mary was with child by the Holy Spirit.  In the blink of an eye, her youthful womb had become a temple for the Christ who would be born some months later.  She understands her new role as best as she could and in faith, her soul, her body, her character, and her entire self magnifies the Lord. 

And so she sings. But by all strokes of the imagination she should not be singing this beautiful canticle; she should be crying buckets of tears because of her scandalous situation.  Poor, pregnant, single and living in the time of the Holy Roman Empire that was just awful for lowly people.  The odds were not in her favor, they were against her. 

In spite of her difficult, almost dire and extenuating situation she sings of being God’s favored one.  She sings of God’s strength in lifting up the lowly and scattering the proud, of how God has filled hungry bellies and has brought down the powers of oppression.

Her song expresses the needs of the poor and lowly, the marginalized and oppressed. Her song is an act of resistance; she did not retreat from what she was asked to do, her song is a proclamation.  Mary sings her song within this dichotomy of despair and anticipation.

Yet she chooses only hope because not only has God found favor with her, but in this act of divine commitment God has found favor with the world.  She praises God for this critical and much needed intervention into the human condition.  This is the God incarnate and she is filled with God’s saving grace.

For us the glory and joy of Christmas comes by way of this young and ordinary one who accepted God’s call into her life.  God sought her out and met her where she was and after that she did not look back.  She only looked forward with optimism and trust. 

Like with Mary, God meets you too where you are – wherever that might be and with whatever you have come into the sanctuary with today, God meets you and greets you, “favored one”.  We are all favored in God’s sight, now that’s something to sing about. 

How will you belt out the good news? How will you dare, like Mary to sing even though you have considered all of the facts?  What would your thanksgiving be to God?  What would your message be to the people? You see singing, it’s not about the degree of proficiency of music or the clarity of voice or even if you know the correct lyrics.  It’s about making a sound that praises God amidst the adversities of your life until your whole body trembles, with conviction and joy and in hope.

What we learn from Mary is that God does not seek out the perfect human being but rather takes us on in our uniqueness and fallen selves, all imperfect and gnarly to be favored and holy.  And there is so much grace in that. 

We know this is the season of joy, of good tidings, and of giving, but we can’t forget that all of this is preceded by God’s grace and that’s what gives us the conviction to be joyful.  God has found favor with you.  You are full of grace, full of the goodness of God, full of the Christ, the one who sets us free from earthly tribulation, full of hope that tomorrow will be better than today.  That within the errors of the human condition you are forgiven and asked to start anew.  So make room for Christ in your heart, like Mary made room for Christ in her womb and soon they only thing you will be able to do is to sing out, my soul glorifies the Lord!
God has broken into humanity through Mary.  Heaven knew that the world needed changing at that time.  And the world was changed.  Mary sings because of her youthful hope.  Hope that this child would be everything a mother dreams of, hope that this child would laugh and sing and skip happily in the fields, hope that this child might take care of her in old age.  Hope that what God was doing with her would be for the good of humanity.

It’s a big task to give birth and to give birth to Jesus, well, that’s a whole other story in and of itself.  And it is.  It is the Christian story of redemption and hope.  Transformation comes through this tiny babe and his young mother.  From this birth onward we have been charted for a new life and a new hope.   


Christmas Eve Meditation

December 24, 2017

A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices.

Finally some quiet.  The stores are closed, the packages wrapped, most people are home wherever home might be except for us churchgoers, and hopefully almost all travel has ended.  It’s Christmas Eve.  And Christ is born.  ‘A thrill of hope, [and] the weary world rejoices!’

You are familiar with that phrase because it is a line from the Christmas Carol, O Holy Night translated by John Dwight from a French poem in 1855.    I found it so compelling for this night because truly this is a weary world in which we live and most certainly we need a thrill of some hope if even just a tiny pin dot of light.  We need hope.

O Holy Night is a beloved carol but few people know of the origins of its story.  One night in 1847 in a small French town Placide Cappeau, a commissar of wine, was asked by his local clergy to write a poem for Christmas.  He was quite surprised because he was not really a church-goer.  But on his way to Paris by train he imagined what it would have been like to be in Bethlehem the night that Jesus was born and to witness his birth.  By the time he had reached Paris he had penned the poem ‘Cantique de Noel’.

Once finished though he knew it was more than just a poem so he asked his friend, Adolphe Charles Adams to compose some music.  Adolphe was a popular classical musician, often asked to compose music for orchestras and ballets.  But this was different because Adolphe was a Jew and he was being asked to write music for a day he didn’t celebrate or a theology that he did not embrace.   Nevertheless he did and the carol was sung at Christmas Mass only three weeks later after Cappeau received the request.

But there is more to the story, which makes this carol, ‘Cantique de Noel’, so poignant for us tonight.  The carol was well received all over France but when Cappeau walked away from the church and became part of the socialist movement and it was found out that Adolphe was a Jew, the Church uniformly denounced the carol from being sung.  The heads of the Church deemed it in poor musical taste and that there was a ‘total absence of the spirit of religion’ in it. 

But the determined French people continued to sing it each year in their homes, no one could stop them, and so an American composer, John Sullivan Dwight, heard it and brought it to America and translated it to English.  Now Dwight, what you must know, was an ardent abolitionist and saw something else in the song that moved him beyond the story of the birth of Christ.

Dwight strongly identified with the lines of the third verse: "Truly he taught us to love one another; his law is love and his gospel is peace. Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother; and in his name all oppression shall cease." The text supported Dwight's view of slavery in the South.   The carol was published and  Dwight's English translation of "O Holy Night" quickly found favor in America, especially in the North during the Civil War.[i]

Now there is even more to the story, part of which is legend, but we’ll save that for another night.  You see the important point of this carol was that it was birthed into a weary world much like ours today as the French then were preparing for another wave of revolution in 1848.   And when this carol came to American soil, it came to a divided America between the North and the South.

Even that night in which Jesus was born the prevailing mood in Israel was anything but hope.  It was weary too.  Under the Rome occupation, life was not easy.  Common people lived with the burden of religious requirements from the establishment without free expression of their own religious traditions.

So I’m not quite sure that the world has known anything other than weariness.  With each passing day there is shocking and demoralizing news that we hear; of fires and shootings, of hurricanes and nuclear threat, of war and terrorism, of censorship, of apathy, of broken relationships.  There is disillusionment everywhere and we yearn for wholeness and peace, hope and contentment.

But what is this thrill of hope that we yearn for?

Is it hoping the weather will be good for the family vacation or hoping that the St. Louis Cardinals will win the World Series, or hoping that mom will be making her delicious figgy pudding for Christmas?  While these are valid concerns of one’s heart, this sort of hope is reduced to merely something that we want to happen but have no real way of knowing whether at the end of the day it will.   It’s a finger crossed hope that everything will turn out exactly the way we want it to.  Yet the reality is that often life just doesn’t turn out the way we would like at times and the Cardinals will lose or it rains all week on vacation.  This kind of hope lacks conviction and fundamentally isn’t all that transformative to our lives.

But true hope does have the power to transform us because it gives us something solid to hang on to.   It is the hope of Bethlehem.  It is the hope that Mary birthed so many years ago.  It is Jesus who is our hope who will strengthen us for the challenges we face.  It is through him that we can ultimately hang onto hope amid the turmoil of life. He is the one who fulfilled the promise of the prophets so long ago that the wilderness and the dry land shall be glad and the desert shall blossom with the crocus. 

It is a hope that is based in profound love that what God has created is good, and that we are good, and that there is redemption close at hand.   We don’t have to be perfect, nor does the weary world have to be perfect for Christ to come and offer us true hope.  That’s what this night is about and what Christ’s birth offers us.

Oh yes, the weary world rejoices because yonder breaks a new a glorious morn!
The thrill of hope is within our reach, grab it, and never let it go.

Amen. Let it be so.

[i]  from "Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas" with permission of Zondervan.

Monday, October 16, 2017

For Such a Time as This

Esther 4: 9-14
Jews have a holiday that occurs once a year usually in March but sometimes it can occur in late February, it depends on the lunar cycle.  It’s Purim.  The Bible instructs that it should occur on the 14th day of the Jewish month of Adar.  This is one of the happiest holidays of the Jewish year, Jews all over the world engage in festive merry-making, dress in costumes and use noise-makers called graggers and these yummy triangular cookies with jam inside of them called Hamantaschen appear.  It is also a time in which Jews are instructed to give tzedakah or charity as the Bible says,

And Mordecai inscribed these things and sent letters to all the Jews… to enjoin them to make the fourteenth day of the month of Adar and the fifteenth day thereof, every year… a festive day: to make them days of feasting and joy, and sending portions one to another, and gifts to the poor."1

You see Purim is the remembrance of a time long ago when in the city of Shushan, Persia a wicked man named Haman, an Amalekite, tried to kill the Jews but the Jewish queen Esther saved them with help from her cousin Mordecai. It’s not an historical account but a story written within an historical framework.  It's a celebration for Jews when the Megillah or scroll of Esther is read.  And although God is not named once in the entire Megillah, it’s a story of God’s providence and redemption and a story in which one woman, Esther, rises to the call to save the Jews from certain death.

Let’s hear our focus passage from the Megillah of Esther:

Ha-thak (eunich in the court of King Ahashuerust) went and told Esther what Mordecai had said. Then Esther spoke to Ha-thak and gave him a message for Mordecai, saying, “All the king’s servants and the people of the king’s provinces know that if any man or woman goes to the king inside the inner court without being called, there is but one law—all alike are to be put to death. Only if the king holds out the golden scepter to someone, may that person live. I myself have not been called to come in to the king for thirty days.”

When they told Mordecai what Esther had said, Mordecai told them to reply to Esther, “Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish.

Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.”

I want you to remember the phrase, ‘for such a time as this’ but first, let’s put this passage in context because it is a plot that is laced with twists and turn, and lots of complications. After the destruction of the southern kingdom of Judah the people are taken into Babylonian captivity in what is known as the diaspora (Jews spread throughout the region). Persia conquers Babylon, some people return to Jerusalem and some stayed where they were which is the case for Esther and the Jews in Persia.

The plot simply is King Ahasuerus deposes Queen Vashti and then he holds a beauty pageant to find a new queen.  Esther is chosen.  Her cousin Mordecai discovers Haman’s plot to kill the Jews.  Haman was a vizier in the King’s court.  Mordecai tells Esther she needs to intercede. “For such a time as this”. Haman finds out and plots again to have Mordecai hanged but Esther tells the King about the plan to kill the Jews.  He finds out who was behind this all and of course it was Haman who then was hanged.  Mordecai is recognized as a good guy and the King sends out a decree that the 14th day of Adar a feast shall happen which is Purim.

The story all hinges on Esther who, by providence, happened to be the right person at the right time to do the job that needed to be done.  You might say she was called for a specific purpose in the pervading providence of God.

It is that way in life you know.  Sometimes you just happen to be the person who is available and willing to do a job and you are there at just the right time.  You often see people being interviewed on the news for being a hero because they helped or saved someone in distress.  They are unassuming bystanders who without hesitation intervened and helped to save someone. That’s what Mordecai was indicating to Esther when he said, you Esther were called to do this particular job, you were called for such a time as this. 

Sometimes we can plan and plan and plan and nothing pans out but then things just happen and you are in the right place, at the right time and bingo! You were able to effectuate good.  So you never know when you will be called into God’s service.  It’s about being open and willing to take a chance that what you are sensing is the right thing to do.  And it is about trusting that God can and will use you for greater purposes. 

Writer and theologian Frederick Buechner notes:  “The question is not whether the things that happen to you are chance things or God’s things because, of course, they are both at once. There is no chance thing through which God cannot speak … He speaks, I believe, and the words he speaks are incarnate in the flesh and blood of our selves and of our own footsore and sacred journeys … ‘Be not afraid, for lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.’ He says he is with us on our journeys. He says he has been with us since each of our journeys began. Listen for him. Listen to the sweet and bitter airs of your present and your past for the sound of him.”[i]

God is with you in your life journey make no mistake about that.  So the question is what  are you doing on and with your journey?  Are you letting God work through you in order that someone else can experience life giving justice and peace?
Next Sunday evening I hope that you will join me in ‘Conversations’. We are living in unusual times right now.  All you have to do is to look at the news or the paper and see that people are hurting in so many ways.  People have lost their homes and their livelihoods to natural disasters, people are dying when going to concerts and night clubs, people are the victims of hate, prejudice and bullying and it doesn’t look like any of this will stop in the near future.

For such a time as this we can gather together and talk.  We can talk about how this is all making us feel.  What does it do to your psyche every time you hear of such destruction?  How might we keep the faith when it seems as if evil has been unleashed around us?

For such a time as this we can pray about where God most needs us.  We live a pretty cushy and privileged life here, you have to admit.  But that doesn’t preclude us from rising up, rolling up our sleeves and doing some grunt work.  In fact, we have a responsibility to do so.  That’s what Jesus does and we are his followers so we must too.

For such a time as this we have been called into action.  Let us, like Esther rise to the occasion and be God’s messengers of hope, of peace, of justice.  There is no other time but now, for such is the time.