Subway Prophet

…and the words of the prophets were written on the subway walls…


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Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid (A Sermon for Christmas Eve)

This sermon was preached at Memorial United Methodist Church, Fernandina Beach on December 24, 2017 at the 11:00PM Service. The text was Luke 2:1-20. This is a sermon manuscript. It does not necessarily reflect the exact words that were said. 

There is something about birth stories. My parents like to tell the story of how they were on their way to their bowling league when my mom went into labor with me. They were grabbing a bite to eat at their favorite local BBQ place and my mom comes back from the bathroom and informs by dad, “Honey, I don’t think we are going to make it to bowling tonight. We are going to have a baby.”  

I remember before my son was born. My wife and I were on our way to our last sonogram appointment and talking with each other that we really should pack our hospital bag when we got home. It was getting close and we needed to make sure that we were ready. We get to the appointment and the tech is looking at our cute baby and then she gets a bit quiet. After she calls the doctor in we learn that they did not see enough fluid around him. And so, the doctor informs us: “We’re going to send you down to labor and delivery now.” Needless to say, we were both shocked and terrified. This was not the plan. We still had several weeks, we had nothing prepared. And yet, here we were walking down the hall in a haze of confusion and fear.  

The consistent thing with giving birth is that you should expect the unexpected. Things never go according to plan.  

I think Mary and Joseph would have agreed. I imagine their birth plan included some privacy and a quiet place to give birth, perhaps it would be at home supported by her family and friends. Instead they are in a far away land, with Joseph’s family that Mary (and possibly Joseph) didn’t know very well. The place they are staying in has no more room in the guest quarters and so Mary has to give birth in the busyness of a strange place with animals looking on.  

Then in a couple of hours or so, just as she is getting cleaned up some shepherds come into the house with their eyes full of amazement and awe. They have a story of an unexpected encounter as well. They had been minding their own business, protecting their flocks when the skies opened up, angels appeared and they learned that the Messiah had been born that day. They learned that they would find their Lord, not in any of the places they would expect, but lying in a feeding trough.   

The consistent theme throughout the nativity story, and indeed the entire story of Scripture, is that God comes into our world in unexpected ways and does unexpected things. It is easy for the surprising nature of this story to get lost as we tell it year after year.   

There is a pattern that Luke follows throughout these two chapters each time angels unexpectedly appear. The receiver of the revelation, be it Zechariah, Mary, or the Shepherds, are always described as being “terrified.” And then the angels respond with the familiar words, “Do not be afraid.”  

This certainly makes sense. I grew up in a house that liked to play practical jokes. My dad would frequently pop out from around a corner or hide behind a door to see how loud of a scream he could get. I can only imagine if instead of my father a divine being with the glory of the Lord suddenly appeared. It would certainly catch me off guard.  

This sort of fear, however, may not be all of what Luke means here. While certainly angelic visions could be terrifying, the word fear in Scripture also has the sense of sacred awe and reverence. It is a recognition that you are being faced with a power that is so far greater than yourself  it makes you drop to your knees in submission and worship.  

 And so, if the shepherds are struck with awe and bowing in reverence and worship, the angel’s words to them, while comforting, may also be words of correction. What if the angels statement, “Do not be afraid,” also means, “Do not revere or worship us. We have come to point you to the good news. Don’t worship us, but instead go and worship the Lord who has been born this day. Go and worship the Lord of all who is wrapped snuggly and lying in a manger. That little bundle of joy is the true and only object of worship.” 

In this season it is so easy to cherish and revere the messenger. The garland and the lights, the family meals and gift exchanges are all such precious parts of this season. The sense of nostalgia and comfort of traditions can be appealing after weeks of frantic gift buying and meal planning. But all of these things are just messengers. Ways that we remind ourselves of the meaning of Christmas. They are important, but they are not the true focus of our worship. Shifting this perspective helps us to hold these traditions and this season lightly.  

Just as the holy family’s plans were derailed, be prepared for things to not go perfectly. Traditions change, reality falls short of expectations. In these moments, hear the words of the angels: Do not be afraid. Do not become so focused on the events and external elements of Christmas. The God we worship is the one who came to bring peace in the midst of chaos and confusion.  

For others in this season, the empty seats at the table bring to mind traditions that are no longer possible to achieve. The sting of grief, the reality of divorce, the difficulty of deployments and all the reasons that we are forced to be separated from those we love. As these feelings bubble up, hear the words of the angels: Do not be afraid. Give yourself the permission to start new traditions, to sit out of activities that are too much, and to take care of yourself. The God we worship this evening is the one who promises comfort to those who mourn, the one who gives healing for those who are broken, and the one who is making all things new.  

And so this evening as we enter into the beautiful traditions Christmas, as we celebrate together the sacrament of Holy Communion, as we join our voices in Silent Night and let our lights together push back the darkness with hope and joy, let us be prepared for God to enter in through in unexpected places: in words we hadn’t noticed, in memories we had forgotten, and feelings and thoughts that seem to come out of no where. In these moments let us not be afraid of the distractions but instead enter into worship with the fear of the angels who inspire in us awe and wonder.  Let us approach the manger with the tender love of Mary, with the amazement and joy of the shepherds. Let us worship the God who surprises us and sustains us, who comforts us and calls us and invites us to come and adore him—Christ the Lord. Amen. 

References

https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3099

 

 

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Salvation’s In the Details (4th Sunday in Advent Sermon)

This sermon was preached at Memorial United Methodist Church, Fernandina Beach, FL on December 24, 2017 at 9:00AM. The Scripture was Luke 2:1-20. This is a sermon manuscript, so it does not necessarily reflect the exact words preached. 

On the fourth Sunday in Advent, we traditionally focus on the theme of peace. Peace is a complex, nuanced topic. It can refer to everything from the end of violent conflict, to something more holistic that is best captured by the Hebrew word, Shalom. These themes of peace are deeply woven into the nativity story. The word peace also conjures up a sense of tranquility and calm. It is that feeling of curling up with a warm mug of hot chocolate while the fire flickers in the hearth. The day at the beach where the sun is barely hidden in the clouds, a breeze blows gently and the sea barely ripples.  

Although nice to think about, this latter feeling of “peace” might actually be the LEAST present within the nativity story.  If you are used to the nativity as told through poised porcelain figurines of a radiant Mary surrounded by well groomed visitors all dressed in their finest Renaissance attire, you may not see the difference. But one of the realities with stories that get told and retold, imagined and reimagined, is that the details of the text sometimes get lost in the retelling.  

One of the reasons for this is that Luke’s telling of the birth of Jesus is lacking in the type of good juicy detail that we might expect at a baby’s birth. Today when a baby is born, we immediately ask for all the details. What was their height and weight? What time were they born? How was the birth? How are they doing now? Luke doesn’t give us any of this. I personally would love to have known how heavy baby Jesus was or how many cubits he measured. But for Luke those details don’t matter. He has a different agenda in mind.  

Luke begins his story with a detailed account of the government authorities at the time. In chapter 1, Luke sets the stage by referencing the rulers of Israel at the time. These details root Jesus’ birth in the concrete reality of history. This is not just a “Once upon a time” story. It is an event that really happened. It also serves as an almost ominous beginning like “It was a dark and stormy night.”  

Roman rule was not a pleasant thing. Rome was a brutal force that was quick to violence and reminded its subjects of their overwhelming might and power.  

Emperor Augustus was proclaimed as the bringer of peace to the Empire. However, for Rome, peace came through war and military might. Peace for them meant that the territories  they controlled were so beaten into submission that they would not even consider rising up to seek independence.  

And then there is the focus on taxation. I doubt that preparing your taxes gives anyone here warm and fuzzy feelings. However, for the Jewish people, Roman taxes were oppressive. They kept the people in poverty and supported the corrupt government officials who made their everyday lives miserable.  

In this context, Luke’s story is a far cry from one of peace or calm. Each step of Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem to add their names to the tax lists was a reminder of Rome’s rule over their people and over their lives. The baby that Mary was carrying, however, was a sign of hope that the oppression of Rome would come to an end, and that God was still present with them. Several verses later, the angels will announce peace because of his birth. This peace proclaimed by the angels, stands in stark contrast to the peace promised by the empire. Instead of a peace through violence, God’s peace is one that comes through a baby being born, a life of faithful love, a sacrificial death, and a victorious resurrection.  

When it comes time for Jesus’ actual birth, Luke thankfully skips the details. For anyone who has been there for the birth of a baby, it is not a calm process. Birth is messy, painful, difficult, and stressful…and that’s just for the guy. But remember, Mary is a new mother. She has never done this before and she is a long way from home.  

It is the scene around the birth that often gets the most attention. The lack of vacancy and the manger for a crib are all specific details that Luke gives us, however, he doesn’t dwell on them much at all. I think that this is interesting. Perhaps Luke didn’t want to talk a lot about it because he knew that every preacher for the rest of time would do that for him.  

Traditionally, we are used to hearing the translation, “there was no room for them in the inn” “The greek word for “inn” here is kataluma. It can mean a room for people who are traveling, but it is probably not an “inn” in the sense that we think of – like a hotel. Rather, it is a room in a personal house which you stay in for free. This word stands in contrast to another word for “inn” that is used in the parable of the Good Samaritan. When the Samaritan takes the wounded man to an inn, Luke uses the word, pandacheon which is more like a hotel or hostel which you have to pay for.  

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So, as we picture this story in our minds, we should think of Palestinian peasants homes which looked a bit like this. There are two and half levels. The main floor was where you cooked your meals and lived most of your life. To one side of this room was a slightly lowered area where the animals stayed. And then the top floor was the kataluma, the sleeping area which had a section for guests to stay. This setting makes more sense given that Joseph is traveling to his family homeland. Undoubtedly he has relatives in Bethlehem, and in Biblical culture, it would have been very rude not to stay with family. However, given how much family was in town, it makes sense that the guest rooms in Bethlehem were full.1 And so, Mary and Joseph were invited into the main living area of the house and when the baby was born they laid him in the best crib option they could find right next to them. And so instead of picturing Jesus being born in a distant remote stable surrounded only by animals, the image that Luke’s readers would have had was a busy home bustling with people and animals.  

 

I find it particularly powerful that Jesus comes into this world, not in our guest rooms, but right smack dab in the middle of the house. I don’t know about your house, but our guest room and guest bathroom are the cleanest rooms in the house. Before anyone comes over those are the rooms we give an extra wash, making sure we are more attentive to the clutter and that things are ready for anyone who stays.  

God, however, had the ultimate place to stay. In choosing to enter into our world, God left the high and perfect heaven to come into our everyday normal lives. God does not ask for special treatment, or clean linens. God wants to join us as we are. When we welcome God into the messy busyness of our lives, the brokenness and the vulnerability, God’s grace begins to recreate and restore us to the wholeness and peace that we were originally designed for. The more we allow God’s peace to reign in our hearts and then overflow into lives, the more we begin to live into the Shalom that is God’s desire for the world. 

As Luke’s story shifts from the manger to the pastures, the birth of Jesus, an event which happened in the privacy of a home gets announced from the heavens with shouts of: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace to those he favors.” The peace which the baby Jesus brings into our world is a peace which lies beyond our ability to comprehend or imagine. It will be a peace that will bring an end to oppression and violence and redemption to the broken places in our lives. However, just as the baby must grow into the man he will become, so too does this peace growing in our world. All of us can attest that the peace of Christ is far from complete both in our world and in our lives.  And yet, this story of Jesus birth serves as a reminder for us that the Prince of Peace is present and at work around us. And that is a story worth telling again and again.  

References:

https://www.psephizo.com/biblical-studies/jesus-was-not-born-in-a-stable/

New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary

 


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#MUMCbelieves Reflection on Exodus 3

 

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This is one of the trees I saw on my ride in this morning.

When the Lord saw that he was coming to look, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” Moses said, “I’m here.” Exodus 3:4

 

I often ride my bike to work in the morning. because I am usually running late, I am in a bit of a hurry. This morning, however, I decided to take my time. I looked at the beautiful oak trees that cover the street in front of my house, I saw how  many flowers and trees are starting to bloom. And I realized how much I miss. We live on this beautiful island and I do not take advantage of it.

Moses was out at the edge of the desert minding his own business and then he noticed something different. A bush engulfed in flames and so he got curious. I had not noticed before that God only speaks to him after he comes over to investigate the situation. I think this is significant. How are we missing what God wants to say to us because we don’t see the signs around us?

God has given us this beautiful creation and uses it to direct all of creation towards a relationship with its Creator. Our role, like Moses is to  keep our eyes open and listen for God to speak to us.

 


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The Realities of Christmas

It was 5:30am and I had been up with Malachi several times that evening. He was not feeling well, which means he was not sleeping well. The only thing that would get him back to seep, and therefore quiet, was being held on my shoulder and gently swaying back and forth. It is our nightly ritual. He wakes up, I wake up, and groggily trudge into the nursery in the next room, pick him up and gently sway, pat and shush him to sleep, dreaming of the days when I was woken up by my alarm instead of the urgent cries of a baby.

On this particular night, however, I had a song stuck in my head. It was “Away in a Manger.” In case you have forgotten the lyrics:

Away in a manger, no crib for a bed,
The little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head.
The stars in the bright sky looked down where he lay,
The little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay.

The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes,
But little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.
I love thee, Lord Jesus! look down from the sky,
And stay by my cradle till morning is nigh.

Be near me, Lord Jesus; I ask thee to stay
Close by me forever, and love me I pray.
Bless all the dear children in thy tender care,
And take us to heaven to live with thee there.

This is the image we always have of baby Jesus. Calm, peaceful and serenely sleeping in his manger. With the clean Mary and Joseph attentively watching him with awe. I am not sure about anyone else, but this has never been the case at our house. In our life with a baby there has not been a lot more vomit, crying, and restless nights.

Now perhaps if our son was God incarnate, life would be different, but I don’t think so. The fundamental truth of the incarnation is that God put on flesh and became human. This means the word became flesh, full of grace and truth as well as urine, poop, vomit, and snot.

I think this image of the infant Jesus is important. A peacefully sleeping child does not require anything of its parents. When the baby is sleeping, you have time to do your own things, when the baby is awake, however, your time is not your own. Life is dictated by the needs of this small, helpless creature. Jesus came into the world to interrupt our normal routines and habits. Jesus desires not just partial obedience, but our full attention and complete control. This will mean that our lives will be messy, our hands dirty, and at times we will feel exhausted, frustrated, and even defeated. The joy of discipleship, and in a way parenting is not in the minute by minute experiences, but in the knowledge that the child you love and serve will grow up and once day make it all worth it.


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Light in Darkness Sermon

(This sermon was given on Sunday, December 18 at Trinity UMC in Fernandina Beach, for the Memorial UMC Service of Light in Darkness.)

When I was a kid, there was a show on TV called, “Are You Afraid of the Dark.” It was basically a child-friendly version of Twilight Zone. After an episode the night was full of monsters and villains and my imagination would populate the unknown around me with so many forces of evil that I would keep a flashlight beside my bed to ward them off.

There is something scary and unnerving about the dark. In the daytime we can see what is coming. We know what to expect. There are very few surprises during the day. At night, however, everything changes. Familiar streets get cast in unfamiliar shadows. It is impossible to see someone coming your way until they are already next to you. Sounds fill the air all around you, but you can’t see their origins.

Physical darkness, however, is the easiest of the darknesses that fill our world. There is no flashlight that will drive away the darkness of grief. There is no candle to ward away depression or anxiety. There are deeper darknesses in our world which stand in the way of the light and cast long shadows over our lives. These dark places often get lost amid the lights of the Christmas season. With such an emphasis on joy and peace, the realities of sadness, distress, and worry often get pushed to the side. However, if we look at the Christmas story there are both light and dark places.

We see the light in the angelic visions, but often miss the fact that the angels appear to Joseph and Mary in the dark as a dream. The Shepherds are watching their flocks by night when the heavenly host appear in all their glory. And the star the wisemen follow to the new-born King was like every other star, only available to them when the brightness of the sun no longer shone in the sky.

What do we make of this shadow-side of the nativity?

I believe the darkness is there because it is a part of the world we live in. From the very beginning when God separated the light from the darkness, each one was given a name and a space in creation. I remember when I lost my grandmother, in seminary, I was thinking about my grief and tears and I realized that the pain I felt at her passing was rooted in the very love that I had for her when she was alive. Even as difficult as grief can be, I cannot think of anyone who would give up the love they have for the one they lost in order to make it go away.

Darkness can obscure our vision, cast doubts about our future and our purpose. The loss of a job, adjustment to retirement, the change from one way of living to another is disorienting and confusing. Our once familiar life and purpose is covered over by a new reality that remains to become fully present.

Walking with a loved one through the shadow of death can be darker for the caregiver than the one who is in the middle. Watching a loved one slip away, we are forced to live in the tension between how they are now and how they were before. In some cases, our memories of them are stronger than theirs are. With the loss of the spouse, friend, or relative, we also loose the future we had hoped to live with them.

In other ways, darkness has a way of focusing our attention. In the daytime there is a lot of distractions. The myriad of colors and shapes which surround us each day all merge together because we cannot take it all in at once. In the dark, however, those colors mute and the shapes soften. It is then that other things come into focus. The stars, for example do not appear in the evening. Instead, it is only when the brightness of the day has faded that we are finally able to behold their steady beads of light. When life gets difficult, it brings other things into perspective. I have spoken with so many people who have a terminal illness that after their diagnosis they didn’t worry as much about their work, their business, their money, or any of the other things that had previously filled up their lives. They began to cherish the time spent with family, the long chats with good friends, walks on the beach, and spending nights laying out on a blanket gazing into the heavens.

I do not know everything about the darkness that you have brought with you today. But I do know that Scripture is clear, darkness is a temporary phenomenon. Psalm 30 declares that weeping may last for the night, but joy comes in the morning.

In the nativity story, John the Baptist’s father, Zechariah, sings a song of praise to God which proclaims that:

Because of God’s deep compassion,
The dawn from heaven will break upon us,
To give light to those who are sitting in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide us on the path of peace.
(Luke 1:78-79)

Before Jesus was even born, the prophet knew that the night was almost over—a light was coming. This can be hard to see in the midst if the darkness. When all around you are shadows, it is easy to forget that there is a light. It is easy to get lost in the darkness, however, the story of Christmas is that a light “did come into our world.” That light did not wait until our eyes had adjusted to the dark. It did not ask us to leave the darkness and come into the light, it came to us instead.

Hear again John’s declaration about the light:

“What came into being through the Word was life, and the life was the light for all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light.,,,The true light that shines on all people was coming into the world.
(John 1:3b-5,9)

This is the core of the story. Even in the dark world the light appeared to Mary and Joseph, to shepherds, to wise men and now to us. And that Light cannot be overcome by our darkness, but instead, that Light enters into where we are and makes his home among us so that we know that no matter how dark our lives get we are not alone.

As you go throughout this holiday season, as you see the lights on houses and trees and everywhere else, I pray that you would be reminded that Jesus has come to be with you in the darkness and lead you forward wherever you need to go.

(Note: I am grateful to Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, “Learning to Walk in the Dark” for being a helpful thought partner and a general good read.)


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Meet St. Cuthbert

So, I know that today is Palm Sunday, which is super important, however, it is also the feast day for my favorite saint, Cuthbert of Lindisfarne. In the United Methodist Church, we do not have saints. They have never been an important part of Wesleyan spirituality, however, I have always had a strong attraction to saints, and my own faith is always strengthen when I read about their lives.

I first heard of Cuthbert during the year I spend studying in England. He was a shepherd, then monk, then Bishop in northern England in the 7th century. His life was marked by humility, simplicity, a love of nature, and reconciliation.

Foundations of Cuthbert's cell

The foundation of the monastic cell where St. Cuthbert would go and pray on the island of Lindisfarne. The tidal patterns cut off this island from the main island at high tide. 

My favorite story is from one of Cuthbert’s many times when he would leave the monastery and pray. Once a younger monk followed Cuthbert to see where he went and observed him wading into the ocean where he would frequently recite the psalms. When he came out, otters came and helped to warm his hands.

St. Drewbert

Me imitating St. Cuthbert’s prayer in the ocean at Lindisfarne. Sadly no otters washed my feet when I came out.

St. Cuthbert is buried in Durham and I would frequently visit his shrine in the Cathedral which was a short walk from my dorm room.The Cathedral and his shrine were places when I could palpably feel God’s presence and was for me a tremendous means of grace during a wonderful and difficult year.

On this day each year, I have a cup of tea, remember my friends in England and the ways in which God shaped my understanding of my call to ministry, and I give thanks to St. Cuthbert for helping me understand how to better follow Jesus.

Cuthbert's Shrine, Durham Cathedral

The shrine of St. Cuthbert in Durham Cathedral. 

Here is the prayer for today from the Church of England:

Almighty God, who called your servant Cuthbert from following the flock to follow your Son and to be a shepherd of your people: in your mercy, grant that we, following his example, may bring those who are lost home to your fold; through Jesus Christ, you son, our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God now and forever. Amen.

 


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Advent Devotional: God with Us

[Written for the Memorial UMC 2015 Advent Devotional-December 2]

But now, says the LORD— the one who created you, Jacob, the one who formed you, Israel: Don’t fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; when through the rivers, they won’t sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you won’t be scorched and flame won’t burn you. I am the LORD your God, the holy one of Israel, your savior. I have given Egypt as your ransom, Cush and Seba in your place (Isa 43:1-3)

Throughout life, bad things happen that we do not expect: A job transition, a medical diagnosis, conflict in a relationship, the death of a loved one. Unfortunately, Scripture never promises an easy life for those who follow Jesus. In fact often it promises the exact opposite. The comfort for me from Isaiah, however, is the word, “when.” The prophet knows that life has seasons of overwhelming floods and fear inducing fires. This is just something we should know up front. We are not called to expect God to eliminate this reality, what we can expect is that in the midst of it all, God will be with us and that God will not let us go.

In the season of Advent, we look forward to the coming of Christ. We remember the entrance of God into our world. God became human knowing full well the difficulty of life on earth. In His life, Jesus experienced rejection, pain, grief, injustice, betrayal, and more. For me this is a comforting reminder. When I am wondering where God is in the midst of a crisis, Isaiah’s words remind me that God is with us through it all. Having experienced everything life could throw at Him, we can be assured that when things in life come our way, we do not have to be afraid. God is with us. Jesus Christ, God in human form, has been there, conquered that, and will help us to weather the storms of life.

Prayer: Almighty God, thank you for never leaving me or forsaking me. When I feel like I am drowning, or the fires of life make me afraid, help me to remember your presence beside me and give me the grace I need to continue walking with you each and every step of the way. Amen.