Time seems to pass so quickly. It feels like it was just yesterday when we were getting ourselves ready for Advent and Christmas. Now, with Mardi Gras behind us, we are beginning our Lenten journey, making our way with Jesus to the Cross on Good Friday. From the early days of the church, there was a season set aside so that Christians would be properly prepared for a meaningful celebration of Easter. It is tempting to fast forward to the Easter portion of the story of our faith. After all, it is the best part! But, without Good Friday, Easter does not make sense. We cannot skip the Cross of Jesus.
People have them in their homes or wear them as jewelry or put them on their vehicles. They can be reminders of faith, of salvation, of discipleship. Someone once commented that they can be magnificent works of art, or they can be mere trinkets, fashion statements, bling. Crosses.
There is a story told about Clarence Jordan, author of the Cotton Patch New Testament translations and founder of the Koinonia community in Georgia. A friend of his, who was pastor of a large congregation, was showing Jordan his congregation’s newly built sanctuary. It featured pews made of imported wood, beautiful stained glass, a grand pipe organ and other elegant finishes. Stepping outside, he pointed to the steeple, where a spotlight illuminated a large gold cross. “‘Dr. Jordan, that cross alone cost us $10,000.’” Jordan looked up at the cross, looked back at his host, and said, “‘You know, my friend, there was a time when crosses were free.’”
Someone presented to a group of us a compelling image of the Gospel as it relates to the cross. We were asked to imagine two cliffs separated by a great chasm. On one side was written “humanity”; on the other was written “God”. The space, the chasm between God and humanity was labeled sin, because it is our sin that separates us from God. (Remember, sin speaks of our human condition. We commit sinful actions because we are sinners. And it is our sinful human condition that separates us from God.) Over the eons, we have tried any number of ways to bridge the gap between God and ourselves. Some of the ways include religion, with specific acts of devotion or piety or ritual. Other bridges go by the name “Good Works.” The one thing these bridges have in common is that they ultimately can’t bridge the chasm. All of these bridges of our own making ultimately fall short.
The Good News in all of this is that we have nothing to prove to God. You see, it is not our bridges that bridge the chasm between God and us – it is the cross of Christ. The final image was of a cross bridging the chasm. “Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” Paul asks the Corinthians….that a cross, this instrument of death, would be transformed by God into a means of giving life and hope to the world. As we make our Lenten journey over these next forty days, I would encourage you to pause and reflect upon the power of the cross.
So I’ll cherish the old rugged cross, Till my trophies at last I lay down; I will cling to the old rugged cross, And exchange it some day for a crown.
We’re all about to that point in the New Year where, if we made resolutions, we’re beginning to wonder whether they’re worth keeping. After all, that piece of chocolate cake is awfully tempting, or that extra glass of wine, or the new gadget that we desperately need – even though it doesn’t fit into our savings plan. Life presents us with so many temptations, and sadly, in their face, our resolve quickly melts like snow on a warm day. And once we’ve given up and given in, things go back to the way they were. We make peace with our problems and nothing changes. Perhaps we’re a bit disappointed, but the familiar ruts – even the unhealthy ones – are strangely reassuring. We’ve been here before; we know the terrain all too well.
At our recent Session planning and training retreat, I shared an excerpt from the book, Spiritual Leadership for Church Officers, by Joan Gray. She writes as a Presbyterian for Presbyterians, pointing out that the way our church is structured, we tend to run things with business-like efficiency, often at the expense of our deeper spiritual responsibilities. Gray invites us to imagine the church as a boat. Using this metaphor, she asks, “Are we a rowboat or are we a sailboat?” When we function as a rowboat, we are responsible for the power to get things accomplished. A sailboat, on the other hand, opens its sails to be moved by the power of the wind (wind/breath = Holy Spirit). In both examples – sailing and rowing – there are essential tasks and responsibilities for the vessel to move in the desired direction. The difference comes down to the source of the power to move: we’re either trusting in ourselves and in our power to accomplish things, or we’re open to the leading and the power of God.
Like all metaphors, there are limits when pushed too far. But maybe we do need some spiritual sailing lessons! Initial conceptual enthusiasm is quickly met with the reality that rowing in our ruts is much easier, because we know them so well. But as we are honest about the diminishing availability of resources, we become all the more aware of our need for trusting God to guide and empower us. So, my encouragement to everyone is this: “give sailing a chance.” Instead of letting this idea become like the latest resolution to be quickly forgotten, I hope everyone will ask at their committee meetings, “Are we rowing, or are we sailing?” In other words, “Are we doing this on our own, or have we really turned this over to God?” Is this just “business as usual,” or are we grasping the full spiritual dimension of our actions and commitments? And hold your leaders accountable! Like anything worth doing, it’s going to be hard at times. There will be false starts, and sometimes we might even get knocked off the boat. And in those moments, we will be tempted to reach for the oars. But I hope that we will keep each other from doing that, and instead open our sails again to the power of the Holy Spirit, who will move us into the future of God’s own imagining.
The Christmas Eve sermon was inspired by the 300th anniversary of the hymn, “Joy to the World.” Isaac Watts composed this paraphrase of Psalm 98:4-9 in 1719. As we leave 2019 behind and move into 2020, the topic of joy still seems germane for our consideration. How do we find Joy in the new year?
In our world – and especially in our context here in the United States – we hear a lot about happiness. Let’s try to keep everyone happy. Does this make them happy? We just want you to be happy. I was watching a movie recently, and the antagonist said to the main character, “all Americans think about is their own happiness.” While we might bristle a bit at this over-generalization, a quick perusal of any self-help aisle in a bookstore will indicate that there is at least a hint of truth to the statement. After all, the “pursuit of happiness” is a phrase found in our Declaration of Independence.
Happiness and joy are not the same thing. Wiser minds have spilled much ink to parse the differentiating characteristics, so I will highlight but one. Joy requires connection. We usually think of the connection being with another person, but the important connection might also be with a place, a community, an animal, an activity. Joy often arises from a connection with something/someone outside of ourselves.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus speak of joy (15:11): “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” Jesus has been speaking to his disciples using the famous vine and branches metaphor. (v. 1) “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener.” He said (v. 4), “Abide in me as I abide in you….” (v. 5) “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” Using this agrarian metaphor, Jesus speaks of a most profound and intimate and demanding connection. Christian joy comes from our connection with Jesus Christ, from our being ultimately grounded in a personal relationship with him, just as his joy flows from his union with the Father.
Note what Jesus doesn’t say. In this context, he doesn’t say, “Bear fruit.” He doesn’t say, “Be joyful.” That’s where we often get it wrong: we focus on producing the outward manifestation. What Jesus says is, “Abide in me as I abide in you.” Apart from him we will not bear fruit; apart from him we will not experience his joy. It’s simply not possible, just as it’s impossible for a branch to live once it’s been severed from the vine.
As we begin another calendar year, let us recommit ourselves to focusing on this most important connection. The world promises happiness, but Jesus said that he wants our joy to be complete. “Abide in me as I abide in you.” So let every heart prepare him room, and then heaven and nature will sing for joy.
To Thee with joy I sing - Sweet child that heaven did bring - Now Judah's land shall ring, with Thy praises. Gentle stranger - In that manger – In Judah's land we'll find Thee, infant Savior.
The words from that Appalachian carol remind us that we encounter the Christ of Christmas as a stranger. So often, we are lulled into the comfortable familiarity of the holiday season as we celebrate it – the sights, the smells, the songs. (These things keep us sane, when they aren’t driving us crazy!) But as we remind ourselves about the “reason for the season,” let us not forget the oddness of it – the Savior of the world was born in a barn. Ordinarily, Jesus’ mother should not have been pregnant. He was welcomed into the world by lowly shepherds,
not notable celebrities. Salvation is born on the underside of history…how odd of God!
In the Gospel of Matthew’s account of the Judgment (Matthew 25:31-46), Jesus talks about those who are invited to “inherit the kingdom” because, he says, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” These were things done to Christ, much to the surprise of those who did these generous acts, for as Jesus said: “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
It is interesting to note the element of surprise, as if we should expect the unexpected. When we listen to the Old Testament lessons during the Sundays of Advent, we will hear words of the biblical prophets foretelling One who will be the Messiah. People sometimes say, “How did people not realize that Jesus was the Messiah?” There are many possible answers, but it might have something to do with expectations. People were expecting something else, someone else. Maybe they had their hearts set on a warrior or ruler or philosopher… someone, anyone, other than a “babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.”
The Christian tradition has often taught the importance of practicing hospitality. Hebrews 13:1-2 says, “Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” The Greek word that is translated into English as hospitality is philoxenia, which literally means “love of strangers.” So, “do not neglect to show love to strangers.” It is generally easier to show love to the people we already know, but we are invited here to stretch our narrow expression of love in such a way that we include others who might be outside of our normal circles. A regular practice of hospitality opens the possibility of “entertaining angels without knowing it.” Showing love to strangers prepares us to encounter God, especially when God appears to us in surprisingly vulnerable ways (e.g. as those needing food, clothing, care… or as a child).
During this Advent and Christmas season, let us be mindful of the One who comes to us in unexpected ways. As we watch and wait for his coming, we just might discover that this gentle stranger is to be found in more places than we first expected. So be sure that there is room in your heart to welcome Him.
One of the great stories in the Bible is that of Queen Esther, which is recorded in the book bearing her name. Following the Babylonian Exile, some Jews returned to Jerusalem to rebuild the city, and others opted to remain in what was then Persia. Esther’s family stayed. She was known for her beauty and became part of the king’s harem. Throughout the Bible, God’s people faced difficulties, and there is no exception in this story. The “prime minister” of Persia, named Haman, decides that all Jews in Persia must be eliminated. In the seclusion of the royal harem, Esther is unaware of this evil decree. Her uncle comes to her and tells her about Haman’s murderous plot, and he asks her to use her position to gain an audience with the king and make supplication on behalf of her people. These are her uncle’s words:
Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.
God has a way of putting “the right people in the right place at the right time,” as the saying goes. Esther successfully undermines Haman’s plot, and she helps to save her people from destruction. It is a story of triumph in the face of adversity.
Perhaps, like Esther, you have found yourself in a challenging situation. Perhaps you even wondered, “Why me? Why now? Couldn’t someone else take care of this?” What did you do in those situations? Did you rise to the occasion or turn the other way? It is always tempting to take the easy way out, but sometimes God places us in situations precisely where we are most needed. People often share with me stories of these “God moments” from their lives – when they catch a glimpse of their role in the bigger picture of reality.
As 2019 quickly comes to an end, we have the opportunity to look back and then look ahead. In the life of the church, we are wrapping up another stewardship campaign and we have elected new elders for the class of 2022. We are blessed to have people in our faith community who are willing to step up and serve faithfully. 2020 will doubtless be a year of exciting opportunities and challenges. May God bless us all with clarity and courage to be who we are called to be “for such a time as this.”
Rev. Barrett Ingram