Jesus’ Mission Today

today

Luke 4: 14-21

An extraordinary Sabbath day started out like any other day, a day for Jewish people to gather in synagogue and worship.  Per Jewish custom, worshipers have engaged in prayer, heard the law read, and are now at the point of their synagogue service when a volunteer reads from the prophets. Only today, an extraordinary worshiper volunteered. Though the scroll of Isaiah was given to him, Jesus chooses what verses to read from the scripture. The Messianic text Jesus reads from Isaiah 58:6 and Isaiah 61: 1-2 takes place in the context of post-exilic Isaiah when the people are returning from captivity with a spirit of hopefulness. The words are profoundly powerful- the words offer people a better way. Then Jesus sits down, in Jewish custom once the speaker sits down that cues the worshipers in to begin to engage in the tradition of Midrash, in sacred conversation. The speaker would apply the text read from prophets, to the religious, political, and ethnics of the day. All eyes are fixed on Jesus. Where will he go with this prophetic text?  He says, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Jesus identifies his purpose in one of the shortest sermons ever recorded. What does this mean for Jesus to say this has been fulfilled today? Through such words, Jesus states very clearly why he has come to be among the people.

Theologian and author, Karoline Lewis observes, “Jesus’ sermon in his hometown of Nazareth is not only a life-changing sermon; it is a life-changing act. God has now entered the world as flesh so that no human can be overlooked. No one can be left in a place of oppression. No one is unworthy of God’s good news.” Jesus’ mission statement is at the core of liberation theology–the belief that Jesus in fact came to the world to bring justice, peace, and reconciliation. Throughout the rest of Luke’s gospel, Jesus’ purpose of fulfilling the scripture from Isaiah continues. He proclaims through his words and actions that good news will be brought to the poor, he heals the blinds, and eats with the outcast. Jesus proclaims a ministry of liberation and justice, which cannot wait any longer and has a strong sense of urgency. His purpose was fulfilled and continues to be fulfilled in Jesus’ life and ministry. Christ’s purpose and reason for being very clearly proclaims to the masses that now is always the time to release the captives, give sight to the blind, free the oppressed, proclaim year of the Lord’s favor.

Imagine being in the crowd and hearing Jesus’ purpose proclaimed for the first time.  How might you respond? Ruth Ann Reese, professor of New Testament at Asbury seminary writes, “We can imagine a hometown congregation filled with all the characters of the village- rich and poor, seeing and blind, oppressed and oppressor- and wonder what this liberation looked like for them. Did they anticipate the good news would come first to the poor, the prisoner, and the oppressed? Or did they think it would come first for those with inside connections, the rich, and the religious? Yet, Jesus offers them good news. Will they hear it and receive it as good news to be shared with all, especially the vulnerable? Or will they hear it and hope that is a message for them alone?” How do we hear Jesus’ declaration of his mission statement, ministry goals, and ultimate purpose of choosing to come among us in such a messy world, today?

The Public Religion Research Center recently surveyed church goers and discovered that many churchgoers fear the present, as a collective group, we fear today. The survey revealed church goers have high levels of anxiety and nostalgia. According to the survey, people who go to church have nostalgia and some might even believe that “our best days are behind us.’ Several believe that the future of society and future of church is bleak. Perhaps our added anxiety comes from living in a world, among a culture which is such a place of much unrest.  Perhaps it is because we live in a messy world and we are not certain what possibilities the future may hold. Perhaps, but friends, if we are focusing on Jesus’ mission statement, we are called to embrace the power and importance of today. Today is not merely a space to mourn the loss of the past and fear what we cannot imagine. Today is a space to grow in our faith, to engage in creative ministry, to proclaim hope, and to listen for new ways the Spirit might be revealing ideas in our midst.

Theologian and author Diana Butler- Bass speaks of the power of today. She points out that the word, ‘today’ is a “Deeply dangerous spiritual reality- because today insists that we lay aside both our memories and dreams to embrace fully the moment of now. The past romanticizes the work of our ancestors; the future scans the horizons of our descendants and depends on them to fix everything. But “today” places us in the midst of the sacred drama, reminding us that we are actors and agents in God’s desire work for the world. ‘Today’ is the most radical thing Jesus ever said.”

What is the Spirit saying to us in this moment; today on January 27th 2019?  How do we understand the text Jesus reads from Isaiah as being fulfilled when so much suffering exists in the world? Who are the poor among us who need to hear the good news? Who are the oppressed among us who need to be freed? How is Jesus still bringing good news to the poor, today, proclaiming freedom to oppressed, today, bringing sight and renewed vision where darkness has too long prevailed, today? How can we response to the call to be among those who follow to join in his work of healing, liberation, and grace? We are called to continually strive to follow Jesus’ mission “today.” And today, Jesus’ mission remains the same.

Friends, there is an immediacy to Jesus’ mission, there is an immediacy given to Jesus’ first public prophetic word, today, and too often the prophetic word is followed by those who might answer, well maybe tomorrow or let’s simply wait. History is full of examples of how people of the faith have been tragically too slow to embrace the cries of the prophets or the opportunities to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God.

So how can we emulate Jesus’ mission statement, today?  Perhaps we do so a little bit every day. Small acts of kindness can go a long way. We can befriend those who are poor in spirit or those who are lonely through compassionate conversation. Through partnerships with organizations like International Justice Mission, we can help captives be set free. We can actively speak out against injustices in the world. During most recent government shutdown, as federal workers were furloughed, others sought out ways to help offer support. From free meals to collecting gas and VISA gift cards, people were willing to help.

How might we push through feelings that we can’t even begin to try to follow Jesus’ mission? Another lectionary text for today includes 1 Corinthians 12, and verses 24-26, “But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, 25that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. 26If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.” Each member of the body has different gifts and we don’t have to try to live out Jesus’ mission alone. Some among us ask the hard questions of society, some among us are patient listeners, some are able to see both sides of every disagreement, some are called to work to share compassion in the justice system, others are teachers or mentors of children, and each of us have spiritual gifts. We not only have examples in the Gospels of ways Jesus lives out his mission, we never have to try to live out Jesus’ mission statement alone. When one person suffers, we all suffer together, and when one rejoices, we all rejoice together. So when one oppressed person is freed and treated with welcomed dignity and given a place at the table, the body of Christ is stronger.  To be so moved by the Spirit is a cause for celebration because it demonstrates the reconciliation won for us in Christ, the Scripture fulfilled in our hearing.

Friends, Jesus is very clear what his mission and purpose is in today’s scripture. His concise sermon remains as clear, poignant, and urgent as ever. Today, what we need is present in Christ. Luke’s gospel continues to show ways Jesus lived out his mission statement. The pages of Luke’s gospel are filled with Jesus teaching, interacting with, and sharing good news with the poor in body or in spirit. Luke’s Gospel emphasizes God’s transforming favor for the material poor. The pages are filled with countless examples of Jesus giving sight to the blind and healing people in body and circumstance and of Jesus living out his mission.

How might we strive to better follow Jesus’ example and Jesus’ mission statement–today? Amen.

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Star of Wonder

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What comes to mind when you hear the word, “wonder?”  As we embark on new journeys throughout a New Year, we may wonder what 2019 will hold. We may wonder how things might shift in coming year. We may wonder at new ways God might be at work in our lives and where God might be leading us. Even when the story might be familiar, we are called to approach scripture with a sense of awe and wonder.

Matthew 2:1-12 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men a from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising,[b] and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah[c] was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:

‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd[d] my people Israel.’”

Then Herod secretly called for the wise men[e] and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising,[f] until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped,[g] they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

Today, even though yesterday was the 12th day of Christmastide, we are still celebrating the glorious news of Christ’s birth. Who still has their trees up? Growing up I was taught that trees should be left up through Russian Christmas, or at least Epiphany. Epiphany happens every year on January 6th, but it doesn’t always fall on a Sunday. Admittedly, pastors tend to geek out a bit when it does. Today we celebrate Epiphany which marks the arrival of the magi from the East, probably around the time Jesus was a toddler. Someone once defined an Epiphany as a moment “when the jagged pieces of life come together to define us;” in case of our text the jagged pieces of ancient prophecies come together in Christ’s birth. An epiphany is often an intense revelation mixed with an invitation to wonder and the celebration of Epiphany by its nature stirs up wonder within us.

One point of wonderment in our text is the star. Since humankind started looking towards the night skies, stars have been a source of wonder.  On cold nights when the wind brings a crisp sense to the night air, as we look at the billions of stars in the night sky, we are awestruck with wonder. We ask many questions: how many stars are there? How vast is our universe? Might there by other life forms? People dedicate lives to studying stars.

The magi in our text were people who studied the stars. These Gentile magi astrologers, possible Zoroastrians, came from the East, perhaps from around the area of modern day Turkey. They not only studied the stars, but they assigned a particular meaning to how the stars and planets moved across the night sky. The magi recognized the appearance of a new star was a big deal, so they made some calculations and assumptions and set out on their journey to follow the star of wonder. Much of their identity remains a point of wondering but here’s what we know about them. Though in the hymn we sing “We Three Kings,” They were instead magi from the East, not kings. In fact, the only kings referred to in passage are Herod and Jesus. Our text also never mentions how many magi there were.  The idea of three magi was added over five hundred years later. The wise magi followed the star and appeared with gifts for Jesus and his family, which is what one theologian labels as the “first baby shower.” When the magi show up to pay homage to Jesus, Gentiles became part of the Jesus’ story.

Wonder can also disrupt our lives and direct us down a completely unexpected path.  The magi left their homes as they traveled probably well over a thousand miles. They took a chance of something they didn’t completely understand. They set out without knowing exactly where they would end up or what they would see. They traveled purposefully towards an as-yet-unknown and vague destination.

The magi eventually reach Herod, who is caught completely off guard—he had no idea this threat to his rule was growing right under his nose. Wonder disrupted Herod’s life.  Herod was already in the habit of trying to eliminate all threats within his own palace. He had a reputation for assassinating anyone who he thought might overthrow him and take his power away, include his own sons. The birth of a promised Messiah would be good news for all who wish to participate in God’s radical inclusive love and grace—but not good news for those who desire power over and against others. The birth of someone who, “shall become a ruler who will shepherd the people” poses quite a threat for the Herods of the world. Be afraid Herod, be very afraid. The world is about to turn, Christ broke into the world to make everything new.

Our text reminds us that the birth of Christ had cosmic, astronomical, and societal importance for ALL people. Epiphany celebrates the nation-encompassing of God’s invitation to be in relationship with not just those in Jerusalem, but those spread throughout distant lands, those who set out in wonderment and seek Christ like the magi. Epiphany reminds us to look UP towards God and OUT towards all creation and people who all are beloved by God.  Perhaps all wonder is an invitation…and invitation into pondering who is this God who came among us and what does God means for our lives. For some, it is a fear, for others, a joy. When the magi arrived at the place where the star was and saw Jesus and his family, they were exceedingly joyful and worshiped Christ. And sometimes, pondering God brings wonder, joy, and fear; simultaneously.

So friends, we must ask ourselves, is there room in our lives for disruption and wonder? Is there room for God to invite us to follow- or to go a different way? Let’s celebrate Epiphany and remember the jagged pieces of our lives should point toward our God. Like the magi, we don’t necessarily know where we will end up when we are drawn by wonder. Wonder leads us to amazement and healing, as well as places beyond our wildest dreams.

In a few moments, I’m going to invite you to make room for wonder as we listen to God and follow Jesus in this New Year through a very particular practice known as “Star Words” or “Star Gifting.” You may have noticed extra baskets this morning as you came in. In these baskets are stars. Each star has a word written on it. The stars are face down because you don’t get to pick your word- the star will, like a wand, choose you in a sense. Think of it as the opposite of a New Year’s Resolution, in which you try to correct some defect in yourself, and receive instead this gift of a word, to carry with you throughout the year. To illuminate your journey; to help guide you as seek new ways to encounter God and share God’s love with neighbors throughout the year. Perhaps consider looking your word up in the dictionary in order to grasp new meaning.  For example, we hear the word grace all the time, but what exactly does it mean?

I invite you to take a star as you come forward for communion. Take it home with you, and put it somewhere you can see it. On your bathroom mirror, near your coffee pot, as a bookmark in your daily devotional, on your computer monitor at work or home, in your workshop or car.  The word on your star may not make sense to you at this point. You may not even like; but watch and wait. After all, we don’t always get a word that makes our hearts sing, but as one of my much younger friend says, “You get what you get, and you don’t throw a fit.” In some ways, meditating on the words that are more challenging or dissonant can be even more revealing than words that we like, or words that make sense. Sometimes the word we most need to hear is that which we least want to hear. Our challenge is to reflect on the words’ presence in your life throughout this year. It may break in like an epiphany. It may slink in like a barn cat.

As I wrote words on each star, I prayed over each one of these stars-that each star would find its way to precisely the right person, to guide them in the way of Jesus. To challenge them in a new way as they seek to grow in their faith journeys and strive to love God and love neighbor. My hope is that like the star that guided the magi, this word may guide you this year as you share the all-encompassing love and grace of God with all you encounter. We are all challenged and invited to use our words as a chance to reflect on how God speaks to God’s people. What might we learn from one word? What treasured wisdom might resurface?  How might this revelation entail as we seek to participate in God’s call for uprising of justice and the insurgence of grace? May your word surprise you in the best ways, may you wrestle with it and poke at it-and may it poke back at you. May you be filled with wonder and awe as the magi were as you encounter God in new ways. Amen.

Light of Emmanuel

emmanuel

Why does Christmas matter?  In the coming days, we may begin to un-decorate our homes and take down trees.  Perhaps we have gone back to our jobs and school will begin again shortly. Job hunters seeking employment will go back a trying job market.  Families will continue to mourn the loss of loved ones. The lonely family member will go back home to an empty house without the sounds of loved one’s laughter.  To the world, another Christmas which held so much hope and expectation, has come and gone.  We return to every day routines; we return to the world, a world which can be messy and dark.

But friends, Christmas for Christians should make all the difference in the world.  Because of Christmas, we received our Lord and Emmanuel Jesus Christ. Christ, who is fully God and fully man, beginning and end, our Redeemer and Savior, began flesh, like us.  On Christmas, God chose to come live among us in the messiness of world.  Through his birth, Jesus became God with us. Through Christ, light enters the world.  The word of God says despite the darkness in the world; even the depth of gloom and darkness will not have the final say.

Our text this morning comes from John 1:1-14. This prologue to John’s gospel serves a highly theological birth narrative. Unlike Matthew and Luke, there are no shepherds or angels. The writer uses deliberate poetic voice to speak about Jesus’ coming into the world. Hear these words….

John 1:1-14 Contemporary English Version (CEV)

The Word of Life

In the beginning was the one
who is called the Word.
The Word was with God
and was truly God.
From the very beginning
the Word was with God.

And with this Word,
God created all things.
Nothing was made
without the Word.
Everything that was created
    received its life from him,
and his life gave light
to everyone.
The light keeps shining
in the dark,
and darkness has never
put it out.[a]
God sent a man named John,
    who came to tell
about the light
and to lead all people
to have faith.
John wasn’t that light.
He came only to tell
about the light.

The true light that shines
on everyone
was coming into the world.
10 The Word was in the world,
but no one knew him,
though God had made the world
with his Word.
11 He came into his own world,
but his own nation
did not welcome him.
12 Yet some people accepted him
and put their faith in him.
So he gave them the right
to be the children of God.
13 They were not God’s children
by nature
or because
of any human desires.
God himself was the one
who made them his children.

14 The Word became
a human being
and lived here with us.
We saw his true glory,
the glory of the only Son
of the Father.
From him all the kindness
and all the truth of God
have come down to us.

Advent, the season of waiting for the promised savior, is over.  Our Savior has come.  However, the season of remembering God is with us has just begun.  Christ has broken into the darkness of our world.  Christ, our light and life, conquers darkness and death. Friends, God is not only with us when the Christmas decorations are up, God remains with us throughout the year.  Our text reminds us the good news of Christmas that Jesus is the light of the world and the presence of God shinning throughout the world.

For Christians, it makes all the difference in the world, that Jesus became flesh and dwelled among us.  The word order in our text may seem confusing in the English translation.  The Greek captures the true oneness the Trinity in a profound way and can be translated, “what God was, the Word (Christ) was.” One of my former seminary professors, Dr. Andrew Purves, constantly reminded students that there is no God hidden behind the back of Jesus. Therefore, as we see and encounter Jesus, we see and encounter God. What would the world look like today if Christ would have not become flesh?  We would be lost to the darkness of sin and we would possibly worship Gods who seem distant and cosmic.  Thankfully, Christ did come, Christmas did happen, and we are able to relate to God through Jesus.  Is it important to remember that Christ came to save us from our sins?  Yes, but Christ also came to be in relationship with humankind.

The Message’s translation of John 1:14 captures Jesus’ mission to relate to us.  John 1:14 reads, “The word became flesh and moved into the neighborhoods.”  God in Christ, sought out humankind.  He heals the sick and eats with sinners. Jesus, in the flesh, is in the presence of the unclean and untouchable.  He speaks to outcasts. God through Christ, knows what it is like to cry and have deep ranges of emotion. He knows what it is like to lose a loved one. He knows what it is like to be rejected. God desires to be in relationship with us, so Christ came into the world not only to save us from our sins, but to dwell in our neighborhoods.  In his piece, God is in the Manger, Theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes, “God is in the manger, wealth in poverty, light in darkness, comfort in abandonment. No evil can befall us; whatever men may do to us, they cannot but serve the God who is secretly revealed as love and rules the world and our lives.”

Sometimes, trying to comprehend why God would choose to become like us is difficult.  As a lover of music, I whole heartedly agree with the quote, “when words fail, music speaks.”  Later in our worship service we will sing one of my favorite Christmas hymns, “Once in Royal David City.”  The hymn, originally a poem by the Irish poet and hymn writer, Cecil Alexander, captures many theological points in few words.  Listen to the words of hymn: “He came down to earth from heaven, who is God and Lord of all, and His shelter was a stable and His cradle was a stall: with the poor and mean, and lowly lived on earth a savior holy…Jesus is our childhood pattern, day by day like us He grew. He was little, meek, and helpless, tears and smiles like us, He knew. And He cares when we are sad and He shares when we are glad.”

So then how are we challenged to response to the knowledge that Christ is the light? Because Jesus is our childhood pattern; we are called to live our lives in ways which point to Christ and share the light of Christ with others.  Within the first chapter of John’s gospel, our text points out a person who pointed to the true light found only in Jesus Christ.  John, the Baptist, is recorded in John’s gospel as the one who bears witness to the light of Christ.  The gospel writer makes it clear that John, himself, is not the light, but John is sent to testify and bear witness to the light of Christ.  As Christians we are called to bear witness to the light of Christ in our lives and share the light of Christ with others through our words and deeds.

I have encountered many Christians who have the light of Christ in their lives and who share that light with others.  Like John, they bear witness to the true light, Jesus.  While worshiping at a small Presbyterian church outside of Pittsburgh during my field education, not a Sunday went by without me receiving a hug from Henry, one of the patriarchs of the congregation. If you opted out of receiving a hug, Henry still said, “God bless you and we love you.” Henry’s love for others was evident as he bore witness to the light of Christ in the community and as he welcomed everyone to worship through greeting them. Think for a minute about those in your life who have shown the love of Christ to you.  From Sunday school teachers who became adopted grandparents, to scout leaders who influenced us in subtle ways, to a friend who offers comfort in a time of need, all of these people have the light of Christ in them.

Christmas is about God’s love. In the Christmas classic, The Muppet’s Christmas Carol, the jolly ghost of Christmas present sings a melody and encourages Scrooge to find the love behind Christmas.  Listen to some words from “It Feels like Christmas.”

“It’s in the singing of a street corner choir
It’s going home and getting warm by the fire
It’s true, wherever you find love
It feels like Christmas
A cup of kindness that we share with another
A sweet reunion with a friend or a brother
In all the places you find love
It feels like Christmas
It is the season of the heart
A special time of caring
The ways of love made clear
It is the season of the spirit
The message, if we hear it
Is make it last all year.”      

How can you share the light of Christ with others during the new year? How can you show people that Christmas does not end after December 25th?  How can you show others that God is and will always be with us?  As we come alongside others to bear witness to Christ’s light in the world, we do not want to be like blinking Christmas lights, only shinning when it is convenient for us. Christ calls us to be constantly shinning our lights, and constantly bearing witness to His light and presence in the world. How can you come alongside those who need to experience the love and light of Christ and bear witness with your actions and deeds?

Civil rights leader and theologian, Howard Thurman speaks to how Christians are called to response to the work of Christmas in his poem, “The Work of Christmas.” Listen to his words:

“When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and the princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers,
To make music in the heart.”

Jesus shows us how to love others through his ministry- he shows us the blueprint for continuing the work of Christmas. Sometimes, all that is needed is a prayer of encouragement.  Sometimes, the continue work of Christmas means being present with those undergoing life’s storms.

Life still remains messy and complicated. Being Christians does not mean things are easy for us, but it does mean Emmanuel. God is with us. God desires to be in relationship with us, and chooses to be with us. God in Christ, pitched His tent among humankind and knows our trials.  God is with the teachers and students who are getting ready to go back to school.  God is with the job seekers as they search for employment.  God in Christ sits at every hospital bedside.  Christ becomes a constant companion for the those separated from family. God in Christ holds those who are mourning close, and wipes their tears away.  The storms of life may continue to churn but because of Emmanuel, God is constantly with us during those storms.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it, and the darkness will never overcome it. Amen.

Prepare the Way for Peace

John the Baptist’s message

In the fifteenth year of the rule of the emperor Tiberius—when Pontius Pilate was governor over Judea and Herod was ruler[a] over Galilee, his brother Philip was ruler[b] over Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was ruler[c] over Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas—God’s word came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. John went throughout the region of the Jordan River, calling for people to be baptized to show that they were changing their hearts and lives and wanted God to forgive their sins. This is just as it was written in the scroll of the words of Isaiah the prophet,

A voice crying out in the wilderness:
Prepare the way for the Lord;
make his paths straight.
Every valley will be filled,
and every mountain and hill will be leveled.
The crooked will be made straight
and the rough places made smooth.
All humanity will see God’s salvation.[d]

Earlier in the service, we lit the candle of Peace. In one particular Peanuts comic strip, Charlie Brown and his little sister Sally are talking about peace, along with the uncertainty of life and all the craziness life can entail. Sally proudly proclaims that she has inner peace, but still appears to be really restless. As the comic strip continues, something sets Sally on a rant and she begins raving to her brother, “I hate everything! I hate the world!” Charlie Brown trying to calm her down, stops her. “I thought you had inner peace,” he says. To which Sally woefully responses, “I do, but I still have outer obnoxious-ness!” It is all too easy to identify with Sally, isn’t it? We have many “outer- obnoxious-ness” in our lives.  How can we prepare the way for peace this Advent season, even amidst all of our “outer-obnoxious-ness”?

In the midst of the Advent season, our text this morning cries out using Isaiah’s words to, “Prepare the way of the Lord!”  Think about the last time you prepared for something, perhaps a work or school project, a party, or a meal for guests. What did you do to prepare? Often times when we are preparing for something, we tend to want to plan ahead, to make to-do lists. When we are planning meticulously and preparing, we care enough about the tasks at hand to want to get our preparations exactly correct. Over the course of the Advent season as we prepare, let us bring the same eagerness to our anticipation of Christ’s coming.

Christian author, Handel Brown writes, “Christmas has lost its meaning for us because we have lost the spirit of expectancy. We cannot prepare for an observance. We must prepare for an experience.” Just as we take time to pull Christmas decorations out of our attics and we carefully prepare to place ornaments on our trees (and in some homes we re-hang ornaments on the tree multiple times after cats knock them off), just as we take time to make our shopping lists and to double check them twice, just as we take time to prepare holiday meals; we are called to create a space to prepare for the arrival of the Messiah.  Preparing our hearts to receive Christ is at the very heart of the Advent season.

John the Baptist was born to anticipate and prepare. John, the voice crying out in the wilderness, was charge to prepare the way before the Lord, to prepare the way for peace. While many powerful people are mentioned at the beginning of our text, it is seemingly insignificant John, the son of Zechariah, a temple priest, who has a call to proclaim and help others prepare the way for the Lord. The writer of Luke took special care to remind us that John the Baptist was called to deliver a message, a call which occurred smack in the middle of world events, at a very particular time and a very particular place. As he does in other places throughout the text, Luke, a writer with a historian mind-set, places the events of Christ’s life in historical context and provides us with a rich background to portray John as prophet who worked and spoke in the real world of human authorities.

We don’t get the words of John’s proclamation in today’s passage, stay tuned for Dan’s sermon on John’s words and counsel next Sunday. What we can infer from our passage today is John the Baptist is charged with preparing the way and anticipating the ministry of Christ; to proclaim baptism and to get people ready to see Christ’s ministry and hear Christ’s teachings.  To wait and see, to get people ready for Christ’s unique peace. A peace saving people from the darkness of their sins—bringing indescribable peace through an unlikely cross. A savior who brings peace through mercy and forgiveness and who shows us all glimpses of peace with every new day—if we are paying attention. A savior who gives us peace in knowing that salvation is offered and a savior who makes, “every mountain and hill made low.”

So what does all this mean for us as we prepare for Christ’s coming and Christ’s peace today? Advent suggest that God seems to want us to wait. Waiting for Christ in Advent is hard. God seems to expect expectation. What does this level of preparation and peace look like? Especially when we don’t have to look too far to be hit with our “outer-obnoxious-ness.” What must we do to prepare the way for the Lord?

Preparation for the coming of Christ happens not only when Tiberius was emperor but also December 9, 2018. In this second year of the presidency of Donald Trump, when Ralph Northam serves as Governor of Virginia, Pope Francis occupies the Vatican, and just a month after the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue, as National Gun Violence Prevention Sabbath Weekend begins this Thursday, and as the Yemen food crisis continues. While war, struggle, and heartache occur in many places, we are called to be prepared and to celebrate joyfully ‘a child, a son, a Prince of Peace given to us’—not in spite of all that is horrible, dangerous, or distressing about the world around us, but precisely because of it.

But perhaps we should bring it to more personal level—-what does anticipation and preparation for the Lord look like for me? What does it look like for you? How do we feel when we hear that it’s time to prepare? Nervous? Excited? Ecstatic? Anxious? Ponderous? Peaceful? Overwhelmed? What do the words of Advent, hope, peace, love, joy, provoke you to do in preparation? What are you looking forward to? Advent preparation is similar to the refining and redefining process. Do we feel like we are refining ourselves during Advent? Which practices prepare you the most for the coming of Christ? I’m partial to singing, it feels emotionally connected and yet mysterious. Singing also brings to light why anticipation can be so emotional as we connect with and pray the lyrics of songs. Another practice we use to prepare is the advent wreath- each candle connecting us to a specific theme as we prepare. How else can we prepare for Christ and what characteristics are needed?  Advent preparation is attentive and intentional. Advent preparation is about creating moments to be still, to pray, and experience God’s peace.  As author, Bill McKibben writes, “Advent is the time to listen for footsteps of God – you can’t hear footsteps when you’re running yourself.”  Advent preparation calls us to the challenge of striving to work alongside others to make God’s salvation and peace known to all humankind.

Preparing the way for Christ and for peace in a busy world filled with turmoil can be as hard as trying to build a sandcastle close to the spot where the waves of life crash at the water’s edge. There’s always the chance that some outer-obnoxious-ness will come along and shake things up and tear down our carefully built peace castles. Poet, Sarah Are, addresses what to do when such a shakeup happens through a beautiful poem in our “Draw Near” devotionals. Listen to her words:

“Truth is like sand-

Slipping through my fingers

Every time I turn on the news.

So day after day, I gather the dust at my feet

And build sand castles of the world I want to see-

Sand castle cities with fair housing, no walls,

Families united and a name like Love.

And when the waves threaten to tear them down,

I will rebuild.

For the truest thing I know is that

God is love,

And love is strong than fear.

So at the end of the day, if you need me,

I’ll be taking sand-soaked alternative truths

And turning them into sand castles of a better world-

A world rooted in love,

Which I will keep building

Until “love,” and “truth” and “God” all sound like

Synonyms.”

Friends, preparing the way for Christ to work and preparing space for God peace, can often be hard and messy work as we are crowded by outer-obnoxious-ness. But such preparations are important work we are all called to engage this season of Advent; to proactively, and expectantly prepare, to proclaim peace among mess, and to proclaim the salvation that the Lord gives us. Let us approach Christmas with an expectant hush, rather than a last-minute rush. As we ponder the peace of Christ and prepare, let us live in the moment that believes such promise is possible that all flesh will see the salvation of God. Wait for it. Wait for Christ’s peace. Amen.

 

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The Power of Giving

Mark 12:38-44 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

Jesus Denounces the Scribes

38 As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, 39 and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! 40 They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

The Widow’s Offering

41 He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42 A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43 Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. 44 For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

Sacrifice. The Veterans we recognized earlier know a thing or two about sacrifice. From missing holidays and important family events to putting themselves in harm’s way; their willingness serve was and is a sacrifice. Today, we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the ending of World War 1. Soldiers who battled in World War 1, knew about sacrifice.

The unnamed widow in today’s text knew about sacrifice. Perhaps you’ve heard her story before. Her face has haunted me all week. I wish we knew her name. I wish we knew for sure that her real-life fierceness exceeded the piety we’ve imposed on her. We know she was an impoverished widow in first century Palestine not seeking to be noticed; a woman living on the margins of her society. She had no safety net- no husband or sons to advocate for her, no pension to draw from, and no social status to hide behind. She was vulnerable and invisible in every single way that mattered in her society. She would have been a member of “the least of these” group, the ones Jesus challenges his followers to care for.

Yet she comes to the outer courts of the temple with an offering of two small copper coins, the smallest coins minted in Judea at that time which are about the equivalent of a penny. In ancient Israel, the “poor” were not necessarily required to give; they simply did so because they believed in the goodness of the institution, the goodness of its leaders, and the need for religious institution to remain. Why would the widow give the last bits she had? Perhaps she knew that once she gave her all, she would need to rely on the resources from the religious institution to provide for her. Perhaps, in the widow’s eyes, giving was an important act of faith.

Yet the scribes did religious actions for the sake of appearances. Scribes would have been very familiar with Torah writings, yet in their corruption they ignored writings such as Deuteronomy 15: 7 which instructs “If among you, one of your brothers should become poor, in any of your towns within your land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be.” As well as Deuteronomy 24:17 says “You shall not pervert the justice due to the sojourner or to the fatherless, or take a widow’s garment in pledge, but you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore, I command you to do this.”

These are just a FEW examples of what God considers JUST in the Torah; the writings that the Scribes and the Pharisees were meant to teach and uphold. One of the things we must remember about these Scribes and Pharisees is that they were not just the “priests, or religious scholars” of that time. They were also the political and community leaders, the land and business owners, and the judges and lawyers. These “holy” men were supposed to use funds to care for the widows. Instead, many of them said long prayers for the sake of appearances, demanded the best seats in the synagogues and parties, and took advantage of widows like the one who gave the temple her two cents and who hoped for help from a broken institution.

In Mark’s gospel Jesus had just answered the question what is the greatest commandment, and challenged people “to love God and to love neighbor.” To care for widows would be right in step with the greatest commandments mentioned earlier; yet the scribes took advantage of widows instead. The call of Jesus is unambiguous: Do not exploit the vulnerable and care for those the world relentlessly seeks to crush. Yet the scribes were doing the exact opposite.

It might be tempting to leave the widow’s story as merely a lesson and morale for how to give, or as a call to give everything we have…but to do so we are missing of the larger points.  Though church history uses the widow as a “model giver”, it becomes exceedingly important to note that Jesus never commends the widow nor demands that she give at all. Jesus never applauds her self- sacrifice, or invites us to follow in her footsteps. He simply notices her, and tells others to notice her too. Often times, as we communicate with one another our tone of speech is extremely telling of how we really feel. I would give anything to hear the tone of Jesus’ voice as he called attention to a nameless widow. I can only imagine his voice sounded heartbroken as he tells disciples and others to peel their eyes from rich folks and glance in her direction instead. I can only imagine his tone of sadness as he points out another injustice in the world as people fall to take care of and love their neighbors.

In her work, “The Other Ones”, pastor and poet, Rachael Keefe poetically describes the scene in Mark’s gospel. Listen to a selection from her poem, she writes:

You could see the woman, the widow, the one without means
she kept to the shadows, head down and quiet, even her steps were silent
as she approached the treasury box to add her two cents
far less than others put in

No one took notice
yet you saw her and spoke of her sacrifice and her value
You did not let her go unseen, one among many,
many so much prettier, shinier, showier
who wanted to be seen giving what they would not miss
in a way that spoke of their own significance
and drew attention away from those whose value
they overlooked with training and intention

A widow whose name has not been spoken in thousands of years
acted out Your teachings and wanted nothing for her effort
and we still fail to see

We see her two copper coins and recognize (sometimes) the beauty of her gift
yet we still make it about the money and think that You are asking more of us
than we can possibly give

More than anything else You would like us to open our eyes as Bartimaeus did
and see the way You see and stop confusing money and possessions and success and power–with value and worth and humanity and beloved-ness

Who have we failed to notice hiding out on the margins where we cover them
in shadows and shades of undesirability?
Who holds their gifts out to us like two copper coins whose value isn’t measured in
dollars and cents?

So what did Jesus notice in widow? Jesus saw what everyone else was too busy, too spiritual, too self-absorbed to see. He saw the widow’s courage as she allowed last scraps of security to slip out of her hands. In noticing her Jesus noticed her dignity- despite her being a person who was marked as expendable even in the temple she loved. He saw her tiny gift had value in God’s eyes. Jesus lamented as he watched the scribes take advantage people like her and he denounced injustice and corruption. Would we see the widow? The least of these?

            Friends, through our daily living out of our faith, we too are challenged to notice people. But what might our text tell us about giving as we approach the end of stewardship? Perhaps the point is to challenge us to look at giving through a slightly different lens. Perhaps this drives us to look at giving as a form of evangelism. How might our daily lives look if we seek to view giving our time, talents, and resources to the church as form of evangelism?  Giving can be one of the ways we as a followers of Christ work to show others another way of loving God and loving neighbor.  When we give we show the love of God to our neighbors through joining with community partners to ensure children of Winchester do not go hungry.  Through giving to events like Men on a Mission, through giving to the Helper Fund, and through giving to support all the other various missions of First Presbyterian, you are allowing the church to do its work and ministry.  You are empowering the church to notice our neighbors.
How might we all take even the smallest steps to response to the call to give our tithes and talents this week? We do not wish to take the last of what you have to live on. We don’t want you to give all that you have and be left with nothing.  We are looking for ways to excite and encourage each and every one of you to go out into this world and bare good fruit. To give whatever time, talents, and resources you can and to notice our neighbors, even those who often go unnoticed. As one of my wise pastor friends says, “Remember that whatever you give – it does not go TO the church but it goes THROUGH the church and out into the world.”  Amen.

 

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The Power of Confession

Hebrews 4:12-16 English Standard Version (ESV)

12 For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. 13 And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.

Jesus the Great High Priest

14 Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

Why is confession important? Church reformer, Martin Luther writes, “The Christian way essentially consists of acknowledging ourselves to be sinners and in praying for grace.” Confession is owning our mistakes and asking for God’s grace in our lives. During our worship each Sunday, we come before God and our neighbors and confess our sins together in a unison prayer of confession and then individually during a time of silence. Children have a wonderful way of helping us understand worship because they are experiencing church through lenses of questioning- they always ask “why?” when it comes to reasons we do things. While serving a previous congregation, I was teaching a children’s class on the various parts of our worship service and why we have each piece of the service. We were talking about the importance of the prayer of confession and how during the moment of silence everyone silently confesses things they are sorry about to God. A curious student asked a very good question, “Why are the pauses so long sometimes after we all pray together?” And one of the older students didn’t miss a beat and jumped in, “I wonder if it is because the preachers have a lot of sins to say they are sorry for.” A very insightful statement indeed. Truth be told, we all have a lot to tell God we are sorry for because we are all humans who continuously sin and fall short of God’s glory for our lives.

            So there is good news and bad news within our text today. Would you like the good news or bad news first? The bad news is our text makes it crystal clear that absolutely nothing is hidden from God. So friends, that means when we were are a little too irritated behind the wheels of our car, even silently, God knows the true intentions of our hearts. Scary, right? “God discovers the desires and thoughts of our hearts.”  We can sometimes wear masks and hide our truest selves around people; but as much as we try to mask our true sinful nature from God we are unable to do so—none of our actions are hidden from God. Hebrews makes the case that human beings cannot handle being fully seen by God. God’s word will reveal intentions of the heart, and thoughts unspoken. Nothing will be hidden from the God who will judge us according not only to actions, but to mere intentions. Hence, humanity’s need for a High Priest, an intercessor, Jesus Christ to make a case on our behalf, plead for mercy, take on the punishment that should be our own.

As much as we would like to deny the fact, we all are sinners, and because we are sinners we cannot bear the weight of our sins and we all need to confess. Friends, it is never comfortable to admit we are wrong to admit that we are sorry for our shortcomings. It is never comfortable to think about all the mistakes we make and how God knows the very intentions of our hearts. Confession can make us uncomfortable for various reasonsWe wonder what people will think of us if they know our true hearts and our true sins. Confession might make us uncomfortable because it reminds us that God knows the intentions of our hearts—that’s a scary thought.

But if we confess Jesus is our Lord and Savior, we can’t just get caught up in the bad news. The very ability to approach the throne of grace with boldness through Jesus Christ and confess our sins is the good news! The fact that we are able to bring our sins before Christ who understands our sins is unique. In the ancient Greek-Roman world, empathy between humans and gods was not thought to be possible. The classical Greek and Roman gods such as Zeus and Apollo did not understand the human condition or plight.  People who worshiped these gods understood that these gods just kept their distance from humans and were unable to show empathy or sympathize with the human condition. For these gods being sympathetic to human condition was non-existent. Our God however, is quite the opposite of these apathetic gods. Today’s passage reminds us that Jesus is the sympathetic high priest.  Jesus is sympathetic to our situations and unique sins because he was tempted but He is not stuck in sin. He understands why we might make the poor decisions we did, but He did not make them. Theologian Karl Barth reminds us that, “the gospel illuminates the mercy of God and the need to confess.”—and the good news is we can confess because our God sympathizes with our weakness to sin and is full of mercy and compassion and also approachable through Christ.

Yes, God can see behind our masks we use to try to hide our sins, but in Christ- God also listens to our confessions. Jesus is able to identify with human weakness, yet Jesus’ sinless life grants the ability for confession of sins. Yes, we can hide nothing from God—but when we confess our sins through Christ, we are forgiven. This is reason not to despair but to have hope.

            There is a power in confession. The children’s resource for worship describes the power of confession simply- it says: “Confession is proof of God’s promises always to love and forgive us — even when we mess up and don’t follow God’s way, or when we do things that hurt others. Everyone makes mistakes; that is why we confess our sin together. When we confess our sin, we say that we are sorry for these things, and we ask God to forgive us and help us live new lives.” Friends, confession is powerful because it reminds us how much we rely on God’s grace.

Confessing our sins can grant us a certain level of accountability. There is a story about a child participating in Ash Wednesday service where church members anonymously wrote down their sins on sheet of paper folded it, and placed it at the cross. This 6-year-old wrote, “God, I’m sorry because I lie.” But then he signed his name, and he refused to fold it. He walked to the front and pinned it to the cross. His parents asked, “Why did you put your name on it? Don’t you want to fold it up so no one can see?” To which the child replied, “I wrote my name on it because I want everyone to see it. Because if they know it was me, maybe they can help me stop.” As we confess our sins, we acknowledge ourselves as someone who is in need of Christ’s grace and mercy and when we confess in the context of a worship setting we have built in accountability. Within Christian community we have people who are all sinners who can also hold one another accountable.

(Met-an-o-eh-o) the Greek word which normally is translated into English as repentance, quite literally translates into thinking differently afterwards, and/or changing one’s mindset. When we confess our sins, we are allowing the Holy Spirit to help us rewire our thought process to think differently afterwards…to think through how our words and actions impact those around us. We can stop carrying around our sin baggage. Confessing our sins to God allows God to hold onto our sins and slowly, day by day, help us change our frame of mind. Confession places us in a posture of being open to God’s work of changing our mindset.

Friends, we need to confess. But as we confess our shortcomings day after day, and week after week; we are always reminded of and encounter God’s immeasurable mercy, we are reminded of Jesus’ ability to sympathize with our weakness, and the knowledge that despite our infinite sins, we are met with infinite grace. There is power in confession of sins. Hear the good news, in Christ and in Christ alone, we are forgiven. Amen.

 

 

If You Can’t Say Anything Nice….

During the month of September, we have been carefully studying the book of James, a universal letter to all Christian communities. Last week our text highlighted how James instructs Christian communities to walk the talk which involves putting actions with our words. This week, James challenges Christian communities to talk the walk– to think about how our words impact others and how our words should harmonize with and walk in step with our faith. James reminds Christians to pair words with actions in ways that supersede unloving words- to be slow to speak, and quick to listen. Hear these words from James 3:1-12.

 “My friends, we should not all try to become teachers. In fact, teachers will be judged more strictly than others. All of us do many wrong things. But if you can control your tongue, you are mature and able to control your whole body.

By putting a bit into the mouth of a horse, we can turn the horse in different directions. It takes strong winds to move a large sailing ship, but the captain uses only a small rudder to make it go in any direction. Our tongues are small too, and yet they brag about big things.

It takes only a spark to start a forest fire! The tongue is like a spark. It is an evil power that dirties the rest of the body and sets a person’s entire life on fire with flames that come from hell itself. All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles, and sea creatures can be tamed and have been tamed. But our tongues get out of control. They are restless and evil, and always spreading deadly poison.

9-10 My dear friends, with our tongues we speak both praises and curses. We praise our Lord and Father, and we curse people who were created to be like God, and this isn’t right. 11 Can clean water and dirty water both flow from the same spring? 12 Can a fig tree produce olives or a grapevine produce figs? Does fresh water come from a well full of salt water?”

What is the purpose of words? Think about your week last week—how many words did you say? What percentage of your words were helpful? What percentage were hurtful? What would your spouse, family, friends or coworkers say your normal percentage of hurtful words versus helpful words is? The average person speaks at least 12,000 words a day and this statistic does not include words posted on social media websites. So how do we use our words?

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me!”  Who has been hurt by words? Psychologists and writers of Psychology Today look at similarities and interconnectedness of physical pain and emotional pain: They conclude, “Our language has always mirrored the connection between the two; we suffer from “broken hearts” as well as bones, and speak of “bruised feelings” along with toes. This all seems intuitively right because we recognize the common basis of the pain we experience, whether a throbbing headache or the pain of missing someone so much that you ache. Emotional pain is real.” Is there anyone out there who actually believes the line, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me”? I somehow doubt it, but now science has researched and proven the literal harm words inflict and the high level of emotional pain words can cause. Anyone who has been at the receiving end of a bully’s wrath knows that words are as blunt as stones and as sharp a honed stick. We should know better than to repeat the old adage about sticks and stones, for words have the power to cut sharply to our hearts and latch onto our thoughts days after we heard them spoken. Words hurt, just like sticks and stones.

Friends, we can be quick to raise hands when asked have we ever been hurt by someone else’s words…but let’s be careful and remember to turn the question around, to take a hard look at ourselves in the mirror. Who has either intentionally or unintentionally hurt someone with words? Growing up with siblings who daily tested the other’s patience and loving Disney movies, my mom was often quick to remind me of Thumper, the rabbit’s words in Bambi. At one point in the movie, Thumper observes Bambi, the young deer trying to walk. As a clumsy young deer, Bambi stumbles a lot to which Thumper blurts out, “he doesn’t walk very good does he?” After his mother prompted him to remember what he has always been taught, Thumper sheepishly responded, “If you can’t say anything nice; don’t say nothing at all!” This became somewhat of a motto growing up with two siblings. An easy motto to quote but a hard motto to live by.

James challenges us to train our tongues to stop and think before we speak. However, taming our tongue is difficult! Even though tongue is small, it can drive and control the direction of the person. Controlling what is said is like skillful use of bit to control the movement of horse or the pilot’s handling of rudder to maneuver a ship through strong winds. We have to know what we are doing and know the power behind what we are trying to control. The tongue, even though it is small, can hurt others in deep ways. Through the tongue the unjustness of humans is displayed. The tongue has the capability of destroying one’s religious practices and that of one’s community through that don’t line up with Jesus’ teachings. Friends, these are heavy words to say and hear though we should feel the weight of our words. James wants our words to be in line with who we worship.

Managing the words that come out of our mouths and not to mention all the words that fill our internet presence is harder than taming a wild animal. As quickly as we can tweet about something, we can hurt many people with our words. As quickly as we can bring praises to God, we can swear and lie. How are our words portrayed to those we speak with? Once our words escape our lips, they have tremendous power and tenacity for good or evil. Our words can include or embrace, heal or humiliate, lift up or tear down. The tongue though diminutive- can lead us astray as easily as a small rudder steers a ship or a small bit controls a horse. Our tongues can ignite a raging inferno that no one can extinguish.

With the same tongue we will sing hymns and pray for our neighbor; yet also with the exact same tongue we curse our neighbors when they cut us off in traffic or when they disagree with our point of view. And in 2018 it is not just our spoken words–we will post Facebook statuses and memes about blessing and praying for others and then immediately turn around and degrade our neighbors. We may throw out hurtful poisonous words of slander and insults directed towards our brothers and sisters in Christ. Our words can build up and encourage, or our words can be demoralizing and leave others questioning if we are truly Christians who follow our Lord’s call to love God and to love neighbor. Our words can express openness and welcome in our congregations and communities, or our words can have people running away from wanting to associate with Christians. James knows the seriousness of the words Christian choose. Friends, words have power!

A wise friend recently reminded me, “our words are like toothpaste; once they come out they aren’t easily put back in.” How many times have you said something and wished you could take your words back as soon as they left your mouth? Even if we don’t think what we say matters, often times our words said in passing have an effect on people who hear them. Our scripture passage doesn’t let us off the hook. Yes, we are all human and yes we will make mistakes- we all will bless the Lord and curse others with the same tongue…maybe even in the same breath. We will make mistakes, but do we learn from our mistakes? When we misspeak, do we own our mistakes and try to reestablish broken relationship? James suggests that there is never a relationship between humans and God which is not at the very same time manifest and embodied in our relationships with our sisters and brothers. James reminds us that none of us, no matter our importance in the world, are independent, unfazed atoms. Instead, we are links in an unbreakable and connected chain. For James, there is no knowledge of God that does not force an individual to gaze into the eyes of another person and realize his or her inextricability from the links of Christian community.

We are called by Christ to love our neighbors which also includes loving our neighbors through our words. Friends, we don’t always get this part of our faith right and Jesus loves us enough to call us out on this. Through Jesus’ examples of using words to enhance and build up God’s kingdom- Jesus shows us the way. To remind us that yes, as Christians, we will make mistakes and our words will hurt others, but yes, as Christians we are called to strive for our words to lift others up—to connect those who are different from us, to encourage and to share God’s love with others. What steps can you take to tame your tongue? James reminds us that before we speak, we need to pause and think to ourselves—are our words true? Are they helpful? Are they inspiring? Are they necessary? Are they kind? Are my words in line with my Christian faith?

Our challenge this week is to speak words which show others we are Christians. Will we make mistakes, yes—but as we make mistakes we must desperately strive to repair relationships and recommit ourselves to the lifelong, Holy Spirit led work of taming our tongues. How will you use your words this week? Friends, our words can build up the kingdom of God or work to dismantle God’s kingdom from the inside out by throwing sticks and stones at our brothers and sisters in Christ through our curses and hateful words. Perhaps if we can’t say anything nice, we shouldn’t say anything at all. Or perhaps Christians should strive to use our words to point others to Christ at work in our lives.  We all have a choice. We all have a challenge; and we all have work to do. Amen.power-of-words