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Sunday, December 28

Today’s Readings: Psalm 148; Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Luke 2:22-40; Galatians 4:4-7

Some of my parishioners have been asking me to post my sermons (I call them my reflections) on line. In order to meet their request, I’ll now make a habit of posting my reflections under my Sunday postings. Here is my reflection for December 28, 2008.
Sometimes I get myself in trouble when I forget to remember what a huge difference my faith makes in terms of the way in which I view the world. Let me tell you a story about something that happened to me recently that reminded me of that.

There’s a group of six friends that I have that gets together every two weeks for coffee and conversation. We’ve been doing so for quite a while now. Every one of us in the group is fairly outspoken about our opinions - so we are never short of things to talk about.

Well, last Fall there was one topic that seemed to dominate our conversations more than any other. Anyone want to take a guess what that topic was?

That’s right, the presidential election.

And there were two of us in particular who tended to dominate the discussion: my friend who I’ll call Mark – an ardent Democrat; and myself, a member of a third party who sees things much differently than most.

Mark and I would go round and round about the election, and I swear that he made it is sole purpose in life to win me over to his views. At times he acted as though I had committed the ultimate heresy when I would criticize the person at the top of his party’s ticket: Barack Obama.
After a heated Fall where the other four members of our group had to listen to our heated exchanges, things finally started to settle back into their normal routine as we started talking about our usual topics: fantasy football and upcoming vacation plans.

Then – out of the blue - two weeks ago Mark decided to have the group over to his house for a Christmas brunch. And it just so happened that the morning of his gathering was on the day when it was announced President-elect Obama had asked Rick Warren to give the invocation at his inauguration.

I arrived at the brunch a little late so the others were already seated at the table. The other four group members did their very best to make sure that our conversation everything BUT politics. I’d never heard so many enthusiastic comments made about a person’s napkin holders and scrambled eggs before!

Finally, about 15 minutes into our time together, the moment we all knew had to happen – happened. Mark said, “So you probably heard that Barack asked Rick Warren to give the invocation at his inauguration. Go ahead and get it over with. Start gloating about how your concerns were validated,” Mark said as he hunkered himself down in his chair – preparing to be lambasted by myself.

The other four members of the group flinched and started scoping out the room for emergency exists.

I casually finished my sip of coffee, and then uttered six words the folks in that room least expected to hear: “I have no problem with it.”

There was complete silence in the room for what seemed like hours as people tried to wrap their minds around what had just taken place.

“You,” Mark began, “a person who disagrees with Rick Warren on a variety of issues ranging from stem cell research to gay marriage – are okay with Warren’s inclusion?!”

“Yep,” I said as I reached for a scone.

Needless to say, the conversation that followed was lively as we had a chance to process things on a deeper level.

As I look back on the conversation, there was one resource that I wish I would have used that morning that would have helped me better articulate my position.

That resource?

This morning’s passage from the Gospel of Luke.

“This morning’s gospel reading from Luke?! What does that have to do with the topic?” you might wonder.

“Yes, this morning’s passage from Luke.” Let me tell you why I think it would have been a helpful one.

As the text was working on me this week, I happened to stumble across a wonderful commentary on the passage that helped totally reframe my understanding of the story of Simeon’s encounter with Mary, Joseph, and little baby Jesus. It was a commentary done by R Alan Culpepper – Dean of The School of Theology at Mercer University in Atlanta, Georgia in the New Interpreter’s Bible.

One of the many things that Culpepper pointed out in his commentary is what brought each of the people in this morning’s story to that pivotal moment in the Temple.

“Devout Simeon,” Culpepper wrote, “was in the Temple because he was prompted to be there by the Spirit.”

“So how about Mary and Joseph?” you might wonder. “What brought them?”

Well, Mary and Joseph’s reasons for being there were much different. It wasn’t the Spirit that brought them there to that moment, Culpepper notes. “Jesus’ parents were there because they were fulfilling the requirements of the Law” (New Interpreter’s Bible 71).

Now if the rest of today’s narrative from Luke’s Gospel had unfolded the way things tend to unfold today, Simeon would have spent all of his time and energy arguing with Mary and Joseph about whose motivations for being in the Temple were the most pure. They would have separated themselves into ideological and/or theological camps, attacked the other side, and purged the Temple of those who saw things differently than themselves.

Thankfully, Simeon, Joseph, and Mary had much more sense than we have today. They refused to allow their differences to divide them. Instead, they chose to focus on what had brought them to that moment in the first place: the experience of God contained in that baby.

As I sat with Culpepper’s words, I realized that that – in a nutshell – is what continues to amaze me about that baby, Jesus. Two thousand years ago, that baby had the power to unite the Spirit led faction and the tradition-led faction so that they could stand together in the common stream that swept them toward the redemption of all creation. In a similar way, on January 20th followers of that baby will stand together on a stage in Washington, DC – those who support stem cell research and those who oppose it, those who support gay marriage and those who oppose it, those who defend a woman’s right to make reproductive decisions for herself and those who oppose it – and humbly ask for God’s blessing on their individual and collective lives.

The secular world will tell us that people who have substantive differences have no business hanging out together on the same stage. It will tell us that our time and our energy would be spent denigrating those who are different from us. That our goal should be to obtain political power so that we can silence – or better yet crush - those who would have the gall to see things differently.

And yet that baby born 2,000 years ago in that lowly manger would tell us something different. As the song that guided our 11:00 o’clock Christmas Eve service last Wednesday reminded us: that baby changed everything!

And so friends, as we go out into a world who would have us act one way, my prayer is that the followers of that baby never lose sight of the ways that he calls us to be so that one day we may find ourselves claiming Simeon’s words for ourselves as we say together: “release me in peace as you promised. With my own eyes I've seen your salvation; it's now out in the open for everyone to see.”


Saturday, December 27

Today’s Readings: Psalm 99; Proverbs 8:22-30; John 13:2-20; 1 John 5:1-12; Psalm 97

Some might look at today’s set of readings and wonder what the passage from John is doing there. After all, we just barely celebrated the birth of Jesus and here today’s passage from John is already talking about his departure! Well, the way I see it that passage makes an essential point about Jesus’ life that applies to our spiritual lives during this Christmas season. And what point is that? It’s the point Jesus makes about the importance of doing what he has done. In responding to Peter’s reservations about having Jesus wash his feet, Jesus said: “Do you not understand what I have done to you? You address me as ‘Teacher’ and ‘Master’, and rightly so. That is what I am. So if I, the Teacher and Master, washed your feet, you must now wash each other’s feet. I’ve laid down a pattern for you…” (John 13:12-13 from The Message – emphasis added). That notion of Jesus having laid down a pattern for us to follow is a theme that could consistently be applied throughout Jesus’ life. Whether it was Jesus’ appearance in the place you would have least expected it (i.e. the manger), to his time spent in dialogue with his own faith tradition (i.e. his participation at the Temple when he was twelve), to his baptism, to his embracing of the outcasts; Jesus consistently set down patterns for us to follow. Some of us occasionally lose sight of that powerful truth when we emphasize Jesus’ divinity to the point that we act as if Jesus was capable of only doing things we ourselves could never do. As a result, we quit trying to follow Jesus’ patterns. In the final days of this Christmas season, I would urge you to hold before you Jesus’ life and ministry and treat them for what they are – a pattern laid down for you to follow. Til next time…

Friday, December 26

Today’s Readings: Psalm 150; 2 Chronicles 24:17-22; Acts 7:55-8:8; Acts 6:1-7; Psalm 126

One of the curious things I’ve learned about faith communities is that many of them are in love with the notion of having a prophetic leader. At least they love the idea of a prophetic leader in the abstract. When it comes times to actually receive a ministry whose voice is prophetic, however, many faith communities are not so thrilled about the idea. Why is that? Why do we love the idea of being prophetic in the abstract but resist it in the concrete? I can’t speak for everyone in answering those questions, but I do have an answer based upon my own life experiences. Over the years I have observed that many people think being prophetic means simply criticizing those with whom you disagree. Conservative congregations, for instance, think someone is being prophetic if he/she rails about the Roe v. Wade decision and the legalization of domestic partnerships in various places around the country. Liberal congregations, on the other hand, think someone is being prophetic if you criticize the Bush administration and decry the erosion of civil liberties in our times. As long as you stay within those comfortable confines (i.e. criticizing your “opponents”), the voice of a prophet is safe. It is only when you move outside those comfortable confines and start challenges the beliefs and practices of the community to whom the prophet is speaking that things get a little dicey. That’s certainly what Zechariah found when he summoned the courage to prophetically speak to King Joash and the community about their ways of being. When Zechariah said, “You can’t live this way! If you walk out on God, God’ll walk out on you” (2 Chronicles 24:20 from The Message); the community adopted a two-fold response: first, ignore him and hope he goes away; and then kill him if doesn’t go away. As we culminate the Christmas season when prophets have played such an important role, I would invite you to think about whom you consider to be a prophet. Do you consider someone to be prophetic simply because they share your opinion and protest those with whom you already disagree, or do you have a different definition of what being prophetic means? Til next time…

Thursday, December 25

Today’s Readings: Psalm 98; Isaiah 52:7-10; John 1:1-14; Hebrews 1:1-4

There are many passages in the Bible that get a bad rap because of the way they have been used by some. Today’s passage from the Gospel of John is one of those passages. Some folks use the passage primarily as a weapon in the debate about Christology. Those who have a high Christology (i.e. those emphasize Jesus’ divinity) use it against those who have a low Christology (i.e. those who emphasize Jesus’ humanity). For me, to use the passage solely within the context of that debate would be a huge mistake! The way I experience the passage is that it invites us to think about the essence of Christ as being foundational in all of creation. This means that things like Christ’s compassion, love, mercy, justice, healing, and reconciliation permeate all aspects of creation. What a wonderful thought! Today – on this Christmas Day – I would invite you to think about the ways in which the essence of Christ is foundational in your life. May you have a Merry Christmas and may your life exude the essence of the Christ-child whom today we welcome. Til next time…

Wednesday, December 24

Today’s Readings: Psalm 96; Isaiah 9:2-7; Luke 2:1-20; Titus 2:11-14

One of my favorite verses in all of the Hebrew Scriptures/Old Testament is included in today’s reading from the book of Isaiah. That verse is Isaiah 9:6 which reads: “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (NRSV). Why do I like that verse so much? I like it because it invites us to think of the expression of the Divine that we Christians know as Jesus in a variety of ways. One of my favorite ways of thinking about the Christ-child comes from Eugene Peterson’s paraphrasing of that same verse. Peterson paraphrases the word “peace” as “wholeness”. His interpretation of the verse from The Message reads: “His names will be: Amazing Counselor, Strong God, Eternal Father, Prince of Wholeness. His ruling authority will grow, and there’ll be no limits to the wholeness he brings” (emphasis added). I love that language because it suggests that one of the Christ-child’s purposes is to point us toward wholeness. I can think of no better descriptor of Jesus than that. This Christmas Eve I would invite you to think of your own descriptor(s) for this baby whose birth we have so eagerly awaited. Those descriptors will go a long way in determining the ways in which you relate to the Divine. Til next time…

Tuesday, December 23

Today’s Readings: Psalm 96; 1 Chronicles 16:19-27; John 5:30-47; Colossians 1:24-29; Psalm 48

One of the lines from today’s first Psalm really captured my attention. Psalm 96: 8-9 reads: “Bring gifts and celebrate; bow before the beauty of God; then to your knees-everyone worship” (The Message). That line helped me realize that while I’ve thought about gifts I need to get for the people in my life this holiday season – I haven’t thought much about what gift I should get God. And then it hit me what “gift” God might like. You see I have a second cousin who lives in Oregon that I haven’t talked with much since I came out fourteen years ago. In fact, I haven’t talked to her at all since I met my partner Mike back in 2001. When Mike and I had our wedding in 2003, we did send her an invitation; but the invitation was never acknowledged. The only time I hear from her these days is at Christmas. She always sends a card – and each year the card is addressed only to me. Every year I throw away her card out without opening it because I feel as if it is an offense to my family since she refuses to acknowledge Mike and my relationship. This year, however, I’ve decided to do something different. M gift to God will be extending a bit of the grace that God has given me to my second cousin. I’ll open her card and actually display it with the other cards I receive. In other words, I’ll break my usual pattern and bring a little less bitterness and animosity into the world this Christmas. That will be my gift to God. What will yours be? Til next time…

Monday, December 22

Today’s Readings: Psalm 75; 1 Chronicles 16:8-18; Matthew 25:31-46; Ephesians 3:7-13; Psalm 77

I had a very tight family growing up that spent as much time together as possible. Each of us led busy lives that took us in dozens of different directions, however, so we didn’t get to spend as much time together as we would have liked. My dad Bob worked 6 days a week at the post office and volunteered his time to serve on the local school board. My mom Freda was a homemaker who volunteered tons of hours in our church’s women’s groups; she also volunteered to serve on our city’s planning commission. My oldest brother Gene worked for the Air National Guard and volunteered on the local Search and Rescue chapter. My second brother Keith worked in a warehouse and served as a union shop steward. My sister Karen worked in the volunteer services division of a local hospital and volunteered in the Christian Education and music departments of her church. Because of our hectic schedules, we had to make the most of each opportunity we could find to hang out – and holidays were the only time we could count on to get every one together. As a result, they took on added importance. My mom had a habit of doing something that greatly annoyed one of my siblings. Whenever she would find someone who was going to be alone for the holidays, she would invite them over to enjoy the holiday with us. This drove one of my brothers insane. He felt like our family was losing what little time we had together since we would include “strangers”. One of my most memorable Christmases was the time we included Beth (a blind woman who had just moved into our community) and her five year old son in our holiday celebration. As I thought about my mom’s holiday practice this holiday season, I realized it was her own way of living into Jesus’ words from today’s passage from Matthew: “I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me a drink…” (Matthew 25:35 from The Message). We often think of the acts that Jesus spoke of that were indicators of a rich spiritual life – the things we do for “the least of these” – as being part of on organized, missional effort (i.e. let’s go down with the church group and serve lunch at the soup kitchen, let’s be a part of the church’s service at the prison, etc). While those collective expressions of one’s faith are important contributions, my mom taught me that most often the opportunities we have to do for the least of these happen spontaneously within the context of our individual lives. Today, I would encourage you to be more aware of these opportunities as they spring up around you and make the most of them. Til next time…