Sunday, December 28, 2014

Refreshed with Praise -- A sermon for Christmas 1B

Psalm 148

Just a few days ago many of us opened presents that were laid out under a tree or perhaps hanging in a stocking.  So, here’s my question – when you were opening gifts did you show proper gratitude?  Were you exuberant in your declarations or did you mumble a word of thanks, even as you were thinking – “I'm not sure what to do with this sweater? There is a reason why it’s easier to give a gift card than pick out a gift.  Even if you have a list, you could come home with the wrong thing, and that doesn’t lead to much happiness on the part of the recipient!  

Parents often require their children to say thank you for gifts received.  Call Grandma, we tell them, and tell her how much you love that sweater she knitted for you.  You know, the sweater you wouldn’t be caught dead wearing outside your bedroom.  But whether you liked the gift or not you have to muster enough enthusiasm to thank the giver. 

Saying thanks for gifts seem to be something of a lost art in recent years.  Maybe that’s because we don’t send as many cards and letters as before.  But gift givers do enjoy receiving a word of thanks – especially if they’ve gone to some trouble in picking out just the right gift.  It could be an email or a Facebook message or even a text – but some word of thanks is greatly appreciated. 

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Reviving Love -- A Sermon for Advent 4B

Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26

We have reached the end of our Advent journey.  On Wednesday evening we will light the Christ candle and celebrate the coming of the Rock of our salvation into the world. The advent of Jesus in the world fulfills the covenant promises God made with our spiritual ancestors.  
God covenanted with Abraham and Sarah, promising that their descendants would be a blessing to the world.  God covenanted with Moses to bring to bring order and purpose to the people of Israel.  God covenanted with David, promising, that his throne would be established for all generations.  Yes, as the Psalmist declares, this covenant is a sign of God’s “faithfulness to all generations”  (Psalm  89:1-4).

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Recapturing Joy -- Sermon for Advent 3B

Psalm 126

The theme of this Advent season is “restoration.”  Each week we are hearing a word from the Psalms that speak to God’s work of restoration in the world and in our lives.  If you go to the Somerset Collection this afternoon – if you’re brave enough -- you can go to the Restoration Hardware store.  There you will find many high end home furnishings, from brass doorknobs to fashionable window coverings, to beautify your home.  That’s not what we have in mind this Advent season.  

Instead, the restoration that we have in mind here is the restoration of our relationships with God, with one another, and with creation.  In the Psalm we read the first Sunday of Advent, we hear the Psalmist declare: “Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved”  (Psalm 80:3).  This work of restoration is God’s work, not ours.  It is a work of salvation – a word that includes both healing and reconciliation.  During this Advent season we are lifting up God’s work of restoration that mends hearts and minds and spirits and bodies so that we might enjoy the blessing of living in God’s holy presence.  

Restoration is the work of God in Christ through the Holy Spirit, but Advent reminds us that God used John the Baptist to prepare the way for the one who reveals God’s work of restoration in the world.  John the Baptist is the one who is charged with removing the barriers to God’s work of redemption and salvation.  

In John’s Gospel, we hear John the Baptist claiming the mantle of Isaiah and declaring that he is “the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’” (John 1:23). In other words, John is the one who points us in the right direction so that we might experience the grace of God moving in our lives through the Spirit. 

In previous weeks we have heard words about hope and peace, and today we’re invited to recapture joy.  I realize that this Advent-Christmas Season isn’t a season of joy for everyone. Wednesday evening’s service of remembrance is a good reminder that there are people who need to do some grief work before they can rejoice in the Lord.  

With that in mind, Psalm 126 invites us to look back to the way God restored the fortunes of Zion.  The Psalmist speaks of those who dreamed that God would restore their fortunes.  Dreams are important, because they help us look forward into the future.  

Martin Luther King had a dream, which he shared with the nation in 1963 on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.  It’s been more than fifty years and we’ve not yet fully realized the content of that dream, but the dream keeps pushing us forward.  While racial divisions continue to exist in our nation, and much work needs to be done before the divide in our country is healed, there is a dream that can guide us on the journey forward.  

This Psalm looks back to the end of the exile.  It speaks of God’s people laughing and shouting with joy, even as the nations declared that “the Lord has done great things for them.”  Yes, even those looking on from the outside could see that God had been at work freeing the people from their captors.  

In trying to visualize this event, I thought of the joy that must have been present when word came to the slaves being held in the Confederacy that Abraham Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation.  Most assuredly that was a day of joy and even some laughter.    

Of course, even though the people of Judah left Babylon with hearts filled with joy and laughter, they returned to a city and a Temple lying in ruins.  Yes, they were free, but not everything was as it should be.  There were obstacles that still needed to be removed.  The way of the Lord needed to be made straight.  

In verses four through six of Psalm 126, we move from remembrance to imagining the future.  When John cries out from the wilderness, he is crying out from the midst of the Negeb desert.  This is a dry and weary land that needs to experience the life-giving and life-restoring power of water. Yes, the people cry out: “restore our fortunes like the watercourses of the Negeb.”  

As anyone who has spent time in the desert knows, they are rather dry, and the Negeb is one of the driest on earth. After all, it borders the Dead Sea!  But if you go into the desert you will find dry river beds.  While they are dry most of the year, they can become raging rivers in a matter of a few moments.  When rain comes to the desert if often comes in torrents creating powerful rivers that bring the desert to life. What seems to be dead and barren will spring to life, with the desert floor turning into a colorful blanket of flowers.  Pools of water form and quickly teem with life.  Of course, these rivers can prove destructive if you happen to be living in their midst, as many in drought stricken California have been learning in recent days. Yes, it may not rain very often in Southern California, but when it does rain, it comes down in buckets! 

In the Psalm for today, people are sowing the seeds of grain in tears, but they reap the harvest with shouts of joy.  Yes, joy often begins in sadness and tears.  Talitha Allen puts it this way:
This is no jingle-bells joy brought about with a swipe of a credit card.  The seeds of this joy have been planted in sadness and watered with tears.  This is the honest joy that often comes only after weeping has tarried the night. [Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1p. 58].
On Wednesday the city of Detroit exited bankruptcy.  As you know, this was the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history.  The city and the region entered this process with great anxiety and many tears.  There was great fear that people’s lives would be destroyed and that the city’s treasures would be plundered to pay off debts.  While not everyone is completely happy with the result, for the most part the exit from bankruptcy is a moment of joy for the city and the region.  It has given the city the opportunity for a clean start.  With the exit from bankruptcy the people of the region have the opportunity to dream new dreams.  The city might not return to what some remember as its glory days, but together the city and suburbs have the opportunity to create something new and exciting.    

Downtown Detroit is alive with business.  The M-1 light rail project is well underway.  Abandoned buildings are being re-purposed or removed not only along the Woodward Corridor, but also out in the neighborhoods.  Streetlights are being replaced and relit.  The police and fire departments are responding more quickly.  There is work being done on developing a high quality regional transit system that can get people to work and to school, to the doctor and to places of entertainment.  They might even get people to church!  While Detroit is far from being fully restored, we can see things moving forward.  Life-giving waters are coursing through the deserts.

As a congregation we are not simply observers of this work of restoration.  We’re playing a part in it.  Through MCC, we’re involved in the development of the regional transit system.  Through the work of Gospel in Action Detroit and Rippling Hope we are engaged in rebuilding neighborhoods.  It might involve mowing a field or picking up garbage or painting a porch.  It might seem small, and yet if you’ve participated in this work, you know that these gestures bring joy to the lives of those living in these often neglected neighborhoods.  

Yes, “the Lord has done great things for us and we rejoiced” (Psalm126:3).  For, as Paul told the Thessalonians:  
16 Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.  (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Reimagining Peace -- Meditation for Advent 2B

Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13

1 Lord, you were favorable to your land;
    you restored the fortunes of Jacob.
2 You forgave the iniquity of your people;
    you pardoned all their sin. Selah
8 Let me hear what God the Lord will speak,
    for he will speak peace to his people,
    to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts.
9 Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him,
    that his glory may dwell in our land.
10 Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet;
    righteousness and peace will kiss each other.
11 Faithfulness will spring up from the ground,
    and righteousness will look down from the sky.
12 The Lord will give what is good,
    and our land will yield its increase.
13 Righteousness will go before him,
    and will make a path for his steps.

We have been blessed this morning with offerings of music.  These gifts stir the soul and point us onward to the coming of the Promised One, whom Isaiah names “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6).  This last name calls our attention to the message of the day – for this is Peace Sunday.  Because we have been blessed with such a wonderful array of music, I only have a few moments to reflect on the message of the Psalm for the day, which reveals God’s vision of salvation.

 In Psalm 85, the Psalmist reveals that God’s gift of salvation is found where steadfast love and faithfulness meet, and “righteousness and peace kiss.”  This vision of peace speaks not only of the absence of violence or conflict.  This peace – the shalom of God – has a much broader meaning.  This peace is a vision of wholeness that embraces justice for all creation.  

These past few weeks we have witnessed great unrest due to differences over whether justice was served when grand juries failed to indict white police officers whose actions left two unarmed black men dead.  These differing perceptions remind us that we have not yet come to a point in this nation where justice and peace have embraced each other.  Too often we think that peace is a return to normalcy, but true peace will only come when we allow the Spirit to help us listen to each other and experience through Christ our Lord, restoration of right relationships with God and with one another.

     The Psalmist reminds us that this will only come when we recognize that God is the source of steadfast love, faithfulness, justice, and peace.  The good news is that the way is being prepared.  Yes, as the Psalmist declares: 
Righteousness will go before him, and will make a path for his steps.  
Having heard this wonderful gift of music, as we move toward the Table of Reconciliation, may we reimagine God’s peace, so that all of creation might experience health and wholeness of body, mind, spirit, and community.