God is not the author of death.

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Sermon for Ash Wednesday 2020

Readings

In 1960 Joy Davidman, the wife of C. S. Lewis, died of bone cancer at a relatively young age. If you want to know more about their story, I heartily recommend to you the film The Shadowlands with Anthony Hopkins and Deborah Winger. In any event, Lewis, who was in my opinion one of the greatest apologists for Christianity ever, was devastated by Joy’s death. Even as a man of great faith, the pain of losing the woman that he loved was overwhelming for him. He later wrote a book about his experience of her death. But on Joy’s tombstone, Lewis had this epitaph written:

 

Here the whole world (stars, water, air,


And field, and forest, as they were


Reflected in a single mind)

Like cast off clothes was left behind


In ashes, yet with hopes that she,


Re-born from holy poverty,

In lenten lands, hereafter may

Resume them on her Easter Day.

 

You know, it is a shame that poetry isn’t as popular as it once was with the masses, because poems have the power to convey so much with so few words. This little poem says so much about Lewis’s faith, the Christian faith, and I think it might even help us appreciate what we are doing here today a little deeper.

 

Here the whole world like cast off clothes was left behind in ashes.

 

It’s as if the tombstone wants to say: This pile of ashes that you are looking at….this was once someone’s whole world. Joy’s world was experienced and Joy’s life was lived in that pile of ashes. This stuff that is just laying about here, that so many pass by and take no notice of, this dirt beneath the ground here, this was once a person. A whole life was lived in these ashes that lie about like someone’s cast off clothes. The image of a pile of cast-off clothes sticks with me.

 

It reminds me of when I was on sabbatical over the summer, because one afternoon I ventured down into the catacombs of Paris. The Paris catacombs were an old stone quarry, but in about 1780 the city started clearing out its old and somewhat dangerous cemeteries and moved all the human remains to these underground chambers. There are about six million bodies down there. Bone after bone after bone stacked on top of each other in a seemingly endless cavern. Each one slowly turning to dust. I had to keep reminding myself as I walked through there, that each and every one of these skulls was a life. A person with hopes and dreams and fears and loves. Each one of these was really like a whole world. And here they were, an indistinguishable heap of bones lying around waiting to be redeemed.

 

And seeing all those bones, it gave me pause to think to myself: the things that I spend so much time worrying about and fussing over, the things that grip my emotions on a daily basis, when my bones are added to the pile, will I care about them anymore? Do any of these people care what others think of them now? Are any of these people worried about their clothes or their possessions? Are any of them consumed by politics? A few years after these bones were moved here France saw one of the bloodiest, nastiest political upheavals in the history of Europe, but it didn’t matter to these folks. They never saw it.

 

And near the end of the tunnel there stands a little sign that reads in Latin and French: Deus mortem non fecit, Dieu n’est pas l’auteur de la morte. God is not the author of death. A reminder that we were designed to be so much more than a heap of bones or a pile of ashes. Each one of us was created to be a whole, unique little world in God’s good universe. God wants more for us than this: to be left behind like cast off clothes.

 

How does one respond to such a sight? Well, if the Christian faith was “gather ye rosebuds while ye may for tomorrow we’ll be dying,” then willingly giving up pleasures or denying ourselves anything would truly make no sense. If dust and ashes is where it all ends, then Lent would have it backwards: we would remind ourselves of our morality, then go and party. But that is not what Christians do. Our faith is a bit more complicated. Every year we remind ourselves that we are ashes and then spend a season letting go of things and pushing some things to the side. Or we might even work harder at some things.

 

Why? Why do we observe Lent this way? Well it’s because Lent isn’t a self-help or self-improvement scheme.

 

You are probably not going to be a much better person 40 days from now. You are sinners now. You will still be sinners come Easter Sunday. Observing Lent is not going to change that.

 

A little smudge of palm ash on your forehead and giving up chocolate for 40 days is not going to make everything you did in your twenties just disappear.

 

Giving up meat on Fridays is not going to make a drastic difference in your health or your weight. Putting a few extra dollars in the Good Friday offering is not going to solve the crisis in the Middle East.

 

So why bother with any of this? Why should we fast if it isn’t going to help us loose weight? Why should we give alms if it isn’t going to solve the problems of poverty and hunger? Why should we pray more if we aren’t sure that it is going to make God change his mind?

 

We do it, because we are going to die.

 

Let that sink in a minute.

 

You may not like to hear me say that. You may think that I am being morbid. But I’m not really. I am stating a very plain and irrefutable fact: each and every one of us in this room is going to die. I can tell you that with 100% certainty.

 

I cannot tell you when it will happen. I cannot tell you where it will happen. But it will happen. Maybe, hopefully, it will be a long time from now. But, it might be on your way home.

 

That is a hard fact for us to swallow. We don’t like it.

 

So we try and cover it up and mask it, but we need to face it. Our faith tells us we must face it. Why? Because we believe that death is not the end. And when the day comes for my bones to be added to the pile, what will I care about? Well I imagine that on that day the only thing I will care about is my relationship with my creator that wants more for me than just to end up a pile of ashes. The relationship I have with the God who wants more for me than death will matter more than anything else on earth. So anything that might be coming between me and that creator, will need to take a back seat.

 

That is why we observe Lent the way we do. We recognize in life that sometimes things in life start to come between us and God. In imperceptible and sometimes insidious ways. Trivial things, good things, bad things…there is so much stuff in our lives that pushes us further and further away from God, so in Lent, we take the time and push them out of the way, and focus on that relationship. Because in the end, that is all that will matter for us. Lent is about growing closer to God. That is it. We humble ourselves, we give up things, we fast, give alms, and pray, to draw ourselves closer to the God that is not the author of death. Christians believe that we will be ashes for a season, we acknowledge that our bones will some day rest beneath the earth, but we also live with the hope that that is not where our God leaves us.

That is why the epitaph on Joy Davidman’s tomb ends the way it does:

 

Here the whole world…

Like cast off clothes was left behind
In ashes, yet with hopes that she,
Re-born from holy poverty,

In lenten lands, hereafter may

Resume them on her Easter Day.

 

 

The Mystery Talks Back

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Sermon for February 23rd, 2020

Readings

 

I have decided that one of my Lenten disciplines this year will be rereading a book by Abraham Heschel. Abraham Heschel was a twentieth century Jewish philosopher and mystic. This is his book “Between God and Man.” I picked up this book this week and started flipping through it and was reminded of how insightful Heschel can be about the human response to God. Early in his book, Heschel talks about mystery and he says that there are three basic human attitudes toward mystery:

 

The fatalist, the positivist, and the Biblical.

 

To the fatalist, he says, mystery is the supreme power that controls all of reality. The fatalist believes that the world is controlled by an irrational, absolutely inscrutable and blind power that is devoid of either justice or purpose. To the fatalist, mankind has zero control over his fate, he may only be resigned to it. Resignation is a fatalist’s response to the mystery. We are just actors on the stage, reading the lines that we have been given. Puppets more like. No free will, no choice in the matter. Just part of a universe that is mystically evolving toward we know not what. Or perhaps we are merely an accumulation of chemical reactions, controlled by universal laws, laws that have no thought or feeling or purpose. A fatalist may believe in God or not, many pagan religions are fatalist in nature. I would argue that some Christians probably take that view as well. Perhaps this attitude lies behind the worldview of all those who call themselves “spiritual but not religious.” Perhaps they are trying to say that “I believe in a mystical force behind the universe, but it wants nothing of me.” That is the attitude of the fatalist.

 

The positivist, on the other hand, takes a quite different approach. To the positivist, mystery doesn’t actually exist. Mystery is just stuff we don’t know yet. Positivists believe in our ability to figure things out, and positivists believe that once we figure things out, we can take control over them. Positivists believe that all questions will eventually be answered, not by revelation, but by research. People who believe that technology can save the human race are positivists. They believe we have control over our own destinies. Positivists believe that meaning is something that we create. A positivist responds to mystery by trying to explain it away. If your salvation depends upon you understanding and controlling everything, then mystery is a threat to you. So, you try to eliminate mystery. There are, and have been, positivists in the church too; people that want to eliminate mystery.

 

The positivist response to mystery is the opposite of the fatalist: the fatalist throws his or her hands up in despair; the positivist cracks his knuckles ready to tear the mystery apart.

 

And then, there is the Biblical attitude toward mystery.

 

The biblical attitude is that the universe is ruled not by a blind force, but by a God of righteousness. The biblical view is that the mystery has a personality and a name. Heschel says that the biblical view is that the ultimate is: “not a law, but a judge, not a power, but a father.”

 

Not a power, but a father. That is the biblical view of mystery. It is a force that creates and shapes, but does not control. The biblical view of mystery is a force that we live in relationship with. Not only does it exist apart from us, but it also calls for a response from us. It does not control us or force us to some pre-determined fate, nor is it something that we can ever have complete control and mastery over. The biblical view is that mystery is something that you live with. The biblical view is that mystery is something that you talk to, and argue with, and in the biblical view, sometimes the mystery talks back.

 

Abraham and Moses, they argued with God. Our psalm today says: “Moses and Aaron among his priests, and Samuel among such as call upon his name: these called upon the Lord, AND he heard them. He spake unto them out of the cloudy pillar” The Bible is full of mysterious burning bushes and cloudy mountains, but in the Bible individuals of faith talk to the cloud and the cloud talks back. The mystery asks people to do things. The mystery seeks a response. It isn’t a force that controls us; and it isn’t a force that we have control over. In the Bible, mystery is something that you live with; mystery is something that you can love and that can love you. That is a very different attitude than either the fatalist or the positivist.

 

The fatalist throws up his hands at mystery, the positivist uses his or her hands to tear it apart, but in the Bible, mystery invites us to put our hands in its hand and walk with it. We can touch it, we can embrace it, we can respond to it and live in relationship with it. But it will not force our hand nor can we force it.

 

When Moses ascended Mount Sinai, and saw the mystery of the burning bush, the mystery spoke to him. And not only did the mystery identify itself and say: I am that I am; I am the force behind the universe, but the mystery also said to Moses: do this. Live in relationship with me. Follow these commandments. Respond to my life. You are my chosen, but am I yours?

 

When Jesus and Peter and James and John ascended a high mountain by themselves, and when a cloud overshadowed them and Jesus’s appearance was mysteriously transformed, the mystery again spoke to them from the cloud claiming its identity: “this is my son. This is who Jesus is.” But the mystery also said: “Listen to him!” Respond to him; live in relationship to him. Live with this mystery. Love it.

 

To be sure, it isn’t easy living with mystery. We humans are always caught between wanting to do everything and wanting to do nothing. We either want to save the world or watch it all burn to the ground. We convince ourselves that we can fix everything or we can fix nothing. Those may seem like more reasonable options than the biblical option, but are they really?

 

If we are completely controlled by some outside force that pays no attention to what we do or what we say, then the universe is truly a lonely place and life within it, has no meaning. But if it is up to us to figure the universe out and make right choices, well if you read history, current events, and human nature the way that I do, then you would probably agree with me that in that scenario we are all truly damned.

 

What our ancestors found in Scripture, what Moses and Peter and James and John found on the mountain was a more compelling third option: a mystery that talks back. A god that neither controls us completely nor abandons us to our own devices, but lives in relationship with us. This is a god that seems to trust our hearts more than our minds. It is a mystery that wants to be loved more than understood.

 

I think Lent is probably as good a time as any to ask yourself the question: how do I approach the mystery of God in my life? Am I a fatalist, a positivist or is it something I live in relationship with? When I encounter mystery, do I throw up my hands? Do I crack my knuckles? Or to I reach out and grab the hand that is reaching out for me? When I encounter a mystery, do I have the courage to speak to it? Do I have the will to listen and obey when the mystery talks back?

 

 

You are salt

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Sermon for Sunday, February 9th, 2020

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Christians are always walking a tightrope between two very different ideas:

 

On the one hand we believe in God’s love for us as we are. There is the old hymn:

 

Just as I am, without one plea, but that thy blood was shed for me.

 

Just as I am, or as Paul says in his letter to the Romans: “But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Christ, the messiah, the son of God is willing to suffer and die for sinners. Loves us while we are yet unlovable. It’s the bedrock of our faith. We don’t earn our salvation; it is given to us as a free gift, from someone who knows even better than we do, what a mess we are. That is one side of our faith.

 

But then on the other hand, throughout scripture, God calls his beloved people to change. God calls for us to turn away from sin, to abandon injustice; God calls us to reject cruelty and not to be indifferent to suffering. God calls us to righteousness. God challenges us to grow spiritually and move our wills closer to his will. For that there is a different hymn:

Just a closer walk with thee, grant it Jesus, is my plea. 

We are called to walk closer with God, or as Paul also says in his letter to the Romans: “Therefore, do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness.”

 

So, you see, we have these two, seemingly conflicting ideas about what it means to live in relationship with God. Which is it? Does God love us as we are, or is God calling us to be better than we are? This question, which has led churches and denominations to part ways with each other, has been a contentious issue since Jesus walked the earth. In fact, it was an issue for people of faith even before he came.

 

So Jesus, presents these two conflicting ideas to his people by using a couple illustrations this morning.

 

He says to his followers: you are the salt of the earth. You are salt. Salt is a vital mineral. You can’t live without it. Thank God for salt. Salt gives flavor, salt purifies. A couple weeks ago I bought a jar of unsalted peanuts by accident. It was a mistake. Salt is also used in religious rituals. Holy water has salt in it. The sacrifices in the temple had salt mixed with them. Before refrigeration, it was salt that preserved food and helped us to live through long, hard winters. Salt is a wonderful, and valuable thing.

 

But, Jesus says, but….if salt has lost its flavor, if it has lost its taste, if it has lost the very thing that makes it what it is, then what good is it? The idea of flavorless salt is a ridiculous idea.

 

Jesus says to his followers: you are the light of the world. You are light. Light is critical to the way we live. You can’t see without it. We take for granted electric lights. Light is almost too abundant now, much in the same way that salt has become almost too abundant. But we don’t want to live without it. Light warms us, light cooks our food, light protects us from danger, light guides our paths. Light is a wonderful and valuable thing, we don’t want to live without it.

 

But, Jesus says, if light doesn’t illuminate anything, if it doesn’t actually shed its light into the world, then what good is it? The idea of a light that doesn’t illuminate is a ridiculous idea.

 

Then what about a person of faith that doesn’t show love? What about believers whose lives bear no fruit? How is it that there are religious people, people that claim to love God and be loved by God, that seem to have a complete inability to share that love with the world or anyone else around them? What good are they?

That is the somewhat stinging point in Jesus’s lesson today. If you are salt, people need to taste it; if you are light, people need to see it. If you are loved by God, then people need to witness that love at work in your life. If loving God doesn’t draw you closer to him, if loving God doesn’t actually change you in any way, then people are completely justified in asking, what’s the point?

 

Jesus walks the line today between those two ideas: Jesus both affirms our value in God’s eyes, but he also challenges us to be better than we presently are. He challenges us to be the holy people that we are called to be. He says that we are valued and loved by God, but he challenges us to respond to that love in such a way that others can see and recognize it. That isn’t always easy. Here we are back on the tightrope again, caught between God’s love for us as we are, and God’s call for us to be better than we are.

 

It would be so much easier if we could just pick a side. Either we stop trying to grow closer to God because we figure we are already loved by him, so why bother. No response necessary. Or we convince ourselves that the external good works are what really matter, not the internal transformation. We can convince ourselves that we earn God’s love through our good deeds and superior choices. Christians divide up into these two camps on a daily basis. Either way, we avoid the difficult, but necessary transformation of heart, which gives the people of God their flavor, the light which makes us who we are and what we are. Being transformed by God is a difficult and sometimes painful process, but if we can’t say that God’s love has changed us in any way, then what is the point?

 

Now I guess we could try and have the best of both worlds, by appearing to outsiders to be holy and righteous, but never actually changing. We could try to show the world good works, while our hearts remain unmoved. That’s always a tempting third option, sadly though, I don’t think Jesus was very fond of it. It doesn’t seem like the prophet Isaiah was either. I guess God isn’t impressed with displays of piety that are more about self-worship and obsession than they are with a genuine love and adoration of God.

 

So what we are left with is Jesus’s challenging words to his disciples. You are salt and you are light. You are of immense value and you are loved in God’s eyes, now live your lives in such a way that others can see that. Yes, you are loved, but how you respond to that love, how you let that love transform you, well that will affect what the world thinks of God. Let your response glorify God, so that others may glorify him as well. You are loved, but don’t be afraid to be changed too. God may call me just as I am, but I can’t let that keep me from taking a closer walk.

 

The power of an image

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Sermon for Sunday, February 2nd, 2020

Readings

 

 

This is a photograph of my uncle that died last month. I got it when I was down in Florida.

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Now, on one level I can tell you that this is just a piece of paper; some photographic paper with ink on it. But, I think we all know that pictures mean so much more to us than that.

 

Pictures are more than just ink on paper. When you see an image of someone or something that is significant to you it evokes something within you. It touches something inside you.

 

I know that this little piece of paper isn’t actually my uncle, and yet I can hold it up and say “this is my uncle” and you would know exactly what I meant. When I see it, it brings a little of him back to me for a moment. It’s paper and ink, and yet with the right image on it, it becomes something else. It becomes something powerful.

 

When I was down home a couple weeks ago, I ended up sitting down and flipping through some old picture albums. It is amazing how easy it is to forget little details: like the wallpaper in the front hall of the house you grew up in, or the curtains in your grandma’s living room, or that favorite jacket you used to always wear. There are so many little things that you forget, and then you start flipping through pictures and it all comes back to you. You hadn’t completely forgotten it, it was just hiding somewhere in your mind. Then you see an old picture and it takes you right back to that time and that place;

 

in your head, for at least a couple seconds you get to go back there.

 

There is something almost magical about that.

 

There is something almost magical about how a simple image can take you on a journey. You see an old picture and you go on a journey through time. Distance and time don’t matter anymore. Looking through my old photos, I am transported to a time and a place that I can’t touch any other way. Sure, I can try and remember things, but memory fades. We forget things. Daily life pushes old memories aside. Pictures and images help to keep them alive.

 

Pictures also help me experience things that I never got to see with my own eyes. Like the way my grandfather looked as a young man; Relatives that I never got to meet; places that I never got to go. But when I flip through an old photo album, I get to go there, at least for a second. It is the closest thing to time travel that any of us will probably know, and you probably take it for granted. Pictures and images are powerful and sacred things.

 

This little piece of paper is not sacred to me, but the image it bears sure is. The image has power, even if the paper doesn’t.

 

I know that the beginning of today’s service may have seemed a bit odd for some of you; for some it may have even been uncomfortable. We began with a blessing of candles and with a procession of this statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Jesus around the church. Why? Why would we do such a thing?

 

Do we think that Mary was feeling cramped over in the shrine and felt the need to stretch her legs a bit? Do we think that this statue of Our Lady of Walsingham has special powers?

 

Well, not exactly, no.

 

I can tell you that this is just a piece of carved wood with some paint on it. The material that was used to create this statue is in no way sacred or special, but the image that was created is special, and completely sacred. It is sacred because we all know it to be an image of our Lord and his mother. When we look on this image our thoughts are drawn to Jesus and Mary. We are transported to another time and another place. When we look at this statue we can imagine, in our minds, what it might have been like to look in the face of that child, or to witness how his mother embraced him. The image gives us a place to focus our devotion, but the devotion isn’t to the wood, the devotion is to the image that it bears and what that evokes within us.

 

You may ask, then why lift it up and carry it around? Why surround it with flowers?

 

Well, why do we put pictures in fancy frames and mount them on the wall in places of honor in our homes? Because the image they bear is important to us. When put images on display in eye-catching and beautiful frames because we want to see them, and be reminded of someone we love. We want others to know that this image is special. This image really means something to us.

 

The image is sacred because of who it draws us to. The power of this statue is not that it brings Mary and Jesus to us; we can’t control God that way. The power of this statue is that it brings us to Mary and Jesus. It takes our thoughts, or hearts and our minds to them. When we look on this image, we are the ones who are transported to another time and another place.

 

That is the irony of this service today. We took this statue on a little walk, but we are the ones that really went on a journey. We went on a journey in our minds. We were invited to imagine the story that Luke paints for us in the gopsel. We had a visual reminder of a day thousands of years ago, when a young woman carried her newborn baby into God’s holy temple to give thanks for the life of this child and to give thanks for the fact that her life had been spared too.

 

Maybe we can imagine ourselves following her through the crowded streets and up to the glorious temple. Maybe we can see in our minds her nervously handing him over to the old priest. We might even imagine Joseph handing the priest the appointed sacrifice of two turtledoves, which was all they could afford. Then maybe we can hear the old priest Simeon saying those words which Luke recorded:

 

Lord, now Lettest thou thy servant depart in peace,

According to thy word;

For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,

Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people;

To be a light to enlighten the gentiles, and to be the glory of thy people Israel.

 

One look into that baby’s face, and old Simeon had seen all that he needed to see. All that he had hoped and longed for was now right in his hands. This child would be a light to enlighten the gentiles and would be the glory of his people Israel. What a holy and sacred moment that must have been.

 

We weren’t there; none of us were there, but for a few moments today we can see this image of Mary holding Jesus and we can imagine it. We can let this painted piece of wood take our hearts and minds to that sacred scene.

 

Maybe for some people this feels like idolatry. I get that. This may not be everyone’s preferred way to worship and that’s OK. But we should remember that idols come in many forms. Merely avoiding sacred images won’t keep you from being an idolater. Anytime we place more focus on something we have done, rather than on what God has done, we are idolators. Anytime we give something that is not God the adoration and respect that belongs to God alone, we have become idolators.

 

An idol is something that draws you farther away from the true God, not something that draws you closer to him.

 

For me at least, this statue of Our Lady and Our Lord, much like this picture of my uncle, draws me closer to someone that I can’t see with my eyes right now, and for that reason it is sacred, no matter what it is made out of.

 

Now, if a painted piece of wood can help us see Jesus, if an inanimate object can draw us closer to Christ, what could real flesh and blood do? Sure, people can get a glimpse of Jesus and Mary when they look at this statue, but can they also see Mary or Jesus when they look at you? Does your life draw people closer to God? When people look at you do they see a glimpse of divine light burning in a dark world, or do they see something far more wooden?

 

Ground Zero

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Sermon for January 26th, 2020

Readings

 

It’s hard to imagine, but a couple thousand years from now people may read news stories or letters from the distant past and wonder: “what is this place Ground Zero which these people keep referring to?”

 

When we hear that name though, we know exactly what it is. And I say “what it is,” rather than “where it is,” because when we hear that name we think of more than just a geographical location, for us it is so much more than a dot on a map.

 

When we hear Ground Zero we don’t just think of the World Trade Center or a city block in lower Manhattan. We hear the name and are instantly reminded of something that happened there. We are reminded of death and destruction and horror. The images come flooding back, even some of the sensations. That horrible smell that filled the air; the missing person signs that papered the city; that sense of fear, of wondering “what’s next?” All of that comes rushing back to me when I hear the name “Ground Zero.”

 

There are some places in our world that see such horror that just saying their name conjures up painful emotions and images, even if we didn’t witness the horror personally. If I say the name “Auschwitz” or “Treblinka” or “Daccau” you don’t just think of places in Europe…dots on the map. You think of all of the horrors that we know happened there. Death, defeat, captivity, starvation, cruelty. There are other places whose names conjure up similar emotions: Pearl Harbor, Dunkirk, Verdun. Sadly, that list of names grows longer everyday:

 

Columbine, Newtown, The Pulse Nightclub.

 

So many place names become synonymous with the horrors witnessed in those places, that to say them out loud is a risky thing because you are evoking powerful, terrible emotions and memories in people. These names mean so much to us and evoke so much within us, that it is hard to imagine a day when someone might hear them and have no concept of what those places represent. But sadly, that day often comes. Our memory of history fades, and the horrors that our history contains fade away with it, until place names, just become place names again. If I went up to the average person on the street and mentioned Andersonville or Culloden or Carthage, how many would have any idea what I was talking about?

 

When you heard the first reading just a few moments ago, and heard Isaiah talk about the land of Zubulun and the land of Naphtali…did it stir up anything within you? Did you feel a surge of emotion when you heard Matthew repeat Isaiah’s words in the gospel reading?

 

No?

 

Well neither did I at first. They are just funny place names in the bible. I don’t have any emotional connection to them at all. So when I hear that Jesus is going to start his ministry in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali my first thought is: ok, whatever, who cares? Just one of those meaningless, tedious details that the Bible is full of right?

 

But then again, there is always the chance that I am missing something, so I dug a little deeper.

 

Who were Zebulun and Naphtali?

 

Well if you think way back to the book of Genesis, or if you try and remember the songs to the musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, you may recall that there was Abraham, then Isaac and then Jacob (Jacob and Sons!), there was Jacob who had twelve sons.

 

Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph and Benjamin.

 

Naphtali and Zebulun were two of Jacob’s sons and with their brothers they were founders of the twelve tribes of Israel. Well when the Children of Israel (or the descendants of Jacob) returned to the Promised Land after their exile in Egypt, each of these tribes settled in their own little territories, sort of like our counties. The Zebulun and Naphtali tribes settled in the North by the Sea of Galilee. Thus was established the Land of Zebulun and the Land of Naphtali.

 

Ancient history so why would Matthew care that Jesus started his ministry there?

 

Because in around 740 BC during the time of the prophet Isaiah, the Assyrian army, living to the North of the Kingdom of Israel invaded. There was war and destruction and death. The tribes that lived there, if they weren’t killed in battle, they were hauled off into captivity and lost. They disappeared. The Babylonian Captivity or Exile of the Jews is still pretty well know and talked about, but that was of the Southern Kingdom of Judah. The Assyrian Captivity of the Northern Kingdom has largely been forgotten, because no one came back. The people had just disappeared.

 

And Ground Zero for the Assyrian Captivity was the Land of Zebulun and the Land of Naphtali. That is where the Assyrian army invaded first. Those were the people whose lives were first destroyed by this terrible event. And those are the people that Isaiah is talking about when he talks about people walking in deep darkness. These were current events for Isaiah. And yet he had the faith and vision to say that those people walking in darkness, who are living under the rod of the oppressor, someday they are gonna see a light. And there will be no gloom for them anymore. This land that has been destroyed, someday it will be made glorious. That is what God is going to do for his people.

 

That is why Matthew thinks it’s significant that Jesus is starting his ministry there. This is the region and shadow of death. This is where death and destruction first reared its ugly head for the Kingdom of David, so this is the first place that this son of David is going to go to establish his new kingdom. Jesus isn’t going to Galilee because it’s a nice place to go fishing; Jesus is going to Galilee because the Land of Zebulun and the Land of Naphtali had been a hell on earth. The names Zebulun and Naphtali had become infamous symbols of suffering and death. When you said Zebulun and Naphtali, people thought of more than just a place on the map.

 

That is where God sends his son to teach, heal and proclaim the good news that God’s kingdom is a lot closer to them than they imagined.

 

It was in this land, a symbol in itself of how broken human kingdoms and human society can be, it was in this land whose name was a reminder of just how cruel and inhumane we humans can be to one another, it was in this land of pain, anguish and darkness, it was in this land that the light of the world walks up to a couple fishermen trying to mend their broken nets and says:

 

Hey, aren’t you tired of this yet? Aren’t you tired of living in a land of fear and death and darkness? Aren’t you tired of trying to mend a world that won’t seem to stay mended for long?

 

Wouldn’t you like to follow me and live differently and invite others to live as a part of this new Kingdom that God is building?

Maybe the fact that Jesus goes to the Land of Zebulun and the Land of Naphtali isn’t such an insignificant detail after all, because if I lived in the Land of Zebulun and Naphtali next to those fishermen Peter and Andrew and James and John, and someone made that offer to me, well…I almost might be persuaded to follow him.

 

Always there

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A reflection on my uncle,

Fred Sellers Ridley

September 30, 1958 – December 27, 2019

I can remember as a young child having to figure out what my relationship was to Freddy. I can remember learning that he was my uncle.

 

Uncle Hal and Uncle Tom both had “Uncle” in their names, so I knew what they were, but what was Fred?

 

Since he always lived at home with Grandma and Granddaddy, and since I was in their house almost as much as I was in my own, Freddy was just always there, so I think it’s understandable that I was a little confused if he was my uncle, an older brother, a cousin or some other relation.

I just knew that Freddy was Freddy. And Freddy was always there.

He was there whenever we spent the night at Grandma’s house. He was in his chair or in his room watching the “A” Team, or Dukes of Hazzard, or Hunter, or watching the Braves game or a Georgia Bulldogs game.

He was there the next morning too, taking us to Mr. Donut, or going to breakfast with the family at local diners like Fred and Ethel’s, where he knew the waitress.

Actually it didn’t matter what diner we went to, Fred always knew the waitress.

He was there on every family trip to Georgia. Fred adored his Georgia family, and was always ready to make a road trip to Georgia, even on the spur of the moment, and it didn’t bother him one bit to drive up turn around and come right back. Growing up, I remember that Fred had that black Chevy Blazer with the CB radio. And if you had the good fortune to get to ride with him on one of those road trips, you were in for a good time. First of all, he would crank the air way up to see if he could freeze you out, cause Fred always wanted his car nice and cold. And you knew that for Freddy, a handpainted sign on the side of the road that said “boiled peanuts” was just as good as a stop sign. And Fred wasn’t so polite as to not tell the person stirring the pot that their product was no good if they happened to be boiling the wrong type of peanuts.

Freddy was there to take you out into the woods or the backroads to teach you how to drive. He’d even let you drive on one of those Georgia trips, giving you pointers along the way.

He was there when you wanted to go out to the camp to go hunting or fishing.

He was there when you got stuck in the mud or the sugar sand; he probably helped you get stuck, but Freddy always had a friend that could come and get you unstuck. That’s how Freddy was: he was the sort of person that could get you into trouble and out of it at the same time. Fred wouldn’t get into your business, but if you needed help he was there. He might not know what to do or how to help you; he might give you good advice, he might give you bad advice, but he was there.

Freddy was there to take us to Disney or Universal, or the county fair or bowling or wherever just to have fun and cut up. Fred was a constant cut-up. He was always ready to have fun. Fred didn’t have kids of his own so all of us cousins got to be his kids. And we were blessed. We had an uncle that would teach us, love us, and antagonize us all at the same time. If you are a friend of this family looking in, I will let you in on a little secret: we tease and play jokes on each other relentlessly. It runs in our blood and it is one of the ways we show affection. And Fred was often the ringleader or the instigator in one of these jokes. If you are familiar with the cartoon character Foghorn Leghorn, then you have basically met every uncle I have, but especially Freddy, because he showed affection by taking you under his wing and involving you in his mischievous plan to prank Grandma (or whoever, but it was often Grandma).

Us cousins weren’t the only kids Fred had though. Let’s not forget his two amazing, farting bulldogs, both named Annie, and later on his cat Bubba. Fred was a lot like those bulldogs though: happy to play, happy to eat, happy to sit around and do nothing, and happy to torture you with the occasional bodily function. Fred was not someone that was easily embarrassed about such things. Everyone has gas, but not everyone knows how to laugh about it. Fred knew how to laugh about it. Fred was always there with a laugh or a joke.

And Fred was always there in his community. To ride around town in the car with Fred was a lesson in humanity and public relations. First of all, Fred knew everybody. It could be frustrating to go anywhere with him, because he knew everybody and had to stop and talk to everybody. Everybody mattered to Fred. And the things that the world tends to care about, things like money and formal education, didn’t impress Fred at all. He would talk to the richest man in town the same way he would talk to the poor man on the corner. That stuff didn’t matter to Fred. Fred was not ambitious and he didn’t need to impress you. He just wanted to love you. He wanted to love everybody. That’s who he was.

Freddy was not always in church; he was not a regular churchgoer, but I know he had faith, and it was a faith that he lived more than talked about. Fred’s Sunday morning worship was driving around town checking on everyone he loved, doing whatever he could for them; It’s not my idea of Church, but I think it was Fred’s. I think that Fred took the commandment to love seriously, but I also think that for whatever reason, God gave Freddy the grace to be, in his nature, a loving, selfless person.

Maybe it was so that we would know, in our lives, in this world, what simple, basic goodness looks like. And that’s what Fred was: simple, basic goodness.

You know, I know we all need Jesus for salvation and eternal life, and I know that on the last day, only Jesus can be our judge, but I also know that when it comes to day to day living, some of us seem to need him more than others. And I’ll speak for myself here, I need and pray for help everyday with things like forgiveness, or showing love, or thinking the best of people. When it comes to loving my neighbor as myself, I need a lot of help, but for Freddy that seemed to come so naturally. I envy that. He made it look effortless.

Grandma always referred to Fred as her miracle baby, because he almost died when he was a child, but the real miracle in Fred’s life is gathered in this room today. Look around. There are a lot of different people here today. Different backgrounds, different politics, different churches, but Fred was able to love us all. I think there is something miraculous in being able to be that loving. And there is something miraculous in Fred’s ability to be utterly selfless. Until I get to heaven and see Jesus face to face, I doubt that I will ever know in this world a more selfless person than Fred Ridley. I doubt any of you will either.

As a matter of fact, the only thing critical that I can really say of Fred, was that he could take care of everyone but himself. He just couldn’t take care of himself.

I think these last few years, since Grandma died, Fred has been a bit lost without having someone that needed him everyday. We all struggled with losing her, but for Fred it was particularly hard, because he was always there. The rest of us came and went, but Fred was always there.

Coming back this week, the thing that has been the most difficult for me, is that every time I turn around, I keep expecting him to be there. I know why I am here, but every time the door opens, I expect to hear his voice. I expect to look up and see him sitting at the table. I expect to walk into his house and see him sitting in his chair. I keep expecting Fred to be there because Fred was always there. I keep waiting to hear his laugh again. It’s Christmas time, and at Christmas growing up, Fred was always there and his laugh was always in the background. The morning that Freddy died the first thing that hit me like a knife in the heart, was the fleeting thought for a second, that I wouldn’t get to hear him laugh again. I want so much to hear that laugh again. I don’t just want to remember his laughter from Christmases past, I want to hear it again. I want him back.

And then I remembered that the reason any of those Christmases ever happened, the very thing that we were celebrating that brought us all together, was the birth of a child who gives me the hope of hearing Freddy’s laugh again. The joy of Christmas for me this year is knowing that because of the birth of this child named Jesus, I don’t have to talk about Freddy in the past tense. On days like today you realize that that is the best Christmas present you will ever get.

The last few days, my mind keeps going back to the last couple verses of one of my favorite Christmas Hymns, called “Once in Royal David’s City.” The last two lines go like this:

And our eyes at last shall see Him,

Through His own redeeming love;

For that child so dear and gentle,

Is our Lord in heaven above,

And He leads His children on,

To the place where He is gone.

 

Not in that poor lowly stable,

With the oxen standing by,

We shall see Him, but in heaven,

Set at God’s right hand on high;

When like stars

His children crowned,

All in white shall wait around.

 

That’s where Freddy is now. And now, Freddy is always there.

 

Merry Christmas Fred.

 

Hear the Angels Sing

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Sermon for Christmas Eve 2019

Readings

 

Before I being my sermon in earnest, first a little Sunday School lesson, or catechism:

 

Angels are a special order of God’s creation. They are spiritual beings that have no physical bodies, and that most of the time, are invisible to us.

 

They are not your deceased relatives. That is a popular misconception, but it’s not biblical or traditional.

 

Now your dead aunt Ethel may have been a wonderful person, she might have even been a saint, she may even have a front row seat before the throne of God, but that doesn’t make her an angel. We humans can become saints, and our souls may enter into heaven, but we don’t become angels. Angels were created differently than we humans were.

Angels are spiritual creatures that were created to serve God in heaven and on earth. They do this primarily in two ways: they either protect us or they deliver important messages to us.

 

I’m telling you this so that if and when you ever encounter an angel in your life, you will know what it is and what it’s up to. Because we do encounter them.

Thus endeth the lesson.

 

Tonight’s story, the entire Christmas story really, is filled with humans encountering angels.

 

In Luke’s gospel, before Jesus was born, the old priest Zechariah saw an angel in the temple of the Lord, that told him that his wife, who was barren, would give birth to a son that would be the prophet John the Baptist, the forerunner of the messiah.

 

And then a little later that same angel, Gabriel, was sent to a young girl in the city of Nazareth named Mary, and that angel told her that even though she had never been with a man, that she would bear a son by the Holy Spirit, and his name would be Jesus.

 

That girl’s intended husband, Joseph, understandably found her story hard to believe, he was going to quietly break off the wedding. Quietly, because he didn’t want Mary to be shamed or killed. But an angel came to Joseph in a dream and confirmed that Mary’s story was true.

 

And then, on the night that Mary’s child was born, an angel appeared to shepherd’s in the fields to announce this glorious birth and to point them to where it was happening: a simple stable. A cave right outside of town that was being used to shelter animals.

 

And then that angel was joined by other angels, the whole host of heaven, and they began singing this glorious song of praise: Glory be to God on high, and on earth peace, goodwill towards men. Gloria in excelsis deo.

 

You know those words. You have probably sung them countless times over these past few weeks. Those words are found in so many of our Christmas Hymns.  Angels we have heard on high, while shepherds watched their flocks by night, O come all ye faithful, so many of our Christmas Hymns allude to that angel song: Gloria in excelsis deo. Glory be to God on High.

 

You know those words that the angels are singing. Outside of the penitential church seasons of Lent and Advent, just about every mass begins with that song: Gloria in excelsis deo. When we come together for mass, to celebrate the life of Christ and all that that means, we usually begin with the angels’ song that announced his birth: Glory be to God on high. The joy of Christmas meets us all over again whenever we gather at this altar. Week in and week out we are reminded of an encounter some poor humans had with angels, and of the glorious news that they were given. God, your God, the messiah, the son of David, the king you have been waiting for, has been born among you.

 

The God of all creation has done the most miraculous thing: he has been born among you. He is here to save you from slavery to sin and death.

 

The angels’ song was about rejoicing in what God has done. The angels were fulfilling their role as God’s messengers. They were leading us to find God in our midst and teaching us how to rejoice in the amazing thing that God has done. The good news of Christmas is a message of hope about what God has done and is doing. It is not about what humans can do.

 

The angels weren’t singing about the glories of mankind. The message of Christmas was not: hey y’all just be nice to one another. And the angels definitely weren’t saying “if you just be good, God will give you a present.” The angels weren’t telling us how to save ourselves, they were singing a song about how God has saved us from ourselves.

 

Can you hear them singing?

Can you hear their message about the glorious thing our God has done?

 

It isn’t always easy.

 

One of our hymns later in this service is “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear.” It is an old and familiar hymn, but the problem with familiar hymns sometimes is that you may sing them without paying much attention to the words you are singing. Pay attention to it tonight. Pay attention to the image that hymn paints of the angels singing their song. Pay attention to the middle verses…the ones you may not hear on the radio, the ones you may not know so well.

 

Still through the cloven skies they come with peaceful wings unfurled,

And still their heavenly music floats o’er all the weary world;

Above its sad and lowly plains they bend on hovering wing,

And ever o’er its Babel-sounds the blessed angels sing.

 

Still through the cloven skies.

Still their heavenly music floats.

Ever O’er its Babel-sounds.

The blessed angels sing.

 

The angels that sang to those shepherds that night…they are still singing. They might have passed out of our sight, but their music still fills the air. The bible never says they stopped singing. They are still singing about the glorious thing God has done. They are still astonished at this miraculous birth.

 

Can you hear them singing?

Many people can’t.

 

Yet with the woes of sin and strife the world has suffered long;

Beneath the heavenly strain have rolled two thousand years of wrong;

And man at war with man hears not the tidings which they bring;

O hush the noise ye men of strife and hear the angels sing.

 

The angels are still singing. We’ve just stopped listening. We care more about our petty grievances and concerns than we do with the glorious thing that God has done. This isn’t something new. We have been ignoring the angels for two thousand years.

 

No sooner had the baby Jesus been born, then an angel had to warn Joseph that King Herod wanted him killed. Hatred and sin are not news in this world. But the glorious thing that God has done in the birth of this child, well that is news. Good news. It is something worth singing about. God is still sending his angels to bring you that news.

 

If you want to hear the angels, you must first learn to be silent. You must learn to hush the noise both on the inside and on the outside so that you may hear and receive the message that these heavenly creatures are proclaiming. Hear the message first; receive it. And then, maybe you will learn to sing along with them. We don’t become angels, but we can learn to sing with them.

 

For lo! The days are hastening on, by prophets seen of old,

When with the ever-circling years shall come the time foretold,

When peace shall over all the earth its ancient splendors fling,

And all the world give back the song which now the angels sing.

 

The angels are still singing.

Can you hear them singing?

Can you join your voices with theirs?