Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Where Two or Three are Gathered

And Jesus said,

Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” Matthew 18:20

This line, ‘for where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them’ is used often to justify that even in the smallest of gatherings where two or three people are present and agree prayerfully, Jesus is there.  And so it is, that he is present within each one of us, when a couple of us are together or amidst a great throng of believers.

Looked at and understood in the larger Biblical context we see it a bit differently; Jesus says this to show us how to reprove one another of sins that have been committed against each other, or simply put - church discipline.  In fact there are several places in the New Testament that show the struggle of the earliest believers in Christ who wished to gather in his name.  Gathering in Christ’s name to be a church is wonderful and purposeful and difficult because let’s face it, humans aren’t perfect.

What we do know is that God wants us to gather.  So where two or three are gathered, where 22 or 23 are gathered, where 622 or 623 are gathered Christ is present.  But I submit to you that even though he is present that does not mean that it will be a utopia of happy Christian campers.  So where 2 or 3 are gathered they need a little church governance or a way to organize themselves and get the business of ministry accomplished. 

Today we will look at church governance through the eyes of scripture.  Why, you ask, do we have to do this?  Why do we have to change? 

Well sometimes we simply outgrow our jeans.  They no longer suite us or they fit the way they used to.  Times change, the demands of life change.  A friend and colleague of mine tells the story of when his now 34 year old was little he was asked by the teacher in school what does your dad do for a living?  His na├»ve and innocent reply was, ‘he goes to meetings’.  To his little eyes and heart all he knew was that his daddy was at a church meeting most of the time.  Yeah, where 2 or 3 are gathered you can be sure the will be a committee meeting. 

That tells you something about the nature of the institution of church.  It can become cumbersome when it no longer fits into the lifestyle that we crave and so a modification needs to happen.  If you look back through the church records we have dating back to 1805 we certainly do not govern ourselves the way our brothers and sisters in faith did back then.  And can I have an ‘Amen’ for that?  

You see the more rules and regs there are there is less reliance on the Spirit.  And we need that spirit among us working and churning our hearts.  God wants us to use the spiritual gifts that we have been given. 

Ephesians, the fourth chapter tells us that we have been given spiritual gifts for three main reasons.  1) to equip the saints that is to be more Christ like in our encounters with others, 2) for the work of ministry that is to prepare us to carry out the tasks that this body has discerned that is part of our mission, 3) to build up the body of Christ, that is so we can get stronger in witness and word for Christ.

At the 211 Annual Meeting today after church we will begin a journey into a new way of organizing ourselves to accomplish our mission which says, “We are a spiritual, caring community committed as a fellowship of faithful people to a still-speaking God”.  One of the ways in which we have discerned thus far to do this is by creating a new Leadership Council that comprises four areas of ministry that pretty much sums up how we will achieve our mission.  Worship, Faith in Action, Faith Formation, and Resources. 

Very simply put how we worship our God, how we are active participants helping others in this world, how we feed and grow our faith and how we take care of the gifts and resources that we have received.  That’s all, no mystery.  While they seem to be separate entities they unite us in our effort and call to follow the ways of Jesus Christ.  They all have one overarching goal that is to be a spiritual, caring community committed to a still speaking God.

After the meeting today we will begin this new journey together.  So I want to talk a bit more about each Ministry Team using scripture and song to ground us in this new endeavor.

Worship Ministry Team
Psalm 100

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.
Worship the Lord with gladness;
come into his presence with singing.
Know that the Lord is God.
It is he that made us, and we are his;
we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.
Enter his gates with thanksgiving,
and his courts with praise.
Give thanks to him, bless his name.
For the Lord is good;
his steadfast love endures forever,
and his faithfulness to all generations.

I think it is safe to say that almost, without fail barring snowstorms or hurricanes, that we have been most faithful to God in this area.  For 211 we have gathered on Sunday mornings and at other times to give thanks to God for our blessings and to offer our inner most selves in worshipful ways.  Worship is a gift and a blessing and it is essential to our spiritual life.  Liturgy is the work of the people.

But worship just doesn’t happen like that.  Bryan and I don’t phone each other up on a Saturday night and say, hey what do you want to do tomorrow.  No.  It takes prayerful and intentional planning and it takes a whole lot of people to help that happen.  Singers, ushers, deacons, worship leaders, congregants we all are a part of our worship to God.  The Worship Ministry Action Team is the spiritual arm of the church and they are the ones that enable this type of ministry to happen. 

Whether it’s deacons or  music that feeds the soul or inreach to our own through Angel Food Express we are allowing one another to experience the love of God through our actions.  I am sure that you have many gifts that might be used in some way as a pop-up ministry that would fall under the Worship Ministry Team.

I am grateful to ______________ for answering the call to be the Worship Team Leader.

PH 4 All People that on Earth Do Dwell

Faith in Action Ministry Team
Matthew 22: 34-40
When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

According to Jesus the first and second greatest commandments are love God with all your heart, soul and mind, and, love your neighbor as yourself.   Strong and simple commands, love God, love neighbor.  What’s really great about this is how we choose to love God and neighbor is up to us.  God let’s us figure it out.  So how we love our neighbor is the work of Faith in Action. 

We have this faith, we have this belief in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ.  If we are to follow him then we are to help others, to work towards a society that lifts up and values everyone.  When we work to that end we are putting our faith into action.  It’s no longer words but it’s our actions that really matter in the kingdom.  OCC working in tandem with Columbus House, Habitat, Abraham’s Tent and so many other agencies to effect good is a way in which we fulfill Christ’s call.  He was always for the underserved, the outcast and the victims of an unjust first century society.  Societal ills have not gone away.  This is what Faith in Action is about.

So too, Open and Affirming is another way in which we can be an inclusive community helping others find a place at Christ’s expansive table.  ONA is specifically designed to let the LGBTQ community know that we are a safe and accepting house of God for them to come into.  But going through this process is so much more.  It says that we are a loving congregation who yearns to share the Gospel with everyone.  Because of that we are willing to have discussions and study scripture to discover what it means to be a body of Christ as diverse as we are created in the image of God.

Ministering to all through outreach; sharing and caring.  Might you have an idea for a pop-up ministry that fits into the life of the Faith in Action Ministry Team?

I am grateful to ______________ for accepting the call to be Faith in Action Team Leader.

NCH  539  Won’t You Be My Servant

Faith Formation Ministry Team
2 Timothy 3: 14-17
But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.

All that we do here is grounded in scripture…whether you know it or not.  It may not come to mind immediately but if Christ is not at the core of our values, our ethic, or actions then we are not a church.  And we learn about Christ through scripture in Bible or book study, in discussion about Biblical and theological matters.  That’s head work. But it’s really not enough.  Reading a cookbook doesn’t make you a good cook.  Perusing a manual on a camera does not make you a good photographer.

What does make you a good cook or a good photographer is practice and action. It is the confluence of head and heart.  It is an engaged process of learning and practice that is infused in all aspects of the congregation.  It honors the diversity of spiritual and religious needs because there is not one approach.  Our faith in the Lord is informed but what we do, hear and learn and hopefully then we are transformed for greater spiritual living.

The work of the Holy Spirit in a person is a life long process, we are life long learners who have new challenges that we must adapt to.  How I thought about God when I was a kid is drastically different than how I think about God now.  My faith in God is formed by my life experiences and my connection with my churches throughout the years.

Formed in the likeness of Christ, that’s what we strive to be.  Through the years OCC has offered thoughtful education for young ones and elders and everyone in between.  It used to be known as Christian Education. But as I said before that implies book learning only and Faith formation is much more. It is wholistic finding a balance between head and heart. 

Our youth ministries, church school and adult education strive to engage our head and heart in fruitful ways.  Our library gives us the resources to begin the journey.

Do you have something that you can contribute to the Faith Formation Ministry Team?  A pop up ministry can be anything from a one time book discussion to a spiritual, intentional walk in the woods.

I am grateful to ___________ for accepting the call to be Faith Formation Team Leader.

NCH  313  Like a Tree beside the Waters

Resources for Ministry Team
1 Corinthians 3: 10-15
According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. Each builder must choose with care how to build on it. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done. If what has been built on the foundation survives, the builder will receive a reward. If the work is burned up, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire.

Would we be a church with not a penny in our pocket and a roof over our head?  Absolutley!  That’s because a church is a gathering or a body of baptized Christians who believe in Jesus as the head.  We could be a church in someone’s home, in a hall, or on the green without a building.  But how incredibly blessed we are to be able to worship in this sacred space and have a few extra dollars in our coffers to carry out the ministry of Jesus Christ. 

We give great thanks to all of the saints who have gone before us.  Their faith in Christ and with Christ as their foundation has given us this sanctuary and this ministry here in Orange.  And so we are called upon to give an account not only in their name but to God of how we administer everything we have been given.  WE all need to be accountants of our faith and ministries here in Orange.

Did you ever wonder how the chandelier glass hurricanes get cleaned? What about steeple repair, office equipment repair, tuning instruments, fiscal management?  Blessed with so much we need to be good – no great stewards of what God has entrusted to us.  I’m sure there is some little pop up ministry that you can think of and help out with to make this sacred space spin! Take ‘the guys’ for instance. They pop up every Tuesday and trouble shoot – changing the marquee, cleaning refrigerators, all is ministry when offered to the glory of God. 

I am grateful to __________ for accepting the call to be Resources Team Leader.

We have four teams that encompass the breadth of Christ’s ministry. I pray that you will be inspired to be a part of these vital areas of ministry.  Whatever your gift or skill might be and you see a ministry need that could utilize your gifts, speak to me or any of the team leaders.  Pop up ministries are always encouraged! 

May Christ, the cornerstone of the church, our faith and of our lives, guide us into our future will dignity and grace. 


NCH 400   Christ is Made the Sure Foundation

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

What are You Looking For?

John 1: 29-42
We are in the season of Epiphany and we count and number the Sundays after Epiphany until the Transfiguration of Jesus, which then ushers in Lent.  Now the Sundays after Epiphany can vary because Easter, based on the lunar calendar is different every year…so that can push Ash Wednesday (the beginning of Lent) early in February or as late as March which is where we are this year.  Useful information for Bible geeks if you could follow along…and it’s for free!  No charge!  So the texts we read are ordered by what season we are in.

These Sundays after Epiphany aren’t just ‘filler in’ Sundays, they have a purpose. On Christmas we came seeking a baby, the incarnation – God made flesh here on earth.  But a baby in a lowly manger really isn’t enough to support our theological claims for the incarnation[i] says Pastor David Lose.  We need more than that.  We need Jesus revealed to the magi as the King of the Jews, through the star, we need Jesus to walk into the waters of the Jordan River for baptism and the clouds part revealing him as God’s beloved son.  We continually need that revelation that this baby that we came looking for on Christmas Eve is indeed the Messiah, the anointed one who will change the course of human history.   We need to hear it from Jesus himself as he asks a very important questions of us.  

Hear now this account in the Gospel of John…………. 

The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”

The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).

Shortly after, in fact the very next day John had baptized Jesus, he sees Jesus coming towards him, it was a small world back then.  To everyone around, friends, acquaintances and passersby, John announces, “Here is the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!”  Now THAT’S some grand introduction.  Can you imagine meeting Jesus in that way? The Agnus Dei?  The Lamb of God?  John really ups the anty for Jesus.  He takes Jesus humanity and adds a healthy dollop of divinity to it and then announces it to all.  Jesus can take away the sins of all the world!

Somehow I don’t think that is how Jesus would have introduced himself yet John announces that Jesus is the source of all redemption, the Lamb of God.  I think what adds to John’s grand revelation is that he had experienced an epiphany just the day before when the heavens opened with a dove and a voice, he says, “I heard God’s voice proclaim love for his son.”  It was a profound, life altering experience for him.  He just had to testify to all.

The next day John was with two of his own disciples and again he started up when he saw Jesus, “Look, here is the Lamb of God.”  His witnessing never stops!  But then again, when something remarkable happens to us, something that is transformational, don’t you just want to tell the world several times as a matter of fact?  Don’t you just want to tell the story over and over again?  I remember when I had my first child and all my husband and I could do was to tell the story of his birth like it was the grandest thing that had ever happened.  We told it over and over again.

What John saw compelled him to share it with anyone and everyone repeatedly.  He says, “I myself have seen and have testified that this, this man right before us is the Son of God.” 

Well, John’s two disciples decided to check this claim out for themselves. Prudent investigating! Have you ever just become a believer in something because someone, who is especially displaying zealous (unique) behavior just tells you to?  Probably not.  You’d want to check it out for yourself, go to the source of this news.  So they went up to Jesus, the source.  They flat out leave John and follow Jesus.  Kind of makes me wonder how John felt about that but it must have been a pretty powerful moment for them to leave.   

So Jesus asked them, “What are you looking for?”.  Well they probably had no clue of what they were looking for, so instead they asked him where he lived.  I guess they were confused!  So Jesus gives them a wonderful invitation, “Come and See”, and they went, they followed Jesus. 

Let’s stop here to dwell on Jesus’ question.  ‘What are you looking for?’ That’s a really good question to ask of ourselves, you who cross our threshold each and every week and those of you who have entered for the very first time. What are you looking for?  We can understand that question in so many other ways, What do you hope to find?  What is it that you are seeking?  What do you need?  What do you long for, hope for?[ii]  Or, more profoundly, what is it that you need most in your life at this moment in time? 

I would feel so blessed, so taken care of if I walked into a church or anywhere for that matter and was asked that question.  What is it that you need most in your life at this moment in time?  And the follow up questions, how can I help you achieve what you need? 

Many of us would be able to answer that question right away.  Some peace, some quiet, some companionship, some ‘me’ time, some freedom, some healing, a new pair of shoes.  You see we all have needs of all kinds from the most basic to the esoteric. 

But there are others who may not exactly know how to answer that question, all they know is that they are seeking something and they have come to this place, this church in search of it.   They have come to a place where Christ is revealed each week in hopes of finding a glimmer of hope in whatever their needs might be.  What if we asked each person who enters this house of God, “What is it that you need most in your life at this moment in time?”  “How can we be of help to you?”  Wouldn’t that change things up a bit?

That’s what Jesus asks the disciples, ‘What are you looking for?  What do you need?”   This is an invitation from Christ that we can ask anything of him, we can come in search of what we need most and rather than being turned away we are invited to state what we need of him. Right now, I think we need a lot of him. We need his vision, his ethic and his unwavering conviction  to honor all individuals.

These last few days have been quite profound in our nation.  On Thursday Donald Trump took the oath of the highest office of our nation.  For some it was a wonderful day, those who have pinned their hopes and dreams on a new and different sort of leadership and future.

For others it was quite the opposite.  For them the inauguration ushered in a time of uncertainty for established policies that create equitable and peace filled living for all people.  And again, just yesterday, we saw the unique time we are in played out in the peaceful women’s marches around the world!  AROUND THE WORLD!  This new leadership for some people does not honor or respect diversity or the dignity of each American or human being.  It does not uphold the values that Jesus espoused in his lifetime, which is to champion the disempowered, the widow, and the children, those whose voices have traditionally been quieted by the dominant forces, to love all people, our neighbors as ourselves.  There is a lot of need right now no matter how you look at it.

So as a church that follows Jesus, that endeavors to emulate his ethic and values the question, ‘What are you looking for?’ is poignant.  Each person who walks through our doors is needing something, you can be sure of that.  By asking this question it is the beginning of opening our hearts and minds to the convictions of Jesus in this time of ambiguity, and the ways in which we can help one another.

What are you looking for single mother of three who works two jobs to make ends meet?
What are you looking for refugee who has come from so far away for a better life in a free place?
What are you looking transgendered person who seeks sanctuary from an injuring world?
What are you looking for brother who needs meds and can’t afford them?
What are you looking for victim of hatred, or of oppression?
What are you looking for dear one who has been harmed by the system or the church?

What is it you need?  What do you long for, hope for?  What do you most need?

How can we help you?

Christ’s follow up to ‘What are you looking for, where do you live or rather what values ground you is ‘Come and See’.  Come and see means to follow him to the mountaintops and also into the deep dark valleys of humanity and open your eyes to the suffering and sadness, the inequality and hatred that surrounds us.  To see the pain in another persons face and to sit with that pain; to help them hold that pain for as long as needed.  To see injustice and to work for justice, to witness a different way of living that can happen, is what Jesus is showing us.

It is well to remember this month that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. did just that.  He followed Jesus and loved deeply his Lord and because of that, he saw that he must do all he could to end the terrorism perpetrated upon black men and women.  He’s remembered for making good speeches and that he marched, and that’s ok, but really it is about what he did for African Americans first and foremost.  He followed the invitation of Jesus to come and see the possibilities to effect change.  He knew what he needed to do and so he was moved to active love, just love, non-violent resistance.  That is what Jesus is all about. That is what we need to be about, making a difference in peoples lives, asking the question, ‘What are you looking for?’

This is our time.  This is the time of the church to follow in Jesus ways and to see all of the infinite possibilities for our lives and those around us.  We each have been given the ability to effect change in some way, let us not waste what we have been given but accept this gracious invitation of love.     


[i] Toole, David. Feasting on the Word, Year A Vol. 1.
[ii] From…in the Meantime.  www.Davidlose.net, Epiphany 2 A.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Revelation and Response

January 8, 2017                                                                                    Matthew 1: 1-12

Revelation and Response

Brother Curtis Almquist of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist says this about revelation, “We’re no longer talking only about a God of the Law, whose ways were unknowable, whose face was unseeable, whose name was unpronounceable, whose heart and hands were untouchable, but about Jesus who entered the conditions of this world as an innocent and needy child, just as we have, to reveal the real presence of God’s love.”

Friday was January 6 and in the liturgical year it is celebrated as the Feast of the Epiphany or Theophany or the manifestation of God in this world.  It is God’s revelation of Jesus as Messiah in this world to some worldly outsiders.  Epiphany is rich with meaning on many levels but revelation and response are what we are focusing on today.   

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”

Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

Story of the Epiphany
We find this great story of the Magi solely in Matthew’s birth narrative.  They see a beautiful star which illuminated the deepest and darkest sky; one much brighter than all the rest of the stars for that time of year.  And they follow it.  They packed up their camels with food and water for the journey and set out with their caravan over many nights.  And after some serious obstacles, big ones, they finally arrive in Bethlehem.  My friends, this is far from a simple story that gets glommed into the pageant on Christmas Eve where little boys and sometimes girls wear golden crowns and bejeweled caftans that harkens back to the 60’s.  

It’s about foreigners who are perhaps magicians, or astrologers, or sage and cheeky old men, maybe even of ‘kingly’ status who, upon seeing this unusually bright object that moved through the sky with the fluidity of a bird in flight, set out seeking an infant.  It’s about their determination and God’s fortitude that this long westward journey, maybe a year or two from Mesopotamia to Judea, would end in something extraordinary which is God’s inclusive desire for all to know God’s glory through Jesus Christ.

And when these outsiders, Gentiles in every way, arrive in Jerusalem they stop to ask Herod, a tyrannical king where they could find Jesus, the little one who had been born king of the Jews.  To me I find it curious that they stopped for directions because the star had guided them so far and had gotten them to Jerusalem.  Why couldn’t the star just have continued a little further south to Bethlehem without a stop of this magnitude?  It’s this stop that creates this maelstrom and adds mystery into the narrative.   But maybe it’s God’s peculiar way of revelation yet again.

Now if we stop a second here in the story and focus on revelation we see that revelation began with the shepherds and continued when the magi saw and knew to follow the star.  God’s redemptive work in Jesus, God’s manifestation to the entire world was becoming a reality.  Some, like the Magi would embrace it and others would reject it.  God revealed Godself to good kings and bad kings alike.

Herod was a bad king.  King of the Jewish people as appointed by the Roman Imperial Empire - no one was going to dethrone him, especially not some meager little baby born to country bumpkin parents.  He didn’t get it.  You see the political struggle that we find so palpable later in the Gospel is already present at the very beginning.

Herod was afraid and fear is instilled in all Jerusalem with him the Bible says.  What kind of leader would show his own fear to his people possibly instilling insurgence.  He calls for his inner circle, his cabinet and asks about this so-called, self-proclaimed king and where this activity was happening.   Much to his surprise, they tell him that this ‘subversive activity’ was close to home in Bethlehem a mere five or six miles from the epicenter of Jerusalem.  That really frosted him!

Well the magi, being wise men and all, and after some finagling find Jesus and worshipped him. He is the epiphany of God in the presence of a baby. They present their expensive gifts and when it was time to return to the East they were warned through a dream, not to take the same route home.  Heeding the dream, they returned home by taking an entirely different route. 

To the Magi was revealed God in Jesus as Messiah – the divinity of Jesus in this human baby.  It was revealed in the guiding star, and certainly in their arrival in Bethlehem and at the foot of the manger.  They understood and the followed in faith to Bethlehem. 

To Herod the same was revealed.  He too was told about Jesus’ birth and that Jesus was a special ‘king’ one who would save the people, even Herod himself.  But Herod and the Magi had drastically different responses.  The Magi paid homage and gave precious gifts, Herod, from what we know later in the Gospel, wanted Jesus dead.

Herod cared only for himself and for his position of authority over the people.  His response to this revelation was fear and anger and this fear and anger led to his decision to search for Jesus and order the slaughter of all the boy babies under two years of age. 

The Magi on the other hand received Jesus as Messiah from the get go.  They paid homage first, that is they gave their fullest respect to this infant acknowledging that he was far superior in every way to them. They worshipped him by bowing down and making themselves vulnerable and then if that wasn’t enough they gave him very costly gifts.  A sign of respect and selfless devotion.

Choices were made.  You couldn’t have two more contradictory responses to the Epiphany of our Lord than you do between Herod and the Magi.  You can accept or reject the foundation of our faith that is Jesus Christ.  Revelation and response.

You are all here today because you are faithful believers.  You are the ‘choir’ that I preach to each week.  You believe in the epiphany of our Lord, you’ve accepted the foundation of our faith and you are here worshipping him.  That’s good, good on ya as a friend of mine says.  What I’m more interested in is your response to this epiphany.  The magi paid homage – they worshipped him and then gave gifts.   

What gifts do you have that you might offer on bended knee?  What contributions can you make that honors the Christ child and builds up the kingdom of God here on earth?  All we know is the here and now, all we have is today.  We are not guaranteed tomorrow.  So, what gift will you offer to the Christ child today? 

This is an exciting time in the life of Orange Congregational, I am reminding you of it once again.  We are ushering in a new era, one of redevelopment and change.  This new change to the way we do things, that is organize ourselves will flourish because it allows for everyone’s gifts (if offered) to be utilized in order to build up God’s kingdom here on earth. 

Why should we wait for the kingdom of God in the future when we can make it happen now?  If you want to start a cookie ministry all year round – hey lets talk.  If you love books and want an OCC book club to meet regularly that’s a great idea, let’s do it.  If you want to make a difference in the life of someone who has no place to live, see me.  If you want to see or be the face of Christ in others let’s work this one through together – that’s exactly what we are supposed to be doing.  We are here by the grace of God and for the grace of God.

The important thing here to remember is that to you was revealed the incarnation and manifestation of God in Jesus Christ and that a response is most longed for by God.  Revelation and response.   God’s revelation, our response.  How will you respond?  Think about it.  May the star of Bethlehem continue to reveal to you joy, love, forgiveness, and hope.

Rev. Suzanne Wagner
Orange Congregational Church 2017

Coming in Peace, Departing in Peace

Christmas Day, 2016                                                                               Isaiah 52: 7-10, Luke 2: 25-35

Coming in Peace, Departing in Peace

Isaiah 52: 7-10
From the second book of Isaiah we hear words of encouragement.  Isaiah speaks as the people return from their years in exile in Babylon proclaiming that the messenger from God has brought good news of peace and salvation.  He calls them to listen, to break out in song and to praise God because all nations will know of God’s salvation for the people coming out of exile.

How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news,
who announces salvation,
who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”
Listen! Your sentinels lift up their voices,
together they sing for joy;
for in plain sight they see
the return of the Lord to Zion.
Break forth together into singing,
you ruins of Jerusalem;
for the Lord has comforted his people,
he has redeemed Jerusalem.
The Lord has bared his holy arm
before the eyes of all the nations;
and all the ends of the earth shall see
the salvation of our God.

Luke 2: 25-35
In my experience, the day after giving birth is filled with this euphoric peace.  That might sound like some idealized oxymoron but that is how I remember all three of my children’s births and the days that followed. Health wise did I feel good, no not necessarily, was I sore and still feeling a bit heavy.  But I thought I was the most blessed woman in all the earth on that day, the only woman who had ever given birth.  It was a miracle.

This miracle of birth brings hope and love and a new little human and I was filled with the joy and excitement of being a new mother and seeing my child for the very first time.  More importantly though this joy brought me the most inner peace in the world.  All was calm, all was bright, I needed nothing else, just my baby beside me.

I think that the first day after Jesus’ birth might have been similar.  Mary and Joseph are resting in the stable when the dawn comes and little Jesus is sleeping peacefully all bundled up warm to keep the night’s chill away.  The animals have finally settled down and reworked the straw and hay to accommodate their own comfort because with three extra people in their space it’s a little more crowded than usual in the stable.

The angels, who heralded loudly of Jesus’ birth just last night, now have retreated into a quiet presence surrounding the stable.  Echo’s of their joy lingers in the air.  The shepherds have been attentive to their flocks and have moved on out into the Judean hill country of Bethlehem to pasture them.  And the brilliant star recedes as the dawn’s light is peaking through the cracks of the wooden stable. Silence, peace.

That’s what Christmas Day has always felt like to me.  No matter what the chaos is inside my house was on Christmas Eve, on Christmas Day when I walk outside there is a calmness that gently engulfs the earth like a handmade woolen shawl surrounds its wearer.  Much, like I imagine that first morning after Jesus’ birth.  He came in peace to bring us peace.  Christ, our Savior is born.

But the story doesn’t end there, Luke continues and pens perhaps the most poignant part of the story for us as we move on from Jesus birth.

After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.
When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”

Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,

“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
     according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
    which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
    and for glory to your people Israel.”

And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.

As an observant Jewish mother, Mary brings her son Jesus from that little stable in Bethlehem to the temple in overcrowded Jerusalem only eight days after his birth. While six miles may not seem like much, for a newborn on a donkey it probably was a pretty rough trip.  But it was a necessary trip because according to Jewish law it was time for purification and a naming ceremony that would designate their first-born child as holy. 

When they get there they find that there are others in the temple that day, in fact the temple always had folks around it, many elderly, widowed or disabled; it was sanctuary for them.  Two of them become an important part of the Christmas story.

So we witness the lives of Simeon and Anna.  They are everyday elderly people, who have dedicated a major portion of their lives to God.  They were faithful people their entire life.  As prophets through vigilant prayer and fasting they are able to speak for God, and be open to the revelation that God gave to them.  That God is operative in human history; God has reached down to this earth, to you and to me, to be an intimate part of our lives.  That we Gentiles are included in God’s salvation. 

The Song of Simeon is perhaps one of the most beautiful canticles in the Canon. We sang it just a few minutes ago in between the words of Isaiah and the reading from Luke.  In the faith tradition that I grew up in, it was sung after communion every Sunday…it’s called the Nunc Dimittis in Latin, or ‘now you dismiss’.   The words, “Lord now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, according to Thy word, for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation: which Thou has prepared before the face of all people, a Light to lighten the Gentiles and the Glory of Thy people Israel” those words bring peace to my soul. We sang it after being fed at the communion table in recognition that our eyes had been opened through this sacrament of love and grace, forgiveness and hope.  We have tasted and have seen that God, really is good and so very much a part of our lives.  (Psalm 34:8.)

Now that Simeon has seen and cuddled Jesus, now that he has smelled the sweet scent of the holy infant’s head, and caressed the soft cheeks of the baby Savior, he praises God for the gift of the Christ Child.  For Simeon can now leave this earthly life behind; he can depart in peace…and in joy.  He has seen and held God’s salvation in Jesus. He is complete, he experiences shalom.  Simeon can leave contentedly, he can leave all worldliness behind because the Christ Child, Emmanuel is with him.

And Anna too began to praise God for the incredible gift of love and redemption in Jesus Christ.  Together they punctuate Christ’s birth with transformative actions. 

How has the birth of Christ changed you?  Or maybe the bigger question is has the birth of Christ changed or even affected you?  Unless the birth of Christ transforms you, awakens you, nudges you to greater understanding and transformative ways in your living and doing for others then perhaps my friends you’ve missed the point of Christmas.  This little one from the manger asks a lot of us yet at the same time asks nothing of us except our love, our praise and our adoration.  May we offer this today
and receive the peace of God through Jesus Christ.