I just Kant help Myself

1 Peter 2:19-25

19For it is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly. 20If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, what credit is that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval. 21For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.
22   “He committed no sin,
and no deceit was found in his mouth.”
23When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. 24He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. 25For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.

John 10:1-10

1“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. 2The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” 6Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.

7So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. 9I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. 10The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

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This guy’s out of Kant-rol……

Recently my husband and were driving in the car and we had the rare chance to enjoy one of those adult conversations that have become so rare for us lately.  We didn’t talk about our kids, or our schedules, or who is making what for dinner, or who needs to clean what when.

So you may be wondering–What did we talk about?

We spent an hour talking about Kant’s categorical imperative.

Of course, you are saying to yourself! The Categorical Imperative! I’m sure you and your partner discussed the Categorical Imperative at length last summer over mimosas in the garden! Your toddler reminds you of the Kant’s analytical thought all.the.time.  Right?

Of course, there may be a few of you who haven’t found yourself wading into German Philosophical Waters recently, so let me explain.  First of all, who the heck is Kant?  Well, Kant was an 18th Century philosopher.  As a young man, he wasn’t all that remarkable.  In fact, he was darn ordinary.

Until the Categorical Imperative.

His thinking on this subject launched him from relative obscurity to mega-star status–he was the Bruce Springsteen (for all you PA-NJ types), the Michael Jackson (for the rest of us) of his time. And he had a heck of a lot to say about moral action, where it comes from, and how we know what it is.

His Categorical Imperative can be summarized as the following:

The idea that things that are right are right in themselves, what is wrong is wrong. That these are things that are able to be discovered through reason alone.

But how do you know if something is “right in itself?” Kant proposes three conditions, all of which must be satisfied in order for a decision to satisfy his categorical imperative:

1) all actions must be universal. You should only act if it makes sense for you to will everyone to act in the same way. Your will must be consistent. (thy will shalt make sense)

2) every human must be treated as an end rather than a means to an end. In other words, manipulation is always wrong.

3) We have a responsibility to be a moral agent: We are ALWAYS setting an example for other people. Always behave as though you are the moral authority of the universe.

 

Wait a second.

This sounds an awful lot like something we heard in our scriptures earlier this morning.  What was it that Peter said?

But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval.

In other words, doing what is right is more important than being comfortable. It is, pardon the pun, categorically imperative.

Which is why it MUST, according to Kant (and Jesus), come from within.
Remember that first condition of Kant? That our actions must be universal? That means that our actions should be consistent with the kind of world where you think everyone should act the way you are choosing to act in that moment. Whenever you have a choice before you, ask yourself : what would the world be like if everyone were to act this way? And then do what seems best for the world. That is an act of good will.

For Peter, an act of good will is to follow Jesus, to do what Jesus did, even if it threatens your own safety and well-being. Because it is right. And that, to Peter, makes sense.

Consider the following example: I have always felt personally uncomfortable in the presence of the suffering of another person. When my son got stitches on his lip after falling off a chair, my stomach was in knots at the Emergency Room. Whenever I encounter someone begging on the side of the road, or struggling with a particularly heavy burden, I am tempted to look away.

So I ask myself: would the world be a better place if it were morally acceptable to avoid the suffering of other people?  If we were not morally obligated to bear witness, would the world be a better place?

I wonder.

Which is precisely where our second condition from Kant. Because it isn’t enough just to be consistent. Our choices also must respect the dignity of other people. Kant’s second maxim for discerning what is right is that you may not manipulate another person or treat them as a means to an end. Which is another way of saying that your choices, your decisions, your moral code must not take advantage of another person, or forget their inherent worthiness.

That means we can’t go around ignoring inconvenient people, and we also cannot go around imposing our will on others just because we think it is good for them (or for us). Which, incidentally, we do all the time at church.

If this isn’t sounding utterly insane to you, let me put it another way: if we are to take Jesus and Kant at their word, then logically it follows that we need to stop teaching people “because I said so” kind of rules, and instead create the kinds of opportunities that lead people to impose these rules, our moral framework, upon themselves. Under this framework, the good will of the Christian Community should be to create opportunities for individuals to take Christ’s yoke upon them. The last thing we should be doing is throwing up barricades and boundaries on the behalf of others. Once we do that, we have ceased to do God.

To be a little more Gospel, you cannot put down the nets and follow Jesus for anyone else. You can only do it for yourself. You cannot choose to suffer for anyone else; only they can make that choice.

Kant’s second maxim: you can’t manipulate someone—everyone deserves to be treated as an end rather than a means to an end.

Or, in the words of our Gospel today: you cannot make someone be a sheep. A sheep chooses to obey the master. Trust me, as someone who raised sheep herself—you can’t make a sheep do something she doesn’t wanna do. You will NEVER gain the trust of that sheep through force, threats of violence, or coercion. The sheep must choose for itself. When the sheep has the freedom to choose, only then is it capable of good will.

If we want more sheep in the pasture—well, then, we need to act like that pasture is worth living in. Finally, we find ourselves at Kant’s final condition: there is a responsibility to being a moral actor. We must remember we are always setting an example. So we have to act like it. At all times. Even when nobody is looking. Because it doesn’t matter what happens. What matters is our intent. Remember, it was Jesus who said that sin is a matter of the heart as much as a matter of our actions. Because it doesn’t matter how kind you act, what matters is what you think.

We who have chosen, we who believe these words of Christ to be true and timeless, not because someone told us to long ago but because we have experienced it, we must take care to honor our neighbor, and to be a good example. We are all potentially somebody’s big sister or brother in this faith, and our actions will determine whether this family, this flock, continues to grow and bear fruit, or withers on the vine.

We must be constantly open to improvement, to the opportunity to do the right thing, whatever it is, because we will it. Because it is good and right.

Jesus believes it ISN”T enough to just do what you are told. You have to believe in it for yourself. In Kant’s words, it needs to originate within you. What is good and doing good only count if they originate out of the system of rules that you place upon YOURSELF. That means you have to have decided to adopt them. They must be freely chosen—no one can impose them upon you.

This is I think what made the early church so special. They shared out of their abundance, they gave to one another as anyone had need, they worshipped because they BELIEVED IN IT. And the response was overwhelming: daily they added to their number.

At this point one of a couple things have happened to you:
1) you tuned out somewhere along the way—in which case, my apologies for losing you!  Watch this awesome youtube video for a more interesting overview of Kant.

OR…..

2) perhaps you have found yourself thinking a little differently. Perhaps you have found yourself asking: what is MY categorical imperative? How have I made a commitment, or how CAN I commit to “will the good” in the world? Perhaps you have come to the conclusion that Philosophy is not actually the worst choice of major that your grandkid/child/best friend could have chosen after all. Perhaps it actually may have something important to say.

So what is OUR Categorical Imperative? What can we not live without? What kind of world do we imagine? If we are Christian, our Categorical Imperative is contained within the vision of the Kingdom of God—the blueprint is laid when Jesus directs us to feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, clothe the naked, tend the sick, visit the imprisoned. Not because he told us to. But because we believe it is the right thing to do. Until we are whole. Until, alleluia, we are one. Amen, and may it be so.

Pub Theology: MLK Edition

This week our Pub Theology Group met and discussed the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. Jan Pub Theology.jpg

It was an absolutely wonderful gathering filled with great insights and engaging conversation.  We started our gathering by reading some quotes from MLK’s speeches, sermons, and letters later in his career, wondering together–how are MLK’s words still relevant, challenging, difficult, and inspiring?  What do we most need to hear?  I am thankful to this group who gathered and dared to name the difficult realities of our past and present, who sat with one another as we wondered about connections between MLK’s legacy and Black Lives Matter, racism and sexism, economic inequality and the call for the church to be a place where difficult and honest conversation is not only safe but encouraged, because we cannot be transformed by one another if we cannot speak our truth.

If you are interested in the discussion prompts, there are listed here (the images of MLK’s quotes were created by artist Daniel Rarela)

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“Although the Church has been called to combat social evils, it has often remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows… How often the Church has been an echo rather than a voice, a tail-light behind the Supreme Court and other secular agencies, rather than a headlight guiding men and women progressively and decisively to higher levels of understanding.”

—Martin Luther King Jr. speaking to the Fifth General Synod of the United Church of Christ, 1965.

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“The problems of racial injustice and economic injustice cannot be solved without a radical redistribution of political and economic power.” –Martin Luther King Jr, 1967.

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“Somewhere we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals who are willing to be co-workers with God. And without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation. So we must help time and realize that the time is always ripe to do right.”

–Martin Luther King, Jr., March 31, 1968.

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“The arc of the moral universe is long, but bends toward justice.”

 

Love Your Body

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.

Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.

Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.

-1 Corinthians 12:12-31

Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.

When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
        to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
        to let the oppressed go free,
    to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

-Luke 4:14-21

Is there anything that is as ordinary and extraordinary as the human body? On the one hand, bodies are pretty darn average—every created thing has one, and whether yours is old or young, healthy or faltering, they are pretty—well—familiar. We live in them every day, and so we are usually well acquainted with our strengths and weaknesses, our pains and our pleasures. Our bodies are like old friends, the sort of friend that we are so well acquainted with that rarely do we stop and pause to think about what our bodies are actually doing as we go about our business each day.

In fact, we tend to pay the most attention to our own bodies when they aren’t working as we think they should—when skin chafes and knees throb, bones break and muscles fail, eyes cloud and minds dim. Or we notice other bodies because they are different—they are different colors, or of differing abilities, or we believe either that they are more or less beautiful than our own. Then we are all too aware of bodies and what sets them apart.

And yet, more often than not, our bodies are simply a miracle. Consider your hands—hands that have likely borne you through countless days, held the hands of those you loved, that have borne the brunt of your labors, have held a pencil or typed your thoughts as they spill from your mind. Or your eyes—how many sunsets, how many loved ones, how many snowstorms have these, the only eyes you will ever have—beheld? How faithful have they been to you, whether you noticed or not? How many bones, muscles, sinews, and nerves have labored without your consideration? How many humble body parts—blood cells, lymph nodes, nerve endings—have carried the building blocks of your touch and your sight without our even thinking of it?

Because that’s the thing about bodies. Most of the time, they keep working whether we notice them or not. They keep on working, day in and day out, because that is what bodies do. It’s not that we don’t appreciate them. If you are like me, its more like we are so busy experiencing the world—touching, tasting, beholding—that we are left with little time for reflecting deeply on the gift that being embodied in this world is.

For it is indeed a gift. In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, the apostle invites us to pause to consider just how amazing the body is. Only Paul has another body in mind, and that is the body of Christ, a motley crew of Gentiles and strangers from this ancient port city who have found their way into community and life in Christ. And to these people Paul reflects that the body of Christ isn’t all that different from our real, physical bodies. In fact, he says, we can learn a lot about being the church by reflecting on the bodies God blessed us with.

“Indeed,” Paul says, “The body does not consist of one member but many. If the foot would say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it less a part of the body. And if the ear would say, ‘because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be?”

It occurs to me that is not the sort of thing that you write to a church body when all is good and well. This is the kind of thing that you say to a community that is struggling. This is the sort of thing that you say to a community that is failing because it has forgotten that it is a body.

And indeed, Paul is concerned about the church in Corinth. He is concerned because the church has taken to drawing distinctions within itself. Just before this passage, we learn that the church in Corinth celebrates the Lord’s Supper quite strangely—they have one table for the rich and wealthy, and another for the poor. It seems that they have carried their own society’s attitudes about class into the congregation with disastrous results. Now church members are saying that “this person” is useful and “that person” is not. “this person” is right and “that person” is wrong. “This person” is in, and “that person” is out.

In other words, some members in the body have decided that others are not necessary to the well-being of the church, and so they have shut them out of the body, as though they were better off without them.

It’s not as though this is some booming mega-church. Unlike many of Paul’s other letters, the letter to the Corinthians is addressed to the one tiny church that has found a foothold in Corinth. More than likely, the church was no more than a dozen or so families, the kind of church where everyone knows your name. Not all that different from the church that we call home. And yet, they find ways to draw lines separating the handful of Jesus-lovers who have gathered in Christ’s name.

All of this reminds me of a story I recently heard about a neurological disease called Guillian-Barre Syndrome. Doctors aren’t exactly sure what causes it, but what happens is this: sometime, often following an infection, the persons immune system begins to attack its own nerve cells. Within days, the person’s body is locked into nearly complete paralysis. In the most severe cases, people can’t even breathe, and must be put on a ventilator. Eventually, the symptoms begin to reverse, and many experience a full recovery. But those who endure Guillian-Barre describe a harrowing experience of losing complete control of their body as it attacks itself. They describe feeling utterly powerless to do anything.

I wonder whether perhaps this is what Paul is concerned about. Perhaps he is concerned that the church in Corinth has forgotten what a gift this Body of Christ is. And perhaps he knows that when the body attacks itself, it will be utterly paralyzed. Because it will have forgotten that every part, from the head down to the toes and everything in between, is important. From the priests and the scribes to the lepers and the widows. Not just important, but essential. Irreplaceable. Every single part of God’s body belongs.

According to Paul, what makes the Body of Christ extraordinary is that every part of the body is not just accepted, but is honored. In the body of Christ, “the members have the same care for one another, such that if one member suffers, all suffer together with it, and if one member is honored, all are lifted up together with it.” This is the Jesus kind of Body, one in which there is no strong or weak, poor or rich, gentile or jew. Instead there is just the Body, bound together in love, guided by Christ, reaching across divisions of culture or class, race or gender.

It’s the kind of body that Jesus envisions when he preaches “good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Christ has given us a gift as well, of membership in the body. Across time and space, we are joined to the members of the Church in Corinth, who struggled with what it means to love and honor one another as they followed Christ. They remind us that being church together is one of the hardest things we will ever do, because it runs against everything we have been taught by our society—for in church, we are called to set aside our inclinations to group people as “our people” or “not our people,” and instead see all of us as “God’s Children.” Because we are.

And this is important stuff. Because unless we can learn to love our neighbors within the church as the children of God that they are, we have no hope of sharing that love with those beyond the church. Our love for one another IS our witness to the world. Church is both our testimony, and our training ground for life out in the mission field—the world beyond our sanctuary doors. It is, in the words of Paul, the “more excellent way.”

Friends, let us love one another, for we are all children of God.

Blizzard Church: Worshipping at Home in Bad Weather

Sometimes bad weather makes it unsafe to come to church.  But even if you are stuck inside this weekend, we can still worship together as the body of Christ!  I hope that this order of worship will help you and those you love to take time to give thanks to God and join with the communion of saints, wherever you are.

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WE GATHER TOGETHER

Lighting of the Christ Candle: gather your family together.  Take a moment to light a candle, remembering that Christ, whom we call “the light of the world” is always with us when we gather together.

Call to Worship: choose someone to “lead” and have everyone respond with the bolded words.

Great is the Lord—Exalted among the nations.

Mighty is the Lord—King of heaven and earth.

Holy is the Lord—Beyond our understanding.

Let us worship our God and King!

 Hymn            Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing

Consider singing along to this familiar hymn, or use the video below as a time of prayerful reflection.

   

Confession: take a moment with your family to remember that God loves us just as we are.  Whatever we have done or been this week, God accepts us.  Prayer the prayer together below, or take time together to name moments this week where you have struggled to do God’s will, and are in need of forgiveness.   

Merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart and mind and strength. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. In your mercy forgive what we have been, help us to amend what we are, and direct what we shall be, so that we may delight in your will and walk in your ways, to the glory of your holy name. Through Christ our Lord.

Give thanks to the Lord for God is Good and God’s steadfast love endures forever.  Nothing we can do, nothing we have done, can separate us from the Love of God.  In Jesus’ Name, we are forgiven. Amen.

*Response                        Gloria Patri

THE WORD IS PROCLAIMED

Prayer of Illumination Use this prayer to remember that the Scriptures are the one of the most important ways in which we can encounter God and know God’s will for us.

God of goodness and light, as you created the world by your Word and Spirit, breathe new life into us this day; through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.

Scripture Readings: use the readings listed below, or find it together in the Bible.  Take turns reading the verses, or choose one person to read the first lesson, and another to read the second.

            First Lesson:            1 Corinthians 12:12-31

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.

Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.

Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.

  Gospel Lesson            Luke 4:14-21

Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.

When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
        to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
        to let the oppressed go free,
    to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Sermon            “Love Your Body” by Rev. Sarah Weisiger (click here for the full text)   

*Hymn             Holy Spirit, Living Breath of God

WE RESPOND IN FAITH

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Prayers of the People and Lord’s Prayer (opening paragraph written by Moira Laidlaw, and posted at http://www.liturgiesonline.com.au/)

Spirit of the living God, we praise and adore you for empowering us to claim membership of the body of Christ, a gift received through the fullness of your grace. Empower us anew, we pray, with tongues of fire and hearts of love to proclaim the reconciling word among people. Remind us that we are all members of the one body and if one member suffers, we all suffer. May we, as the body of Christ in this place, be the best evidence of your love by declaring and witnessing to this as the year of the Lord’s favour for all people. We give thanks that all of us are Christ’s body, and rejoice in each one being a part of it.

As we gather in church and at home, we pray for the body of our community.  We pray for those who give thanks for snow, and for those who fear its coming. We pray for those who have the luxury to stay indoors, and for our emergency workers–police, firefighters, EMTs, hospital workers, Postal Service employees, Road Crews–whose work calls them into the storm.  We pray for those who have no home from which to escape the cold.  We pray for those who labor to provide a home for the homeless and the vulnerable in the storm.  And we pray for those who are alone this weekend, and have no one with which to share their joy, sorrow, hope, or despair.

For all these and more, O God, we lift up our prayers.  For we are one body, and we rise and fall together.  In the name of our Head, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Offering: Remember that everything we have, and everything we are is a gift from God.  How will you commit yourself to be a gift to God’s world this week?  How will you be a blessing in the one and glorious life you have been given? Take a moment to share together ways in which you can offer your gifts, your time, and your treasure at home, at work, and at school. Consider making an offering together to bring to church next week, or use this weekend as an opportunity to try out our new online giving program through the Presbyterian Mission Exchange (click here to go to the website)

WE ARE SENT OUT

Hymn                                              Blessed Be the Tie That Binds

Passing of the PeaceClose your time of worship together by passing the peace, remembering that wherever you are, God is with you when you gather in God’s name.

The peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you. And also with you.

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That Kid Is Going to Be Trouble

1 Samuel 2:18-20 18

Samuel was ministering before the LORD, a boy wearing a linen ephod. His mother used to make for him a little robe and take it to him each year, when she went up with her husband to offer the yearly sacrifice. Then Eli would bless Elkanah and his wife, and say, “May the LORD repay you with children by this woman for the gift that she made to the LORD”; and then they would return to their home.

Now the boy Samuel continued to grow both in stature and in favor with the LORD and with the people.

Luke 2:41-52

Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” He said to them, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” But they did not understand what he said to them.

Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.

It’s not easy being a kid. If you don’t believe me, ask one. Sure, you don’t have to work hard for the money, or pay the rent, but you don’t exactly get to do whatever you want, either. Wherever your parents go, there you go. Grocery Store, Doctors Appointments, Aunt Gracie’s house. Errands errands and more errands. Sometimes I wonder whether perhaps kids are so imaginative because there is so often little else that they can control than their own minds.

It wasn’t easy for Jesus to be a kid, either. Just because you’re the Messiah doesn’t mean you get to do whatever you want. Because party of being enfleshed, of being incarnate as a human being, is experiencing childhood.

There’s a reason, I think, that we don’t have a lot of stories about Jesus as a kid. It may have something to do with the fact that Mary probably didn’t have time to sleep, much less write anything down. Jesus wasn’t an only child, you know. Based on the Scriptural witness, we know that she had at least two other sons, and probably some daughters as well. In other words, Mary almost certainly had her hands full. If she was anything like mothers today, Jesus’ childhood probably looked a whole lot like a sleep-deprived blur.

Besides, if she DID have any time to herself, was she really going to spend it recounting the time that Jesus told her to “get behind me, Satan” because she made him take a bath? Perhaps parents back in Jesus’ day said the same things to each other that we say today—“You know what it’s like,” and left it at that? Perhaps they assumed that everyone would know what a poor Jewish kid’s childhood in Galilee looked like, so they didn’t bother. They just assumed we wouldn’t need, let alone want, that information.

Now, there are a few apocryphal stories about child Jesus, but they don’t exactly make him sound normal. Thomas’ “First Gospel of the Infancy of Jesus Christ,” a gnostic (or mystical) account of Jesus as a child that dates from the 3rd Century makes him sound, well, kinda weird. According to the First Gospel, Jesus enters the world with the power of speech, proclaiming in the stable that he is the Son of God. Simply holding him, touching his clothes, even his dirty bathwater, has the magical power to heal the sick, cure the afflicted, and banish the devil. Based on this account, child Jesus takes after his Father (you know, that Father ), creating clay animals and animating them, even bringing the dead back to life. And even at an early age, he is schooling his elders in the temple and at school, which I am sure made him popular with grownups and his peers.

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Baby Jesus is MAGIC!!!!

As you can probably imagine, there’s a reason that these stories didn’t make it into the bible, but they do remind us that, as long as there has been a faith called Christianity, Christians have been wondering about what Jesus was like. They have been imaging what it must have been like for the Messiah to be a child, perhaps because a regular childhood seems just a bit too cliché.

But is it too much to imagine that our Lord and Savior was just a kid like the rest of us? To picture the Holy One as experiencing the whole of humanity, even childhood?

Consider Luke 2. Jesus goes on yet another family vacation with his parents, this time to the Temple. For a kid from a remote village, this must have been exciting, to be surrounded by so many people, languages, and cultures. To be around so many big buildings and new sounds. And like any kid in the city for the first time, he is so awed by his surroundings, so busy looking up, that he forgets to pay attention to his parents. And his parents are so overwhelmed—because what vacation is restful for parents with kids that age?—that they lose track of Jesus. They quite literally leave him at the gas station.

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Hey mom!! Where did you go?

It isn’t until almost a day later that they realize they are down a Nazarean pre-teen. Now, I don’t know about you, but that moment when you realize you do not know where your child is occupying space is quite possibly the most adrenaline-filled moment you will experience as a parent. It is one thing to dream about a day without your kids; it is another thing for them to make it a reality. Mary and Joseph frantically retrace their steps, looking high and low for Jesus. The sword pierces Mary’s heart, for what will not be the last time.

The Bible tells us that FOR THREE DAYS they search for him. Now, I lost sight of Amelia once for about 20 seconds, and it scared the living daylights out of me. I cannot imagine three days. Not knowing where your kid is. Wondering if someone has taken him. Fearing the worst.

So imagine how you might feel as a parent to discover after three days that your child CHOSE to stay behind. CHOSE to walk into the temple, and chill out with the priests and scribes.

What sort of excuse would be acceptable in that moment?

If you are like me, the answer is that there is no excuse.images.jpeg

I can imagine Mary and Joseph now: “I don’t CARE if you are the Son of God. You are grounded forever.” I can imagine a whole lot of discipline raining down on that kid (notice how the scripture mentions that after they get home, Jesus “was obedient” to his parents. You bet your ass he was!) I can practically see Mary and Joseph with a lot more gray hairs after that day, and a lot of side-long looks that roughly translate as, “This kid is going to be trouble.” (You better believe that Mary “treasured” this in her heart for a good long while…because moms are like elephants.  They never forget.)

Of course, I can also imagine the sense of relief. The tight embrace that Mary and Joseph give to young Jesus as they lead him out of the city and back home. The ever more vigilant watch they will keep over him in the days and the months ahead. The love that will cling fiercely to him, trying to keep him safe.

I also can’t help but wonder whether this experience is meant to foreshadow another three days, at the end of Jesus’ life, when his beloved disciples will run through the very same city, entertaining their own worst nightmare—that their Teacher is really and truly gone. Fearing the worst, and surprised by the truth.

But who can be certain? Maybe, just maybe, it is really just a story about how Jesus managed to be both different, and utterly like us—not just in his adulthood, but in his childhood too. Fully Human, Fully God.

If this is what Jesus was like at 12, I don’t know if I want to know about the teenage years. I don’t need to know. Because it is enough to affirm that Jesus really was just like us. He was fully human. He was a child just like us. And he survived the slings and arrows of Childhood to become a fully formed adult, capable of love, and compassion, and forgiveness, just like us.

2015 in Review

Just like every Christmas, this years’ was preceded by the darkest day of the year, on December 21st.

But as I have reflected on this year, I must admit that it has not be difficult to identify darker days.

If I am truly honest, 2015 has been a year that often has seemed lost in darkness.

I open the news every morning, evening, and night, and am reminded that ours is a world marked by terror—abroad and at home, I am forced to reckon with the truth that this world that we inhabit looks nothing like a a fairy tale (at least, not the kind that Disney tells us).

Newspapers, radio, and television sets give me daily updates on the world of ISIS, chronicling tales of slavery, indiscriminate violence, and cruelty perpetrated on the poor, on women, on Christians and Yazidis, and on Muslims who do not conform to ISIS’ description of Islam.isis.jpg

Part of the consequence of this spectacle of violence is that we are inundated with images of refugees pouring out of these war-torn regions, in addition to many more that our news barely mentions. Millions of refugees from Burma, Myanmar, Somalia, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and more have traveled by road and boat, have drowned in the sea, have shivered in the forests, have been beaten and turned back by border police, all to escape unsafe conditions at home. They have faced hell as they have struggled to make a new life for themselves.

And as they have struggled, as they have bled, as they have gone without heat, or clean water, or food, or a place to sleep, Western Nations have been consumed by fear–that this constant stream of refugees might bring with it other risks—they have asked themselves, will the hospitality of European and Western countries to legitimately persecuted people also open a door to terrorism?

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This is what we are afraid of.

Because this year also reminded us that we live in a world where terror is no longer confined to unstable countries.  The internet has made it possible for those drawn to extreme ideologies to connect online, to build relationships, and to encourage violence far beyond international borders.

Incidents like Paris and San Bernardino reminded us that the very terrorism we fear from outside more often is already here, living within our own borders—that those who perpetrate acts of terror are often citizens themselves, drawn to dark and threatening ideologies.

But lest we would be tempted to believe that terrorism is synonymous with radical Islam, this year reminded us that terror is part of our country’s own culture and legacy.

This year we were forced once more to reckon with the reality that racism and the legacy of slavery still reaches long, venomous tentacles into the present, where communities of color are often disenfranchised politically, financially, and civically. We were reminded that many white  communities in the United States still harbor irrational hatred against their brothers and sisters of color, and that some of them act on this hatred by terrorizing others.   And so we mourned the deaths of our brothers and sisters in Charleston at the hands of a young man who believed that we are not all equal. If we were paying attention, we noticed that, in the wake of this violence, 8 black churches were burned to the ground.  Black-Lives-Matter.jpg

And our society has been forced to grapple with a history of injustice against people of color which has resulted in endemic distrust of police and the justice system. Sandra Bland, Corey Williams, Freddie Gray, Laquan MacDonald, Tamir Rice—their lives and their deaths are a reminder that all is not light in this world. That not all of us experience the justice that we deserve. Not yet.

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So much violence in this country can be traced back to one thing: nearly unfettered access to guns.

Now I keep hearing that there are glimmers of hope—the newspaper says that the economy is better, but many of us still don’t feel it in our pocketbooks. We are still feeling vulnerable, and many of us have experienced the realities of financial and economic insecurity.

To paraphrase a line from Game of Thrones—this year has oft seemed dark, and full of terrors.


 

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Do we really believe that light can overcome the darkness?

So what, then, does it mean to proclaim that Christ is born in a world as dark as this? What does it mean to sing songs of praise to the light of the world, when it would seem that so much of the world still dwells in darkness?

In order to answer that question, we must remind ourselves of the world into which Christ was first born.

In the time of Christ, the land of Israel was a world marked by violence, military domination, and economic oppression. It was a world in which God’s people were an occupied people, living under the power and jurisdiction of Rome, a society rightly feared not only for its military might, but for its willingness to eliminate problems before they began. To be a Jew under Roman rule was to live your life in the knowledge that you were not free—you were not a citizen, you had no rights, and what little you had could be taken away if your voice or your religion started to sound too much like protest. It was a world in which kings could murder infants with impunity, behead prophets as a party gift, a world in which justice was something you read about in the Bible but rarely experienced for yourself.

But Rome wasn’t the only problem. Jewish society had issues of its own. For this was a world in which the sick, the poor, and the Other were shoved to the margins. It was a world in which lepers were left to fend for themselves, in which the poor were treated as expendable, in which the Gentiles were believed to be unworthy and unwelcomed in God’s kingdom. And women—they were little more than second-class citizens, suitable for marriage and childbearing, but rarely valued for other gifts.

A dark world, indeed.

And it is into this world that God shows up. The creator of the Milky Way takes on flesh, and nurses at his mother’s breast. The Divine Judge submits the daily indignities of incarnation. Our King and Lord stoops down and meets us as a poor, vulnerable, powerless child.

Could it be that the darkness of our world is precisely the kind of darkness into which Christ comes?

That perhaps the words of the Angel, “FEAR NOT,” are meant not just for the shepherds then, but for us now? Today?

What will we do with this incarnation? Will we pass it by? One more beautiful shop window in a world drenched in darkness? Or will we stop and wonder with the shepherds? Sing with the angels? Bow with the magi? Ponder with Mary? Will we resist the darkness, and cling to the light of the world? And will we dare to shout the good news to a world that sorely needs it?

May it be so, both now and forevermore. Amen.12376232_10153752622189754_2953881393138081528_n.jpg

Love Was Born on Christmas Day

Luke 1:5-18, 57-80

In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.

Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. Now at the time of the incense offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” Zechariah said to the angel, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.”


Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.

On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. But his mother said, “No; he is to be called John.” They said to her, “None of your relatives has this name.” Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. He asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And all of them were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. Fear came over all their neighbors, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. All who heard them pondered them and said, “What then will this child become?” For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.

Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy:

“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
    for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a mighty savior for us
    in the house of his servant David,
as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
    that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
    and has remembered his holy covenant,
the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,
    to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,
might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness
    before him all our days.
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
    for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
    by the forgiveness of their sins.
By the tender mercy of our God,
    the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
    to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.

A colleague of mine recently had her very first baby. She was so excited. She and her husband had waiting for years for the right time in their lives, in their careers, to welcome a child. All through the pregnancy, she was beaming. Excited for her life as a mother. Scared for how it might change her life. But mostly, excited.

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She and her husband were healthy, the baby was healthy, the pregnancy went about as you would expect. No worries, right? And this September, she gave birth to her beautiful, perfect baby boy, Jack.

Forty-five minutes later, she learned from the doctor on staff that Jack has Downs Syndrome.

Moments like these mark us. When what we have grown to expect based on our experience of the world is replaced by the surprise that life so often throws our way. My friend—she was overwhelmed. With love for this baby, this perfect, baby boy. With grief for the future she expected, but also concern for this child whose life would be harder than it had to be. With fear for herself, and her husband—how would they do this? Could they do this?

But they didn’t have time to wonder. Jack was healthy, mom was healthy.  There wasn’t much more to be done than to take Jack home, love him, and figure it out together.

There are so many things in this world that we cannot possibly prepare ourselves for. We can imagine what they will look like, but we cannot guarantee a thing. All we can do is get on the ride and buckle our seatbelts. All we can do is make a choice: to enjoy the life we have been given, or see it as something to suffer through.elizabeth_baby.jpg

In our scripture this morning, Zechariah and Elizabeth’s lives are dealt a surprise twist worthy of the movies. A cloud of angels and incense accompany the dumbstruck moment in which these righteous and good people learn that they will be parents. That the child they have hoped for is coming. He’s just coming a little late.

Funny side story about age—when my mother became pregnant with me, she was 34 years old, which at the time was still considered, well, old. Her doctor made the mistake one day of referring to her as an elderly primigravida, and let’s just say that was the last time he said that in front of her. 

Anyhow, back to the story. It is easy to imagine how happy, how joyful, Elizabeth and Zechariah must have been, but the truth was probably more complicated. In Jesus’ day, childbirth was downright dangerous. It wasn’t for the faint of heart, or the old, or the frail. Consider that today, in this modern age, 830 women die every day from childbirth related complications like bleeding, infection, high blood pressure, and delivery complications. And the WHO has found that the risks only increase as women get older.

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Maternal Mortality rates worldwide–the rates have decreased over the last few decades but are still unacceptably high.

Elizabeth almost certainly knew this. She may not have had a child herself, but surely she had helped her aunts, her cousins, her nieces through pregnancy. And she almost certainly buried a love one who didn’t make it through. She may desperately want a child, but she may very well also be terrified.

We don’t often acknowledge this reality in our reading of Scripture. We prefer to skip over the practical considerations of pregnancy and childbirth, and go straight for the pink-cheeked babies. We prefer to ponder Zechariah’s muteness and pass Elizabeth by. I guess a dumbstruck husband is more interesting than a elderly pregnant woman. But it isn’t entirely honest. When we do this, we forget that Elizabeth was a real person who endured real risks in bearing John. That she may well have risked her own life to be faithful to God.

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Strong women need one another.

I also suspect it is no accident that Elizabeth happens to be related to Mary. It is no accident that these two faithful women find within themselves the chutzpah to bear the enormous risk of bearing John and Jesus. Their gift is that they do not have to do so alone. Scripture tells us that they spend much of their pregnancy together, and I wonder whether they do not draw strength from one another, and encouragement to receive God’s will for them with joy in that time.

And indeed, when the child does come safely, there is plenty of joy, and love to go around. Zechariah, finally able to speak, utters his first words, and they are a love song to the God who has safely delivered John and Elizabeth from the perils of pregnancy:

Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably upon his people and redeemed them.

He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David,

As he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.

Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant,

The oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us that we, being rescued from the hand of our enemies,

Might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.

The amazing and life-changing Good News of the Gospel is this: the same God who watches out for elderly pregnant women and vulnerable babies watches out for all of God’s people. God’s redemptive story continues, in you, in me, as we wait and watch for Christ to reveal himself in this time, and in this place.

What will Christmas look like this year? Probably not so much like a baby in a manger. Or maybe he will. Perhaps he will look like my friend, who this week, after months of complicated feelings of love mixed with fear, took her precious child Jack to church for the pageant practice. She laid Jack in the manger and was called away for a moment. When she returned, her heart caught in her chest at what she saw: the children, crowded around the manger, in awe of a beautiful, perfect, precious child, a gift from God himself.

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Love was born on Christmas day. May it be so for us.