Wednesday, January 30, 2008

03 Epiphany 08
January 27, 2008
Isaiah 9:1-4

Matthew 4:12-23

I go fishing with Floyd Ward now and again, mostly because he gets a new boat every other month or so. Just kidding. We have a pleasant time chatting away and watching for the signs of fish and so on. Sometimes we even catch something. One day I caught only one fish, but I caught him three times.

But I’ve also been out once with Duck Ruark and I got a taste of what it’s like to fish for a living. Now Duck was crabbing, so the methods were peculiar to the task, but the experience wasn’t about fun, though there was some fun to be had. It was mostly work, and it was messy and repetitive and pretty darn difficult.

The day we went was peaceful and warm and calm. But I know that there are many days when watermen go out when the wind is cold and the water is rough. The water, even the Chesapeake, is a place hostile to human life.

A waterman, a fisherman, someone who works on the water, recognizes they operate in a very big universe, under the rule of powers far greater than we. Every fisherman knows, if the water wants to take you, it will take you. And if the water wants to bless you, it will bless you. But we don’t have a lot to say about it.

We live in a world under greater powers than we. The ancients had a lively sense of this, but we, in our modern arrogance, imagine we have somehow conquered all these powers, or that we soon will. We have blinded ourselves to our true situation.

One of our bible students who takes the time to read the lessons before our worship service noted how these four disciples just instantly got up and went when Jesus called them.

Matthew actually explains the situation pretty well. He doesn’t say anything about the power of Jesus’ magnetism as a person. But he does say a lot about the world of the average Jew in the first century. He has mentioned the Romans are in charge. He has mentioned Herod, the corrupt puppet king of the Jews, the slaughter of the innocents, the arrest of the popular prophet. He has already mentioned the great numbers of people who were going out to hear that prophet’s message, “the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the good news.”

A fisherman in this time and place lived a life of unbroken misery and poverty and disappointment, just like almost everyone else who wasn’t part of the small and powerful upper classes, and these were entirely controlled by the Romans. If you resisted in any way, if you even made a noise like you were going to resist, you were killed. And you weren’t just executed, you were usually tortured slowly until you died. The cross was the usual punishment for rebels.

Matthew has already told us that John the Baptist has publicly proclaimed Jesus the Messiah. So when this already famous person walks up to the seashore and asks some people to follow him, they go. They go because they had been praying every day and every night that God would send his Messiah to set the people free, just like Moses set the people free from Egypt. They go because they’ve been waiting for years for just this opportunity. They go because they are ready for the world to change, and they are willing to take a part in changing it.

And one of the things everyone who has ever experienced real change knows is that change is rarely possible without passionate and whole-hearted commitment.

Very few people our ministry reaches will actually become serious disciples. There is a rather judgmental email going around about people with machine guns going into a church and telling them that anyone who wasn’t willing to die for their Lord could leave. Most of the congregation, of course, walks out. A few are left. The gunmen then say, “Pastor, we just wanted to get rid of the hypocrites. Enjoy your service.” And they leave. The thing is called “would you run?”

I don’t buy this picture. There were a lot of people who loved and supported Jesus who didn’t leave their families or give up their lives. I think every congregation needs its “crowd,” the big group that is supportive if not completely committed. Very few of the thousands who came out to see Jesus stayed with him. I think this is as it was supposed to be. Jesus tells many a parable about the harvesting process of the mission of the gospel.

After crabbing with Duck, I watched as Duck and Frances very expertly culled the day’s catch, separating the crabs into their different categories. In just this way, God culls us.

Certainly, the people who come closest to Christ and the ones who really channel his presence into the world are the ones who put him first. This is a troubling truth, because it finds most of us where we are sitting, but friends, I see it clearly in the scripture. It’s a major theme. Jesus speaks about it more frequently than almost anything else: the importance of putting God above all things, even really good things.

If you are truly called to be a disciple of Christ, you will not always be asked to leave your family or your business, but it is likely it will be an issue in your life.

You see, we are dealing with powers that are very great and very mysterious, forces of history and class and clan and culture and politics. These things are like great weather systems, impossible to predict, sometimes hostile, sometimes friendly, but ultimately all greater than we.

We serve these various forces often without knowing it. We are ourselves like fish in a net, being dragged by forces we really can’t see or understand.

Whatever fisherman has caught us in his net, whether it be consumerism or conservatism or liberalism or racism or nationalism or whatever –ism, many of us have no idea we are caught in a net, no idea a force greater than we are is dragging us anywhere, but some of us do sense this. Some of us do have a feeling that something greater than we are is taking advantage of us. Something bigger and more powerful wants us for its dinner.

Into this situation comes the Messiah of God, the Christ, Jesus. He finds us laboring away for nothing and vanity and quietly asks us to follow him. He offers us a way to freedom, real freedom, the freedom to be the being that God has always intended us to be. God wants us for his dinner, and that is the only table we really are meant to grace.

The story is told of a traveler that years ago came upon a site in England where swarms of workers were building a grand church. The traveler saw several men digging a ditch. He stopped to ask three of them what exactly they were doing. The first replied, "Hey! I'm just doing what they tell me to do. All I care about it making a living to support my family." The second replied, "Me? I'm digging a ditch from here to that stake over there." But the third worker stopped, leaned against his shovel, and with a gleam in his eye, said, "I'm helping build a great cathedral.”

People might come to Philippi because we put on a good show. But Philippi’s purpose is not to put on a good show. People might come to Philippi because they enjoy the people they meet here. But Philippi’s purpose is not to be a social club. People might come to Philippi because they are in a crisis and need some direction and counseling. But Philippi’s purpose is not to be a counseling center. People might come to Philippi because they agree with the point of view they hear discussed here. But Philippi’s purpose is not to advance a certain point of view.

Our purpose is to come to this table and offer ourselves to God. Our purpose is to offer ourselves as a meal for the world, a taste of heaven.

All of us have stories of how we came to be here this morning. Some of us have come because we like the preacher. Some of us have come because we like the people. Some of us have come because we’d like to change the world. But we don’t realize, you see, that we have very little to do with how we got here.

We have been caught, and the fisherman is God.


Sunday, January 20, 2008

The Readiness is All
2 Epiphany 08
January 20, 2008
Isaiah 49:1-7
John 1:29-42

Jesus tells the disciples who are following him to “come and see.”

I remember a story about Mother Theresa. She rather abhorred publicity, and generally avoided it. But once early in her career a journalist followed her through the streets of Calcutta, asking her what she was doing there. Instead of trying to explain, she said, “Come and see.”

To follow the Lord Jesus Christ is to go into a whole new way of life and to see things in a profoundly different way than we have ever seen them before. We who have been on this road often find ourselves saying things that really make no sense to people who haven’t tried this path. When people ask us to explain ourselves, we are often at a loss. Often all we can say is “come and see.”

When I was a kid, my grandfather George wanted to share his knowledge of tools and repair and the way things worked. He was really talented in these matters. But I was always more ready to put my nose in a book, and I think he found that very frustrating, because he was doubtful about what use those books would ever be, and he knew exactly how useful his knowledge could be.

Well, it turned out that all through my twenties and thirties, I lost untold thousands of dollars because I had not a clue how to fix anything myself. It wasn’t until I came down here that I took a real interest, mostly because I had to. When I found I had the interest, it seemed as if people came into my life to show me what I needed to know.

There’s an old Buddhist adage, “when the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”

How often are we surrounded by all the teachers we need, but are simply unready to hear them? If I was going to offer a simple definition of sin, I might say it is the inability to be taught.

John the Baptist in this gospel says that the whole reason he went into the wilderness, to that great symbolic boundary line, was to reveal the Messiah. He knew he himself wasn’t the Messiah, but he knew what the Messiah would look like, and he went out preaching baptism, and he knew that by doing that he would reveal the student that was ready for the divine teacher.
Jesus was ready. He was open, he was desirous, his commitment was unconditional.
And the teacher, the Holy Spirit, appeared.

And of course, both Andrew and his brother Simon were also students who were ready. Their teacher, Jesus, appeared, and they followed him. I think there’s a reason we’re not given much insight into exactly what Jesus was teaching or even quite where he was staying.
Jesus just tells them, “Come and see.”

The connection to the divine, if it is to be authentic, must be direct. It can’t be mediated by this or that guru. As Jesus himself said, “many will come saying ‘I am he’.” Yet how do we have such a direct connection unless God himself initiates it? We can’t make God do anything. We can’t obligate him. We can only get ready, and when he comes, we really have no idea what exactly he will require of us. We simply go and see.

Some people here think I am a teacher, that this is my gift. But I actually don’t teach a thing. Many have asked me what the Christian should do in this or that situation. I think a lot of people choose churches on the basis of getting advice about specific life situations. Some preachers trade on that.

But I think my job is not to advise you or direct you or tell you what God’s intention for you is at all. I think my job is to get you ready so that God can tell you himself. My job is to make the student ready, and when you are ready, Jesus will do the rest.

In fact, if I was going to say how I practice my faith, I would say everything I do is designed simply to ready myself for the possibility that God will reveal his will to me and give me the opportunity to carry it out. I practice various disciplines, and all of them simply ready me for God’s rule.

In fact, a lot of Christian life is turning down the volume on all the powerful voices and forces in this world that are trying to tell us what to do.

Getting ready is pretty much the whole job of the disciple. I have found, too, that being ready requires constant work, that to let up on any aspect of the discipleship lets down the whole shebang.

This is the baptismal life. It’s a three-legged stool: fellowship, spiritual discipline and service.

Fellowship at its most basic is gathering to worship God every time the community gathers. But it is also developing relationships with others who are in the community of faith. We have a worship committee who work hard to make sure everything goes right on Sunday mornings. A lot of what the staff does is also about these gatherings. We have a fellowship committee who create opportunities for us to get together outside of worship. We have fellowship organizations in the church for women, men and youth that also gather here at Philippi.

Spiritual discipline is the second leg of the stool. We follow Jesus. We do the things he did. We pray. We wrestle with our demons. We study God’s word. We admit we need God’s help and ask for it frequently. We practice reconciliation in our personal and our public relationships, that is, we work always to forgive and heal relationships. We have an education committee that is currently running about five different programs to help you learn. A lot of our staff’s work is in counseling and spiritual direction.

The third leg of the stool is service to the gospel. We give our time, our talents and our wealth to the mission of the church. My wife and I give ten percent of our gross income to Philippi, about a hundred dollars a week. I also give what I consider an extra ten hours each week above my regular salaried time to ministries of the church. And of course, we try to give our best abilities in the service of our common ministry here.

None of these things guarantee God will do anything. We don’t give God orders, or obligate him to anything. But if we are ready, the teacher is likely to appear.

And if I neglect any one of these three practices, I find that the demands of the world begin to clamor more and more loudly and before you know it I am back in the old country again. The teacher has disappeared.

I really think our whole job as a congregation is to help people get ready so that the teacher, Jesus, can appear to them. All of the committees and the worship services and the classes, all of them are to help us become ready for the teacher Jesus to appear.

Too many churches try to box the kingdom of God and sell it like it was some kind of product, like a Big Mac. Jesus predicted this also, saying, “many there are who are trying to take the kingdom of God by force.” There is no forcing it. There is no single person who can stand and say, “this is it.” Rather, through the practices of our faith, we become ready for the true teacher to appear, and we are never sure exactly what he will say or do.

Another story of Mother Theresa:

Dan Rather once asked her, “What do you say to God when you pray?”

She answered, “I don’t say anything. I just listen.”

But Rather, being the ever-inquisitive reporter, then asked, “Well, what does God say?”

She thought for a moment and then answered: “He doesn’t say anything. He just listens.”


Thursday, January 17, 2008

First Sunday After Epiphany Year A

The Bath
01 Epiphany 08
January 13, 2008

Isaiah 42:1-9
Matthew 3:13-17

Here at Philippi, and in our denomination, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), we practice baptism by immersion. This is to say that we take the candidate into the water and put them completely under. We also only baptize people who are old enough to more-or-less know what is happening to them. We don’t baptize infants.

Elizabeth Myer Boulton, the pastor of Hope Christian Church in Boston, told a story at the Assembly in Fort Worth this summer. It was about a good Christian mother who had recently given birth. She was bathing her brand new baby in the little bathtub she and her husband had bought special for the little tyke. The baby was happy that morning in the warm soapy water and very relaxed. And the mother was really enjoying her time of closeness with the baby.
She was cupping the water in her hand and pouring it over the baby’s head and staring into the baby’s eyes and talking to the baby, and she was saying, “Look at you! Just look at you! Aren’t you special? Aren’t you the most beautiful baby in the whole wide world?”

And she was so full of love for her baby, she started to pray. “Oh God, please bless my beautiful baby. Make him strong and healthy and loving and wise. Lead him to great adventures and to mighty acts. Let his life glorify you and shine like a light in the world.”

All of a sudden she stopped. Her face clouded in worry and anxiety. Being the good Christian woman that she was, she said, “Oh Lord, did I just baptize this baby by accident?”

This week has been a powerful one in my life, I can tell you. Yesterday our church was packed to bursting with hundreds of people that had come to say goodbye to Lorraine Stewart, who had died on Thursday.

I mentioned in the sermon that Lorraine was baptized at the age of nine in the year 1922. I’m not sure where, but I know it was in one of the creeks around here, probably Jackson Creek, the body of water she lived by her whole life. She was 95 when she died.

For eighty-six years after her baptism, Lorraine attended this congregation. If she was able to get out of bed she came to church on Sunday morning. And most every Sunday, she attended a Sunday School class. And whenever there was work to do, she rolled up her sleeves and did her part.

You see, her baptism wasn’t so much about what she had already done. Lorraine was only nine when she went into the waters. Her baptism was about what she was going to do. And, perhaps more importantly, what God was going to do.

When we hear this passage from Isaiah we recognize our Savior Jesus. But note what God says. After he says, “This is my servant,” he doesn’t talk about what the servant has already done. He talks about what the servant will do. “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well-pleased,” comes before Jesus has taken any action except being baptized by John. God speaks not because of what Jesus has already done, or even whom he already is, but because of what he has been sent to do.

To bring forth justice to the nations, to give sight to the blind, to bring the prisoners from the dungeons, this is the mission. Jesus carries this mission out by refusing to give glory to anyone by his Father in heaven or to any other idol. To those of us who follow him, this is the first and most important mission, to give glory to God above any other power that lays claim to us in the world.

Baptism is a bath. It’s about being cleaned. We don’t clean ourselves, the water is what cleans us. In Jewish culture of that time, washing was an important religious ritual. If anything was regarded as “unclean,” that is, unfit to go into the presence of God, then it was washed, not because Jews had some prescient understanding that getting clean was healthy, even though it is, but because God had in many and various ways commanded them to wash themselves.
John the Baptist took this basic Jewish ritual and elevated it to a much more powerful status. Here in Matthew, we read that John was the one who began the teaching about the kingdom of God coming soon. The vision he had was of a Jewish Messiah who would bring God’s rule back to Israel.

Now the key to the power of any ruler is the commitment of his followers. This was what John’s baptism was all about. He was preparing the people of Israel to receive their new king. His baptism was about changing direction, about giving up the old ways, about renouncing the rulers and powers that held them down, about giving themselves completely to the rule of God, no matter what that might entail.

And so this washing was to wash away unfaithfulness, idolatry, and all the powers of the world, including, of course, the Romans. It was about being emptied of everything. It was about making oneself entirely open to God and God alone.

John immersed his followers in the Jordan River, in living water that had a lot of symbolic importance to Jews. Now, immersion was a powerful metaphor, and still is. You see, Lorraine really could not have become the person she was if she was not immersed in the teaching and practice of Jesus Christ. She came to church not just when she felt she needed to, but every week. She went to bible study not just when the topic was of interest, but even when it wasn’t. She stepped up to do the work necessary to the church not just when it was easy, but even when it was dreary and difficult. She immersed herself in her Christian life, she immersed herself in God’s word, she immersed herself in the community of those who believe.

Luther said baptism only takes a minute to do, but it takes a lifetime to complete.

One evening the New Testament professor from Princeton Seminary visited a high school youth group. After the professor finished speaking about the significance of Christ's baptism as a revelation of God's presence in Jesus, the high schooler said without looking up, "That ain't what it means."

Glad that the student had been listening enough to disagree, the professor asked, "What do you think it means?"

"The story says that the heavens were opened, right?"


"The heavens were opened and the Spirit of God came down, right?"

"That's right."

The boy finally looked up and leaned forward, saying, "It means that God is on the loose in the world. That’s dangerous."

We were amazed yesterday to reflect on the power of Lorraine’s life. Her ministry of love, we found, has literally spread around the world. Baptism, this immersion in God’s word and community, is the way that God fills those he calls with his own Holy Spirit. As we come week after week, as we engage in the disciplines of prayer and study and self-examination and forgiveness, God’s Spirit fills us more and more, and we truly become, one day at a time, one kind act at a time, or in Lorraine’s case, one stitch at a time, God’s real presence in the real world.

Christians, you see, are made, not born.

At the same time, this word to Jesus, “You are my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased,” is the same word he offers to everyone who is baptized. It is not only a call to mission, marching orders from God, if you will, but it is also his promise to you.

That promise carried Lorraine through some very difficult tragedies. The loss of both her son and his wife just about broke Lorraine’s heart. But just as the community of faith shaped and transformed her, so it also carried her like a life-raft through the darker and more despairing times of her life.

Martin Luther may very well have been chemically depressed. He underwent terrible dark times when he doubted everything he was doing. There were nights so awful, he would sometimes rush to the baptismal font in his local church, thrust his hands into the water and splash himself, repeating again and again, “I am baptized, I am baptized.”

On the same day that Lorraine passed away, a colleague of mine, the pastor of two Methodist churches here in Middlesex county, took his own life. All of us who cared about him are reminded about just how dark the times can get. How much we wish we might have had the opportunity to tell him, “You are baptized. You are God’s beloved child, with whom he is well-pleased.”

And I want to point something out to you that you have probably already figured out. This may look like a sanctuary or a meeting hall, friends, but you know it’s really just a big bathtub. And right now, God is standing over it, and God is pouring that water over us all, and God is saying:
“Look at you! Just look at you! Aren’t you special? Aren’t you the most beautiful baby in the whole wide world?”


Sunday, January 13, 2008

Sermon at the Funeral of Lorraine Stewart

Proverbs 31:10-31 (NRSV)
10 A capable wife who can find?
She is far more precious than jewels.
11 The heart of her husband trusts in her,
and he will have no lack of gain.
12 She does him good, and not harm,
all the days of her life.
13 She seeks wool and flax,
and works with willing hands.
14 She is like the ships of the merchant,
she brings her food from far away.
15 She rises while it is still night
and provides food for her household
and tasks for her servant-girls.
16 She considers a field and buys it;
with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard.
17 She girds herself with strength,
and makes her arms strong.
18 She perceives that her merchandise is profitable.
Her lamp does not go out at night.
19 She puts her hands to the distaff,
and her hands hold the spindle.
20 She opens her hand to the poor,
and reaches out her hands to the needy.
21 She is not afraid for her household when it snows,
for all her household are clothed in crimson.
22 She makes herself coverings;
her clothing is fine linen and purple.
23 Her husband is known in the city gates,
taking his seat among the elders of the land.
24 She makes linen garments and sells them;
she supplies the merchant with sashes.
25 Strength and dignity are her clothing,
and she laughs at the time to come.
26 She opens her mouth with wisdom,
and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.
27 She looks well to the ways of her household,
and does not eat the bread of idleness.
28 Her children rise up and call her happy;
her husband too, and he praises her:
29 "Many women have done excellently,
but you surpass them all."
30 Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain,
but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised.
31 Give her a share in the fruit of her hands,
and let her works praise her in the city gates.

One of the things I learned from Lorraine had to do with grief. We all know how broken-hearted she was at the loss of her son Thomas Hall, and then how deeply she grieved when Lou also died. Not a day went by when she didn’t think of them. Yet she wove her mourning into her life so that she could go on. She had certain places and things in the house she kept as remembrances, and when she felt the need to mourn, she’d go to those places and to those things and allow herself to weep. And when she was done, she’d go on about her very busy life.

We can learn this from her. As we grieve our loss, as we find ourselves missing her, as I certainly do, we might just make a little time for her. Give ourselves a moment to feel our sadness and remember how blessed we were to know her.

That’s what we’re doing right now. That’s why we gather in this holy place.
I saw Jesus Christ in Lorraine Stewart. This is the aim of every Christian life, and Lorraine achieved it.

Our associate pastor, Lew McPherren, likes to say that when he was born, his mother got up and carried him across the street to church. I’m pretty sure that’s just exactly what Lorraine’s mother Myrtle did for her, and Lorraine said as much frequently.

I’ve been told Myrtle was near deaf, and the person who told me said it was God’s blessing. Apparently you’d have never known the Halls would turn out to be such a close family to see them when they were kids. I guess they were always going at each other, and it was Lorraine who played peace-maker nine times out of ten. In those days, she was always in a high state of anxiety over this or that crisis.

We laugh about this now, but we might just take a moment here to think about what we are saying. Lorraine didn’t do what she did just because of who she was. Even way back then, she was doing what she did because God was in her life through Jesus Christ and his church. She didn’t just go to church, she took seriously what she heard there, and put it into practice in the midst of her family.

And as she grew in faith and in years, she expanded her circle of concern.

Eventually she adopted the whole of Deltaville as her family, and she continued to feel it was her job to set people straight. She’d get right in your face and fuss at you to do the best thing for you and everyone else. And you never needed to worry she’d say anything behind your back. No, she’d come right up to you.

The funny thing was, you never had the feeling she was judging you or looking down on you. The main feeling you had was that she cared.

Of course, we couldn’t remember Lorraine’s caring love for everyone without remembering her handwork. If you went to her house, you’d notice on the door a sign that reads, “Martha Stewart doesn’t live here.” And you wouldn’t be disappointed when you saw the inside of her home. There seemed to be stacks everywhere. But if you look a little more closely, you find that every one of those stacks was a project, and most of those projects were for people she loved.

You see, people who follow Christ don’t value the things most of the world values. It didn’t matter to Lorraine what people thought about her. What mattered to Lorraine was what she thought about them.

Lorraine often gave thanks for all her friends. But I am reminded of what Molly Weston used to say. “Every good thing I ever did for anyone came back to me.” The hundreds if not thousands of people Lorraine’s life and ministry touched came back around in the huge circle of those who loved her.

One Sunday, I mentioned in my sermon that we’d been here for 135 years. I then corrected myself, “I don’t mean we have been here that long.” Lorraine called out, “I’m working on it!”

Lorraine was the oldest member of Philippi and had been a member longer than any other living person. She was baptized in 1922, only fifty years after the congregation was founded, making her a fully active member for 86 years.

She also been in Sunday School possibly longer than any other member. I figured it out and I believe she has attended over four thousand classes since she was baptized. You might never have known it, but Lorraine was deeply knowledgeable about her faith. The word of God was her food, and it was his love that guided her life.

Her circle of caring grew larger and larger the longer she lived, and eventually extended far beyond Deltaville. This, in my view, is more evidence that Christ was truly alive in her.
Everyone who has ever come to Philippi as a new visitor knows that Lorraine was one of the first people to come up with a warm greeting and a great big smile.

I’m told that years ago, a cruising couple tied up their boat at the wharf across the road from her home. The couple came out on their bicycles and stopped to ask Lorraine if it was all right for them to tie up there. Lorraine’s response: “Just as long as you come to church with me.” The couple accepted that invitation, and for years after, whenever they were in Deltaville, that’s where they tied up, and this is where they went to church.

Yesterday we just sent off a bible to a couple from South Africa who live aboard a cruising boat called Savanna Blue. We now have quite a few couples and families that live the cruising life who call Philippi their home in Deltaville. And so we can say that Lorraine’s love really is reaching all around the world. This is more evidence of Christ’s presence in her life.

Just as Lorraine liked to pause a moment and think about the people she’d loved, so I’d like us to pause right now and think about these things. Lorraine Stewart changed the world! Isn’t that amazing? Born and raised in a little rural town, never moved anywhere else, died and buried right here. But she nevertheless changed the world. She changed it one day at a time, one stitch at a time, one kind word at a time, one friend at a time. This is the real power of Jesus Christ. He comes into our broken world in the lives of those who follow him. In people like Lorraine.

Yes, how often she said, “Honey, you won’t believe the friends I have. They are sooo good to me.”

People don’t generally come to the end of their lives being deeply loved by literally hundreds of people. This is just not the natural way of things. No, such people are not born, but made, and I believe they’re made by God. I believe Lorraine would agree with me. I believe she’d stand right here beside me and testify that she didn’t have a thing to do with who she turned out to be. I believe she’d give God whatever glory there was to give. God made Lorraine who she was, and God is the one she thanked every day.

The last time I talked with her, she thanked God from the bottom of her heart for all the blessings of her long and wonderful life. And, as I have told our members, she spoke of her future in heaven not only as something she accepted, but as something she looked forward to with real joy. In the midst of her terrible pain, she smiled at me when she told me how happy she would be to see her parents and her friends and especially Thomas Hall and Lu. She looked forward to heaven just as you and I would look forward to the happiest journey of our lives.

The world and the devil try to tie us down, to make us what we are not, to enslave us to selfishness and fear. Most of us never really become all that we’re meant to be. Instead we try to conform to what the world wants to make us. This is because in one way or another we are cut off from God, from others, and even from ourselves.

Lorraine was free to be who she was meant to be. This is the greatest sign of Christ’s power. Jesus was exactly who he was meant to be, he was free to love God and his fellow human being exactly as he wished. No earthly or unearthly power could stop him. No one ever existed like him before or after. And this is the good news for those who follow him. We become like him not by doing exactly the things he did or in any holier-than-thou self-righteousness, but by truly and authentically being ourselves, people who love God and their fellow human beings in the unique ways each one of us is blessed to be able to love.

There never was anyone like Lorraine Stewart before and there will never be another. In this way, above all others, Christ’s light shines in her.

It is true Lorraine Stewart had many friends. And her greatest friend of all was a man named Jesus Christ. It is he who took her by the hand all those years ago and led her through this life, working through her and in her to bless us all. It is also her friend Jesus who raised from the dead all the ones Lorraine has lost through the years, her mother and father, her son and daughter-in-law, and all the friends who have gone before her, and it is her friend Jesus who now has raised her to rejoice with them forever at the throne of grace.

If there are phones in heaven, I’m sure Ms. Lorraine will find one. And I’m sure we’ll hear from her from time to time. I can hear her even now, saying, “Honey, you won’t believe the friends I have. They are sooo good to me.”


Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Epiphany, Year A, January 6 2008

A Light From God
00 Epiphany 08
January 6, 2008

Isaiah 60:1-6
Psalms 72:1-7, 10-14
Eph 3:1-12
Matt 2:1-12

The season of Epiphany begins now and goes on for another four weeks. It’s a time when we consider signs from God. Some have asked me why my car is not in its accustomed spot under the tree. Well, it seems that in this last week about a million birds have decided to flock into that tree. My car has been buried in droppings.

Now, here’s the remarkable thing. Our new associate pastor, Lewis, always parks right next to me. Now do you think there is a single speck on his car? There is not. Is this a sign?

We got a Christmas card from Wyatt and Anna that pictured the three wise men offering their gifts to Jesus. The caption read, “Mary was worried all these gifts might spoil him.”

The world is searching for a light from God.

Our beloved Lorraine Stewart is fighting for her life this morning. She has always been a light to us all, and she has sought the light of God all her life. All the more now.

I know of a number of people struggling to get free of addiction and alcoholism. They are tearing themselves and their families apart. They are searching for a light from God. Their families are too.

And yes, your pastor is also searching for a light from God.

The wise men, when they finally found that light, were filled with joy. Isaiah speaks of the joy, the joy of the glory of the Lord rising upon you. This is how powerful the longing for that light is. When we find it, it fills us with joy.

I recall a story from Ken Burns’ documentary about World War II. There was a little girl named Sasha who had been interred with her family in a Japanese prison camp in the Philippines. They were not treated well. They all were slowly starving to death and many of their friends had died.
Sasha had a little brother. Toward the end of the war, they began to find leaflets dropped from American planes. “We’re coming,” they said. The little brother, who was about five, had a little suit he had saved for the day of his liberation. Every day he would put out the suit, hoping that day was going to be the day.

One day they heard a great rumbling and without warning the front gate came crashing down under the tread of an American tank. The day had come at last. The little boy ran and put on his suit and went running to meet his salvation. That’s the kind of joy we’re talking about. The joy of salvation. The joy of liberation.

The kind of joy you feel when you find that light from God.

You may not know that it is very likely the wise men were from what was then called Persia, probably the city of Babylon. That country is now called Iran.

How many of you are aware of the letter from Muslim leaders entitled a “Common Word Between You and Us”? Matthew, our gospel all through this church year, was the one most quoted by the 138 Muslim leaders who signed it. They quote Jesus, the king of the Jews the wise men from the east came to see, when he said:

"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called Children of God." Matt 5:9 (NRSV)

The story of the Old Testament is the story of Israel, a nation created by God for the purpose of healing the break between God and his creation. People were created to be the image of God, but they refused that purpose very early on. God therefore called Abraham and began a centuries-long process of shaping a nation.

We believe that whole process was for the purpose of bringing forth Jesus. It was a kind of cultural and religious husbandry program. This is why we have all those boring “begats.” The families that God created to be the citizens of his special nation were the Petrie dishes in which he was growing the living culture necessary to produce the desired result. That desired result was Jesus.

Jesus is our king, our Messiah, whom the wise men called “king of the Jews.” That will be the inscription Pilate will put on his cross at the end of Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus is not like other kings or political powers. He is not a president, he is not a dictator, he is not an emperor.
He is instead the image of God, fully and completely realized, so perfectly realized that we call him the Son of God. He is our king, he is our high priest, and he is our prophet. He commands and we obey. He makes an offering of himself, and we offer ourselves with him. He speaks for God, and we understand God through him.

Our purpose is to be that light for which the world is searching.

Of course, as we learned last week in the terrible story of the murder of the innocent babies by King Herod, some are searching for the light to snuff it out. This is to be expected. There really is no fence-sitting when it comes to following Jesus. Our way is the way of peace and justice, because Jesus’ way was the way of peace and justice. Those who will be brought low when the Messiah comes certainly don’t want him to come.

The world searches for the light of God’s peace and justice. I do. You do. If we were to look deep down inside ourselves, we’d know that we really wanted these things above all other things. Our problem is that the means to them offered by the powers of the world invariably lead to injustice and turmoil and even violence.

And so the world is fragmented, broken apart into disconnected pieces. Without wholeness, all the pieces suffer. Even the wealthy and the powerful are suffering, perhaps worst of all. Look what anxiety Herod is living with. Look at our own tremendously prosperous country. People can have almost anything they want. Are they whole? Are they happy?

The world is searching for the light from God.

Our denomination has come up with a very evocative identity statement. “We are the Christian Church, a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world. I think that is wonderful.”

What a gift! What an opportunity! Isn’t it marvelous to be given such a privilege?

We are Philippi Christian Church, a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world.