A United Methodist Pastor's Theological Reflections

"But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory (nikos) through our Lord Jesus Christ." - I Corinthians 15:57

Monday, December 31, 2012

Sermon by Rev. Cheryl Foulk (December 30) "One More Gift"

I gave my four year old grand daughter a gift on Tuesday,Christmas Day. I reminded her that we would see her again on Friday night. She asked me if I would give her another present when I saw her then!  I said that there would probably be one more gift...

Today we have “one more gift”  to add to those we have opened  during this Advent. Our nativity set reminds us of those gifts we have talked about: Mary with her sense of expectation;  Joseph with his trusting acceptance; the shepherds who found the gift of family; the innkeeper who gave the gift of himself; and the gift from God, Jesus, the world's hope. However, we are not quite finished with unwrapping presents.

This last gift has a fashion theme.  Speaking of fashion, have you noticed all the Christmas sweaters today in worship?  Some are quite unique. We do notice what people wear.  Sometimes we even become known for what we wear:  a bow tie, a hat, a certain kind of shoes. It becomes our trademark.

As followers of Christ,  we also have a trademark in our appearance. Paul writing  in his letter to the Colossians  provides us with a fashion tip.

We are “to put on”  or wear  compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, forgiveness.  And to complete the outfit, he suggests putting on love.  These seven words are connected because they all have to do with relationships. Compassion is seen in an attitude of caring with mercy.  Kindness is evident in the way we look or speak to another person. Humility is having a self-contentment of heart.  Gentleness is an appreciation for how fragile another soul may be.  Patience is revealed in a persistent openness. Forgiveness is not seeking revenge or pay back. Love is seeking the best for the other person and desiring what God would want for them.

These intentional attitudes and actions are as obvious as the clothes that we wear.

Single mom Kim Kerswell thought getting into  a fender-bender was the worst thing that could have happened to her this December. It turned out to be something quite different. Kim works at a Panera Bread  outside Boston . She  rear ended another car in the parking lot which belonged to Sherene Borr.

As the two women exchanged information,  the young mom told Sherene  that she was struggling to make ends meet, and raising two kids on her own. Sherene felt that   that there was genuine need here and she wanted to respond.  Surprisingly, she sent Kim a text later in the day which said she wanted to help give her family a Christmas!

Not only did  she forgive any damages to her car, Sherene with other friends  is making  sure that Kim is stocked with groceries, gift cards, and toys and clothes for her kids. Both hope that their friendship will continue after Christmas . It sounds as if Sherene was wearing the right outfit of clothes that day: compassion, kindness, forgiveness. She had  put on all that was needed and had tied it up with love. 

Who is well dressed in God's eyes? What is your style?  To relate to other folks with love, to recognize them as children of God with their own dignity, to see them as worthy of our time and  actions  is quite a spiritual fashion statement. This wardrobe does not come naturally. We are  prone to be self-centered, distant, critical, and impatient.

Consciously we have to decide each day how we are going to treat each other. Allow God to pick out what we are wearing. In everyday encounters, we can be  signs of God's love in this world.

Nell Mohney is a motivational speaker, and writer. She was the author of the Upper Room Advent booklet we used here some years ago. In this  Advent collection  she wrote of experiencing the power of God's love through her family. When she was a  junior in high school, she had a Christmas season  job downtown and would window shop as she went to work. In the window of a dress shop was the most beautiful green coat she had ever seen and  she wanted that coat more than anything. One day she even tried it on and it just fit. The price tag was over the top. She shared about the  coat at home but with the family's tight  finances it was not going to be a reality. Each one understood that Christmas would be limited that year.
 On Christmas Eve when she passed by the store,the coat  was gone. She asked inside and was told  that it had been sold. She prayed that whoever got it would love it as much as she had. Her family had a subdued  opening of presents on Christmas morning. It became apparent that there was one more gift under the tree, and it was for Nell. Opening the box, Nell discovered  the  green coat! 

She found out later that her mother had sold her watch and others in the family had agreed to cheaper  gifts  in order that she could have this coat. She wore the coat for many years. It represented such sacrificial love from her  family. When she wore it, she felt wrapped in her mother's love and in a greater sense, by God's love that was hard to comprehend. Her soul was nourished for life by  that love.
Love is a frequent verb in the Scriptures. We are to love God, we are to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, we are even to love our enemies.  We are to treat others  as we would like to be treated ourselves. Paul considers love as the greatest action over any other gift.

At the end of the Gospel of John,  we have the story of Peter, Jesus' disciple,  being  questioned about his love by Jesus. He answered”Lord, you know I love you.  Jesus said “Make it visible by feeding my sheep.  Take care of  one of my children , may they realize my love through you.”

When we are in the midst of irritating situations with difficult people, perhaps this is where God is provoking us into seeing  how much more we need to grow in our love for one another ! In those moments where our patience is stretched and our kindness runs out, it becomes apparent that we need God to refresh  the wardrobe of our hearts, to give us a makeover.  God has been so generous with love. What are we doing with the love God gave us?

A man was reminiscing about his childhood. He said: “The saddest words I remember from  holidays came in my grandparents living room- when all the presents were unwrapped, the cleanup nearly done and my dad tapped me on the shoulder to say” Son, let's go; Christmas is over” .

However, he said, we know that isn't true.  We know better. Christ came to be with us, to “abide with us.” , to be Emmanuel.   After all the presents and the food, when we are back in the routine, (at work ,at school) when life is back to normal, Christ is with us.

Christ is here filling us, guiding us, “dressing us”,empowering us to express the message of Christmas every day of the year.  With each encounter with another person, his love can be visible. Christmas is not over.

So I guess we have one more present to open and need to see what is in the box!  

(Present is opened to reveal a Christmas sweater. On the back is the word “Love”.)

Love may sometimes feels like it is the wrong size, scratchy, or not appropriate, or even embarrassing, out of place,but it is our trademark.

Listen to the reading from Colossians once again:

From The Message: Every item of your new way of life is custom made by the Creator. With his label on it. All the old fashions are obsolete.  So chosen by God for this new life of love, dress in the wardrobe God picked out for you: compassion, kindness, humility, quiet strength, discipline. Forgive as quickly and completely as the Master forgave you. And regardless of what else you put on, wear love. It's your basic, all purpose garment. Never be without it.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Sunday Worship Preview - December 30

Sunday, December 30 - (9:00 & 10:30 Services, Corner of Wheeling & High Streets) & Wednesday, January 2 (6:30 P.M. Casual Service @ Crossroads, 2095 Fair Avenue)

Sermon - "One More Gift"

Features - 1st Sunday After Christmas Day, Christmas Sweater Sunday, & Holy Baptism (9:00 am)

Scripture - Colossians 3:12-15 & Luke 2:41-52

Theme - During the season of Advent and Christmas Eve, our church has been opening a Christmas gift each week.  What Christmas gift is left for us to open on this first Sunday after Christmas Day?

Happy Anniversary, United Methodist Church & Merry Christmas!

Christmas Eve marks the anniversary of the formation of what is now know as the United Methodist Church. Below is an historical summary of the historic Christmas Eve conference held in Baltimore, MD in 1784.  A member of my church gave me a beautiful ceramic of the original Lovely Lane Meeting House where the conference was held.  Merry Christmas and Happy Anniversary, United Methodist Church!

The Original Lovely Lane Meeting House was built in 1774. Ten years later, the Methodist Societies hosted the famous Christmas Conference at Lovely Lane Meeting House, where a new denomination was born: the Methodist Episcopal Church.

John Wesley had reluctantly agreed to the American Methodists’ desire to organize their own church. He sent Thomas Coke to supervise the process and to consecrate Francis Asbury as “general superintendent” of the Methodists in America. When Coke and Asbury met at Barrats Chapel in November 1784, Asbury refused the appointment unless the preachers elected him. The meeting was scheduled for the next month, December, at Lovely Lane Meeting House in Baltimore.

Freeborn Garrettson was sent “like an arrow,” in Coke’s words, to contact as many preachers as possible to meet in Baltimore. Garrettson recorded in his journal: “My dear Master enabled me to ride about twelve hundred miles in about six weeks; and preach going and coming constantly. The conference began on Christmas day.” More than sixty preachers (and numerous visitors) responded to Garrettson’s call.

Friday, December 24, 1784: …” It was agreed to form ourselves into an Episcopal Church, and to have superintendents, elders, and deacons. When the conference was seated, Dr. Coke and myself were unanimously elected to the superintendency of the Church, and my ordination followed …We spent the whole week in conference, debating freely, and determining all things by a majority of votes… We were in great haste, and did much business in a little time.” Francis Asbury, Journal.

Besides organizing a church and approving Asbury and Coke as their leaders, the members elected twelve preachers as “elders,” Wesley’s suggested term for fully ordained clergy. The conference also formally adopted The Sunday Service, Wesley’s abridgement of the English Book of Common Prayer, as the new church’s liturgical guide.

In 1786, the Lovely Lane congregation relocated to nearby Light Street, and the original site was later occupied by the Merchants Club, whose building now houses the Baltimore International College (now 206 E. Redwood St.).

Today the Lovely Lane name is kept alive by the continuing congregation, formerly First Methodist Church, and now again Lovely Lane United Methodist Church.

NOTE: This article can be found at http://lovelylane.net/home/history/

Friday, December 21, 2012

Hoping for the End of the World...

A friend of mine in the church offers this very insightful take on today's "end of the world" prediction:
Here we are on December 21 and so far the prediction of the end of the world doesn’t seem to be accurate. I hope they are right about the end of the world if they meant this:
1. The end of a world where grieving parents thank those who mourn their murdered children
2. The end of a world where people with mental illness can’t find the help they need to function
3. The end of a world where political preferences become rigid dogmas that destroy relationships and the hope of compromise
4. The end of a world where people stop seeing the suffering around them and ignore those in need
5. The end of a world where families are fractured by addiction, violence and hate
6. The end of a world where faith is a scaual and inactive part of our everyday lives
7. The end a world where despair covers hope in darkness an the end of a world where we forget that Christmas is a day to rededicate ourselves to living our lives in such a way that a new world of hope, love, forgiveness and constant striving to build a world of justice and peace is our focus.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Dave's Deep Thoughts - What Santa Really Wants to Say

Here's Pastor Dave McDowell's weekly devotional that he sends out to members of his church. Dave is my brother and serves as the Music Minister at Stewartstown UMC in PA.
What if he does check the list?
What if he really does checks it twice????
some friends of mine
shared with me a Christmas tradition from their household.
Each Christmas,
the children would write letters to Santa.
Nothing too unusual there.
It would seem
that Santa not only had time to bring gifts to each household on planet Earth,
but he had time to write responses back.
Here are some letters to and from Santa that I read
and my interpretations as
I read between the lines.
Dear Santa,
We have been very good this year.
I have a present for you.
My brother likes you.
My sister wants a cupcake doll.
Mom wants peace and love.
Dad wants happiness.
The cookies and milk are for you.
The carrot is for Rudolph.
The pan of water is for all the reindeer
Love, the oldest child
My translation........
Dear Santa,
Being the oldest sister, I am not like my younger sister,
who wants things. I am a giver.
As for my brother, I believe he is psychologically wired
to give affection only based upon what he receives in return.
Mom needs a trip to the spa.
Dad really needs to take a long golfing trip without the kids.
Rudolph is our favorite reindeer so who cares what the others have to eat.
Dear Santa,
Please enjoy the cookies and cider we put out for you.
How are you? Have the elves got the sniffles yet?
I know I have a cough.
Are we the first or second half of the world you are covering?
We think we have been good but we might have acted bad
but you probably think we have been good though,...
My translation.......
More high calorie snacks for you.
This won't help your probably already high triglyceride levels.
If you haven't gotten sick yet, you are screwed
because I have a major cold and am highly contagious.
I just wondered if we receive the best gifts
or just get what's leftover.
As for our behavior this year,
who are we kidding....
A response from Santa.....
Dear children,
I know that all of you have been very good this past year.
I was surprised to see that you have a new puppy this year,
She was very friendly after I gave her a chew treat.
Your other pets really look well cared for.
I was pleased to see such clean cages
(except for the fish aquarium which looked a little dirty)
Try to do your best in school this year.
Oh, I almost forgot. I understand that sometimes you have a hard time
hearing your Mom and Dad so I left a few Q-tips for cleaning out your ears.
See you next year,
Santa Claus.
My translation.....
Why didn't you tell me about the new dog?
She almost bit my leg off before I diverted her attention
by throwing her a piece of raw steak.
Unless that aquarium gets some attention,
I am going to tell your parents to boycott your birthday gifts.
Let's hit the school books a little harder, okay?
Oh, and regarding your inability to hear,
you aren't fooling anyone.
Another Santa response......
Dear children,
You are three of my favorite children in the whole world.
I have received no calls to check up on your household this year.
Oldest sister,
please try and be patient as you can with your younger sister.
She really looks up to her older sister.
I heard that you like hockey, which is one of my favorite sports
up here in the North Pole.
Younger sister,
I really liked your Christmas Bear you were sleeping with tonight.
I have one just like it.
See you next year!
Santa Claus
My translation......
Hey, the three of you.
You need to know that your parents will narc on you
if you don't behave.
Oldest sister, I know the youngest cries all the time.
Deal with it.
I guess you wanted a hockey stick. Sorry, All I had left was a basketball.
Youngest sister,
you need to know that I was in your room while you were sleeping.
Don't bother with a home security system.
I'll still get in next year.
Santa Claus
And one final letter from the oldest child.........
Dear Santa Claus,
I wish I new (sic) what you looked like. This is my list of what I want.
I want a brown dog like my pink one.
Santa, I have a question.
Could you put my presents in my room?
Here are directions.
Go up the stairs. When you get to the top
you should see a room with pink carpet. Go past that one and you
should see a room with orange carpet. Go into that room and you should
see my Christmas tree.
Oh about my list,
I want it to snow.

My translation.......
Dear Santa,
Do you really wear that red jump suit?
I think you would look better in fuchsia.
When my dog got skunked this year,
I bathed him in tomato juice to help get rid of the stench.
All that did was make him pink.
Please get me a new, non-stench dog.
I plan on playing with my toys without my irritating siblings.
Please bring all gifts directly to my room.
Here is how you get there...........
Oh, my wish list now includes meteorological demands.
Let's get this snow thing going....
My guess as to Santa's response to the last letter....
Dear little girl,
no need for directions to your room.
I have staked out the house and am quite aware of where you all sleep
(see next to last letter........)
That should keep you awake at night.
We all have our wish lists.
The reality is that for most people
prayer life is often more like a child's letter to Santa
than a beloved child's conversation with their heavenly Father.
What if prayer came down to finding out who is naughty or nice?
Who among us would pass that test ??
(See Isaiah 64:6 or Romans 3:10)
What if our prayers were only for ourselves or those whom we love?
How close would we be to seeing things the way God sees them?
(See Matt 6:13)
What if prayer came down to the things that we want?
How close to the heart of God would it be?
(See Mark14:36)
What if we prayed for His will to be done,
in our thoughts???
in our actions???
(Matt 6:10)
What if as we hold our candles
and sing Silent Night,
we see our loving Father
who wants nothing but the best for us,
and that the best for us is simply to more fully know His heart?

How different would things be?
Your Christmas may or may not be white......
it certainly wasn't snowing in Bethlehem.
It may or may not be merry......
there was very little that was merry about
the Holy family escaping the region before Herod's raging.
My hope for us all this Christmas,
is that our hearts indeed prepare Him more room than ever before.
and in doing so,
we give up on naughty or nice,
and instead embrace his holiness.
How silently, how silently
the wondrous gift is given;
so God imparts to human hearts
the blessings of His heaven.
No ear may hear His coming
but in this world of sin,
where meek so will receive Him,
still the dear Christ enters in.
O Little Town of Bethlehem verse 2
words by Phillip Brooks

a special thanks to my dear friends for giving me permission to share their letters
and to offer my interpretations

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Holiday Message (December 19) - Lancaster Kiwanis

     Thank you for the great lunch and for inviting me to be with you today. 
     I was asked to share a holiday message today which creates a bit of a dilemma for me. We preachers feel the pressure to offer our very best sermons on Christmas Eve and so I really need to save my best stuff for then. 
     Christmas is a huge deal in our culture.  Great crowds of people come to church on Christmas Eve.  Christmas Eve is when a lot of unchurched people seek out a church.  We have to set up several rows of chairs in a room next to our sanctuary to accommodate the large crowds.
     At our 11 o’clock Christmas Eve service a couple of years ago, I stood up to welcome everybody.  And in the middle of my welcome, I was taken aback by a stray dog that had somehow entered our sanctuary and was coming down one of our center aisles.
     It was one of those moments when you question if you are really seeing what you are seeing.  But sure enough, it was a dog loose in our sanctuary.  The dog decided to stop at one of the pews and was enamored by one of our worshippers.  A kind hearted church member decided to grab the dog by its collar and take it back outside. But it got loose again and came down a different aisle.
     Eventually, we helped the dog to find its owner here in the neighborhood.  That Christmas Eve, we had a total of 1,402 people in worship; 1,403 if you count the dog which of course I did.
     Christmas is a huge deal in our culture.  I read an article by the National Retail Federation that forecasts that the US will spend over 586 billion dollars this holiday season.  They have also predicted that up to 625,000 temporary workers will be hired to meet the demands of this holiday season.
     Sociologist and activist, Tony Campolo critiques our fascination with Christmas and the holiday season by saying, “It’s all about producing more stuff. We buy and buy.  At Christmas, we buy things nobody needs for people who already have everything.”
     Christmas is getting to the point where it is less about the true meaning of the season and more about the retail dollars that are needed to maintain a certain economic level.  Has Christmas become too big?
     It wasn’t always this way.  I’d like to offer a brief historical sketch of Christmas to help us keep this holiday season in perspective.
     I recently came across a book by Dr. Bruce Forbes entitled, “Christmas: A Candid History.”  Dr. Forbes is a professor at Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa. He’s also an ordained United Methodist pastor.  He offers a big picture of how the celebration of Christmas has evolved over the centuries.
     In his book, Dr. Forbes reminds us that the way we approach the holidays today with spending and decorations on every street corner is a far cry from its humble beginnings. From a religious perspective, it may be surprising to note that the church did not even celebrate Christmas for the first two hundred years after the time of Christ. It wasn’t until the 4th century, that Christians began celebrating Christmas on an annual basis.
     Jumping ahead several centuries to the time of the Puritans in England, the celebration of Christmas even becomes illegal because of the Puritans’ concern that the church was missing its true meaning.  Not celebrating Christmas was strictly enforced to the point where town criers would go around in England on Christmas Eve shouting, “No Christmas! No Christmas!” 
     The Puritans downplayed Christmas for about a 150 year period.  There are some historians who have scoured through the London Times between 1790 and 1835 to look for any references to Christmas and to their surprise, they discovered that over half of those years had zero references to Christmas.  This just goes to show how Christmas wasn’t seen as that special of a day in that long time span.
     Many of our early colonists here in the New World didn’t make a big deal about Christmas since the culture of that period had been influenced by the Puritans.  It’s hard to imagine a time in our country when schools and businesses were all open on Christmas day. It was business as usual for early colonial America on Christmas day.
     I think of my own Methodist history.  Since the Methodist denomination came out of England many of the early Methodists deemphasized Christmas as well.  John Wesley, the founder of Methodism was an Anglican Priest in England.  He preached over 40,000 sermons and not one of those sermons was a Christmas sermon.  In contrast, this Christmas Eve will mark my 26th Christmas sermon.
     One of the reasons the Puritans were against the celebration of Christmas was because Christmas had become increasingly associated with parties than with the birth of Christ. I’ve been wondering what the Puritans would think of how we celebrate Christmas today.  I’m trying to picture a group of Puritans walking through River Valley Mall or shopping at Target or eating at the Cheesecake Factory in Easton.  I just can’t get that image in my mind.
     It wasn’t until the mid1800s, that Christmas began to become the popular holiday that it is today.  This was due to the Victorian Age which brought us the tradition of the Christmas tree. Around the same time, Charles Dickens, “A Christmas Carol” was becoming very popular and the reading of the Night Before Christmas gave St. Nicholas a modern day makeover that remains with us to this day.
     From the middle of the 19th century on, there has been a rapid fascination with a feel good Christmas spirit and the whole Santa Clause gift giving frenzy.  Just listen to this long list of how Christmas has taken off over the past 150 years.
·       1843 – First Christmas cards printed in London.
·       1872 – First carving & painting of soldier nutcrackers.
·       1879 – Department stores begin setting up Santa workshop displays.
·       1882 – First electric Christmas lights are sold.
·       1920 – Candy canes begin to be packaged and sold.
·       1924 – For the first time, Santa rides on the last float of the Macy’s Parade.
·       1930s – Kids start leaving milk & cookies for Santa on Christmas Eve.
·       1939 – Santa’s 9th reindeer, Rudolph is added to the Santa’s team.
·       1950s – We began tracking & reporting on Santa’s flight patterns & we began buying first non-green artificial Christmas trees.
·       1994 – First Christmas e-cards are delivered thanks to the computer.
·       Last Decade – Demand for Christmas fad toys reached new heights.
     Christmas and the holiday season have become a huge industry and it doesn’t seem to be slowing down any time soon.  The truth is that there’s always been the commercial component of Christmas as far back as the mid 1800s.
     Or we could go back to the Puritan days and make the celebration of Christmas illegal but that would probably create another huge fiscal cliff for our economy to overcome. And personally, for the most part, I don’t mind the festivities and build-up of the holiday season.  These celebrations are a way to for us to offset the shorter days and the colder temperatures.
     But here’s what I think we can do in keeping with the spirit of this season. We can offer our gifts and words of hope to the people of our community.  And I want to thank this organization for all of the many good things you are doing and for being a light of hope in our community.
     The commercialization of the holiday season may be with us to stay, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t live out the spirit of Christmas.
     For the past two and a half years, people in our church and from the community gather at our church’s Crossroads facility on W. Fair Avenue from 8:30 am to noon on the second Saturday of each month.  Our mission is simple.  We want to be a blessing in our community. We call this our Second Saturday outreach ministry.
     We have painted several of the city’s fire hydrants, painted over graffiti on bridges, serve as volunteers for charity events, helped with house repairs, laid new flooring at Foundation Dinners, given away quarters to people at the Laundromat, helped residents at a nursing home play bingo and chair volleyball, taken bags of fruit and cookies to first time responders and to people who are shut-in, raked people’s yards, helped with the Habitat for Humanity resale store, made warm blankets for nursing home and hospice patients, helped build a tree house for the students at Forrest Rose, along with some other projects just to give you an idea of what Second Saturday is all about.
     A couple of weeks ago, we had fun assembling and wrapping Christmas presents for several needy families in our community.  I am terrible at gift wrapping and even I ended up wrapping several gifts that passed inspection.
     One of the people we helped for Christmas is a man in his 50s who shared this note with us.  Here’s what he wrote:
     “I receive disability and both kids live with me right now.  Me and my wife separated a year ago and in February, we learned that our son who was 5 at the time was being sexually abused by a cousin.
     My wife had a mental breakdown and had to stay in a hospital for a while and we both agreed that it would be best for the kids to live with me but while my wife was in and of the hospitals, me and the kids were homeless and we stayed in a shelter for a couple of months and recently received help to get me and my kids into an apartment.
     From April to July, me and the kids have lived in a tent, took baths in creek water, cook food over an open fire. Community Action helped us get into an apartment.
     In September, I had a heart attack and found out I have a big blood clot in my heart.  They say I have not got much time so I hope that this Christmas will be a good one for me and the kids. The kids and I don’t have much but at least we have a home thanks to people who have helped us.”
     I recently called this dad to let him know that I received his letter and that our church was glad to help them for Christmas. I offered him words of support and shared in a prayer with him, reminding him that God was with him and that God loved him.
     Has Christmas become too big in our culture?  Probably.  Has it become too commercialized? No doubt. But this time of year also seems to bring out the best in us. 
·     It will even get us out of bed on an early Saturday morning to deliver Christmas presents to a dying man and his young children,
·       split wood out in the cold rain so that a disabled veteran can heat his home this winter,
·       make blankets for people nearing the end of their lives,
·       and take bags of fruit and cookies to the homebound.
     Thank you for having me today. Merry Christmas!

An E-mail Response to Questions about Connecticut Tragedy & Our Faith

Here is my e-mail response to someone who has questions about dealing with fear in light of the Connecticut shootings.  In hindsight, I could have included more about the role of many of the Psalms in helping us to express our fears and longings which are important Season of Advent themes.  My response below wasn't meant to be "thee answer" but to emphasize how our Christian faith relates to the presence of evil and suffering in our world.

Thank you for reaching out for spiritual support. Like you, I have been deeply saddened over the terrible tragedy in Connecticut. We have been reminded of our vulnerability and our need to trust in God daily even in the midst of chaos and violence.
The overall theme/story of the bible is that even though evil is real, God will one day restore creation and make it new like it was always meant to be. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus give us a glimpse of the resurrection that one day awaits all of God's people and even creation itself. The ending chapter of the Book of Revelation speaks of heaven descending upon earth when there will be new heavens and a new earth. We at least know how the story ends.
In the meantime, we long for this to be fulfilled in the here and now. Through the Holy Spirit, we are called to offer God's healing love to all people and in all places. And when we have unanswered questions or become afraid, we encourage each other with the good news of our faith. Even with all of the evil that is in the world, there is still much that is good and so much beauty and love.
I hope this is helpful and invite you to join us for worship as this helps us to be open to God's presence in our midst.
May God bless you and your family during this difficult time and may the hope of Christmas bring you great joy.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Sermon (January 6) "Skipping Into the New Year"

     I grew up on a farm in southeastern, Pennsylvania.  I dreaded it whenever it was late at night and dad would ask me to go to the barn and check on something.  Off I went, just hoping that I would make it back safe and sound!
     After I accomplished whatever chore needed to get done, and believe me, I did it very quickly I would run as fast as I could back to the house.  It’s amazing how fast you can run when you’re afraid!
     We live in a world that is filled with fear.  Some people like to use fear to get you to think like they think or to do what they want you to do because they know that fear is an effective tool.  This is why bullying is a huge problem in our schools.  Ironically, people choose to be bullies because they are the ones who are afraid.  They’re afraid of people who are different from them and so they act out of their fear.
     Bullying isn’t confined to young people.  There are adults who are bullies.  There are adults who use verbal threats and shouting matches to get their way because they are afraid of losing control and power.
     Often times, we don’t know how afraid we are until we are put into crisis situations.  They reveal what’s inside of us. 
     It’s been a little over three weeks now, but we are still grief stricken and saddened over the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut.  During one of the news shows, they interviewed the adult daughter of the Principal of the school, Dawn Lafferty Hochsprung who was killed while trying to stop the shooter.
     The daughter said that it didn’t surprise her that her mom put her life in danger to protect her school. Here is what she said:
     “She faced every single problem that she ever had in her life head on.  My cousin referred to her as a bull yesterday. There’s no stopping Dawn when she has a mission.  She gets it done, and she gives it everything she has.”
     This daughter than shared this note that her mom had written for her which she shared during the interview.  The note read:
     “My dearest Erica, you are and forever will be my sweet baby girl.  You possess a piece of my heart and soul, and I will never be complete without you.  Remember this in your darkest times…you are never alone. Your Mom.”
     I remember watching a news story about a burglar who broke into a home.  A young child was the only one in the house at the time and he calmly called 911.  He didn’t let fear overcome him and he was able to stay focused.
     It’s not easy to stay calm in a world that is filled with fear.  As we enter into a new year, we might be experiencing some anxiety and fear.  We don’t know what the future holds.  We wonder if we’ll be able to handle the challenges that will come our way this year.
     Today is Epiphany Sunday, the 12th day of Christmas.  Epiphany is a very hope-filled day on our church calendar because it focuses on Jesus who is the light of the world.  It was a shining star that led the wise men from afar to find the Christ Child.
     The gospel writer, John begins his gospel by referring to the light that has come into the world.  “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”  The reason I was scared for my life every time I went out to the barn late at night was because of the darkness.
     If you walk through the Carlsbad Caverns National Park, you enter through a very narrow, short corridor where the park ranger will have you stand still and then all of the lights are shut off.  It is so dark in that moment that you can’t see your hands even if they are right in front of your eyes.
     The ranger will then flick on a very powerful flashlight.  The light from that beam literally overcomes the darkness.  This is the image that the gospel writer is using in introducing Jesus Christ to us.  It’s like John is saying, “Look, I know the darkness of life is very real.  I know that the world can be a scary place.  I know that there are times when it seems like there is nothing but darkness in front of us.  But here’s the good news. There is a light that can overcome any darkness that might come your way.  And that light is Jesus Christ.
     John is using Genesis and creation of the world language to emphasize that Jesus is the light of the world.  Just as God created light at the beginning of creation, God has sent Jesus to be the light of the world.  What a powerful image for us to keep in mind as we begin this New Year together.
     Jesus is the light of the world.  And the reason that Jesus is the light of the world is because John tells us that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.  In other words, in the person of Jesus Christ, God has moved next door to us.  God is that close to us.  This is the good news of Christmas.  This is the good news of Epiphany.  “The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”
     Many times, I am reminded of this good news of our faith during my weekly pastoral visits.  I was visiting a member of our church who was in the hospital.  He was in the room all alone, lying flat on his back.  During my visit with him, he became teary eyed as he shared, “You don’t know how much it means to me that different people from the church have been stopping by to offer a scripture verse and to prayer for me.  It reminds me that I’m not alone.” 
     I was visiting one of our members who recently moved into a nursing home.  It hadn’t been that long ago that I officiated at her husband’s funeral, her husband of seventy-three years. As I was visiting with her, I couldn’t help but to think about all of the major changes that were going on in her life. 
     It was just her living in this room toward the very end of one of the nursing home wings.  She said that it’s quiet back in that corner of the building and she has a lot of time to think and pray.  During my hour long visit, she said something that has stuck with me.  And she said it at least three different times during our conversation.  After she said how she misses her husband and the home where they had lived for so many years, an unexpected smile came to her face and she said, “But I know that I’m not alone.  God is with me.”
     Those words stayed with me the rest of the day and I often think of them whenever I am facing fear and uncertainty.  “But I know that I’m not alone.  God is with me.”  Would you repeat that with me?  “But I know that I’m not alone.  God is with me.”
     “The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”
     A couple of years ago, a pastor was visiting a church on the first Sunday of the New Year.  They were celebrating Holy Communion that Sunday, like we are today.  This pastor and his wife were sitting in one of the front pews that Sunday morning which meant that they were one of the first to receive the Sacrament.
     After they received the bread and the cup, they returned to their pew.  This pastor was sitting there listening to the beautiful music and reflecting on the meaning of the Sacrament and God’s love when he noticed a young family that was just kneeling at the chancel railing. 
     The two little girls, probably around five and seven years old, enthusiastically received the Sacrament in such a joyful way that this scene made him smile with delight.  After this family received communion, they stood up and began to walk back the center aisle to their seats. The girls walked on either side of the father while holding his hand. 
     The five year old on the dad’s left broke into a huge smile and she started skipping back to the pew.  The joy of being in worship and receiving the Sacrament overwhelmed her and she responded by skipping.  As this pastor watched this scene, he said a little prayer for himself and everyone in that sanctuary to have that same kind of joy in their faith as this little five year old girl.
     I think this pastor’s experience can become a symbol for our faith.  Like the little girl that day, let’s skip into this New Year.  Let’s receive the bread and the cup with joy.  Let’s take the hand of Jesus and skip with great delight.  Let’s skip into the darkness, knowing that Jesus is the light of the world.  Let’s skip into the unknown, knowing that “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”
     Let’s skip into the New Year, knowing that we are not alone.  God is with us.  Let’s skip into the New Year, because Jesus will overcome any darkness we may face.  Let’s skip into the New Year because the light that led the Wise Men to Bethlehem is the same light that leads us to Christ.
     Let’s skip into the New Year because with Christ, there is nothing to fear.