And Through You Shall All the Families of the Earth Be Blessed
In this morning’s Old Testament scripture reading you heard God’s words to Abraham telling him to leave on a journey to a place he does not know, telling him that a great nation will be made of his descendents and telling him that he and his descendents are to be a blessing to all the families of the earth.
Long, long ago when Beth was pregnant with Elizabeth and our Leah, our oldest daughter, was pregnant with Damian, we went to see the classic film “Parenthood” starring Steve Martin in the role of Gil, an adult father in a dysfunctional family. In one scene Gil’s father, Frank, played by Jason Robards, asks Gil for advice about what he should do about his ne’er do well son and Gil’s brother, Larry. Larry owes over $50,000 to a criminal gambling syndicate and is hiding because he is afraid that syndicate enforcers will kill him. During the discussion Frank confesses that when Gil as a child was sick, he resented being a father because of all the worry that accompanied being a parent. And now with Larry in trouble Frank complains, “The worry never ends. I thought once you kids were grown and out of the house I’d be finished with worrying, but now I realize it never ends.”
Once we commit parenthood the responsibility never goes away. No matter how good or bad of a parent we are the connection between parent and child never ends. Even when we die, our bond goes on as our children respond to life based on what they have experienced us saying and doing in their relationships with us. Parenthood is such an awesome responsibility, and so many of us assume that responsibility when we are young without any particular thought or even by accident.
At the beginning of June Beth and I attended a conference at St. Mary’s Retreat Center in Sewanee, Tennessee, on the theme, “Becoming a Blessing to All the Families of the Earth.” As we meditated on Abraham’s call from God, I realized an inner call to give much of my remaining life to my family. Oh, I will continue to try to write and offer support here at United Church and at Temple B’nai Sholom, where Beth and I have been attending, and I will help Frank Levy promote Cup of Wisdom groups and the 123 initiative of the One River Foundation, but where I can make a real difference is with my presence in my family. Beth and I are of an age when health concerns limit how much we can do. If an old roommate called and invited me to march for peace and justice, like Andrew Young asked our founding Pastor Ray Berry, I would have to ask, “How far are we supposed to march?” Given my physical limitations “being there” for my family is perhaps the most important contribution I can make.
If I am a true spiritual descendent of Abraham – and I believe we all are – then I have to ask, “What does it mean to be a blessing? How does anyone do that?
You do it with a smile or a hug. By always thinking of giving, of helping, of lending a hand. By offering an invitation rather than waiting to receive one. By opening up to a stranger, by making someone feel at home. By teaching. By offering insight and inspiration. By encouragement and a kind word. Most importantly, by accepting people for who they are – let me repeat that, by accepting people for who they are – and affirming their value as a human beings. It’s not hard to find ways to be a blessing – you just have to be constantly aware of it.
Well, probably the first person for whom we think we ought to be a blessing is our spouse. As Beth and I have find ourselves getting up in the morning, or really it’s “creaking up in the morning with aching joints,” preparing to go from one doctor’s appointment to another, I often think of a story my mother, Lorena, told.
Lorena was having coffee with her friend of forty years, Margaret, and they were comparing notes on caring for aging husbands with cancer. Margaret turned to my mother and said, “Lorena, when they said for better or for worse, they really meant it!” So, one important way to be a blessing is to attend to, listen to, care for, even nurse, the person we have promised to care for in sickness and in health and for better and for worse. We are called to be a blessing even when our partner is not only depressed or in ill health but grouchy and not very much fun.
I want to be a blessing to my children as I grow older. I think we all do. That means being a listener, suspending judgment and the temptation to tell them what to do, and just listen to them. Although they have scattered to several different states, I can be a phone call or text message away. Because my adult children are very busy, I have learned that I need to be proactive in communicating, texting or calling just to find out how they are doing. I want to help them with their responsibilities as parents, I want to be there for grandchildren as they mature and move through the challenges of growing up.
At the end of July our grandson, little Robert, whom some of you may remember coming to Bible School here, who just grew 5 inches since January, and is no longer little, Robert is coming to Huntsville to go to Space Camp and spend some time with Nana and Poppie the Robert is entering High School in the Fall, and he is in the painful throes of adolescence – a disease we must all suffer through. He is very aware of the opposite sex, but unsure of how to proceed. And while I am aware the rules have changed somewhat since I was his age, I want to communicate with him, that a good relationship is far more important than exploring the plumbing – no matter how much his hormones are raging. This is an important time to be with him, to lovingly assure him that growing up is survivable, with difficulty, but survivable. After all we managed to grow up even if it was in the Stone Age. Can you imagine growing up without a phone in your pocket, a world where dinner was prepared without microwaves, trying to prepare your homework without a computer, living without email or text messaging? Despite being older than dirt, we know about hormones and the anxiety of trying to make decisions about our lives. We were human back then after all. What an important time to be a blessing for Robert as he navigates the transition from childhood to adulthood.
Our other grandchildren are older now, Damian, John, Alexis and Sophie, but each of them needs our care in their own way. And then there is a possibility of future grandchildren, and we may want to move close enough to them to be of practical, every day help.
As we grow older all of us become the repository of the family stories. Although the younger generation may not seem to express an interest, we need to tell the stories so our children and grandchildren know where they come from. We need to retell those family stories and ideally write them down. I have often heard families at a funeral bemoan that they failed to ask mother about her grandfather before she died, or where the family lived before they moved to Huntsville. Documenting family history is a great project for Father’s Day.
Another way we can impact the lives of our children and grandchildren is in helping them learn how to grow old. Death is a natural part of life. A life well lived embraces death as a natural outcome of our lives. If through us they experience aging and death as a natural part of life to be accepted, then with courage and faith they will be better able to live out their own days. Just because we experience sadness when we say good-bye doesn’t mean it is bad.
Another reason for living a courageous, faith filled life is the importance of last words. Now since we never know when we are speaking our last words we should always give careful consideration to what we are saying. Do we want our last words to be an angry rant? Better we utter blessings rather than curses. When Damian, John and Elizabeth were very young their favorite bed time story was the legend of Jacob and Esau – a classic tale of sibling rivalry. Jacob steals the blessing from Esau, and when Esau discovers he has been cheated, he begs his father to “take back” the blessing from Jacob and give it to him. What we discover in the story is once words have been spoken, they cannot be taken back. And so we should all be careful what we say. Especially when we come to the end of our lives our expressions take on extraordinary importance. The words we can offer to a child or grandchild will be remembered with special care. Blessings can motivate, guide, inspire, and empower, those who receive them. We want to send our children into the future with our carefully considered blessings.
Through your faith you can become a blessing to your family and then all the families of the earth — not only the human families but the animal and plant families of the earth, as we seek to save our environment. Let me encourage all of us to visit the “One River Foundation” on the internet to see more ways that we can participate in becoming a blessing to all the families of the earth. Invite Frank Levy to come back, and he will share with you the initiative of 123 Be a Blessing, and how that relates to the Cup of Wisdom program in which many of you are already participating. Through your faith all the families of the earth shall be blessed.
Genesis 12:1-3 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
The Call of Abram
12 Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2 I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”[a]
Palm Sunday, we must remember, was actually the first day of the work week after the Sabbath. Jesus had rested on the Sabbath in a small village on the East Side of the Mount of Olives. On Sunday the first day of the week he started his march along with a crowd of followers and stopped in the village of Bethphage long enough to borrow a donkey and catch the attention of the thousands of Passover pilgrims, who were camped out on the slopes of the Mountain. His followers waved palm fronds and some even placed their cloaks in the road as they shouted, “Hosanna, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”
Now in Sunday School I was always taught that Jesus meek and mild rode into Jerusalem on a humble donkey. But if we remember Israel’s history, Kings were anointed and proclaimed at the brook Kidron in the Valley at the base of the Mount of Olives. Jesus’ entering into Jerusalem in this way was a politically provocative act. At the same time he was leading his parade of peasants into the Eastern most gate of the City, the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate was leading a squadron of cavalry through the Western most gate of the City to reinforce the garrison for the Passover celebration.
Jesus not only led this march of resistance against the foreign occupying power – Imperial Rome – his first act after entering Jerusalem was to go to the Temple and over turn the tables of the money changers. The Temple was part of a conspiracy with wealthy members of the priestly class to loan money to peasants with their land as security, and then when they could not pay, foreclose and push the peasants off their land. The record of debts was kept in the temple, and when the zealots took over the Temple precincts in 68 AD, the first thing they did was to burn all of the debt records. So on this first Palm Sunday, Jesus was leading the resistance to the Roman occupation, to the Priestly ruling class who colluded with the Romans, and to the money lenders who were squeezing the peasants off of their land. Is it any wonder Jesus was popular with the crowds? And his popularity with the crowd explains why the Temple authorities did not attempt to arrest him until they could do so in the middle of the night in secret.
Now given the Jesus meek and mild image we were taught in Sunday School it may be hard to imagine him leading the resistance against both the civil and the religious authorities. He was advocating non-violent resistance and civil disobedience like Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King in the 20th Century. Like Dr. King Jesus was killed in the effort, and like Dr. King, Jesus’ memory inspired a non-violent movement, indeed a faith, that continued to challenge the Roman Empire until Emperor Constantine co-opted the Church in the 4th Century of the Common Era.
The reason I lift up Jesus as the leader of a resistance movement this Palm Sunday is because we in America are faced with a similar challenge in our nation today. The Trump administration appeals to the dark side of our American character: fear of others who are not white or Christian, pandering to the rich, the 1%, gutting our social safety net for the poor, disparaging people of color, and calling developing nations “shithole countries.” Our nation has seen an incredible rise in the number of hate crimes, attacks on mosques, synagogues and African American churches. The alt-right marchers in Charlottesville were chanting: “The Jews will not replace us.” Here in Huntsville Temple B’Nai Sholom’s preschool – the PRESCHOOL – had a bomb threat. Every Friday night, the synagogue hires policemen to stand watch outside of the Temple while the congregation worships behind locked doors — right here in Huntsville. White Supremacy and anti-Semitism are alive and well in our nation and here in Alabama.
Not content with restricting legal immigration, Donald Trump has fired most of the top leadership in the Department of Homeland security because he wants Immigration and Customs Enforcement once again to unlawfully separate the families of asylum seekers at the border. Ignore the law, ignore the courts, double down on brown people who seek refuge in this country from chaos and murder after cutting off aid to the very countries these refugees are fleeing – it’s just pure unadulterated meanness. Our own Roland Edwards can testify to what is going on in Honduras.
Oh Bob, some will say, you are criticizing the President . That is politics from the pulpit. Well, leading the resistance against inhumane and lawless government actions against refugees that are motivated by white supremacy lies is no more political than Jesus leading a Parade into Jerusalem in resistance to the Roman occupation on Palm Sunday. This morning after the worship service we have an opportunity to listen to representatives of the Etowah Visitation Project who are organizing people to visit people who are being held in detention in the Etowah County jail, sometimes indefinitely, before they can receive a review of their petitions for asylum. The Etowah County jail is the facility in Alabama designated by ICE to hold immigrants awaiting processing. The Visitation Project seeks to visit over three-hundred detainees to provide them with hope and human contact, and to distribute toiletries, snacks and other items these people need. ICE pays Etowah County for the housing and feeding of the detainees, but the Sheriff of Etowah County has personally pocketed 1.5 million dollars of the inmates’ food money. The Visitation Project advocates using some of the money ICE provides for the benefit of the detainees, not the Sherriff’s pockets. They are also advocating granting of asylum status to many of the detainees, detainees who have fled their homelands because they were threatened with murder.
The work of the Etowah Visitation Project is not political, it is humanitarian, in the best tradition of the followers of Jesus: “For I was a stranger and you welcomed me, and I was in prison and you visited me.”
Also, I thought we had finally settled the question of opposing white supremacy. If opposing racism is political, then I guess if we are going to follow Jesus, we have to be political. I want to remind you of the witness of our founding Pastor, Ray Berry. Ray had been the room mate of Andrew Young at Hartford Seminary Foundation. After graduation Ray Berry became the founding Pastor of the United Church of Huntsville, while Andrew Young became Martin Luther King’s chief lieutenant. One day in 1965 Ray received a telephone call from his old roommate, “We need you in Selma, Ray.” So Ray went to march beside his old friend Andrew. Another person who was in that march is here with us today – Frank Levy. Frank drove down from Chicago with his Rabbi to demonstrate for racial justice and the passage of the Voting Rights Act. I am hoping the Diaconate will invite Frank to fill the pulpit during this interim time to share with you his work with Rabbi Rami Shapiro and the One River Foundation, The One River Foundation works to establish groups that meet for interfaith dialogue. Some of you may remember we studied Rabbi Shapiro’s book Perennial Wisdom for the Spiritually Independent.
In retrospect, I thought the fight against white supremacy and for civil rights and voting rights was a battle already fought, already won. Frank never gets tired of reminding me how naïve I am. Perhaps racism and human rights are perennial struggles we must face anew in each generation. I believe, on this Palm Sunday, Jesus summons us to resist hatred and oppression. That is why I have chosen William Sloane Coffin’s favorite hymn for our closing song: “Once to Every Man and Nation.”
Verse 1: Once to every man and nation, Comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth with falsehood, For the good or evil side;
Some great cause, God’s new Messiah, Offering each the bloom or blight,
And the Choice goes by forever, ‘twixt that darkness and that light.
Verse 2: Then to side with truth is noble, When we share her wretched crust,
Ere her cause bring fame and profit, And ‘tis prosperous to be just;
Then it is the brave man chooses While the coward stands aside,
Till the multitude make virtue Of the faith they had denied.
Verse 3: By the light of burning martyrs, Christ, Thy bleeding feet we track,
Toiling up new Calv’ries ever With the cross that turns not back;
New occasions teach new duties, Time makes ancient good uncouth,
They must upward still and onward, Who would keep abreast of truth.
Verse 4: Though the cause of evil prosper, Yet ‘tis truth alone is strong;
Though her portion be the scaffold, And upon the throne be wrong;
Yet that scaffold sways the future, And, behind the dim unknown
Standeth God within the shadow, Keeping watch above His own.
This is the time and the hour, when God calls upon those of us who want to follow Jesus to make a decision. We are called upon to resist – to oppose – the poison of white supremacy and just plain old meanness. “For I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was in prison and you visited me. Be agents of God’s love.
It Is Time
SLIDE 3: I THINK WE WILL FIT IN HERE
A little over sixteen years ago, November 30th of 2001, we arrived at the United Church of Huntsville. The congregation had been deeply divided. They nearly imploded in early 2000, and then after Interim Pastor Roger Lovette’s persistent preaching to forgive one another, the congregation overcame enough bitterness to issue a call for a new pastor in August of 2001. After the candidating sermon as Beth and Elizabeth and I were driving back to Illinois, I turned to Beth and said, “You know these people at United Church are odd, I think we will fit in here.” With that auspicious comment we began what has turned into a sixteen year ministry.
SLIDE 4: REMARKABLY CREATIVE CHRISTIAN ED PROGRAM
Early on in our time at United Church we had many children and young people in this congregation. We had a remarkably creative Christian Education Program.
SLIDE 5: CONFIRMED MANY YOUNG PEOPLE
In the spring of 2002 we confirmed a class of four young people: Melissa, Ellen, Abigail and Nathan. Two years later we confirmed another four young people in 2004: Elizabeth, Zach, Damian and Kimberly. We turned around and confirmed four more young people in 2005: John, Madison, C.C. and Robert. Then we had a three year gap and confirmed Zoe, Alexis and Karl in 2008. Finally in 2010 we confirmed Christopher and Elizabeth, and then we had a long dry spell. The Sunday school dwindled. We hardly had enough kids for a one room Sunday school.
SLIDE 5: CONFIRMED EVAN AND COLE
And then this year, we have confirmed Evan and Cole, and received Patrick in membership. We have young children again, and beginning in this January Ruth Votava is restarting the nursery (And Beth and I can’t volunteer). We are also going to split the Sunday school class into children and youth. This congregation has a bright future, if we are willing to work to nurture these children and young people in faith.
SLIDE 6: WONDERFUL VACATION BIBLE SCHOOLS
Another part of the story I want to tell is about Vacation Bible School. We had some wonderful VBS programs. Under Leah Christakes’ leadership we experienced the magic, and we utilized our youth in producing a program for our younger children – everyone benefited. I can’t show all the VBS videos, but allow me to share with you the 2009 Vacation Bible School video.
SLIDE 8: ONE WEEK OF VBS EQUALS A SEMESTER OF SS
We simply need some adults who are willing to provide leadership and invest some energy in doing something really fun with kids. And don’t allow money to prevent you from putting together the best Bible School you can. Leah did fund raising and people came forward to donate, because they believed in the power of Vacation Bible School. We have more contact hours with kids during a week of Vacation Bible School than we often manage in a semester of Sunday school.
SLIDE 9: VBS WITH ST. STEPHENS LED TO LABYRINTH
In 2009 we also organized Vacation Bible School with our neighbors next door St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church. And that partnership led to our sharing with St. Stephen’s in building our Healing Steps Labyrinth. Rather than turning in on ourselves and insisting that we weren’t going to share any of our open space, we finally decided to reach out to build a handicapped accessible Labyrinth with our neighboring congregation. When we are willing to cooperate with our neighbors miracles can happen.
SLIDE 10: STILL SPEAKING CAMPAIGN
Another important development in the life of United Church came in 2004, when the United Church of Christ began the God Is Still Speaking Campaign. Do you remember the “Bouncers Ad” that kicked it off?
SLIDE 12: BOUNCER PICTURE
For that time the “Bouncers Ad” seemed a little edgy for some people, but as we began to do some soul searching we realized that United Church wasn’t going to turn anyone away. We really do believe that in the name of Jesus Christ everyone is welcome. And so we began talking about extravagant welcome. We raised some money and aired the Bouncer’s Ad on television and then the “Ejector Ad,” and pretty soon people began showing up.
We even produced our own commercial that tried to capture the important discriminators that set United Church apart from many other churches.
SLIDE 14: UCH COMMERICAL PICTURE
“Your personal faith is respected. Science and faith are not mutually exclusive. You are encouraged to seek your own understanding of the Bible. You are encouraged to live your faith by helping others. No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey you are welcome here.” And now we can add our faith community is “Open and Affirming.”
SLIDE 15: BECOMING OPEN AND AFFIRMING
The struggle to finally embrace the Open and Affirming message took a while. Eddie Colf led the Diaconate and Congregation in discussing all the ramifications of declaring our church Open and Affirming. As Bill Green likes to note Eddie did not rush the process. He had the patience to wait until everyone had had an opportunity to express themselves. And in the end the vote was nearly unanimous. We had taken a giant leap forward to embrace equality for all.
SLIDE 16: ROUND TABLE ICE GROUP
Another important experience for me and United Church over the last 16 years was the Institute for Clergy Excellence. The Round Table ICE group brought us into an experiment in interfaith relationships. Our friendship with Rabbi Jeffrey Ballon promoted cooperation with Temple B’nai Sholom that led to an interfaith journey to Israel in which several of our members participated. When people of faith with good will join hands, even when our faiths are different we can all benefit.
SLIDE 17: BIRMINGHAM 8 AND PATHWAYS TO THE DIVINE
The interfaith ICE Group the Birmingham 8 provided the opportunity for me to travel to Bangladesh and India. As a result of that travel I brought back the twelve interfaith pathways to the divine. And Rose Rushin then used those twelve pathways to organize at United Church a Jazz Vespers Service.
SLIDE 18: MISSION AND SERVICE
Mission and Service has been an important theme in the life of our congregation over the last sixteen years. We have participated in Habitat for Humanity. Through Sue Duthie our congregation has been an important supporter of Foodline. Through our fifth Sunday Offerings for the Diaconate Fund. We have participated in the Huntsville Assistance Program. Through Rollan Edwards we sent an ambulance to Honduras and supported several ministries in that country. Through Alix Morehouse we have provided assistance and support for the homeless and First Stop. We also faithfully decorate the sock and glove tree to share with our brothers and sisters in the Lakota Association of the South Dakota Conference.
SLIDE 19: RELATIONSHIP WITH SEC & UCC
I also want to note that during the last sixteen years we have strengthened our relationship with the Southeast Conference and the United Church of Christ. When I arrived we had members who were openly hostile to the Denomination and the Conference. We have remained a Five for Five Congregation participating in all our of our denominations special offerings. We have also made our relationship to the United Church of Christ a cornerstone of our identity. And I want to thank June Boutwell our Conference Minister for being here today for the liturgy of farewell and release and for the wonderful support she has been giving our congregation as we move into this time of transition.
SLIDE 20: FAREWELL AND RELEASE
Sixteen years is a long time, and I could go on and on. But I think we need to wrap this up. When we come to the Liturgy of Farewell and Release, I want to ask Beth and the rest of my family present to come forward to stand with me. The life of a minister is difficult, and the life of the clergy family is also tough. So I want to thank my family for standing by me during these sixteen years. I could not have done it without you.
SLIDE 21: ENDINGS ALWAYS HAVE MIXED FEELINGS
Some people have asked me, “How do I feel?” Endings always have mixed feelings, but more than anything else right now the feeling on top is relief. I have struggled over the past two years with arthritis and now four surgeries three of them in the past year. Trying to keep up has been hard, and I thank the congregation for all of your patience as I have struggled to make it to this final Sunday. Fifteen months ago United Church and St. Stephen’s held a training session about our new Labyrinth. During one of the exercises we were asked to carry a stone as we walked the Labyrinth to symbolize our burdens. I realized that I could not lay that stone down until today. I have kept my stone here in the pulpit. After our celebration today, I will walk the Labyrinth once again, and lay my burden down in the center.
SLIDE 22: IT IS TIME
Like most retirees I will no doubt experience feelings of loss and grief, but right now I feel relief. Thank you for these last sixteen years. As the sermon title implies it is time. It is time.
Scene One —
Refugees are everywhere. They come without a denarius in their pockets and just the clothes on their backs. They come from Judea fleeing the evil and murderous regime of King Herod, who is so paranoid he kills his subjects without even a hint of evidence of disloyalty. And so they undertake the dangerous crossing of the desert and come filling the streets of Alexandria looking for work, looking for places to stay and something to eat. And where do they come? The synagogue of course. They say, “We are Jews, a little charity please?” And my people and I are all out of charity.
I am Rabbi Nachmani, the leader of a small synagogue here in Alexandria. Of course with a population of half a million Jews Alexandria has many synagogues. In fact there are more Jews living in our City than in all of Herod’s Kingdom. It’s amazing at the rate he kills his own people, there are any Jews left in Israel.
Now Herod never was much of a Jew. His ancestors were Idumeans, and his father Faisal, changed his religion for political advantage with the Romans. Israel has been a mess for a long time. No, Herod is more a Roman than a Jew, and that is why the Roman Senate in their infinite wisdom appointed him as King of the Jews. My great-grandparents blessed be their memory came to Alexandria 50 years ago to escape from the chaos of the administration of Faisal, Herod’s father.
So my great-grandparents came and made a home here in Egypt. My grandfather was a carpenter, and my father was a carpenter, and I too am a wood worker, and the rabbi for our small synagogue of the wood cutters. Mind you a rabbi is not a preacher. Sometimes I lead the prayers, but more often the scriptures are read by members of the congregation and the prayers are often sung by Daniel ben Sirach who is our congregational song leader. No, mostly I help negotiate marriage contracts, preside at weddings, perform the bris, provide interpretations of the law, distribute charity and occasionally mediate disputes.
Like the other day Moishe sold a cow to Joshua ben Israel. A month after the sale the cow stopped giving milk. Joshua wanted his money back. So, they brought their dispute to me. “Moishe,” I asked, “did you know your cow was going to stop giving milk?”
“Of course not Rabbi,” replied Moishe.
“But Rabbi,” objected Joshua, “how could he have not known?”
“But why do you say that?” I asked Joshua.
“Because he did not breed the cow before he sold it to me!”
“But I didn’t know the cow was due to be bred,” protested Moishe.
“Alright already! Moishe,” I said, ” you take the cow back and breed it with your bull. Then give the cow back to Joshua, and then let God decide if the cow will give milk.”
Moishe and Joshua agreed to this decision, because it is always better to trust your disputes to the synagogue than the Egyptian courts. We always try to keep the Egyptians out of our affairs. The hardest part of my job is distributing charity, especially with all of the refugees flooding in from Judea. The established members of our community, the families who have been here for generations expect that they should receive priority in the distribution of charity and not the newcomers. And so the refugees are a pain in the neck. And we also fear some of them. Among the poor who are trying to escape from Herod’s murderous ways there are also zealots who want to stir up trouble.
The zealots hate Rome and they try to inflame rebellion wherever they go. And our community here in Alexandria does not want trouble with the Romans or the Egyptians. We have established a reasonably comfortable life here, the authorities by and large leave us alone, and we don’t want outside agitators inciting hostility against our Jewish community.
So as Rabbi of the synagogue I am careful even dubious of welcoming refugees from Judea into our community. But sometimes even when we are cautious because we are afraid we need to be open to what God might be doing right underneath our noses. Let me tell you about a recent family, who arrived from Bethlehem about two years ago. But first I hear my wife Elisheva calling. You stay here in my shop and I will come back after I find out what she wants.
Scene Two –
Another family asking the Rabbi’s wife for help. Sometimes they think if they ask the Rebbetzin for help, she will be more generous. And maybe they are right. Anyway I was going to tell you about a family who arrived two years ago now from Bethlehem. They came across the desert in winter. They came very afraid seeking a place to hide. The husband Joseph was a carpenter. So out of loyalty to my own craft I welcomed him. My friend Ephraim was looking for a helper and I arranged for Joseph to go to work for him. The wife, Mary was very young, suckling her first child, a boy named Yeshua, a form of Joshua, meaning deliverer. When I asked Joseph why they were fleeing from Judea he had the most fantastic story.
He said when he had been betrothed to Mary for a few months she showed up pregnant even though he had not touched her yet. He said he had considered divorcing her quietly but an angel told him in a dream the child was special, and he was supposed to name the baby Emmanuel from the prophet Isaiah meaning God with us. Well there is no fool like an old fool I guess, and if everyone believed their dreams where would we be?
But then he had the most bizarre story about Magi astrologers from Babylon who came to Jerusalem asking where the messiah was to be born. They said, they had read the signs in the heavens, and a star had appeared in the sky announcing the birth of a new world ruler, who would be born in Israel. Supposedly Herod granted them an audience and even summoned the high priests to advise him about where the messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem,” they said. So, Herod told the Magi to go and search for the child and if they found him to bring back word to the King.
A short time later, the three Magi surprised Joseph, Mary and the child in Bethlehem and presented to them princely gifts, gold frankincense and myrrh. But then the Magi told Joseph they had been warmed by an angel in a dream not to go back to Herod, because the King would seek out the child to destroy him. News even reached Alexandria that the murderous Herod had sent soldiers to Bethlehem to slaughter all male children under the age of two.
So having been warned by the Magi, Joseph packed up his family and set out for Alexandria. The little family could not wait for a caravan and crossing the Sinai alone is a dangerous journey. They were accosted by Bedouins who stole the gifts of the Magi. So Joseph and his family arrived in Alexandria penniless. Elisheva found herself instantly attracted to the Baby Jesus and offered Mary comfort and even found money in her household budget to provide food for the little family. There is something special about Yeshua. Oh, he is as mischievous as any other two year old, but there is a peace that seems to surround him as he follows his mother to the market or comes to visit my wife Elisheva.
I might have doubted Joseph’s story about Herod seeking the life of the child, but about six months after the family arrived, I heard news that strangers from Judea were in Alexandria asking about refugees from Bethlehem. I went to Joseph and warned him that his family needed to keep a low profile, and invited Mary, Joseph and the child to come stay with us, and we would pretend that Joseph was my cousin, who was working in my shop. My house is not large, but we managed to fit Joseph and his family by sending three of my children to live with their grandparents for several weeks. And sure enough the “strangers” came to the synagogue of the wood cutters looking for refugees.
They were evil looking men. “Are you harboring any recent arrivals from Bethlehem?” their leader asked.
“No,” I replied, “the members of this synagogue have lived in Alexandria for generations. My great-grandparents came here 50 years ago.”
“What about him?” the leader asked pointing to Joseph.
“He is my cousin Joseph, we were both born here in Alexandria. We don’t like new comers. They take our jobs. We want to keep them out. You won’t find any of them here!”
“Then you won’t mind telling us if you see or hear of any arrivals from Bethlehem,” concluded their leader.
“That’s right I confirmed. You won’t find any new comers here. We don’t want’em.” With that Herod’s spies left my work shop. Just to be safe Joseph, Mary and the child stayed at our house for several more weeks.
Excuse me, Elisheva, is calling for me. I will come back as soon as I can.
Scene Three –
My wife needs that I should find a lamb for the Passover Meal. Seems funny for Jews living in Egypt to celebrate the Passover – the Exodus. But it is our tradition. Anyway after the visit from Herod’s spies I was more inclined to believe Joseph’s account of their leaving Bethlehem. But I still harbored some doubts until two weeks ago when during a restless night I had a dream.
In the dream an angel came to me. But it seemed more like real life than a dream. The angel was tall radiating light from giant wings of translucent feathers. I stood still with my mouth open in awe and fear. The heavenly being stared at me for a full minute as if waiting for me to speak, but no sound came out of my mouth. Then in a deep commanding voice the angel said, “Do not be afraid Nachmani. I am Gabriel, who stand in the presence of God. I bring you good news. Herod is dead. You must go tell Joseph, he can return with his wife and child to Israel, for now no harm will come to the child. And this will fulfill what has been spoken by the prophet Hosea, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” When the angel went away, I awoke wondering if what I had seen had been in waking life or a dream. The angel seemed so real. I can still remember the commanding voice. I doubt I shall ever be so close to the divine again.
The next morning I sought out Joseph to share with him the message of the angel. “Joseph, my brother, forgive me for ever doubting your story. Last night an angel came to visit me. He told me that Herod is dead and you and Mary and the child can return to Israel to fulfill the prophecy, for there is no one now to seek the life of the child.”
“But how can I be sure?” asked Joseph.
So I described the angel that appeared to me: “tall, large translucent wings.”
“Did the messenger say its name was Gabriel?”
“Yes, he did, ‘I am Gabriel who stand in the presence of God,’ he said.”
“It is a wondrous thing,” Joseph said, just like the angel I told you appeared to me.”
“My friend,” I replied, “I am so sorry I ever doubted you. Through your child Yeshua, we have been touched by heaven.”
Our poor synagogue could not duplicate the gifts of the Magi, but David, Gamaliel, Ephraim, Jacob and I gathered what little money we could to send the little family back across the desert to Israel. I tell you my friends, we have been touched by God. And I have learned, do not begrudge charity to the poor, especially those who are homeless or fleeing from injustice. God is often working miracles right underneath our noses, and the messiah is always closer than we think.
God with Us
SLIDE 3: EMMANUEL – GOD IS WITH US
In the Gospel of Matthew the angel who visits Joseph in a dream to encourage him to go ahead and marry his pregnant fiancée tells him to name the child Yeshua which meant deliverer or Messiah. Matthew claims that the birth of Yeshua will fulfil the prophecy in Isaiah 7:14 — “’the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’, which means, ‘God is with us.’”
SLIDE 4: HOLY FAMILY BECAME REFUGEES
During the Christmas Season we celebrate the incarnation of God appearing in the world in the form of a baby born in a cave to poor peasants and laid in a manger, a feed trough for animals, because there was no room in the inn. We also remember especially at this Christmas that Jesus and his family became refugees, forced to flee for their lives from the soldiers of the murderous King Herod. They left the land of Israel and traveled across desert borders until they found a place to stay in Egypt. The Holy Family was not unlike people today, who have been uprooted from their homes and forced to seek asylum in other far countries, because they are being killed by their own governments. The story of the Christ child reminds us that God often shows up in unlikely places in the lives of people we might never consider to be holy. After all who would think to look for God in the form of a suffering and dying political criminal nailed to a cross!
SLIDE 5: WHEREVER YOU FIND PEOPLE IN NEED
Maybe we miss God’s presence in our world today because we are not prepared to find God in unusual circumstances. Instead of going to the stores with the lights and the tinsel, or the living Christmas Tree, or even the candlelight Christmas Eve Communion, maybe we need to take food to the homeless camps. Or perhaps we can find a poor family whose utilities have been turned off, or a child who has no gifts and needs a warm coat. Perhaps we can help a family struggling to make Christmas Dinner, or reach out to an older person who is spending Christmas alone, or brighten the life of someone struggling with depression with a gesture of friendship. Jesus told us wherever you find people in need you will find me!
SLIDE 6: WE DON’T GET TO DECIDE WHO GOD WILL BRING
God is indeed with us, if we are willing to recognize and acknowledge the divine presence in the poor and other people in need. But we often resist seeing God in the needs of others, because they might make a claim upon us. They are dirty, smelly, difficult or just plain messy, physically, emotionally, spiritually. They come to us in the midst of nervous break-down, divorce, sometimes even with legal and criminal problems. When we open the doors of our spiritual community and proclaim no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey you are welcome here, then God brings people of all kinds, and we don’t get to choose what sorts of problems they will bring with them. We don’t get to say, “Lord send us some nice middle-class neurotics with plenty of money to support the church budget. God, please don’t send us anyone whose needs offend us.” No, God brings folks who are not like us. People we have to learn to love, and that is the challenge of living together as a diverse Body of Christ.
SLIDE 7: NAMASTE
So, as we hear the Christmas story tell us that God is with us, I want us also to hear that God is within us. The Hindu salutation “Namaste” means the divine in me acknowledges and greets the divine in you. When we learn to see the divine in other people who are different from us we discover the meaning of the God within us in spiritual community. And as we know acknowledging the divine in people who are very different from us, whether because of race, social class, gender, or sexual orientation, can be difficult.
SLIDE 8: GOD CANNOT BE DEPICTED WITH IMAGES
Our human species tends to be tribal. We are attracted to people who are like us, and folks who look different, act different, eat different, vote different or believe differently may engender in us fear and hostility. The God who is within us comes in all shapes, sizes, colors, genders, and sexual orientations. The God within us cannot be depicted with any images, because the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, Krishna, or Guru Nanak, transcends all nationalities, races, colors, cultures, religions, even political parties. The God of our faith seeks to open us to all other people in love, even when we think they are stupid and don’t like them very much. God is with us in the God within us.
SLIDE 9: ABSORB TOO MUCH NEGATIVE ENERGY
But where do we find the strength to sustain us through the spiritual darkness that even now seems to be gathering around us? There is another way that God is within us as we literally connect with the God within our own spirits. Sometimes we are blocked from that connection, because we have absorbed too much negative energy from the world around us. The world tells us we are stupid, immature, weird, odd, strange, queer, not regular or unacceptable people. And that negative energy prevents us from being able to identify the divine image within us. And when we cannot recognize the God within us we cannot connect with the divine energy that gives us the power to love others in a way that can change the world.
SLIDE 10: NAME OF GOD IS THE SOUND OF OUR BREATHING
In order to connect with the God within us we also need to learn to stop, breath, and be still long enough to be aware of God’s presence within us, within others, and all around us. Our breath as we say when we pray is our closest connection to the divine. As one Zen Master pointed out, “Breathe in, breathe out. Breathe in, breathe out. Forget this and attaining enlightenment will be the least of your problems.” The wind, the breath of God hovered over the waters of chaos when God spoke and brought forth the creation. The name of God, Yaweh, is actually the sound of our own breathing. God is as close to us as breathing and as distant as the farthest star.
SLIDE 11: PAYING ATTENTION
As Rabbi Lawrence Kushner points out in God Was in this Place, and I, i Did Not Know: “The ‘burning bush’ was not a miracle. It was a test. God wanted to find out whether or not Moses could pay attention to something for more than a few minutes. When Moses did, God spoke. The trick is to pay attention to what is going on around you long enough to behold the miracle without falling asleep. There is another world, right here within this one, whenever we pay attention.” And so, if we are to find that divine presence within us and around us, we have to learn to pay attention, to follow our breath until we merge with the God who is the ground of our being.
SLIDE 12: AWAKENING US TO BECOME CHRISTLIKE
Rami Shapiro, in his book, Perennial Wisdom for the Spiritually Independent, helps us to understand how the Advent of Christ in the story of Jesus can help us find the God within us. “The purpose of the Christ isn’t to raise up followers. The purpose of the Jesus is to awaken more people to become more Christ-like.
Rather than the vertical idea of Jesus ‘coming down’ from heaven and ‘rising up’ to heaven, a metaphor that implies a hierarchy lacking in the Divine, think in terms of ‘reaching out’ and ‘drawing in.’ The wise reach out from the divine Source and bring you back to the Source.
There are two ways to become divine. The right way is to realize that God is playing you. The wrong way is to fool yourself into playing God. The task of Jesus and all the realized saints and sages is the same: to awaken you to your true nature that you might participate fully in the nature of the world.”
SLIDE 13: YOU ARE THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD
And so, it is our prayer this Advent that the Christ might reach out to us and draw us in to the source of the divine light. As Jesus said in his sermon on the Mount: “You are here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We’re going public with this, as public as a city set on a hill. If I make you light-bearers, you don’t think I’m going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I’m putting you on a light stand. Now that I’ve put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand—shine! Keep open house; be generous with your lives. By reaching out to others and drawing them into the source, you’ll prompt people to come home to God.”
SLIDE 14: GOD WITH US
This Christmas season we need to let the light of Christ shine forth from our lives. We can reach out to the needs of others with charity and love. Then Christ can help us to realize the God within us even as the angel promised – God with us.
Vision of Peace
SLIDE 5: NETZER
Our scripture this morning is perhaps the most beloved of all the prophetic passages the early church claimed to apply to Jesus. New growth shall come out from the stump of Jesse. A descendant of the line of King David will emerge in the future. The Hebrew in that passage refers to a netzer, which applies to the new shoots that come up from the root system of an olive tree. The olive trees in the garden of Gethsemane, for instance, are the great grandchildren of the trees that were there, when Jesus prayed, because they have replenished themselves from the root systems for over two-thousand years. The early church latched onto that word “netzer,” because the Jewish clan that settled Nazareth, when they returned from Babylon called themselves the “Netzer” clan. They had a self conscious belief in our scripture from Isaiah that from their family the descendant of David who would become God’s Messiah would spring up like the shoot of an olive from the root system. So Jesus of Nazareth was also Jesus the Netzorean, or “God with us” from the Clan of Netzer.
SLIDE 6: NON-VIOLENT JESUS VS POWER OF ROME
Isaiah’s vision was a leader who would bring peace to the world, and this paralleled the claims the early church wanted to make for Jesus over against Augustus Caesar, whom the Romans asserted had brought peace to the world, through the power of Roman armies, who crushed all opposition. Perhaps you remember from your study of World History the term the Pax Romana, or the Roman Peace, that prevailed, because of the armies of Rome. The problem with the Pax Romana was that it was maintained with the brutal suppression of the national aspirations of all minorities within the Empire. Three Jewish rebellions were crushed during that Pax Romana, until Jerusalem was utterly destroyed, and most Jews deported and scattered throughout the empire, and the land of Israel was even renamed Palestine. The early church wanted to declare that Jesus was a different kind of Prince of Peace, for he brought peace not with the sword but with love.
SLIDE 7: PEACE ON EARTH TO ALL PEOPLE WITH WHOM GOD IS PLEASED
And I guess today we are once again being asked to consider what kind of peace we will work toward as followers of Jesus. In the Christmas story the angels sing to the shepherds: “Glory to God in the highest and peace on earth to all people with whom God is pleased.” The angels may have been singing a loaded message. Was God pleased with Caesar Augustus? Was the Pax Romana the kind of peace God had in mind? I think not, and as citizens of the most powerful military nation on earth, maybe that realization should make us stop and consider our faith.
SLIDE 8: PAX AMERICANA
During the Bush administration there was a group of advisors who talked about the Pax Americana. They advocated that the United States was the 800 pound gorilla on the world stage, and we should use that power to maintain a peace favorable to our national interest. Certainly the United States still possesses the most powerful military on earth, but what kind of peace has that bought us? The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are now the longest wars in which the United States has ever engaged, and are we any closer to peace?
SLIDE 9: TWISTED INTO SOMETHING EVIL
Isis is certainly a deplorable enemy, and personally I see no alternative but to resist Isis militarily. I do not believe they represent Islam as a whole. Isis has taken the Islamic faith and twisted it into something evil, in much the same way the Klu Klux Klan has taken the Christian faith and twisted it into something evil. I don’t think with either Isis or the Klu Klux Klan it is possible to ask everyone to all join hands and sing Kum Ba Yah.
SLIDE 10: THOSE WHO SOW THE WIND WILL REAP THE WHIRL WIND
And yet, if I am truly honest in examining and unraveling the complicated history of the involvement of the United States in the Middle East, I have to admit in so many ways the actions of the CIA and our foreign policies driven by our need to protect our national interests in fossil fuels have laid the ground work for the violence in the Middle East. Those who sow the wind will reap the whirl wind. Will “bombing the hell out of Isis” prevent the spread of radical Islamic ideas to millions of dispossessed young people, who are ripe for radicalization? Former Prime Minister of Great Britain, Tony Blair, said in a report entitled, “Inside the Jihadi Mind,” for the Centre on Religion and Geopolitics: The “perversion of Islam is the source of many of the problems in the Middle East,” and more than force is needed to tackle extremism. “The reality is that in parts of the Muslim community a discourse has grown up which is profoundly hostile to peaceful coexistence. Countering this is an essential part of fighting extremism.”
SLIDE 11: HAS AN AGRESSIVE MILITARY POSTURE MADE US SAFER OR MORE VULNERABLE?
I understand the fear of radical Islam that motivates so many people to seek a leader who will promise them safety. But has an aggressive military posture made us safer or more vulnerable? The invasion of Iraq, for instance, contributed to the radicalization millions of people in the Middle East and created a vacuum that made possible the rise of Isis. Are we really safer for following a tough aggressive military policy? I think Jesus would tell us there must be another way, the way of peace: “But with righteousness the Messiah shall advocate for the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth. ” I know the old phrase from the musical Camelot: “It’s not the earth the meek inherit but the dirt.” But Jesus said, “Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.”
SLIDE 12: HOW LONG OH LORD?
So how long must we wait for the Day of the Lord, when he 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 the way of Jesus a ridiculous fantasy, or is the way of peace simply waiting for a people of faith who are willing to live it?
SLIDE 13: BLACK ELK SPEAKS
Perhaps Chief Black Elk of the Oglala Lakota Sioux born in 1863 survivor of Wounded Knee and author of Black Elk Speaks in 1932 offers us some wisdom. It is particularly appropriate to listen to Black Elk the Sunday after our Sock and Glove Tree. “The first peace, which is the most important, is that which comes within the souls of people when they realize their relationship, their oneness with the universe and all its powers, and when they realize that at the center of the universe dwells the Great Spirit, and that this center is really everywhere, it is within each of us.” We begin the way of peace by embracing all people as part of ourselves — “loving or neighbors as ourselves.” The artificial walls of race, religion, class and tribe we erect to exclude, separate and create conflict, when we dismantle those walls that separate us one from another, then we are on the path of peace.
SLIDE 14: HOW LONG MUST WE WAIT?
But how long must we wait? I am reminded of a story from Jerusalem. A journalist assigned to the Jerusalem bureau took an apartment overlooking the Western Wall. Every day when she looked out, she saw an old Jewish man praying vigorously. So, after several months the journalist went down and introduced herself to the old man.
She asked, “You come every day to the wall. How long have you done that and what are you praying for?”
The old man replied, “I have come here to pray every day for 25 years. In the morning I pray for world peace and then for the brotherhood and sisterhood of all people. I go home have a cup of tea and I come back and pray for the eradication of illness and disease from the earth.”
The journalist was amazed. “How does it make you feel to come here every day for 25 years and pray for these things?” she asked.
The old man looks at her sadly and replied, “How do I feel? Like I’m talking to a wall.”
SLIDE 15: JESUS HAS GONE ON BEFORE US
So when will the Messiah come? When will our waiting be over? But the Messiah my friends is already here! Don’t you remember the words of the angels? “He is not here, he is risen from the dead, and he has gone on before you.” Jesus has gone on before us into the world. He is not in the manger, or in Capernaum, or on the Mount of Beatitudes or in the tomb. I know, I have visited all those places. Jesus is not there. He is not lurking behind the Christmas tree or hiding in the lights or the ornaments or in the sanctuaries of churches. The Messiah has gone on before us into the world, and if we would seek the Messiah we must look for him there. Wherever people are in need, we will find Jesus.
SLIDE 16: THE MESSIAH WAITS FOR US
During this season when we give gifts to one another — often gifts no one needs or wants — to people who have everything. Is there someone you know who has a genuine need you can supply? We have good spiritual friends among us who are trying to live on disability and limited incomes. We don’t really have to look very far to be able to touch genuine need. And it may not be a material gift that we give. Maybe there is someone who needs the gift of a listening ear, or the gentle touch of friendship. Become a peace maker. The Messiah waits for us!
Called to Gift
SLIDE 8: JUDAH WEAK NATION CAUGHT BETWEEN EMPIRES
Poor Judah was a small weak nation caught between the giant Empires of Assyria and Egypt. The Jews were sort of a back water occupying a mountainous piece of land, and they might have been left alone, except that through an unusual blessing of nature, the hills of Judah and Samaria, if properly terraced grew olives and grapes in abundance. While the river lands of the Tigris and Euphrates and the Nile Rivers grew grain in profusion, they did not produce wine or olive oil. And so poor little Judah was coveted by those Empires. The Jews lived in a heightened state of tension always afraid that foreign armies were ready to invade and take over their country.
SLIDE 9: SWORDS INTO PLOWSHARES SPEARS INTO PRUNING HOOKS
In the midst of the international tensions of his day Isaiah the prophet had a vision. In his dream Mt. Zion and the temple of Yaweh would be lifted up and become a shining beacon of peace and justice to all the nations.
Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the
Mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that she may teach us her ways and that we may walk in her paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.
Isaiah had this beautiful vision 700 years before the birth of Jesus, always hoping that human beings could find another way – the way of the Messiah who in Jesus pointed us to the way of non-violent love:
SLIDE 10: TURN THE OTHER CHEEK
Matthew 5: 38 “Here’s another old saying that deserves a second look, said Jesus: “‘Eye for eye, tooth for tooth.’ 39 Is that going to get us anywhere? Here’s what I propose: ‘Don’t hit back at all.’ If someone strikes you, stand there and take it. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. 40 If someone drags you into court and sues for the shirt off your back, giftwrap your best coat and make a present of it. 41 And if someone takes unfair advantage of you, use the occasion to show them love. 42 No more tit-for-tat stuff. Live generously. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. 43 “You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ 44 Well I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of love, 45 for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves.
SLIDE 11: GOD MAKES THE RAIN TO FALL AND THE SUN TO SHINE
This is what God does. God gives the best — the sun to warm and the rain to nourish — to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty.”
SLIDE 12: WE BRING THE LIGHT OF CHRIST INTO THE WORLD
As we enter the darkest time of the year in the season of Advent and perhaps a dark time in our nation’s history we are encouraged to hold up the dream of Isaiah and message of Jesus as a light to the world. And how do we bring the light of Christ into the world? Let me start with a story about a children’s sermon.
One Sunday in the middle of Advent during the children’s sermon, the preacher was telling the kids about how the angel came to Mary to tell her about how she would help bring Jesus into the world. One little girl seemed puzzled about this whole scene. Then another child asked what the preacher thought the first thing Mary would have asked for after the angel left her. Instantly this little girl chimed in with “I’ll bet she asked for a little help from Joseph!
SLIDE 13: WE NEED HELP FROM FRIENDS
If we are going to bring the light of Christ into the world we need a little help from others, we can’t do it alone. That is one reason we gather every Sunday for worship. We need to be reminded that we have been given what looks like an impossible task, changing the ways of the world to embrace love instead of violence, and the self-interested survival of the fittest.
SLIDE 14: PHYSICAL THERAPY CLUB
I am reminded of a story from the physical therapy club. As you know several members of our congregation have been in physical therapy this year, and physical therapy is difficult. Our muscles lose their memory quickly, when through illness, injury or stroke we do not use them even for a short period of time. They have to be retrained to work properly. I remember trying to rehab my shoulder the physical therapist gave me what seemed like a real nothing exercise saying, “This exercise is supposed to help the muscle attached to your should blade turn on.” Well I did the exercise for weeks and then one day I could feel the muscle turning on.
SLIDE 15: IF IT WASN’T DIFFICULT YOU WOULDN’T BE HERE
Well another member of our PT club was working with another physical therapist who gave her a task to do, and she complained, “This is impossible!”
Very patiently and gently the therapist replied, “It is not impossible. It is difficult. But if it wasn’t difficult, you wouldn’t be here.”
SLIDE 16: WE ARE GOD’S ADVENT TO HOLD BACK THE DARKNESS
And I think that is sort of the response that Jesus makes, when we complain about working to help the world embrace love. Jesus called the church into being because we all need a little help from our friends. Like when a number of members of our congregation showed up together at the Synagogue to sing, pray, and march to bring peace and healing after the election. And while peace on earth maybe difficult, if it wasn’t difficult we wouldn’t be here! Later in this worship, when we form the circle to share the Advent Communion, so we can look one another in the eye and remember how God has given us each other, so together we might help bring the light of Christ into the world. We are God’s Advent. We are God’s hands and feet in the world to help hold back the gathering darkness of despair.
SLIDE 17: DON’T GIVE UP THE LIGHT WILL RETURN
And let me acknowledge, it is so easy to give into despair, especially this time of year, when the darkness seems to take over our lives. For some of us seasonal affective disorder can threaten to plunge us into a depression that will not end. The promise of Advent is the light will return. Hope is often born in the darkness. Hope is often fragile, vulnerable, like a new born infant born in a cave. Hope is often poor, like peasants who had to lay their baby in a feed trough for animals. Hope often seems powerless, like the Holy Family forced to flee from the soldiers of Herod, who had been sent to seek the life of the Christ Child. So don’t give up. Celebrate this season. Celebrate friendship, love, hope and faith. Even more than Christmas we are a Resurrection people. God will not abandon us. God’s love is forever. Just as Jesus was God’s gift to the world, so now those who follow the way of Jesus are God’s gift to the world.