Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Going Home

Home is where the heart is....
Home is where you hang your hat...
Home is the place where they have to take you in....

What does home mean to you?  Does the word "home" conjure up visions of a place, a real piece of property where you can walk on the acreage and go into the house and experience a feeling of welcome there?  Does the word "home" bring a feeling to you, a feeling of warmth, of welcome, of acceptance?  Are you lucky enough to have a "home place" to visit even if you do not live there, a home place that has belonged to your family for generations past, where a house stands that has historical significance to you and your other family members?

I have know people who can relate to all of the questions asked above.  They have a place to go to where it feels like home.  They have people who still live in houses that have special significance to them or they can see the people on the land where they have visited before even if the house where they once lived is no longer there.  They have a "home place" to return to to think about the past and imagine that it has to do with their future.

I am not so lucky.  I grew up in three different homes and the one that my elderly mother lives in is one where I never lived as a child or young adult.  I have no "home place" to go to.  Even when I go to see my mother in her home, I am a guest there.  I never feel completely "at home" but always feel I must ask permission before I do anything there because it is her home, not mine.

Children who grew up in military families and families with parents who had occupations that required them to move frequently may have this same feeling in their lives.  We often feel like gypsies or strangers, even in places where we should belong.

The people called Israel were strangers in a foreign land when they resided in Babylonia.  They never wanted to live there but their ancestors were kidnapped by the Babylonians and years later the children of those original captives were still stuck in captivity due to the actions of the Babylonian government.  So, they mourned and wept and wished they could be back in the place where they thought they belonged--Israel.

Finally, God spoke through Isaiah to tell them that they would go home, and when they went home, even the very landscape would welcome them as they went home. The wilderness would blossom and the way would be made safe and straight so that they would not get lost along the way.

"And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
(Isaiah 35:10)

They would soon be home, where they belonged, because God would make the way for them to come home, at last.  Isaiah's writings are often idealistic and Utopian because they describe a perfect world where everything works out well.  Deserts bloom.  Paths are made straight.  Valleys are lifted up and mountains made low.  Lions get along with lambs.  Little children have no fear of wild beasts and lead them along to follow them.

Even those who actually did "go home" when Cyrus, the King of Persia, finally gave the order for them to leave after he conquered the Babylonians, found the way hard and rough and found a pile of rubble waiting for them to repair after they made it to Jerusalem.  The Babylonians had pretty much destroyed everything in sight when they had invaded the land decades before.  It was up to Ezra and Nehemiah and others to repair the walls and rebuild the Temple and it took many more decades for that to be accomplished.

But, they were home, where they belonged, back in the holy city of Jerusalem, the city of David, where they felt a spirit that united them and gave them strength to make everything right again.  Home may be all those things that I began with above because when you find your heart is in the same place that you hang your hat, then it may indeed be the place where others take you in when you are there.  You may find the Shalom of God as you settle in to the place where God would have you to be, home, at last.  

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Waiting for a King

The Advent Season is a season of waiting, and we wait in Advent as we wait in the culture for the coming of Christmas.  Each of these is intertwined.  Christians count the days of Advent for the revelation of Jesus to happen in hearts and homes once again.  People in their homes and out in the cities count the days until Christmas Eve so that Santa Claus will come once again and bring them what they have desired to receive.  The two seasons run concurrently because we are Christians who live in the culture we inhabit and we cannot escape this.  It is part of life that cannot be changed because it has been part of it for such a long time.

Waiting for the Messiah to come was part of Jewish tradition also.  The Prophets spoke of one who would come who would set things right.  Life would be changed in such an extraordinary way that even nature would respond so that the animals lived together in peace even as human beings learned to get along also.  This week's reading from Isaiah 11 describes the one for whom Israel was waiting.  He would be wise and strong and be able to help others to see the way they should live by his words and actions.  All the nations would come to him and seek his advice.  People would see him as the glorious embodiment of God.

Isaiah and the other prophets wrote of the one to come but he never came in their lifetimes.  Hundreds of years passed and the people of Israel lived in their land that was occupied and ruled by a foreign power, the Romans.  People still waiting for the Messiah to come but this time their idea of what a Messiah would be like was based on their yearning to be free from the domination of Rome.  They wanted a king who would conquer the Romans and make them a world class power.

John the Baptist became the last prophet to speak of the coming Messiah.  He stood on the banks of the Jordan River and cried out for people to repent and get ready for the coming of the Messiah.  John told those who would listen that the one he was talking about was powerful and would baptize them with the Holy Spirit and fire.  He would do remarkable things that reminded them of the image of the Messiah the earlier prophets had spoken of.  The Messiah that Christians embrace, the man Jesus, was not the powerful ruler the Jews wanted.  He was the gentle teacher that wanted to change them from inside out.  So, John had spoken correctly of the coming Messiah.  He would be the one who would bring change through the repentance that John preached.

It is now the year 2016.  We are still waiting for a Messiah to come and set things right.  The world is still in a huge mess where powers are in competition to see who can be the most powerful and rule the most people in the most demonstrative way.  Nations rail against nations and threaten to destroy us all by unleashing powers that we cannot comprehend or describe.  We need a savior, a Messiah, a shepherd to lead us and bring us into the way of right living.  We all need that one....when will he come?

Or perhaps he has come already....and we refuse to give him the reins to our hearts, wanting instead to be in charge of our own lives instead of submitting to his control.  Will the world be ready when he comes to stay?  Waiting for a king....will this be the day?

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Advent Begins this Sunday!!!

Happy New Year!!!!!  No, this is not a very early New Year's wish.  The First Sunday of Advent is the beginning of the Christian Year, so this Sunday is like New Year's Day of the Christian Church.  We begin a new phase of our three year lectionary cycle so we are now in Year A, back at square one after traveling through all of the cycles and this year we will have Matthew as our main Gospel of focus.  All that many not mean much to the average church goer but for pastors it makes sense.  We are beginning again on our travel through the Christian Year.

The First Sunday of Advent marks the season of waiting, watching, and hoping for the return of the Messiah.  Advent offers us a two prong perspective--we wait for the Messiah to come at the End of the Age (whenever that may be) and we wait for the Christ-Child to come once again into the manger on Christmas Eve and into our hearts daily.

Advent reminds us of the familiar stories connected to the birth of Jesus, taken mainly from the gospels of Luke and Matthew.  Those stories give us two perspectives taken from the points of view of Mary and Joseph as they hear the good news of the birth of the Messiah.  Of course, at first it is  not good news to them.  Mary is a teenage unwed mother and Joseph is her fiance who is considering calling off the wedding because he thinks she has been unfaithful to him.  Luckily, God intervenes and both are convinced that this is a special gift sent by God to the world.

This week's readings are not as cheery or holiday mood inducing.  Matthew gives an apocalyptic portrayal of destruction coming to Jerusalem with the warning to "stay awake" and "watch" and "be ready" because you do not know when it will happen.  Paul warns the church at Rome to "wake from sleep" and to live honorably because the end could be near.  Isaiah is not as foreboding, however, and promises that a day is coming when throngs of people will stream into Jerusalem learn the ways of peace, putting their weapons aside in favor of farming implements.  All of humanity will learn to walk in the light of God.

This First Sunday of Advent prepares us for the future.  The end is coming, indeed!   One day God will right every wrong and all will live in peace and safety.  We do not know when that may happen but we are to be ever vigilant, on guard, watching for the signs that will point us toward this reality.  It also teaches us to watch and wait, and stay busy doing what Jesus taught us to do while we wait.  Jesus did not want people just to sit and wait idly while the rest of the world evolves into evil and sinfulness.  He taught us to minister to those who needed us and to spread the good news of his love throughout the world.

The revelation of God's grace may not happen in a large dramatic way in our lifetimes.  It may take eons before it comes to pass, but we are urged to be on guard and ready, for we do not know when it may happen.  God's vision of peace and harmony among the nations is something that only God can make happen but we are God's messengers of peace and until it is a reality we are to be proclaiming that vision for all to see with eyes of faith.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Zusammengehorigkeitsgefuhl- What does it mean to you?

The German language contains many compound words that are tongue twisters to be sure for those of us who are native English language speakers.  Some words are fairly easy to pronounce and we often have fun with them bantering around the few German words that we may know.  Each year our community has a festival that has a German name--Gedenke!  In German it has a pronunciation of something like "Guh-dunka" but our little Texas town chooses to call it "Guh-dinky".  It translates into "remembrance" or "thankfulness".

The word that I put in the title to this blog posting is a real German word.  It is a long compound word that has a meaning of "togetherness, communal spirit, or sense of a common bond".  It is the feeling one gets from being part of something much bigger than what we are alone.  I learned about this word from reading an article that our son had written for the latest edition of the magazine for which he is editor, Zymurgy, which is the journal of the American Homebrewers Association.  David has been editor of that publication for almost a year and it provides informative and interesting information to people who brew beer at home, perhaps in their garage or basement.  The journal gives recipes for brewing, announces events for homebrewers to attend, and features articles that appeal to people who love beer and like to brew it.

David's most recent article in the latest edition of this magazine concerns German words and the meaning they have because he is fascinated with German words and is bilingual in German.  He spells out that long German word given above and says, "It's the sense of inclusion and kinship you feel from being part of a group."  Being part of something much larger than who you are alone definitely has a feeling that goes with it.

Many of us have known the feeling of what it means to belong to a church, to be part of the local body of the worldwide body of Christ.  We belong to a church because we need that connection that we cannot get alone.  We may claim our Christian experience on an individual level but that experience is made real in relationship with other Christians who share a vision of the world that we embrace.  We may search for a place where we "belong" as a Christian, where we "feel at home" and settle on a place where we enjoy worshiping and fellow-shipping and working beside other Christians.  We experience that Zusammengehorigkeitsgefuhl each time we are there with others.  It cannot be experience alone, by ourselves.

This shared experience is something that we must support in many ways if we value it.  We ask members to support the church with their prayers, presence, gifts, and service and to be faithful members of this local congregation.  Without members fulfilling their vow to be faithful and to give of themselves in their time, talent, and treasure the church will not be able to continue into the future.  This week at our church is Stewardship Sunday, when we think about what it means to be faithful in our vows toward our church and to be good stewards of all the gifts that God has given us.   If you are a member, we need you to be present.  If you are thinking of being a member, we need you too.  If you are not a member, you are very welcome to come anytime and worship and fellowship and work with us.  God's Kingdom is wide and large and includes all who will be included in it.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

All Saints Day, 2016

Today is called All Saints Day on the Christian calendar.  It is the day that follows Halloween, which is also called All Hallow's Eve.  People in the ancient world would dress in a costume on All Hallow's Eve so that the spirits that they believed inhabited the earth could not recognize them.  That is one of the reasons why people dress up on Halloween besides wanting to have fun at a party or give out candy to kids who come by dressed in costumes.

On the day following Halloween, today, All Saints Day, we think about the spirits of those who have departed the earth since last year at this time and we remember them and the lives they lived.  This next Sunday, will be All Saints Sunday, or in our church, since it has German roots--Totenfest or Festival of the Dead.  This Sunday we will read aloud the names of those members of our church who have died since this same time last year.  We have 11 names to read this year.  As we say each name, we will light a candle in their memory and ring our church bell one time.  Then those present will be invited to say aloud others whom they remember who have died this year.  We will ring a bell in their memories also.

The Gospel lection for All Saints Day and for next Sunday will be from Luke's Gospel 6:20-31.  It is the reading of Jesus giving the "Sermon on the Plain", Luke's version of the Sermon on the Mount that is found in Matthew's Gospel, only in Luke's account, Jesus is down on the plain at eye level with his audience rather than sitting on a hillside with people scattered here and there.  Jesus in Luke's account emphasizes the present time status of people living rather than the Kingdom of Heaven.

"Blessed and you who are poor" (not in spirit, but really poor)...and "you who are hungry" (really hungry, stomachs growling), and "you who weep".  And the reason these people are blessed is because Jesus says their situations are just temporary and soon they will find blessings and food, and laughter.  But those who are already rich and well fed and laughing will have a time come when their situation will change also and they will need help.  Jesus was talking to poor people who struggled just to have food on a daily basis and they needed encouragement.

Then Jesus in Luke repeats what he says in Matthew about loving your enemies and doing good even to those who mistreat you, giving your shirt away even to those who beg.  Then we find the Golden Rule to sum it up..."Do to others as you would have them do to you."  (Luke 6:31)

This section from Luke is appropriate for All Saints Day and for All Saints Sunday as it gives us something to think about as we remember the lives of those who meant a lot to us on earth and now reside in heaven.  In many ways, those whom we honor on this special day or Sunday exhibited some of the ways of living that Jesus encouraged, giving to others as they could, treating others with respect, and even sacrificing on behalf of others.  We call them Saints, not because they were perfect, but because they were striving daily to live in such a way that their lives would be pleasing to God.  They attempted to live by the Golden Rule as much as they could too.  So, their lives are meant to be an inspiration to us who are still living so we will live holy lives in every way we can.

The word "Saint" has had a meaning that is not actually biblical.  Perfection is not something that is necessary for an earthly being to be called a Saint.  The term is used in the epistles to refer to those who were members of the early church who were continuing to be faithful to the church despite encountering difficulties such as persecution and social ostracism.  Paul often praised the members of the churches he had helped to establish for their faithfulness and devotion, despite things happening in their social setting.  The word "saint" was used by Paul and others to refer to these people because they continued to try to live as Christians despite the hindrances they may have in their lives.

So, we are encouraged also to try to live as saints in this world, not relying upon our ability to be perfect but upon our devotion and faithfulness to the Christian message and to the church we have been called to support.

May those who come behind us find us faithful!  Amen.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Reformation Day, 2016

Today is Reformation Day.  It is also Halloween.  Both happen on the same day.  Halloween is when people dress up in costumes and have parties and when kids ask for candy while entertaining others in their costumes.

Reformation Day celebrates the event that happened 499 years ago today, when Martin Luther decided that he could no longer be silent but he had to announce to everyone what he really thought about the practices of his employer (the Roman Catholic Church).  So, on October 31, 1517 he nailed a piece of paper onto the door of the castle church at Wittenberg, Germany.  It listed 95 things that he thought were wrong within the life and practice of the church he served as a priest.  The one that many people remember and recognize has to do with the selling of indulgences.  That was a thing that has been instituted so that people could buy a way for their deceased relatives to spend less time in Purgatory.  The church had convinced many that if they gave more money to the church then their dead relatives would not spend as much time waiting to go to Heaven.

Martin Luther bristled at the idea that money could buy religious favor.  He read the New Testament and came up with the idea that salvation cannot be bought.  It is a gift from God given freely.  If it could be bought, then only the wealthy could be saved but if it is given away by God to whoever asks, then it shows that God is a gracious and loving God, not one that demanded money in exchange for eternal favors.

Martin Luther nailed his complaints to the door of the castle church and then waited for the reaction from the authorities.  Those came quickly along with death threats against him.  Speaking out against authority often results in trouble for those who speak out.  Luther had to live much of his life in hiding and had to defend himself at a trial where he faced many accusations.  Eventually he was able to marry and have children and live in a sense of peace.  He eventually translated the Bible from Latin to German so that the common person in Germany could read it (thanks to the invention of the printing press that happened during the same time period.)

Today, we remember Luther and the other reformers who brought about the Reformation through the courage they had to act on their conscience despite what others may say or do.   They faced persecution and hardship but they taught as they believed and today the Protestant movement is alive and well and very diverse, thanks to their testimony.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Self-Righteousness vs. Humility

Many years ago I worked with a fellow pastor on a large church staff.  He was the senior pastor and I was an associate pastor, one of about four who were supposed to assist him in doing his job.  He came to this church after serving several other large church positions.  We had heard good things about him, how he prayed with people who had concerns and urged participation in spiritual endeavors.  All the staff were excited to receive him as the new senior pastor, after having served under a somewhat wimpy pastor who read his sermons weekly in a very dry, monotone manner.

The day came for the arrival of the new senior pastor and we all lined up, as if we were the Von Trapp kids waiting for our father to give us his orders for the day and, after being greeted by the new senior pastor and sent on our way, we regrouped and began to talk about our new boss.  Everyone wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt but we all had feelings about meeting him that we could not describe.  Was he genuine in his actions and attitudes toward us or was it all just a facade that covered up for something else?

Over the period of the next months and years we would discover that this man had few social skills and knew very little about how to approach the staff who worked for him or even the church members whom he served.  He had a pompous air about him that came out in the way he talked, dressed, carried himself, and directed others in what to do.  We came to hate attending staff meetings because invariably this man would direct his hidden wrath toward one or more members of the staff during this meetings which could go on for a long time.

Soon, the work environment had changed where there were small groups talking here and there and the sense of unity that we had experienced earlier had been dissolved.  One day the senior pastor asked me to come into his office to visit with him.  I dreaded this invitation because we had had two previous encounters which had not be pleasant.  On this day, though, he seemed a bit subdued.  I sat down in the chair across from him and he sat behind his desk.  He began to talk about his time there and then asked me, "How do you have such a good relationship with the staff?  I have seen you among others and you seem to relate to them well.  How can I relate to them as you do?"  I answered and, I am not making this up--he wrote down the words I told him.  I said, "Just be yourself."  He said, "Just be myself?"  I replied, "Of course, who else could you be."  He paused and wrote on the pad he had in front of him, "Be" and his name.  I was nonplussed.  I could not believe that a grown man who was the senior pastor of this large church had to write himself a reminder to be himself.

You see, who he was was not someone to emulate.  He was full of pride and self-righteousness, very confident in his history of being a good "church manager" but he was not someone who was easy to get to know. He would never let his guard down so that others could truly know the real person who was him, deep down inside.  To do so would have been a terrible threat to him.

The passage from Luke for this Sunday features a story that Jesus told about a Pharisee and a Tax Collector who went to the Temple to pray.  The Pharisee told God how good he was and how valuable he was to God.  The Tax Collector hung his head and begged God for forgiveness.  He could not even look up when he considered what a sinner he was.  Jesus said that the Tax Collector went away "justified" because of his humility.

Being "full of yourself" is something we encounter daily in the world in which we live.  We see politicians, city and state leaders, and even a pastor now and then who are "full of themselves."
They think that the way they are and present themselves is the same way the rest of us act.  They cannot see that their self-absorption is so far out of line with the norm that it is ridiculous.  Every once in while when we meet up with such people, we secretly wish that life would take them down a notch or two so they can see themselves a bit more like other see them.  Perhaps their ego is their guise that they use for cover from accepting the real person that they are.  Maybe they are actually very insecure and that outward covering is their protection from considering the way they really would like to be.  Maybe they are like that senior pastor who asked me how I could get along with others on the staff and when I said, "Just be yourself" he had no idea what I meant.