Behavioral scientists have written volumes on chasing perfectionism – a pursuit that makes us less willing to try new things, often paralyzing us with great fear and anxiety. It’s actually altering our perceptions and personalities.
And just this week there was a segment on NPR about how Photoshop have changed the way we see ourselves, because it literally can change the way we look. Perfect skin and hair are just a few clicks away. I think there’s a part of me who is a protectionist, but one with a procrastinator complex. Someday know I will be totally awesome. Actually, as long as everything is exactly how I want it I am totally flexible.
This Wednesday, the church kicks off Lent where many of us will fast from something we love for the following 40 days. This is a perfect spiritual discipline, unless you are a perfectionist, because the chance of failure is pretty much guaranteed. Lent is a time to fail. That’s the point. It’s a time to learn and grow from our mistakes. You might say it’s because of our imperfections we become perfect.
Jesus has something to say about this too. As we come to the end of Matthew 5, Jesus seems to raise the bar on what it means to be perfect.
Read Matthew 5:38-48
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Be perfect as God is perfect. Who’s in? Better yet, who’s terrified? Let’s face it, Jesus is good at scaring us – challenging us to do what seems impossible by human standards. He calls us into the kingdom of heaven where people love and pray for their enemies, give to those who beg, and turn the other cheek. His is a world where vulnerability is a strength.
On this mountain top, Jesus reorientates the way we see ourselves and others. To be perfect as God is perfect. So why does it feel like a set-up?
By definition, to be perfect is to have the required characteristics to be as good as it is possible to be. In his remarkable career Kobe Bryant never stopped perfecting his game. He drove himself to be the greatest athlete in the NBA. But truth be told, he was just trying to outdo what Michael Jordan had perfected. LeBron James is doing it with Kobe. And now the Greek Freak has his sights on besting LBJ. By definition, there can only be one at the top. And Jesus makes it very clear who the GOAT is.
Now think about all the hard work you put into pushing yourself to be the perfect parent, the perfect child, the perfect student, employee or spouse. This pursuit often ends in discontent for the simple fact that no one is perfect. “If you expect always to succeed, life will always disappoint you,” writes Andrea Brandt. We can strive to be perfect, but each time we come up short we’re at risk for a whole host of issues, from depression to eating disorders. No relationship will work if you demand perfection all the time.
But here’s the problem. We live in a culture where being perfect isn’t good enough anymore. And it’s causing all sorts of disorders in our communities. After years of buying into the hype my daughter Fiona admitted that “Outside Harry Stiles, perfection isn’t real.” But her sister Colleen sees it differently. Even though she couldn’t define it, Colleen said “I know it when I see it.”
So what does perfection look like to you? A perfect score? Being the greatest of all time? Maybe it’s material wealth or obtaining financial success?
Jesus boils it down to one word: love. And not just any kind of love – but God’s unconditional love for you and me.
We may not be very good at turning the other cheek, or giving our stuff away, or going the extra mile for someone we don’t like. But we can still be perfect as God is perfect by being a community shaped in the very heart of God who loves the unlovable, and gives extravagantly to anyone who asks.
This is the blueprint for the life of the church. A constitution for a new society made perfect in Christ despite our imperfections. We will struggle and failure is guaranteed. And that’s good. It’s in our faults and failures, we see our place in God’s love and grace. But more importantly we begin to really understand our relationship with our Creator, and with one another.
Jesus devoted his entire ministry to show us how to be a loving community where people put others first and where everyone strives for the common good. It was his life work to embody these values that some politicians today will criticize as being socialist or unAmerican. We are called first to be obedient to a higher authority. By looking at Jesus, and loving as he loved, we see that the kingdom of heaven has come. It’s here, today.
In Christ, we come to know and understand God’s will for us, which is to live in imitation of the One who loves and blesses us all the same.
In Christ, God became human so we will come to know what it truly means to be human. To be beloved children of God. But not everyone will live out their belovedness in accordance to God’s righteousness. Some will even try to take advantage, believing we are doormats and pushovers. Yet we are called to lead the way, following in the footsteps of Christ, as a community alive with the heartbeat of God. A community that embraces the gospel fully no matter what.
To be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect isn’t about being a perfectionist. It’s about discipleship. It’s less about getting things right and more about sharing God’s love in all our everyday messiness.
Last Tuesday, I went to the Union Rescue Mission, where a group of little Mother Theresa’s work tirelessly to feed and house and assist thousands of homeless people a day. For 127 years, URM has been sharing the gospel on Skid Row. And not just preaching it, but actually living it as if Jesus really meant what he said.
I believe this is how we become perfect as God is perfect. To use all the abundance God has given us to make heaven come alive on earth, right now. You don’t have to work in a homeless shelter to help a person on the streets. You don’t need a medical degree to make someone feel better. All you need is a heart. God’s heart in particular. And a willingness to share it.
At the end of his book, Growing Into God, John Mabry reminds us that, “God never called any perfect people because there aren’t any perfect people. God only ever calls flawed, wounded, limited, scared, and imperfect people because that’s the only kind there are. So, don’t be discouraged, you’re actually a pretty good company.”
Jesus calls you and me to be a visible community sharing God’s love in our every day. No matter who you are, no matter what you’ve done, or where you come from, the good news is this: you are loved, and you are love. A noun and a verb. You’ve been blessed by God to be God’s blessing to all.
And so, I encourage you to embrace God’s love and to be God’s love out into the world as Jesus did. Through him we are made perfect and flawless, united with God as one perfect heart and life, now and forever Amen.
Bartlett, David L. and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word, Year A Vol. 1. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010) pp. 38-385.
Brandt, Andrea. The Dangers of Perfectionism. April 1, 2019 (https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/mindful-anger/201904/the-dangers-perfectionism?amp). Accessed on February 21, 2020.
Mabry, John. Growing into God: a Beginners Guide to Mysticism. (Wheaton, IL: Quest 2012) p. 120.
We can’t be a Christ-centered church
a few words about life and law from
On January 20, 2009, Barak Obama stood on the steps of our Nation’s Capitol and gave his inaugural address as America’s first black president.
In it he said, “On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord. On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, recriminations and worn-out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics. We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things.”
I remember watching this historic event and feeling a sense of pride wash over me. There was hope on the horizon. The kind of hope that dawned, some two thousand years prior, when Jesus stood on a mountainside and gave his own inaugural address.
Today, as our country is more divided than ever, Jesus’s blessings and charge are still the same. As we gather today in his name, let us be a united people and faithful community shining God’s righteousness like a beacon of hope in the world.
As we continue reading from Matthew 5, it’s important to note that Jesus isn’t saying anything new here. Its Torah stuff found in the book of Deuteronomy. Pretty much all he’s doing is making the commandments relevant to his followers, pushing them to new heights. On the surface it might feel Jesus is demanding a level of perfection that would leave the pope feeling hopeless.
As you listen, you might ask yourself “Who could ever live that way?” The answer is, no one can. And that’s the point. No one person can do all that Jesus is asking. But as a community, we can all bring our blessing to help one another.
As a Christ centered community, Jesus calls us to love God with all our heart, mind and soul…and to love our neighbors the same. We rely on the righteousness God’s words, and the holiness of God’s children.
Jesus said, in Matthew 5:17-20:
Don’t suppose for a minute that I have come to demolish the Scriptures—either God’s Law or the Prophets. I’m not here to demolish but to complete. I am going to put it all together, pull it all together in a vast panorama. God’s Law is more real and lasting than the stars in the sky and the ground at your feet. Long after stars burn out and earth wears out, God’s Law will be alive and working. Trivialize even the smallest item in God’s Law and you will only have trivialized yourself. But take it seriously, show the way for others, and you will find honor in the kingdom. Unless you do far better than the Pharisees in the matters of right living, you won’t know the first thing about entering the kingdom.
Jesus makes the claim that he did not come to change the law but to uphold it. I believe him. What would be the point? God’s laws do not change. But if you abide in them like Jesus did, they will change you and the entire world.
By upholding the law, Jesus sets the foundation for heaven and earth to be one.
Next Jesus said, in Matthew 5:21-26
You’re familiar with the command to the ancients, ‘Do not murder.’ I’m telling you that anyone who is so much as angry with a brother or sister is guilty of murder. Carelessly call a brother ‘idiot!’ and you just might find yourself hauled into court. Thoughtlessly yell ‘stupid!’ at a sister and you are on the brink of hellfire. The simple moral fact is that words kill. This is how I want you to conduct yourself in these matters. If you enter your place of worship and, about to make an offering, you suddenly remember a grudge a friend has against you, abandon your offering, leave immediately, go to this friend and make things right. Then and only then, come back and work things out with God. Or say you’re out on the street and an old enemy accosts you. Don’t lose a minute. Make the first move; make things right with him. After all, if you leave the first move to him, knowing his track record, you’re likely to end up in court, maybe even jail. If that happens, you won’t get out without a stiff fine.
Jesus knows how dangerous words can be. Then used to belittle or hurt others they often escalate into greater acts of violence and retaliation. We need to be careful with our words, and our tweets, because they tell the truth about what is in our heart. Later Jesus will have a confrontation with the religious leaders about purity laws - reminding them, “It’s not what goes into to a person’s mouth that defiles but what comes out.” Before words fall from our lips, they are first formed in our heart.
It’s imperative that a community centered on Christ be grounded in his heart, so his words will be ours. Jesus used words to heal and forgive not to harm or punish. His words had the power to transform us all into children of God because his heart was one with God’s love and righteousness.
That’s why Jesus said, if you’re at church and your heart is filled with angry words, then leave. It’s more important to seek reconciliation than sing a hymn. Every relationship we have will reflect our relationship with God. People are listening and looking for Christ in our Christianity. Just as our words need to be his, so too our actions must be his actions. By upholding God’s law we too set the foundation for the kingdom of heaven to come.
Next Jesus said, in Matthew 5:27-32
“You know the next commandment pretty well, too: ‘Don’t go to bed with another’s spouse.’ But don’t think you’ve preserved your virtue simply by staying out of bed. Your heart can be corrupted by lust even quicker than your body. Those leering looks you think nobody notices—they also corrupt. Let’s not pretend this is easier than it really is. If you want to live a morally pure life, here’s what you have to do: You have to blind your right eye the moment you catch it in a lustful leer. You have to choose to live one-eyed or else be dumped on a moral trash pile. And you have to chop off your right hand the moment you notice it raised threateningly. Better a bloody stump than your entire being discarded for good in the dump. Remember the Scripture that says, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him do it legally, giving her divorce papers and her legal rights’? Too many of you are using that as a cover for selfishness and whim, pretending to be righteous just because you are ‘legal.’ Please, no more pretending. If you divorce your wife, you’re responsible for making her an adulteress (unless she has already made herself that by sexual promiscuity). And if you marry such a divorced adulteress, you’re automatically an adulterer yourself. You can’t use legal cover to mask a moral failure.
I agree with theologian Stanley Hauerwas who believes Jesus isn’t so much talking about divorce, but about establishing “a community of friendship that is an alternative to the loneliness of the world.” That’s to say, a community formed in Christ’s likeness will be a place where people don’t have to be married for social or economic reasons (which was the norm back then) because it has become place where everyone would be loved and cared for. Jesus shows us that God cares enough to become one of us for the sake of redeeming us.
Jesus knows God’s law intimately. It’s written on his heart. His actions reflect God’s love and grace. There can’t be a Christ-centered church if the heart of Christ’s message is missing.
Lastly, Jesus said, in Matthew 5: 33-37
“And don’t say anything you don’t mean. This counsel is embedded deep in our traditions. You only make things worse when you lay down a smoke screen of pious talk, saying, ‘I’ll pray for you,’ and never doing it, or saying, ‘God be with you,’ and not meaning it. You don’t make your words true by embellishing them with religious lace. In making your speech sound more religious, it becomes less true. Just say ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ When you manipulate words to get your own way, you go wrong.
We are our word. It’s how a Christ centered community identifies with God. And what it means to be the salt of the earth. God has entrusted us with an important message of hope. People are listening and looking to see if our yes and no’s mean yes and no.
Jesus didn’t come to change the laws and prophecies. He came to uphold them – to bring us all together as a united community, redeemed in God’s righteousness and love. By upholding the law, Jesus formed an ethical community where people make amends and accept apologies no matter what. A community that knows your heart well enough to care for it and to trust you because of it.
By upholding the law, Jesus created a new kind of community, one that is always there for each other. One that focuses on hope instead of fear. A loving community united in purpose, seeking to build bridges of peace instead of sowing seeds of conflict and discord.
Jesus gathers people together in a new way and offers them a new way to live life – a new order of peace and truth – “by making concrete a radical new vision of what it means to be a human person.”
This is what it means to be the church, the body of Christ, blessed and sent to be the salt of the earth, a city on a hill and a light to the world.
Hauerwas, Stanley. Matthew. (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006) pp. 68-71 (Kindle edition).
“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. ~ Matthew 5:13-16
Growing up in Florida you learn a few things about nature. First, never open a door or window if there is no screen between you and the world for you never know what will fly in and land on you.
Second, if you sense that a storm is about to come you’re probably right – even if the local meteorologist argues differently.
I believe we all have special intuitions that help us detect when something bad is about to happen, or how we should act in a specific circumstance.
But most of what we know or do is learned behavior. We are taught how behave in church, or how to be on guard when walking around at night. And this brings us to our reading today from Matthew’s gospel.
We are still on the mountain side with Jesus and his disciples. We are part of the crowd listening in to glean some wisdom from this amazing new teacher.
Our lesson today continues from Matthew 5:13-16.
To this day, his blessings and analogies still ring true. What Jesus said back then, still matters to us today. We are salt and light. We receive God’s blessing and then are called to be that blessing out in the world for the sole purpose of helping others see, in the good things that we do, how God is at work in their life… so they will respond by giving glory to God. That’s pretty much sums up today’s reading. And what it means to be a Christian, as individuals and as a church. We are salt and light.
Any student of science knows salt is an important part of life. It’s a mineral that plays a vital role in hydration and maintaining a balance of electrolytes in the body. Without salt, we would die. Whenever I had a sore throat as a kid, my dad made me gargle with saltwater. A gross tasting magical elixir… which helps to reduce inflammation. If you have sore muscles or tired feet, nothing is more healing and restorative than a good soak in a salt bath. Maybe Jesus uses this analogy to tell us that we play a vital role in the healing and restoration of the world.
Salt is also used to enhance the flavor of food. In some households, it’s the secret weapon to enjoying your mother-in-law’s cooking. In our house, one cannot sit at a table without being given a sampler of salts to sprinkle over whatever food has been prepared. Kathleen swears that different salts enhance the natural flavors of different foods. Perhaps Jesus is telling us that as salt we are to elicit goodness and bring out the best in people.
Here’s a little known important fact to keep stored in your head. Salt was the main contributor to the development of civilization because it is a perfect way to preserve food for storage or travel. A thick coat of salt can keep meat from being corrupted or spoiled. Is Jesus telling us that we are to be a spiritual agent that stops the spread of bad things from corrupting and harming our communities?
Because of all these great qualities, salt remains one of the world’s most valuable commodities. Back in the olden days, was a common practice for Roman soldiers to receive salt as part of their salary. Thus a person was, or wasn’t, worth their salt.
For all it’s goodness, salt also has a bad side. Too much can spike your blood pressure or cause kidney disease, or affect your appearance. In biblical times salt was even used as a weapon. Once it lost its flavor, or its tang as they say in Scotland, one would spread salt on an enemy’s crops, causing the land to go barren. Maybe that why Jesus warns us not to lose our flavor, our saltiness, so we don’t do harm to others or ourselves.
Someone once said, “while we can’t lose our soul, we can lose our savor.” We all run the risk of becoming unsavory – a worthless commodity that does more damage than good. We see this today not only in our politics but even in our churches. It happens when people who call themselves Christians do not stand up for what is right and just. Instead they turn a blind eye or simply put up with the corruption festering all around them. Such people, as the old saying goes, “are not worth their salt.” If there is no Christ in your Christianity, then you have no value in the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus said, “You are salt.” But if you lose your saltiness then how will people taste godliness? If you’re going to call yourself his disciple, you cannot lose your capacity to love and value those who are dispossessed. Jesus teaches us the way of godliness and righteousness – always seeking justice and fairness, showing mercy, having integrity, and speaking up and standing up for what is right even if those in power crucify us for doing so.
We are salt. We are valuable to God. It’s in the way we live out Christ in the world, that people come to see their worth in God’s kingdom and give God glory. That’s the gospel. To be the salt and light, because human beings cannot live without either one.
I might be old, but I do remember some lessons from a high school biology class I had in the early 80’s. One is that light is the main source of energy for all living organisms. It is the essence of life itself. Without it we would literally be nothing. Maybe mushrooms, or mold, but who wants to be something so slimy and gross?
In John’s gospel, Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is making us light-bearers with him. He’s putting us in the center of the table to illuminate the entire room for others to see how God is present even in the darkest of places.
It’s worth reminding ourselves that every day, when light breaks the darkness, there is a new beginning, a new day. Every sunrise awakens every lifeform. So maybe when Jesus gives us this analogy he is reminding us that every day we are given a new opportunity to shed light on God’s blessing for the world to see. God’s light is our light, the light of life itself.
Last week, my friend Gianni and I were talking about the affects that artificial light has on our health. Whether it’s the neon numbers from an alarm clock or the glow of a television screen, artificial light disrupts our circadian rhythm – the body’s 24-hour sleep/wake cycle. Science has shown that artificial light affects things like brain wave patterns, hormone production, and cell regulation. It has also been linked to medical issues like depression, obesity, cardiovascular disease, and sleep disorders like insomnia.”
Just as artificial light is harmful to one’s health, artificial faith is harmful to one’s spiritual growth. Likewise, real faith, like real light, is life giving. As followers of Christ, we must be his Light – willing to faithfully go to the dark places, bearing the light of Christ in all that we do. Just as the moon, which has no light of its own but reflects what it receives from the sun, we who chose to follow Jesus, are called to reflect his light upon the world. It’s imperative that we not to hide our faith or spiritual gifts but to put them in the center of life – drawing people to its warmth and radiance.
We also need to remember that a candle only shines once it’s lit. We cannot bring the light of Christ to others if we refuse to let it shine in our own heart. Our spiritual journey begins with God’s blessing upon us. But it doesn’t take off until we accept that blessing; allowing it to penetrate the deepest and darkest depths of our soul, so that we can fully and truly light up as bright as the Son. By embracing our own blessing, we are able to bless all our relationships in a way that fulfills the righteousness of God – to love as we are loved by God.
By truly embracing our own blessing, we are able to demonstrate what it means to have a character shaped by God’s blessing – to be the salt of the earth. We are able to make our words mean something, to live with integrity, to show respect and kindness to one another without fearing how others might retaliate.
By understanding our own blessing, we are able to illuminate God’s blessings in those dark places where love is lacking, forgiveness is needed, and where mercy and justice are missing.
My charge to you today is to go and be the salt and light of Christ in the world, so people are able to see their value in the kingdom of heaven, to know their worth in God’s glory and shine themselves.
This is how Jesus fulfilled God’s righteousness, and blessed the world with love and grace. And this is how we, his followers, are able to abide the same – loving God with all our heart, mind, and soul; and our neighbor as ourselves.
Let us pray:
God, you have enlightened us with your Word today, and illuminated us with your Spirit. Send us now out into the world to bring out the best in others by being our best. Help us to shine brightly, not for our glory but for yours. As our individual lights come together to form this church, we pray that you will draw others to it’s warmth and radiance, now and forever. Amen.
Bartlett, David L and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting On The Word, Year A, Vol 1. (Louisville: Westminser John Knox, 2010) pp. 332-337.
Lockyer, Herbert. All The Parables of the Bible. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1963) pp. 146-147.
In Christ, God reveals the truth about who God is, and who we are in God’s eyes and heart. Through him, God turns our world upside down to help us see the world and ourselves differently
For the last ten weeks or so I’ve been writing in this gratitude journal that was given to me by my dear friend Darlene. I’ll admit, when she gave it to me I didn’t really know what to make of it…other than I loved the title, "OKAY, FINE, I'm Grateful."
But once I started writing in it, things began to change. Taking a few moments in the morning to jot down the things I’m grateful for has helped to switch my default position of griping and complaining to one of being mindful and present in all of life.
This simple daily practice has also opened my eyes to see all that God is doing in my life. In Christ, I have access to all the abundance of everything ever created. But for many, this massive blessing can be hard to see, especially if you are not looking for them. That’s why living in gratitude is important. It keeps us always on the lookout to what God is revealing to us.
Read Matthew 5:1-12
The beatitudes, as they are commonly known in the church, are these “short, two-part affirmations that sum up common knowledge about the good life. Blessed are those who floss, for they will have good teeth.” (Taylor) But up here, on this mountainside, Jesus does something different. His blessings are equated with things people worked hard to avoid – poverty, suffering, hunger, and persecution. I imagine those who listened, did so in shock as their world was turned upside down.
As far as we’re taught, blessings given are to those who succeed. To be poor in spirit or meek will get you nowhere in a culture that is grounded in competition and fear. But to Jesus, who sees the world with God’s eyes and loves others with God’s heart, he blesses those who know what it’s like to be excluded and the ones who don’t make it to the top of the ladder. His blessings may shock some, yet they give hope to all. For the way things are…is not the way they will always be.
Barbara Brown Taylor describes it like a Ferris Wheel, where “those who are swaying at the top, with the wind in their hair and all the world’s lights at their feet, will have their turn at the bottom, …while those who are down there right now, where all they can see are candy wrappers in the sawdust, will have their chance to touch the stars…This is simply the truth about the way things work, pronounced by someone who loves everyone on that wheel.”
How does knowing this about God change the way you see yourself or your current life circumstances? Are you grateful in your own hunger or poverty? Or let me ask it this way: how blessed are you that God sees you differently than you see yourself?
I am grateful to know that no matter how far I stray from doing what God has called me to do, I’m never beyond the boundaries of God’s love for me in Christ. I believe the same is true about whatever mess you find yourself in. No matter how many times the world drags you down, God always draws you up?
Let us count it a blessing that God sees our real worth no matter how much money we make or how far down the ladder we have fallen. God does not focus on our poverty or deficiencies but on the wealth we produce loving and caring for one another. Blessed are you who takes the time to be present when a friend really needs you to be there; or you who stands up for someone being picked on at school, for you are worth your salt in the kingdom of heaven.
I count it a blessing that God sees through the costumes and masks we think we have to wear to make it in this world. I am grateful that God loves me just as God made me. Real. Divine. True. We can lie to ourselves and try to fool the world, but we cannot hide or conceal ourselves from God who knows the secrets of the heart. And loves us anyway.
So blessed are you who strive to do good, you who seek to cooperate instead of compete or fight, for you will be called first to sit on the lap of God in heaven.
So how blessed are we? Very blessed said Jesus, who reveals our future to us by giving us a foretaste of it today; blessing us so that we can go and bless others in his name.
Why is this important? Because the world blesses those who build their fortune and fame on the back and expense of others. The world idolizes power and strength, it loves to flex its muscle with acts of aggression, war and violence. It promises salvation through favoritism and consumerism, bought by those who can afford it. Enslaving others who cannot.
In Christ, God disrupts the way things are going on in our world and transforms them to the way things are to be in God’s world. Those who are last will be first. Those who hunger will feast. Those who are persecuted will live forever in the kingdom of heaven. That’s how it’s done by the God who has loved us and blessed us from all eternity.
In Christ, God reveals the truth about who God is, and who we are in God’s eyes and heart. Through him, God turns our world upside down to help us see the world and ourselves differently so that we might know wherever hunger is, wherever pain or injustice is inflicted, or tears are shed, God is there…making some kind of blessing.
So let us count it a blessing that our God saves us when this world fails us? And that God loves us enough never to give up on us? Blessed are those who understand this and invest their life in imitation of Christ, for they will be worth more than any earthly treasure.
I invite you to take the time each day to count your blessings. Write down in a journal or note pad all that God is doing for you, out of great love for you. It might be something as simple as a good night sleep, or to have a great cup of coffee to wake up to. It might gravity, puppies, health insurance, comfortable shoes, or a Super Bowl championship. The more you practice living in gratitude, the more you realize it’s easier to count your blessings than it is to resist them.
I know there will be things that happen that will make it seemingly impossible to be grateful for. It would be remiss of me not to address the tragic death of Kobe and Gigi Bryant, and the seven others onboard that helicopter which crashed a few miles away from here. Where is the silver lining in that?
During an interview at Friday’s Laker game, Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers said something to the affect that Kobe had a special way of uniting different races, ethnicities, and social classes. He did it by giving us hope when things seemed hopeless. In a single game Kobe could transform enemies into friends, and bring us together as one family. “Even in his passing,” Flea said, “Kobe continues to unite us.” I was grateful to hear that, and to see the truth in his words.
Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” I believe this to be true.
“The way things are… is not the way they will always be, and no one gets to stay at the top of the wheel forever,” writes Barbara Brown Taylor. “What goes round, comes round. Neither the going up nor the coming down is under our control as far as I know, but wherever we happen to be the promise is the same. Blessed are you who lose your grip on the way things are, for God shall lead you in the things that shall be.”
Let us pray:
God, a wise person once said, if the only prayer we offered was thank you, that would suffice. And so thank you God for the endless blessings you pour out upon this world. May we never lose sight and always be humbled in gratitude. Amen.
Taylor, Barbara Brown. Home By Another Way. (Lanham: Cowley, 1999) pp. 51-56.
a message on Matthew 4:12-23
I want to tell you a story about a monk who leaves his secluded monastery in the rural part the country to visit his cousin in the big city. As they’re walking down the noisy street, amidst the clamor of city life, a fire truck moves through traffic, with its sirens blazing.
As it passes the two, the monk asked “Did you hear that? It’s a cricket singing?” His cousin replies, “How can you hear a cricket singing in the middle of all this noise?” To which the monk answers, “I guess one hears what one is listening for.”
Last week we heard Jesus ask, “What are you looking for?” Then he invited Andrew and his friend to come and see for themselves. Today, we are given a different version of this story. I hope that you will listen carefully to these words from Matthew’s gospel, to hear what Jesus is saying among the noises of everyday life.
Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people.
How do you think people first heard Jesus as he began his ministry? How do you think they responded when they heard him say, “Repent, the kingdom of heaven has come near”?
I suspect some people thought he was mad. And some didn’t bother to give him the time. But there were those who were intrigued. They wanted to know more. But what would make these four guys quit their jobs to follow this stranger?
“Repent, the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Many people today hear these words and think Jesus is saying, “Follow me, I know a back way into heaven.” Others hear and believe heaven is a place to escape this life – some kind of nirvana that’ll replace the hell they’re in. You might hear something completely different.
As for me, I don’t hear Jesus talking about leaving this world so much as I hear him asking what have I done, and more importantly, what I’m doing right now in the world. I hear him saying heaven has come down to earth. So how I’m gonna respond? What am I listening for?
Barrie Bates hears Jesus inviting us to examine our past…by taking an honest assessment of our present situation…which will give a clear indication of what our future might look like.
In addressing our past, Jesus says, “Repent.” I don’t know about you but this particular word used to raise the hackles on my neck. It carried such a negative connotation that it used to stop me from hearing anything that was said after it. I can still feel the harsh rebuke from those old preachers who’d wag their finger and told I was not good enough to be standing in the presence of God.
Truth is, Jesus is pretty straight-forward: “Repent.” If I am hearing him correctly, he’s not saying I’m not good enough. Instead I hear him say, “Ian, get your act together. Take inventory of your past. And let it go. Drop it like a fishing net, and follow me.”
Let go of all that stuff that weighs you down. And grab hold of God who lifts you up. When I tune my ear to Jesus I hear him telling me that I am forgiven, loved, and free to live in the abundance of God’s grace right now.
Jesus says, “Repent,” not because you want to get into heaven, but because heaven wants to get into you.
This bring us to the present. “For the kingdom of heaven has come near.” It’s not on its way, but it has come. For some crazy reason God wants to dwell among us, to sit in our sin and to love us through it until heaven and earth are of one mind and spirit.
As Rohr often says, “You cannot not live in the presence of God. We are totally surrounded by God all the time and everywhere.” If that is true, then it tells me heaven is within our reach. In fact, “It’s so close we can touch, taste, smell, see, and hear it — if that’s what we’re listening for.” (Bates)
In calling us to “Repent,” Jesus is inviting us to see signs of the kingdom fully alive and God’s abundant glory shinning brightly in us and all around us – especially when it comes to doing for and to others.
Thus Jesus tells Simon and Andrew, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of people.” He is calling them, and us, to participate in the work of God’s kingdom. That’s a huge calling – one not simply reserved for ministers but for all of God’s children.
Until heaven and earth are one, we need to shine the light of Christ on the darkness of places. We need to proclaim the Good News of God’s redemptive love. And we need to make known the glory of God’s marvelous works, so others will know they are of value to God.
When I hear Jesus say “Repent” I don’t hear a commandment. I hear a call to be a part of God’s community in the world, where the kingdom of heaven is revealed. I hear an invitation to be healed, restored, and redeemed back to my rightful place as God’s beloved child. And I hear a call from God to live fully and faithfully into that responsibility.
What is it that you hear? How do Jesus’ words penetrate your heart and soul? How do they cause you to react…to be a part of this community…in the kingdom of heaven?
While this church doesn’t have a building, we do have a mission: “To Love God, Love Others, and Serve Both.” We strive to be fishers of people, ambassadors of Christ, evangelists who tell their story so others can see God’s glory in their life. And as we start a new year, we hope that you will join us in this mission.
Jesus is calling all of us to do some radical stuff. His demands haven’t changed since James and John dropped their nets to follow Jesus – who went around “teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people." Think about those verbs – teaching, proclaiming, and curing. This is how people are able to see that the kingdom of heaven is within their reach.
As the body of Christ, we represent Jesus’ sacrificial love by offering ourselves to be a living sanctuary where others can find rest.
Whether it’s you or me, or us all together, we are the church. Teachers and professors of God’s love in Christ.
We are called to be agents of change reversing the pain and suffering caused by injustice and war. We are to be the balm that heals the world of emotional, physical, or spiritual pain.
We are a community that loves and forgives and accepts all people just as God has been gracious to welcome us— if that’s what you’re listening for.
My hope for you today is that you will tune your ear towards Jesus. That you will stop fighting with the clanging noises of the world, and dance with our Lord to the divine music of everlasting life… to be a cricket singing…on earth as it is in heaven.
Let us pray:
God, you are above us. God, you are beneath us. God, you are in front of us, God you are behind us. God within us and all around us…open our eyes to see your glory…open our ears to hear your guidance…open our hearts to reach us ceive your Spirit and to live you out into the world. Amen.
Bates, Barrie. Repent, Look for Signs of the Kingdom, and Follow Jesus. 01-19-2020. (episcopalchurch.org/library/sermon/repent-look-signs-kingdom-and-follow-jesus-epiphany-3-january-26-2020)
Rohr, Richard. Yes, And…daily meditations. (Cincinnati: Franciscan Media, 2013) p. 71. Adapted from his book Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer, pp. 56-57.
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 other morning I was driving down a side street where a delivery van was double parked and blocking the flow of traffic. Normally this isn’t so much of a problem on side streets, but thanks to Amazon Prime there was a massive three car back up happening. People’s anxieties were flaring. And tempers were on the verge of bursting like a wild volcano.
Since I was in no real hurry, I hung back and flashed my high beams to let the other cars know that they could go around the van. Instead of going, they just sat there agitated. The more I flashed my lights, the more ticked off they got.
I began to think that no one taught them this well known gesture of kindness. So I drove on. As I past one car, the driver boldly showed me that she did know, another universally recognizable gesture that wasn’t so kind.
Whether it’s operating a vehicle, showing random acts of kindness, or flipping someone off in traffic, we know what we know…because someone first taught it to us. Math. Science. Language. Religion. We are always students learning from someone or something.
I heard a great scholar confess how he learned more about God’s grace and forgiveness from his dog than from anyone else. Is there a person you know or met who has made your life more blessed by what they taught you?
In 1979 I got a job as a dishwasher at an Italian restaurant a block away from my house. I was hired by the owner, whose birth name was Francis L. Morris, the same name as a guy who escaped Alcatraz and was never caught.
I mention that because Frank was a tough and intimidating man. A retired firefighter from the South Bronx, Frank was raised on the wild streets that he would later serve. Outside men like Evel Knievel and the Bionic Man, Frank was probably the first male figure I looked up to.
However, he was not the kind of teacher parents would want their children to have. He taught me how to cuss more colorfully, how to think more dangerously, and how to survive on the streets more skillfully…and often illegally. He made such an mark on my life that when I went off to college people always asked me what part of New York I was from.
Just as someone taught Frank, and he taught me, I try to do my best to pass on the lessons I have learned. In today’s Gospel passage, we see how this kind of teaching works. John the Baptist is out in the wilderness doing something new with an old ritual. People were coming in droves to see what he’s all about. In the midst of the dunking and shouting, Jesus walks by.
Out of nowhere, John blurts out, “There’s the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” He’s teaching those gathered that Jesus is the one who brings true restoration between God and all of creation.
Today, we know this because, as the Bible reveals, John is testifying, he’s teaching us to what God has already made known to him. God tells John and John tells us. This is how teaching works – said knowledge moves from the teacher to the student. And in this case, it’s the kind of knowledge that sends the students to go and learn more.
To those who meets Jesus will learn, it’s more than mere knowledge…it’s excitement, joy, transformation, new life…the kind of newness you can’t help but share with others, if only because others see the change Jesus makes in you.
Look at what happens to Andrew when he leaves his teacher John to follow Jesus. He is enlightened and runs to his brother Simon to teaches him what he knows about Jesus. These two brothers, who become part of the 12 disciples, will go on testifying – teaching others what they know in their hearts to be true about God’s transformative love in Christ. To those they teach, will in turn will go and do the same and on and on and on it goes… right up to this very moment in time. (Bowron)
And that’s where we come in. Like every aspect of life, we eventually make the move from student to teacher. As followers of Jesus, especially we who have been spiritually awakened to our belovedness in Christ, we have to proclaim this truth: Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.
The question we all must ask ourselves then is how am I testifying this good news? How am I telling or showing the world that they too are a beloved children of God, made in Christ and filled with the Holy Spirit? This is not just my job, but yours as well. We are all ministers, teachers, of this truth.
At the end of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus gives his students a great task. He tells them to go and make disciples of all nations. Go make students who then can become teachers who can go and teach others of God’s redemptive love and grace. Jesus knew if we don’t continue what he started then people will not know that they are loved, no matter what. They will be left empty, searching for anything culture and society offers to fill the void.
People are watching and listening, they are learning from you whether you know it or not. So how will you teach them? In what way do you live your life that bears witness to Christ? How do you show the excitement of your faith like Andrew did when he ran off and told his brother?
I understand not everyone is comfortable expressing their faith verbally. Most of us don’t want to be pushy or have people avoid hanging out with us. So here’s something I learned from a wonderful mentor about circumventing this uncomfortableness. He said, “We don’t beat people into the kingdom of heaven. Instead we must live the kingdom in such a way that others will want to join us there.”
When I was going through a difficult time in my life, a friend asked how I was able to cope. I answered, very much like Jesus did, with my own an invitation of “Come and See.” I asked, “What are you doing on Sunday at 11:00 am?” She accepted my invitation to come and learn. And a year and a half later, she married me in that church.
How do you teach or testify? I have a t-shirt that says “The Sermonator.” You might wear a cross around your neck. Both are powerful statements and great ways to start a conversation.
Another great place to start is in the way you show kindness to others. Kathleen always says it’s easier to catch a bee with honey than it is with vinegar. People may not understand why you are flashing your lights at them, but when you respond to a rude gesture with love, that is a teaching moment. Even if you don’t say anything, simply being the love of Christ in the world helps to spread the love of Christ where it’s needed the most.
Start with love. Start with caring for someone else. Start small if you want to, but start. The more you practice this the easier it becomes and bigger it grows. John lit the fire in Andrew, and Andrew lit the fire in Simon, and so we too are to light up the world as God’s beloved children.
Before her death some 500 years ago, St. Teresa of Avila wrote: “Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours. Yours are the eyes through which to look out Christ’s compassion to the world; yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good; yours are the hands with which he is to bless men now.”
Yes, Jesus invites you to come and see. But today, I encourage you to go and be. Go and be a living testimony to God’s glory in your life. Go and be “like John, be like Andrew, be like the uncountable cloud of witnesses to God’s gospel of love, justice, peace, and presence. Show us all in your words and deeds, in all of your life, that Jesus is the Lamb of God who has taken away the sin of the world.” (Bowron)
Flash your light on this message and teach the world to see their place in the kingdom of God. Amen.
Let us pray:
God you have shone your light in us, now that we are full of your light and love, send us out to fill the hearts of others, encouraging them to do the same. Amen.
Bowron, Josh. Testimony, Epiphany 2. Posted on January 12, 2020 (accessed 01/16/2020).
Bartlett, David L and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word, Year A vol 1. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010) p.260.
“He was essentially a fighter, afraid of nothing and of nobody, but withal he was human, overflowing with kindness and generosity, affectionate and loyal to all his friends.” ~ Louis Bernacchi, physicist aboard Shackleton's ship the Discovery
This past Christmas a friend sent me a book on the leadership style of Sir Edmond Shackleton, Briton’s most famous Antarctic explorer. Inside the books jacket, Justin wrote, “You are a world changer.” I’ve been trying to wrap my head around this idea ever since.
According to the book, Shackleton defined it through his leadership style. He hired people he believed could bring more to the expedition than just their particular expertise. He created a spirit of unity and peace among the crew. And invested time to get to know each man personally. He cared for their needs, often sacrificing his own comforts to do so. Most importantly, Shackleton lead by example.
Today, the church celebrates the Baptism of Jesus; another world changer forged in water. Jesus was also a leader who put others before himself, and was kind and generous to all people, be it friend or foe. As such, many would follow even if it would cost them their life.
While Shackleton developed his skills on the high seas, Jesus got his from reading scripture and shaped his life accordingly. In Luke we learn that when Jesus was only 12 years old, he was in the Temple, sitting among the teachers, and asking tough questions. “Everyone who heard him was amazed by his understanding and his answers” (Luke 2:46-47).
Long before Jesus was baptized, the prophet Isaiah wrote these words. I invite you all to imagine hearing them as Jesus first did. And think about how they might shape who you are.
Read Isaiah 42:1-9
Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
So who than is this one chosen by God, who does not break a bruised reed or extinguish a dimly lit wick? Believe it or not this is a hotly contested question.
Was it a person? Someone like Shackleton who did the impossible to ensure his entire crew made it safely home after being shipwrecked in the darkness of winter and no hope of survival. Some argue it’s a collective group – like Israel or the United States – who believed they were chosen by God to bring justice into the world. Because it’s written in poetic form, there are those say Isaiah’s words are symbolic, a metaphor for living life.
When I asked my wife who she thought this passage was about her answer surprised me. She said, “It sounds like you.” (I know many people who would beg to differ, myself included.) To her credit, she meant it allegorically describing the way I evangelize. “Despite challenges and doubters you face,” she said, “you do not quench their light or grow faint, instead you persevere and grow through it.”
Although I love my wife’s perspective of me, given my Christian upbringing, it’s difficult to see anyone other than Jesus in this passage. Who else checks off all these boxes? But believe it or not, and I know what I’m risking by saying this, my wife is right too suggest that maybe God is not just talking to us in this passage, but talking about us as well?
It’s easy for us to read Jesus these words, but not so when it comes to seeing who we are in them. That’s why I asked you to hear these words as Jesus did. Jesus took the scriptures to heart and used them to defined who he as and all that he stood for. In Matthew 5:17 Jesus declares that he “did not come to abolish the laws or the prophets; but to fulfill them.” This is how he understood his ministry and how he ushered in the Kingdom of God.
Sadly, many of us view the Bible as some dusty old history book, forgetting that it’s the Living Word of God. We need to read these sacred text less like a history lesson and more like a user manual for living life. Like Jesus, we need to take these words and infuse them into every aspect of our lives. This is how we, in our own baptism, participate in the Kingdom of God; leading the way for others to follow.
The gospels are filled with examples of Jesus living out the word. One in particular is like our scripture reading today. In Luke 4, Jesus is asked to do the reading at his hometown church. The Rabbi handed him a scroll from the prophet Isaiah. Standing before family and friends, he read, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (v. 18-19).
At the end, Jesus didn’t say, “This is the word of the Lord, thanks be to God.” Instead he broke tradition and declared, "Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing" (v. 20). On one hand, Jesus is boldly announcing who he is, and on the other he’s calling us into action. To not only be hearers of the word, but doers as well.
Like trekking across Antarctica, living faithfully in God’s word is a risky endeavor. So maybe we make Isaiah’s passage about Jesus, because it’s easier to let him do all the heavy lifting. We give Jesus the responsibility to deal with others so we don’t have to. We say Jesus loves. Jesus saves. Jesus heals. Jesus does for us what we can’t do for ourselves. That is true. But if we only see Scripture talking about Jesus, then I fear we’ll miss out on the bigger blessing that God has given to the world.
Like I said last week, we are God’s beloved children, chosen in Christ to participate fully in God’s redemptive grace. We are stamped with God’s love and filled with the Spirit of Christ to be a light to the nations.
It’s our job to stand up for justice…without shouting, breaking, fainting, or quenching. It’s our job to free people of the bonds that bind them without judging, shaming or belittling anyone in the process. It’s our job to be a living example of God’s covenant to all people, despite of where they’re from or what they believe. God has called us in Christ …to lead the way of the greatest exploration of all time: the journey back to God’s loving embrace.
Jane Goodall once said, “You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.”
Just as Jesus cared for the bruised and the hurt, so must we. Is there someone in your life who needs their pain soothed or a hurt mended? If so, lead the way by being the healing balm they need to be well.
Just as Jesus cupped his hands around the dimmest wicks until it was able to shine brightly, so too must we. Do you know someone whose light is barely flickering and in danger of going out? If so, then strengthen and stoke that ember until a bright light shines within them.
Jesus led by example. And in doing so opened the eyes of the blind to see God in their midst. Do you know someone who’s having trouble seeing God’s love and grace? If so, lead the way by being God’s love and grace for them.
Let us not forget that the same Spirit that descended on Jesus at his baptism is the same Spirit sealed within us at ours. Same is true about his mission and ours. Just as Jesus left the wild, raging waters of the Jordan to proclaim the gospel, so too are we called to participate in God’s Kingdom.
Jesus changed the world by living fully and faithfully to God’s word, so too are we do the same. We can do this because God has anointed us with all the abundance of God’s glory at our disposal.
And so, in the name of Christ, go and be the person who changes the status quo, who stands up for justice and fairness for all people. Go and be the one who heals the broken and opens the eyes of the blind. Go and be the one who frees other’s from the prisons they have put themselves in. Go and be the light of Christ that leads others on the great exploration of life, and bring them safely home to God.
Let us pray: Loving creator, in your sacred words we find all that we need to be world changers. Empower us with your Spirit to be leaders of your love and peace, to be more like Jesus so others will come and see your glory. Amen.
Bartlett, David L and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word, Year A, vol 1. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010) pp. 218-223.
Morrell, Margot and Stephanie Capparell. Shackleton’s Way: Leadership Lessons From The Great Antarctic Explorer. (New York: Penguin, 2001) p. 15.
But instead of talking about 12 drummers drumming or a partridge in a pear tree, I’d like to look at Christmas through the lens of epiphany, which the church officially celebrates tomorrow. An epiphany by definition is a sudden revelation. But to the Christian churches it’s a religious holiday that celebrates the divine revelation of Christ to the Gentiles as defined in the story of the Magi, or the baptism of Jesus.
Epiphanies happen not just in angels, stars, babies, and water, but in ordinary moments like holding a hand, or watching a sunset or driving to work. They can pop up immediately or gradually appear over time. For Christians epiphanies are given to us by God, to awaken us to the mysteries of God in Christ. I think our scripture today speaks to those points and gives us a new vision of who God is, and who we are as created beings in Christ.
Ephesians is a wonderful letter that was written as a call for Christian unity, and to be holy and right before God. Years ago, when I read these opening verses, I had an epiphany. Dare I say one that was divine, profound, and life changing. Yet it’s so simple I almost overlooked it. What was it? God chose me. I am loved and valuable to God who has blessed us all in Christ. Talk about a revelation!
When I feel alone or get down on myself for messing up, I have these words to remind myself that I’ve been chosen by God, redeemed by Christ, and sealed by the Holy Spirit. I’m not making this up to feel good about myself. I already feel good knowing this was God’s plan for you and me since the very beginning. To understand that I am ‘in’ Christ not only changes the way I see myself, but it also encourages me to move beyond myself to become a larger part of God’s eternal vision.
The expression ‘en Christo’ or ‘in Christ’ occurs 216 times in Paul’s letters alone. According to Richard Rohr, ‘en Christo’ is “Paul’s codeword for the gracious, participatory experience of salvation.” As Rohr points out, “We’ve never been separated from God.” Instead we’ve been “living inside this cosmic identity” that has already been put in place. God chose us long before we chose God. This not only saves us, but it drives and guides towards true Christlike transformation. “We are all in Christ, willingly or unwillingly, happily were unhappy, consciously or unconsciously.”
By this revelation, I take Paul at his word, that we all possess the power to live holy and rightly before God “who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing.”
Now spiritual blessings are different than material ones. A person may have great material wealth yet be bankrupt when it comes to the spiritual blessings of joy, peace, wisdom, contentment, or just being in a right relationship with God. As we move into a new year and decade, I looked back over the last ten years to see what I accomplished. I changed careers, learned Greek and Hebrew, earned a Masters of Divinity while beating cancer, got ordained, moved my family across the country to lead my first church, and then back here, to plant and shape this new church. I may not have attained much material wealth along the way, but spiritually I feel rich beyond measure. While going through some great challenges, it was hard to see what God was doing. But because God chose me, I am always alive in Christ. And I am free to live this way or not.
Too many of us waste life trying to obtain things that are worth much less than the spiritual blessings God already gave us in Christ. We chase after meaningless things so we can keep up with the Jones; we sell ourselves short to belong to some group or team or tribe; we seek to have more likes, more followers, and to build up an image that lives or dies by other people’s opinions. Obtaining wealth, being a part of things and enjoying a good life is fine, but God has greater plans for you and me.
Before the earth’s foundations were set into motion, “God had settled on you as the focus of his love.” God didn’t just choose you for his team, but God built a team around you. Before the very first sunrise ever appeared, God adopted you to be his beloved child. Let that sink in. God knows everything about you and chose to accept you for who you are – rich or poor, sinner or saint – you’re already on the best team. We are no surprise to God. He knew what he was getting into with us. Instead of throwing in the towel with disappointment because of our inability’s, God came to be with us, as one of us.
I want you to say out loud, “I am a beloved child of God. I am worth more than any earthly treasure.” This should be our mantra for the new decade?
To borrow from Henri Nouwen “If you dare to believe that you are beloved before you are born, you may suddenly realize that your life is very, very special.” Because God chose us In Christ, we are redeemed and made holy, blameless, and consecrated. By being ‘en Christo’, we live with God in love without reproach. What’s really cool about this is we don’t have to feel guilty and ashamed about our weaknesses and our faults. We are in Christ, and Christ is in us.
British journalist and renown atheist, Marghanita Laski, made an amazing confession on TV once when she said, ‘What I envy most about you Christians is your forgiveness.’ She added, rather sadly, ‘I have no one to forgive me.’ In her statement lies Paul’s great epiphany – that in Christ, God has done for Laski according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us.
It’s that grace, in my humble opinion, that God reveals the single most important blessing in Christ. Grace is both the power and the vulnerability of God made manifest in Christ; not just for our sake, but to the entire order of the cosmos. I can’t imagine life without grace. Think about it, sick days wouldn’t exist, being late to an appointment would be unforgivable, and every bad thing you ever did would forever define who you think you are.
Because of God’s grace, we need not hold on to our past but only move forward and closer to God. So what I want you to know is that: In Christ, we have God’s grace. In Christ, we have God’s peace. In Christ we are united to God’s perfect love. If we believe God is love, then we need to seek and find this love in and all around us; and to share that love in all our wonderful and difficult relationships, responsibilities, and circumstances.
It’s up to us to claim the truth – God chose us…and we are loved no matter what. This is where our faith comes into play. Faith is how we are able to see God’s will for us. I like to say we have faith in Christ so we can have the faith of Christ. By faith we are able to see others with Christlike eyes, and love our enemies with a Christlike heart.
As faithful children of an all loving God, it’s up to us to share this good news to help others know who they are. As God’s children we too are a people of forgiveness and reconciliation, called to heal ourselves and others with God’s love. We are called to be united, to tear down the walls between us and our neighbors. We are called to seek peace and to stand up for justice and fairness, and to live in Christ as Christ lives in us. How blessed are we, and every other human being, to belong to the same God of Love who chose to be with us and to dwell in us.
As you leave here today, I encourage you to receive God’s love and to relax in it. To sit and breath in God’s love as you exhale the mantra, “I am a beloved child of God. I am worth more than any earthly treasure.”
As we move from Christmas to the New Year, let us not worry about you’ve done but what you can do not, today, knowing what God has already done for you in Christ. It’s in this grateful place that God transforms you in the most unexpected ways. Awakening in you an epiphany, for others to discover who they are…in Christ.
Let us pray:
Lord God, with a grateful heart we give ourselves up to your love and to your will. Send us out into the world to be in Christ, and to be little Christs to those whose hearts need to be awoken.
Nouwen, Henri. You Are The Beloved: Daily Meditations for Spiritual Living. Convergent Books: 2017.
Rohr, Richard. The Universal Christ: How A Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope For, and Believe. Convergent Books: 2019.
Come let us rejoice together in the Spirit of the Lord who said, “The days are surely coming when I will fulfill my promise to my people. Justice and righteousness will fill the land, and all will live in peace and safety.”
Lighting the Advent Candles:
As we enter the fourth and final Sunday of Advent, I invite you to join me by holding on to the light of hope, knowing the Christ is coming and all will be well in the world. I invite you also to hold fast to the light of love, knowing that it was out of great love for me and you, that God came to be with us, to care for us and to guide us back into God’s own heart. Because of this hope and this love, we can hold fast to the light of peace, even if such a thing feels impossible or futile at best.
Today we celebrate joy, knowing that for many of us, finding glad tidings of comfort and joy can feel like a difficult task. But if these candles tell us anything, it’s that God is present – illuminating our darkest places so we can see God at work in our lives transforming our pain into joy. And so we light the joy candle to remind us that no matter how difficult your life might seem, joy is present if only because God is present.
Read Luke 2:8-14
Now that school is out, my wife has returned to her rightful place on the sofa to binge watch a new batch of Christmas movies. Which really aren’t that much different than the ones from last year. Or the year before that. As someone recently described, “These movies all seem to come from the same candy cane factory.” The story lines are pretty much predictable, big city girl…small town boy…snowstorm…a kiss…and Christmas is saved.
It’s also a safe bet that carolers dressed like 19th century Dickens characters will show up and sing God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen. O tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy, O tidings of comfort and joy.
Like the sugary holiday movie, this is one of those happy tunes that promises to fill us with comfort and joy. But recently I heard this song in a different light. As I was trying to play it on the guitar, I noticed this majestic proclamation is sung in a minor key…like the ones you find in most blues songs. And if you’ve know blues music, then you know why the name is appropriate.
In a recent essay on this subject, Margret Manning pointed out that the juxtaposition between the minor notes of the song and its uplifting lyrics suggests that joy is not simply found in things that make us happy, but also in times of sorrow.
With only three letters, ‘Joy’ is a short but powerful word. It appears 145 times in the bible which tells me it’s important to understand. According to Merriam-Webster joy is “the emotion evoked by well-being, success, or good fortune; or by the prospect of possessing what one desires.” This definition leaves me to wonder what if you don’t get your way, does that mean you don’t experience joy?
Theopedia describes joy as “a state of mind and an orientation of the heart. It is a settled state of contentment, confidence and hope.” I think this definition brings us closer to what God is trying to tell us – that joy is not a feeling you get when something good happens. That’s happiness. Happiness lives in the head. It comes and goes depending on your experience or mood.
Joy is different. Joy is permanent. It lingers deep within our hearts whether we feel it or not. Famed British author C.S. Lewis said it best when he wrote, “Joy is an experience no one would ever exchange for all the happiness in the world.”
In Paul’s epistle to the Galatians, joy is one of the seven fruits of the Spirit along with love, peace, faithfulness, patience, gentleness and kindness. It’s not a fleeting or passing emotion but a holy gift from God that helps us navigate the ups and downs of life. And so, as we look to this small but bright flickering light, we know we are able to rejoice no matter what we are up against, if only because God is rejoicing in us.
In Luke’s gospel, as the angles hovered over the dark earth heralding in the reign of Christ, joy entered into creation in the bleakest of times. Through Christ, God brought glad tidings of comfort and joy. Such things don’t come from assuming power or amassing possessions. They come from a person: Jesus of Nazareth, the joy of God incarnate.
One of the first people to feel the joy of Christ, was John the Baptist. While still in his mother’s womb John leapt for joy when a pregnant Mary entered the house. He carried that joy with him, and held on to it in the loneliness of the wilderness and the struggles he would face out there as he ushered in the Kingdom of God. Even in prison with the threat of death looming over his head, John’s joy did not diminish. He knew that no matter how difficult his life got, joy was present if only because God was present within him.
This is hard to hear or understand when you’re in a bad mood or when someone or something steals your joy. But you might take comfort knowing that not even Jesus himself was immune to the pain and sorrow of this world. Manning says, “the tidings of comfort and joy which we desire come as God entered into a suffering world – not removed from it.” Whatever you are going through, right now in your life, you can rejoice knowing God is there with you; in a person who understands your pain and knows what it’s like to suffer.
I know that it’s hard to rejoice when people you love get cancer or when your friends abandon you. It’s hard for me to find joy as long as gun violence permeates our communities, as the homeless situation in our nation worsens, and children still don’t have enough food, or clean water, or a loving parent nearby. Joy isn’t easy to come by when you’re alone in your house, or overworked, or out of work.
Which is why, as Henri Nouwen once said, “We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day.”
Jesus is God’s greatest joy. Therefore we have to make the conscious decision to seek and welcome him into our daily life. We have to wake up every morning and choose to see and do what Jesus did…if only so others may find their hope, their love, their peace and their joy.
When we choose to be with Jesus, to be imitators of his love, a deeper sense and understanding of joy begins to grow in us and all around us. It becomes manifested in us, in the way we love and care for one another, in the way that we give and receive the Christ within us all.
I invite you to chose to welcome Jesus as those shepherds did on that Christmas morning. I invite you to receive him as your utmost joy, and to live in his Spirit, bearing its good fruit in all that you do. As you leave here today, I want you to know that we don’t experience joy because life is good. We experience it because God is great. God does not come and go like happiness. God sticks around, and is always there whether we know it or not. When life kicks the joy out of you, God is there kicking it back in.
Because God has chosen you and me to carry this light into the world – to shine our hope, love, peace and joy as bright as the host of angles who first brought glad tidings to those shepherds watching their flocks by night.
Let us pray: As we seek your presence Lord, may we do so rejoicing knowing that wherever we are and whatever we are facing we can do so joyfully because you are with us. Help us to be this bright shining light for others as Jesus did for us. Amen.
Manning, Margaret. Sowing Tears and Reaping Joy. A Slice of Infinity devotional, December 17, 2019 (accessed 12/17/19) https://us5.campaign-archive.com/?e=2ee208b3a9&u=45b75085e6ab57e339ea89d67&id=1b4bf221eb
And so today we light the peace candle, remembering the angles who broke through the dark skies to announce the birth of Christ by proclaiming “peace on earth and good will towards all.”
It will be this same child who will deliver God’s shalom, the completeness and fullness of God’s peace in the world. He will do so by the way he loves the world. It will be Jesus who will tell us, “how blessed are you who seek peace among all people, for you will be a child of God.”
As we look at the candle of hope, the candle of love, and now the candle of peace, Let us hold fast to the words of the Lord who said, “The days are surely coming when I will fulfill my promise to my people. Justice and righteousness will fill the land, and all will live in peace and safety.”
In the glow of this light, I am reminded that God’s peace is available for those who want it. And who wouldn’t want peace in their life? Some peace and quiet? Or peace of mind, knowing that you have whatever it takes to get through the difficult times. Tis’ the season to put our peace to the test. As we hustle for the last-minute gift or make our way home for the holidays…peace can be in short supply.
Since October 9, 2001 I have spent an enormous amount of time and energy searching for peace in my life. That was the day Fiona was born. The day was amazing. That first night, not so much. As most babies do, screamed and cried for most it. And to be honest, she hasn’t stopped since.
I imagine Jesus came into the world screaming and crying. It’s good for a newborn to let out some big bellows at birth - filling their lungs with their first big breaths of life.
Through Jesus, God continues to scream divine life into a world that is anything but peaceful. No matter what you’re facing today, God’s peace is yours if you want it.
READ: Matthew 2:13-23
Like his Old Testament namesake, Joseph is a dreamer. However, his dreams are really more like nightmares. In the first dream Joseph is warned that King Herod wants to kill his son. And he knows Herod has both the authority, and the means to do it without impunity.
When Joseph awakes, the nightmare isn’t over. In a frenzy to get out of Bethlehem as fast as they can, Joseph hustles to gather their belongings and whatever supplies he can get his hands on before the gates of the city shut. In this moment, I imagine Jesus is restless as babies often are. I suspect Mary is sleep deprived as nursing mothers tend to be. And I am sure Joseph’s body tenses up every time a soldier passes by as they make their way to Egypt to escape a politically motivated hit job.
They escape just in time. Before them is the great unknown. Behind them the land darkens with the blood of innocent children. Echoing across the sky are the inconsolable cries of wailing mothers who fell victim to the injustice of an insecure and out of control king. Where is the peace and good will the angels promised the night Jesus was born?
Robert Gundry suggests it’s on its way because the one who is to usher peace into the world has escaped. This is the Kingdom of God. And in this kingdom Christ will reign. There will be no more murder or violence perpetrated ever again. Peace is coming, but we have to wait.
I know how hard it is to find peace when you’re rushing to make your connecting flight or taking your final exams or looking for a parking space at the mall. But what about Mary? How did she find peace knowing her son was in danger? It’s a mother’s job to worry about her children – but she shouldn’t have to flee from her home to save their lives. Or Joseph? Still a teenager himself, he has to protect his family in a foreign country. Peace is hard to find when you’re afraid or can’t find a job because you don’t speak the local language.
Recently, a Methodist church in Clairmont, CA made national headlines for its controversial nativity that displays Joseph, Mary and baby Jesus all locked up in three separate cages – highlighting the plight of refugees and asylum seekers at the U.S. Mexico border. Karen Clark Ristine, the lead pastor at the church challenges us to really look at the holy family through the eyes of these people who only want peace and security in their lives. It forces us look at our responsibility as Christians – who are called to see and do what Jesus did. And then go and do likewise.
Jesus understands the plight of the refugee because his life began as a refugee. He knows our pain and suffering firsthand, because his body still bears the scars of human cruelty. Jesus spent his life moving from one danger to the next. Through it all, he embodied God’s perfect peace by practicing a ministry of kindness, mercy and radical inclusion of all people.
Where’s the peace we all seek? The same place it’s always been since the beginning of time - in the Christ, the very heart of God.
While in Egypt, Joseph has his second dream. Herod is dead. And the family can return home to Judea. As a father, I understand why Joseph hesitates to go back. Herod’s son is in charge now. And a rotten apple never falls far from the tree.
Joseph’s fear is confirmed in a third dream which sends the Holy Family further north to Galilee. They will make their home in the town of Nazareth, a despised place in Jewish lore. For nearly thirty years, God will hide Jesus in an area where nothing good ever seems to come.
The bible doesn’t give us much info about those years, outside one story in Luke’s gospel when Jesus is twelve. But the way I see it, if God can protect this baby from hurt, harm, and danger, from even the most despicable people in the despised places, so too will God protect you in whatever uncertainty or nightmare you’re facing today. Through the birth of Jesus, peace has come. And by his resurrection we know that peace will come again.
As we wait for Christmas, for Christ to be born in a dark and smelly stable, we do so by standing outside the dark and empty tomb of Easter. It was there peace greeted Mary who ran off to proclaim the good news. And it’s here today if you want it. What the world isn’t able to give you, Jesus is able, and willing.
By living out a radical, all-inclusive love, Jesus showed us how to walk peacefully in a troubled world. It’s up to you and me to see and do as Jesus did, so peace can prevail. It’s up to us to embrace love like it is the most powerful weapon we have at our disposal. If we want to feel God’s peace in our hearts, we need to be the light of God’s hope, God’s love, and God’s peace in the world for one another.
This week, a pastor friend of mine in Massachusetts touched on a similar note when he posted his Christmas wish list on Facebook. He wrote,
My wish this Christmas is bold, but not audacious. I want peace. I am not just referring to the cessation of violence or a respite from war, although both would be welcome. The peace I want is akin to the Hebrew word shalom, which means wholeness and completeness.
In our hearts let us plant peace, and with our hands let us manifest it in the world today.
Let us pray:
Lord, in our busyness we often forget to ask for the one thing we all seek. Peace. Peace of mind, peace in our relationships, peace in our prayer, peace in our homes and at our work and schools, peace in our finances and health, peace in our sadness as it is in our happiness. By your Holy Spirit empower us with the spirit of your peace that we may manifest it in all that we do, so that all glory may be given the Prince of Peace, our savior Jesus the Christ. Amen.
I offer you the words of St. Paul who said, “Finally, brethren, rejoice, be made complete, be comforted, be like-minded, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you.”
Special thanks to Dr. John Tamilio III for his words posted to Facebook on Dec. 12, 2019.
Bartlett, David L., Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word: Year A, Vol. 1. (Westminster John Knox: 2010) pp.164-169.
has been blogging under the name: Jesus not Jesús: Looking for Christ in the face of strangers. You can read his posts and browse his archives by clicking here.
Sunday at 11:00 a.m.