Sunday, December 22, 2019

The Love of Joseph

December 22, 2019
Saint John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

Matthew 1:18-25

Today's gospel lesson is about a dream: the dream of Joseph. What have you been dreaming about lately? I’ve been dreaming about having more time to spend with family and friends, and of how nice it would be just one or two things were a little bit different from how they are.

Joseph dreamed something wonderful. God would enter the world. God would be born to the woman he planned to marry, as crazy as that was to understand. If only there weren’t any complications. If only it didn’t seem as though she were carrying the child of another. Joseph had some serious trusting in God to do. But Joseph had to trust someone else, too. Joseph had to trust Mary.

They were betrothed, engaged as we might say, and surely Joseph must have loved Mary. But, still, this took a lot of trust! And for Joseph, the way of salvation meant trusting someone else. It meant trusting that even though things were not quite how he might wish for them to be, things would work out alright. More than alright. In his dream he’d learned that the child of Mary “will save his people from their sins.” It may be that trusting in our own plans, and our own righteousness, is not enough to save us. It may well be that true salvation comes through someone else.

That is a lesson for us, too. Like Joseph, sometimes, we are supposed to trust God and then get out of the way. Trust that God is working through our spouse, and then get out of the way. Trust that God is working in our children, and then get out of the way. Trust that God is working.

Trusting is hard, you know. I mean, take God, for example. Why doesn’t God speak to us directly? Wouldn’t it be great if an angel appeared again? Like the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary? I suppose it would be a little too easy. I mean, if you knew it was an angel, there’d be no room for doubt. There would be no room for faith.

God continues to come into the world, and we have to trust not angels but people – the people we love – if we are to encounter God. We have to believe, not only in God, but in others. We can’t know for sure what another will do or say until it has happened, so we have to trust in the goodness of others.

Trust works like gift-giving. You let go of something precious when you trust, and give it to another. What gifts are you giving for Christmas this year? The greatest gift you can give this year might be to believe in someone’s dreams. The greatest gift you can give is to have faith in someone else; believe in their dreams. Believe in the dreams of the person you love. Believe in the dreams of your spouse. Believe in the dreams of your parents. Believe in the dreams of your children. Believe in the dreams of your friend. Believe in their dreams!

One reason we have relationships is so that we will have someone who will believe our dreams. God works through relationships of love in order to help us realize our dreams. God works through Mary and Joseph. God works through our families, our friends, and through our churches. Our dreams can be realized if they are based in the love of God and the love of our neighbors.

God believes in us. God believes in our dreams. God loves us like Joseph loved Mary and Jesus. I’m not a big country music fan, but there is this one song by George Strait that illustrates the kind of love God has for us:
Let me tell you a secret about a father's love,
A secret that my daddy said was just between us.
He said, "Daddies don't just love their children every now and then.
It's a love without end, amen.

It was Jesus who taught us what the love of God looked like in human form. We are disciples of the embodiment, the incarnation of love. Our own devotion to God and to Jesus is shown in our love for others.

In the story of Joseph, we learn about trust and the kind of love that looks beyond all the things that might not be just the way we’d like them. We learn about the kind of unconditional love that people are capable of, love that goes beyond anything that might push us away from another.

John Dorhauer, the President and General Minister of the UCC, wrote: “This baby Jesus whose birth we will soon celebrate inspires in all of us an impulse to love. Borne of God’s love for us, we extend that love daily to those most in need of our acts of compassion and kindness. Our own lives are daily transformed by the kindness and compassion of others. This Christmas, love wins.”

May the joy of this season inspire you to believe in the dream of love, alive in the trust of Joseph, alive in the mercy of Jesus, and alive today in your own acts of love —your love of neighbor, your self, and all creation.  Amen.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Prepare the Way of Peace

December 8, 2019
St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

Isaiah 11:1-10; Matthew 3:1-12

And, yet, for others this war has been distant. The war on terror, the endless battle focused mainly in the middle east, is no longer constantly in the news, on the radio, on the internet, and in our minds. But it continues. Many of us have been largely unaffected by the war, except for fluctuations in gas prices, and perhaps the psychological anguish of knowing that terrible things are happening over there and no end is in sight.

For young people today, the war has been something distant – “above their pay grade” so to speak. Adults, parents, or older relatives might talk about war, but children should be protected. They should be playing, learning grammar, algebra, and history. Children should know peace, not war.

Children should know peace, but the unfortunate reality is that they are often faced with the absence of peace. There is always a bully on the playground, it seems, or some disagreement that seems easier to solve with fists than with words. There are drugs and guns in the schools, despite our best efforts to keep them out, and children who see no alternative but to use them. There are bad influences, and bad neighborhoods. There is music that glorifies violence, first-person-shooter video games, and active-shooter drills in elementary schools. And when there is war, there are always children who lose a parent, or a home, or a life. For children, for our children, the lack of peace is too often what they know.

Lack of peace is the reality that we face. We live in troubled times, and our children are growing up in troubled times. We can’t always protect them from the troubles of the world. All we can do is try to prepare them to face those troubles when they come, and teach them that there is hope, there is peace to be found.

Israel was a land and a people that knew war. The Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Greeks, and, most recently, the Romans had waged war in that region. The land of the Jews was occupied by enemies, and peace was maintained with the sword. The people of God yearned for a time so well described by Isaiah: “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them” (Is. 11:6). One day, peace would reign. “They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Is. 11:9).

As Matthew’s Gospel tells us, it was in these circumstances that hope appeared in the wilderness. John the Baptist, the one of whom Isaiah spoke, had come preparing the way of the Lord. “In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near’” (Mt. 3:1).

The sign of the coming of God into the world, the herald announcing the coming of the Christ was this wild man who wore clothing made of camel’s hair, and whose food was locusts and wild honey. The promise of God, that “a shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse” (Is. 11:1), was being fulfilled. The baptism by John, a sign of repentance, would become the blessing of water and the Holy Spirit that we know, symbolizing the grace of God, the new life that we have in Christ.

In the ceremony of baptism, we remember the covenant of God’s grace and we promise to help our children to be faithful members of the church of Jesus Christ, by celebrating Christ’s presence and by furthering Christ’s mission in all the world. We promise on behalf of our children until they are ready, in the act of confirmation, to affirm their baptism and take on that responsibility for themselves.

If you think about it, it sounds a little crazy. We bring our infants to the church and in front of everyone we promise that they will continue Christ’s mission! We then have this ceremony symbolizing death and resurrection. Why do we do that? Could it be that children are an embodiment of hope? Perhaps when we invite our children to join us on our mission, we are showing our faith that the mission has hope of success, that there just may be peace on the horizon.

Now, to hear John tell it, Jesus came to do battle, with his winnowing fork in his hand, burning the chaff with unquenchable fire. Yet we also know that Christ came to guide our feet into the way of peace. In a troubled time, what a powerful message of hope, to know that there one who is more powerful than the wicked, who comes to seek out and save the lost! God has shown us mercy and will guide us to peace. It might not be easy, but we will get there.

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” We ask that question of all children, many times, and we laugh and we marvel at their plans and their dreams. But what is it that we are really doing? We are asking them to envision the future. We are asking them to tell us about hope. Having a vision is crucial for the vitality of a church or any organization. As adults, we don’t ask each other about our visions for the future very often. We hardly allow ourselves to dream of something better. But we ask our children about their vision all the time.

I think we could take time this Advent to prepare for the future. I believe that we have it in us to envision a better future for all, where there is peace and hope and joy. I am sure that one day they will not hurt or destroy on all God’s holy mountain. I know that with Emmanuel, God with us, the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord. Let us prepare the way of peace, and cry out that the kingdom of God has come.  Amen.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Fear or Hope

December 1, 2019
St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

Isaiah 2:1-5; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:36-44

We live in a time of uncertainty. There is certainly plenty to cause us anxiety these days. There is the rising tension between the U.S. and China, and Russia. There is ongoing war in the Middle-East. There is economic unrest and unemployment, farmers have been hit hard by weather and tariffs. Things seem pretty fearful in the world right now. Are the nations beating their ploughshares into swords, and their pruning hooks into spears? It seems that way sometimes. And it seems as if there is little we can do about it except worry.
I worry about how I’m going to pay for college for Zach and Nathan. I worry about the health of my parents, the condition of my dishwasher, and the political divisions driving us apart. What does it all mean? Where are we headed? And is there anything I can do about it? Sometimes, dare I say it, I fear for the future. I’m sure there are times when you do as well. Change comes faster and faster these days, and it’s hard to keep up with it all.
Part of that fear, I suppose, is because I think I’m supposed to know the answers. I’m a faithful person, I believe in God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, the Bible, the Church Universal, and etcetera. I’m supposed to have it all figured out, right? But my faith doesn’t always help me figure out the right thing to do. There are times when I have no idea what God would have me do in a given situation. There’s nothing in the Bible about cell phones, Facebook, pesticides, electric automobiles, or noise pollution.
The disciples lived with uncertainty too. In this story from Matthew’s gospel, Jesus has entered Jerusalem and cleansed the temple. He has just finished a lengthy denunciation of the scribes and Pharisees in chapter twenty-three. The disciples, who know who Jesus is, are starting to worry that things are not going how they expected, and in their fear they anticipate the end times. They ask Jesus, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”[1]
There have been many predictions of the end of time, and all of them (so far) have not come true. Jesus tells them about many signs; but more importantly he says, “about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son.”[2] There is some mysterious day in the future when the judgment will come, but even Jesus doesn’t know when that will be. Yes, Jesus doesn’t know everything; and you know what? We’re not supposed to know everything either. Uncertainty is to be expected. It is nothing to fear. And faith certainly doesn’t mean living without uncertainty, not for the disciples, and not for us.
It is possible to live with uncertainty, to keep moving steadily into the future with no guarantee that we’re on the right path. Jesus points us toward the everyday tasks of living – eating and drinking, marrying, working in the fields and grinding the meal – doing them faithfully in wakefulness. Keep living your life, keep an eye on what is to come, but keep your focus on the here and now, live a faithful life, and keep awake.
“You know what time it is,” Paul wrote to the Romans, “how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep.”[3] Things seem pretty troubling in the world today, but “the night is far gone, the day is near.”[4] It may be dark now, but a change is coming. When the doorbell rings, it is too late to clean the house. Jesus is coming; quick, everyone look busy!
Yes, we should do good works. Yes, we should do the best we can, uncertain whether we are right or wrong at times, faithfully going about the work we believe God would have us do in this world. But fear not! We’re not supposed to do everything ourselves. We’re not supposed to save the world. That job is already taken. Our role is to be God’s hands in the world, to work toward the realm of God, and the work that we do will be enough. Our task is to keep faith, joy, and love alive in the midst of uncertain times, and watch for the signs of hope.
What we must do is choose how we go about that work. The Rev. Mark Yurs, a pastor in Wisconsin writes, “The key element for Jesus is not the work, important as it is. The indispensable part of faithful work is [what] Jesus names as watchfulness or wakefulness.” [5] As we do good works in the world, the way we do the work, the watchfulness that we maintain, is what really matters. And what is it were supposed to be watching for? The disciple is the one who is watchful for the signs of the coming realm of God. “Hope will come,” Rev. Yurs continues, “the deepest, best, and highest shall come – not from our work but from somewhere outside and beyond it.”[6] The disciples don’t bring the hope, they point out where hope is present.
We are faced with an uncertain future. Things look grim, for many people around the world, for people in this community, and for people in this room. We are at a decision point. We can’t go backward, searching for halcyon days that weren’t as golden as we like to remember them. We can’t stick with the old reality. If we do that, things will only get worse. We have to start living into the future. The decision is whether we fear the new reality, or if we face it with hope. Do we trust the signs? Do we trust the prophets? Do we trust Emmanuel?
How do we live into that future? Do we allow ourselves to be driven by fear, or do we watch for signs of hope? Do we point out all the things that give us reason to give up, or do we keep our eyes open for ways in which we can make a difference? Do we turn our backs on people in need, or do we work together as people who have faith that things can be better? As Christians, we live into the future with glad anticipation, with hopeful urgency, awake with expectation of the dawn. “In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it.”[7]
Let us pray. O come, O come, Emmanuel. God be with us. Cheer our spirits, disperse the clouds of night. Show us the path of knowledge, give us hope, and fill the whole world with heaven’s peace. Jesus, as we come to your table, take from us our fear, and give to us your hope. Amen.

[1] Matthew 24:3. The Scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989, by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
[2] Matthew 24:36.
[3] Romans 13:11.
[4] Romans 13:12.
[5] Mark E. Yurs, “Homiletical Perspective” on Matthew 24: 36-44 in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Volume 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), p. 21-25.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Isaiah 2:2.