Sunday, December 24, 2017

Sermon - Christmas Eve

Luke 2:1-20    

                                                          “Welcome Home” for Christmas

I don’t know if you are likely as me to read church signs as you drive down the highway.  A few years ago I noticed a whole book of them, in the country-store area at the Cracker Barrel.  There must be a newsletter or an on-line resource or folks are just really quick in copying each other, because once a creative church sign goes up, it seems to go up at a lot of places at the same time.

My new favorite from this Christmas season; spotted somewhere down near Ware Shoals reads: “Are you part of the Inn group, or one of the stable few?”  Get it?  “Inn group,” spelled i-n-n, the inn where there is no room for Mary and Joseph.  “Stable few”?  There were only a few who gathered in the “stable” in order to adore the Christ Child.  Maybe it loses something when you can’t read it for yourself; it surely loses a lot when someone tries to explain what it means.  Sorry about that….

My all-time favorite sign message is somewhere between here and the church where I spent my first 20 Christmas eves.  That might have something to do with it.  My number one, all-time favorite church sign had a very simple message.  It read:  “Come Home for Christmas.” 

At the risk of ruining another creative message, let me try to explain why this one moves me so deeply.

“Come Home for Christmas.” 

The Christmas story is built upon the lack of a “home” for baby Jesus and his family.  The Christmas story exposes that home is not so much a physical place as it is a place of welcome and comfort.  The Christmas story invites its hearers to enter into the discussion about what it means to come home and to be at home and to have a home.

In ways more powerful than any family celebration I have ever attended, the story of this Holy Night is a story which settles our yearning for safety and security and contentment.

Where else could we come, or go, in order to be more at home, than in a place surrounded by others hearing the good news of a God who creates a home for each of us, and then comes to make his home among us?

“Come Home for Christmas.”

The phrase stuck with me.  I thought of it as I listened to the music being played on my “Country Christmas” Pandora station.  Particularly at night, in the evenings, as many are wrapping gifts, a huge number of the songs were about “coming home.”  Many of the songs were familiar; but I can’t remember the words of them all.  It is okay for me to admit that I sometimes have difficulty remembering the second verse of “Oh Come, All Ye Faithful,” but I can sing right along without hesitation to Rascal Flatts’ rendition of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”  Might the same be said for some of you?

“Home.”  Being at home.  Going home.  This hope, this promise, this is the desire is just below the surface of practically every conversation had during this time of year.  There are few gifts considered as precious as the simple gift of “coming home.”

 I had most of last week off, as vacation.  Today was my first real day back.  I should have kept a count at this morning’s worship service of how many folks asked me if I had gone “home” last weekend.  I did get up to North Carolina, but that isn’t why I mention it here.  Rather, it is to point out that I have lived in Clemson longer than I ever lived in Vale.  So why, when you who also live here ask me if I will travel to North Carolina, do you ask me if I am going to make it “home”? Isn’t this my “home”?  Isn’t this “home” for both of us?

“Come home for Christmas.” 

Or course it isn’t the “place” which beckons us – it is something else.  It is the returning to or going to that place where the shoes come off and the collar is loosened and the hair comes down and we experience what it means to be loved and appreciated and accepted and cared for and protected. 

That place is the place we all desire to be and long to be.  It is the place we go to and return to and come to. 

My hope for you, for all of us, as we sit together on this Christmas Eve, in this house of worship is that you are gifted with that same feeling of being were the shoes can come off, the tie loosened, and the anxiety level reduced.  My prayer is that each of you feel the relief associated with being “home.”

This is the hope and the gift for each of you.  Whether you are a regular attendee at the Sunday services offered in this place; whether you are an adult who came here with your parents when you were a child; whether you are a traveler, holed up in a hotel room or camper; whether you are a local who wanted to be at home tonight even if these buildings and their occupants have failed to make you feel at home during the previous fifty-two weeks; whatever your status before you came through those doors – you are at home now.  And the owner of this house is committed to making your homecoming all that you desire it to be.

Mary and Joseph were at home on this evening, in Bethlehem.  They were at home with their son.  Their home included shepherds sent their way by angels singing in the heavens.  Mary and Joseph found out that evening what home really means.  And ever since we have known that we can come home or return home or be at home in any one of the millions of places where the story of Jesus’ birth is retold.

What a joy.  What a delight.  What a gift.


Sermon - Advent 4 - Year B

Luke 1:26-38
                                                                     How Can This Be?

“How can this be?”  This is Mary’s response to the news the angel shares with her.  “How can this be?”

And what the angel tells her is difficult to believe.  I mean – can you believe it?  Do you believe it?  Do you live your life in a way which bears witness to the news shared by the angel?

What the angel tells Mary forever changes the way mere mortals understand themselves and their role in the cosmos. 

The angel tells Mary that God – GOD – is leaving behind the heavens and taking on the very flesh and blood which mortals too often seek to abandon.

The angel tells Mary that God – GOD – is entangling Himself with the very creatures whom He created and entrusting these creatures to carry to term His own life.

What the angel tells Mary forever changes the way we understand ourselves and our role in the cosmos. 

How can this be?

Some of you have, no doubt, moved on to the second phrase uttered by Mary in verse 34.  Ah, but here is where your drive for logical explanations stands in the way of the reception of spiritual insight.  Tradition reminds us that Mary is a virgin, and too often (yes – I did say TOO OFTEN) we fixate on this and thus fail to comprehend the true magnitude of what the angel tells Mary.

Put this in perspective; and consider the magnitude of each.  A virgin giving birth – and – God turning to a human in order to accomplish His will.  Consider these two, and evaluate the magnitude of each.

I am as aware of biology as any of you.  But my working knowledge of biology tends to diminish the magnitude of a biological creature giving birth without the aid of another.  I know that I trust news sources that are not trusted by some of you.  Is the BBC on that list?  The BBC has an article – on line – titled “Spectacular real virgin births.”  Read it if you wish.

Maybe I am more aware that some of you, of the magnitude of the other statement I have asked you to ponder.  A virgin giving birth is one thing; but God entrusting his fate to a human carrier is the truly astounding storyline of the angel’s announcement.

Think of all the places that this plan of God’s could have gone wrong.  In the account of the story told by Matthew, Joseph considers putting Mary away, quietly.  “Quietly”!!!!  There was no way to quietly put away a young woman who was found to be with child outside of wedlock.  Maybe some of you have lived in big cities where such a thing could happen, but not in a small village of a couple hundred or possibly a thousand.  Think of how well things are kept “quiet” in this little town.

The best Joseph could do was to return Mary to the home of her father where, if folks didn’t get all riled up, she could bear her child and live her life under the protection of her daddy.  Under her daddy’s protection, till he died.  Then.  Who knows.  What Joseph was willing to do was to ignore Mary’s pregnancy and not expose her to the appropriate recourse of the day – death by stoning.

How Joseph responds to the news shared by the angel is only one step in the process.  And see how terribly wrong it could have gone?  What about crib death?  Or infant malnutrition?  Or measles, whooping cough, or a thousand other diseases to which Mary and Joseph might unknowingly allow this child to be exposed?

Am I beginning to impress upon you the magnitude of the news the angel shares with Mary?  Mary, a fragile, simple, humble, impoverished human being is given the opportunity (she might have felt it was the responsibility) of carrying into the world the very presence and being of God.

Let me say that again:  Mary, an unknown, nobody from the far reaches of the civilized world is being pulled into partnership with God to forever change and transform the way the world will see itself – as well as the way the world will perceive of God.

Forget the virgin birth.  This other part of the announcement is what is amazing.

Have I swayed you?  Are you beginning to see this perspective?  Cause I’ve got one more thing to say – and it really is the point I want to make out of all of this.


Placing the emphasis on a virgin birth allows us to escape the impact of the angel’s announcement.  “How can this be?  For I am a virgin.” Distracts us and allows us to hear the announcement as one meant for Mary and Mary alone.  Placing the emphasis on a virgin birth allows us to exit ourselves from the story and fail to comprehend the way in which God is entrusting us with carrying to term his purpose and his gift to the world.

“How can this be?”  is our reaction practically any time it dawns on us that God’s work is dependent on our hands. 

“How can this be?” is our attempt to dismiss or diminish the significance of how we are called to live our lives in the aftermath of the angel’s announcement.

“How can this be?”  that God would turn to us and depend upon us to ward off the dangers and perils which threaten His life?

“How can this be?”

The Christmas story forever changes the way we see God and our role in the world.  The angels serve to tell us what God intends and to announce what God hopes from us.  But the angels were not sent, into this world of pain, to do in Jesus’ name, the do the work that was left for you and me to do.

I do not want to suggest that virgin births happen every day.  They are rare enough that even the BBC has to do searching for spectacular occurrences.  Unfortunately, another aspect of the angel’s words do not happen every day, either.  We do not respond like Mary.

The God which Christianity seeks to reveal has made it clear, on a clear night in Bethlehem.  If the world is going to change, it will change because of those whom God has visited and asked to bear His word.  If God’s will is to be done, it will need to be done by the Mary and Joseph’s who are shown how to be kind and caring and humble and serving.  And then live lives consistent with what has been revealed to them.

How can this be?

I don’t know. 

I only know that it is.


Thursday, December 14, 2017

Devotion - Thursday, December 14

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to speak to a group of high school students at one of our Greenville congregations.  As my notes began to take form, I found one word to be central to what needed to be said.  "Incarnation."

Incarnation is the word which attempts to address the significance of God taking on our form.  Incarnation acknowledges the action of setting aside the glories of heaven in order to take on human form.  Incarnation means that God shares our flesh and enters into our realities.

This is not a fake inhabiting.  Jesus does not have the appearance of a human.  Jesus is human.

Christmas is all about this motion on the part of God.  Christmas is the acknowledgement that God has experienced the pains and hardships which are experienced in our lives.  

My sending prayer for you over this Christmas Break is that you will remember and be reminded that God is with you.  And that God desires nothing more than to be with you.  As you celebrate and give thanks, receive the gift of God's presence in your life and along side the life you live.

See you in January.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Mid-week Homily

2nd Week of Advent                                                                                
Discipline of Prayer 

As Pastor Jon and I were dividing up the topics for these Advent reflections, both of us expressed a similar thought: “I probably ought to accept the assignment of the Discipline of Prayer, because that is the one I most need to work on.”

I trust that you can hear that confession, without losing confidence in your pastors. 

Prayer is a life-long, evolving, and developing spiritual discipline.  I would hope that all of us, each of us, would feel the continual need to “work on” our prayer life and our use of this means of grace.

Prayer is essential and central to a life of faith.  Nothing is as important in establishing and maintaining a perpetual communion with God.

We know this to be true.  We know this from our experience with every relationship.  How can we understand another or be understood by them except by hours of conversation and interaction?  Of our deepest relationships we might say “she knows what I am thinking before I say it.”  But such only happens after long years of listening attentively to the other individual. 

To pray is to listen.  To pray well is to listen well.  To pray one must be prepared for the exchange which changes and alters all things.

Prayer has become a difficult thing in our empirical and research driven world.  We want to know the how’s and why’s; we are ill prepared to simply accept.  I remember in my first call, praying with a sister who suffered mightily from arthritis.  A few weeks later, she was speaking of the healing which came from those prayers.  I took a quick glance at her hands.  When she had entered the room there was that all too familiar stumble in her step.  My empirical self was working powerfully to discredit the shared experience of God’s miracle.

There are many moods in which one might pray.  There are prayers of celebration; prayers of affirmation; prayers of praise and worship.  Intercessory prayer is what we practice most often when we are together.  These are the petitions in which we lift to God our concern for neighbor, the Church, or the world.

In Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster points out how common it is for us to hear prayer petitions followed by “If it be thy will.”  His search of scripture revealed no such addendum to the prayers of Jesus, the prayers of the Apostles, the prayers of the early Church.  These prayers were prayed with the confidence that they were in perfect alignment with the will of God.

The work needing to be done with regard to our prayer-life surely begins with listening for what God wants and what God intends.  When we have heard, we then pray with confidence that God’s desires are known by us and known to us.  We pray the petition that is on God’s heart and thus in complete alignment with God’s will.

Ignore – forget – set assign any temptation to measure or evaluate how your prayers impacted the matter over which you pray.  Attempting to determine if our prayers had any effect on the cancer of a loved one is an admission that our empirical/research side seeks to dominate our spiritual/faithful selves.

Prayer brings about change.  Some of that change is easily seen; other is more difficult to precieve.

A favored book of mine is “Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time.”  In the opening chapter, the author discusses the various derivatives in the Latin language for our one English word for faith.  One of these is visio.  This expression of faith is to see as God sees.  Prayer strengths this faith expression in us.  Prayer makes this faith expression prevalent.

Pastor Jon and I were open to using these homilies as a way to introduce to you the spiritual discipline of which we were speaking.  I want to do that, this evening, with prayer.

Get yourself comfortable and relaxed.  Perhaps you will remember some of the notes from last week’s thoughts on meditation.  Find yourself sitting comfortably.  Close your eyes.  Set aside concerns and thoughts.

Begin to imagine a conversation – with God.  Strive to hear.  To hear God’s voice.  Imagine, if you will, the one thing God is most trying to say to you.  What is the sentence that God would speak to your heart; in the midst of your life?  Listen for that exchange. 

Conversation is two way.  Think of the one thing you most want to say to God.  What is on your mind or in your heart or weighing on your soul?  Speak this, to God.  Say it out loud, or in a whisper, if this might help.

Allow me to close with a few lines from Foster’s book:
Let me insert a word of caution at this point.  We are not trying to conjure up something in our imagination that is not so.  Nor are we trying to manipulate God and tell him what to do.  Quite the opposite.  We are asking God to tell us what to do.  God is the ground of our beseeching….. and we are utterly dependent upon him.  Our prayer is to be like a reflex action to God’s prior initiative upon the heart.


Devotion - Wednesday, December 13

In Matthew 23, we find the often quoted "He who is greatest among you shall be your servant...."  Less often remembered were the words of Jesus in the immediately preceding verses.

He says:  "(C)all no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven.  Neither be called masters, for you have one master, the Christ."

We sometimes fail to remember the radical nature of our call.  Jesus offers great words to his followers. But he also insists they not look back once they have put their hand to the plow.

I am not advocating disloyal or rebellious actions toward your parents or your supervisors.  But as a student of scripture I must lift up those lines which we might be less inclined to remember.

The bond among Christian communities grows strong when we come to understand that this bond supersedes all others.  There is no devotion more deserving of our lives than the commitment to live among God's faithful people.  Here, we find our purpose for living and we are strengthened for our life of serving.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Devotion - Tuesday, December 12

The great commandment (love God, love neighbor as self) is repeated in Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  Only in Luke do we get the follow up parable of the Good Samaritan - which provides an interpretation of who is to be considered our neighbor.  The other two gospel writers provide no such instructions.  We are left to form our own understanding of who is our neighbor.

Left on our own, we tend to restrict that designation.

Most of the best things which have happened in my life occurred because someone who didn't even know my name gave me a gift.  The residents of Lincoln County, NC, hired David Choate to work with the 4-H program.  He came to know my name, and to expose to me a world which I would have found difficult to discover from the part-time farm worked by mill-hands.

The folks in 1969 who formed Lutheran Student Movement-USA did not have me in mind, but their organizing and planning for participation in a global youth movement allowed me to serve as Secretary for International Concerns, which resulted in my first ever letter from a Christian sister on the other side of the world.  (She lived in Tanzania.)

Jesus' great commandment is clear - we are to love God, and we are to love neighbor.  It is in loving God, and loving neighbor that we follow the way of Jesus.  

Monday, December 11, 2017

Devotion - Monday, December 11

Not many of you stayed or showed up for yesterday's Congregational Meeting.  I understand why.  Most of you (practically all of you) are "members" of a congregation somewhere else.  I do wonder if you attend the meetings, there.

Such meetings are important.  Such meetings allow us to set up the budgets and select servants for the Council.  Such meetings provide the framework and structure for the people of God to assemble and thus experience the community which bears Jesus' name.

We do need to make sure that those structures remain focused on the goals lifted in the previous paragraph.  Sometimes, other agendas or motivations creep in and overwhelm.

This was pointed out to me this morning as I read from the book of Amos.  Amos is among the prophets included in our bibles, but Amos lacks the credentials of many of the others.  Amos was a lay person.  He was not a professional prophet, nor was the the son of a prophet.  His occupation was that of a migrant worker.

Yet, the Word of God came to him.  And he was moved by God to speak.

Amos asked for the kind of community where persons like him would be welcomed and valued.  Amos reminded the powerful of God's concern for the lost and lonely.  Amos asked if all those fancy rituals and festivals did something to bring life to God's children or if they were a "good party" for those who planned them.

Never allow "the church" to move without you.  Be engaged and give voice to the ways in which a community which notices the stranger and the new-comer represents the Church God seeks to establish.  And do not allow your lack of position or power to silence your voice.

Many of you did show up for last night's Christmas dinner.  We sat at tables and ate our fill; we sang songs; we told silly stories.  It is the beloved community which God establishes for his community.  Thank God for the Council who set up the Parish Life Committee which organized the volunteers who reserved the Hall and set out the decorations so that we could all share in a grand and glorious event.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Sermon - 2nd Sunday in Advent

Mark 1:1-8, Isaiah 40:1-11    

                                                                      In the Wilderness 

There is a technical, theological term which often gets completely misapplied.  The term is “The Plain Sense of Scripture.”  I promise that I won’t entrap you or embarrass you, but I would like to ask you to consider what you believe this technical, theological term means – “The Plain Sense of Scripture.”

The phrase is used to begin to deliberate how the initial hears would have heard what scripture is saying.  Scripture surely says something to us, in our day and time.  And what it says to us is not something completely different than what it might have said to the Church two thousand years ago.  But there might be differences.  So before we teach or preach or proclaim “The Gospel of our Lord..” it serves us well to deliberate how the writers anticipated the initial hearers hearing the same words which we would hear two millennia later.

The people to who Isaiah spoke and the persons for whom Mark wrote were likely to have heard in the words of both an assurance that God had not abandoned them.  Both audiences were in the midst of difficult times.  Both audiences were eager for an announcement that things were going to be better, soon.

But their situations were different.  Different enough that the words being uttered needed to be rearranged and reapplied.  Mark’s first hearers needed to realize that the one they had gone out to hear was not the Promised One they desired; Isaiah’s audience needed assurance that God would clear a path which would allow them to return to their homes.

I asked Donna to underline the parallel verse in March and Isaiah.  Open your bulletin so you can see both of them.  It was a bible study prepared by a pastor in Wisconsin which called to my attention the subtle differences between what Isaiah had said and how Mark makes use of the same promise.

Mark’s gospel says this:
“[T]he voice of one crying out in the wilderness:  ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight’” (Mark 1:3)
But Isaiah said this:
“A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’” (Isaiah 40:3)

Pastor Jay McDivitt asked: See the difference?  Mark gives us a messenger from out in the wilderness—as if John comes from some weird other place (hence the clothes) to bring a message to the people about getting their house in order.

Isaiah sends everyone out to the wilderness to see the good thing God is doing out there. Or, more accurately, Isaiah knows that his listeners are already in the wilderness, and—contrary to expectations—that is precisely where God is doing a new thing. God has not abandoned God’s people—despite how desperate their plight. Rather, God is in the wilderness, making a way out of no-way, carving out a smooth path for the people of God to walk through the desert in style, all the way home.

The folks who were going out to the Jordan River to see John needed to know that the fiery preacher they admired was not the promised messenger of God.  The message for them was to get ready for the one who is about to come.  This is why we read this passage during the season of Advent; we too need to be encouraged to get our house in order – to prepare the way for Christ to enter.

Isaiah’s audience was in a different place.  They had experienced nearly 200 years of being captives in a foreign country.  The invading Babylonian army had destroyed their temple and carried them off into exile.  The word of the Lord came to them as a promise that a way would be prepared for them.  A way which would allow them to make a grand entrance.

What is the plain sense of these words for you, this morning?  The miss application of this technical, theological phrase is to believe that the words plainly say one thing.  But words are only one part of the exchange.  The impact of those words also figures into what they are saying.

As I said earlier, a typical, traditional interpretation is to hear words encouraging us to make those last few minute adjustments.  To strive to prepare the way of the Lord, to make straight his path of entry. 

No doubt, the activities of these days and weeks encourage such a response.  Even as we worship this morning, some among us are anticipating the preparations of this place for an entry to come.  We are “hanging the greens” immediately after the 11 am service.  For me, when the Chrismon Tree lights go on it is a signal to get my own decorations out of attic and get my Christmas cards in the mail.

How does our experience of hearing these words align with their Plain Sense?  Do we hear them as folks heard John the baptizer?

Or, might some of us be hearing these words in the style uttered by Isaiah?

It is to those who may fall into this latter category that I most want to share the Good News. 

Isaiah’s promise was uttered to folks who had no home into which they could welcome Messiah.  Isaiah’s audience was discouraged and disappointed and distraught.  The word of the Lord for these people was not a warning about what they needed to do.  The word is a word of promise about that which God is doing.

My hope and prayer is the people who sit in darkness will see the great light which is dawning from on high.  My hope and prayer is that the tinsel and twinkling lights will not inhibit the ability to admit that we are anxious and worried and unsure.

There are far too many for whom this is true.  And far too few allowances for an honest expression of such fears.

Those who hear the word of God do not change the word of God.  But the word of God faithfully addresses those to whom it is uttered.  It is an error in biblical interpretation to claim that the words plainly mean this or clearly say that.  We arrive at what God is saying by beginning to ponder on how the first audiences were likely to have heard and understood the words.  From there, we can see how these same words speak to us and to our lives.


Thursday, December 7, 2017

Devotion - Thursday, December 7

I tend to shy away from the verses which have Jesus saying threatening things.  The Gospels are full of words of welcome and blessing.  It is too easy for us to stumble over these threatening comments.

Matthew 21 has one of these:  "Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation producing the fruits of it."

I would ask you to pause and consider this statement.  And I would ask you to allow your meditations to inform your understanding of the "fruits" to which Jesus refers.

At the Bible Study this Tuesday, we recalled the stories of Abraham.  The selection of Abraham is clear and specific.  Abraham is blessed by God and sent to be a blessing to others.

The "fruits" for which God yearns is this blessing of others.

How easily we fall into the mistaken notion that the fruits of interest are those which reflect our piety.  We identify going to church, praying, singing hymns, pointing out the transgressions of others.

The nation which produces the fruits of the kingdom of God is the one in which others are blessed - their hungry are fed, their sick cared for, and their orphaned given shelter.

The "gospel within the Gospel" (to quote Martin Luther) informs us on what is good and what it is that the Lord requires of us.  It is to be Jesus in the world - to be the one who looks out for the welfare of the beaten and abused and abandoned.  It is to realize the blessing that has come to us and to actively be involved in blessing others.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Devotion - Tuesday, December 6

The Christmas decorations at the home of a congregational member were up last week.   The saying on one caught my eye:
The stages of Santa
You believe in Santa
You don't believe in Santa
You are Santa
You look like Santa

I feel compelled each December 6 to repeat the basic information about Saint Nicholas.  Nicholas was the Bishop of Myra, in the 6th century.  He was a generous man, who is reported to have used the cover of night to disburse funds to the needy and vulnerable.  Coins in children's shoes.  Money for a father to pay a dowry.  Bishop Nicholas adorned the red cap appropriate for his office.  When a disturbance woke the members of the household, they would report having seen a man in red hurrying down the street to his next appointment.  When they look around their house, they would find gifts.

It is the history of Saint Nicholas which gives rise to the fantasy of Santa Claus.  Christians eager to observe the traditions of Christmas morning need to know of St. Nicholas and we need to repeat his story.  Maybe, most importantly in a self-indulgent world, we ought to remember that the origins of this tradition began with a christian act of caring for the least among us.  To whom will we give Christmas gifts?  To whom does St. Nick give gifts?

Happy St. Nicholas Day!

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Devotion - Tuesday, December 5

The season of Advent is a time to prepare - to make ready.  It is a liturgical season, meaning it has a purpose for our spiritual lives and health.

Advent ends with Christmas.  These four weeks are a time to return to the time before Jesus was born.  These four weeks are an opportunity to recall all the things absent when Christ is not among us.

The prophets of old and all of Israel longed for the arrival of God's Messiah.  There are psalms and prayers and oracles which address the hope for Messiah.  Many of theses serve as readings during the season of Advent.  Those which move me deepest are those which asked "have we been abandoned"?  

What would your life be like?  Had Christ not come to you?  In what ways have you become so comfortable with the assurance of God's presence that you fail even to comprehend what it means that he is with you now?

We will never go back to a time when Jesus isn't with us.  But Advent allows us to reflect on what this presence means.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Devotion - Monday, December 4

The cycle of readings for Advent begins with Jesus' entry to Jerusalem.  The Gospel accounts include Jesus sending his disciples into Jerusalem in order to bring out to Jesus a donkey.  Jesus enters Jerusalem riding on this "colt, the foal of an ass."

Remembering that Jesus walked most of the places he went, having anything on which to ride could have been a luxury.  But what he rides is the humblest of animals.  His mount is used by the workers and the common folk.  When others were welcomed into Jerusalem, the city of God and God's people, they rode on powerful steeds or in a chariot.  Jesus comes riding on a donkey.

This is a powerful reminder to us.  We are too easily fooled into looking for the war horse or the carriage of the powerful.  Our Messiah comes in the plain and common.  Our Lord is mounted on the foal of an ass.

There will be powerful and wonderful things which happen in your life.  For them, give thanks to God and recognize His presence.  But do not overlook the subtle or the common events in which God is also attempting to enter your life.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Devotion - Thursday, November 30

I did something to my knee last night.  I don't remember what I did, but Sam can tell you that I limped from my office to the Lounge in order to clear up an erroneous email I had sent.  As I age, I find this happens: I get an injury or a wound and have no idea where it came from.  It is just an unfortunate side effect of aging.

Another side effect is perspective.  Because I have lived three times as many years as you, the breadth of experiences from which I draw are three times as plentiful.  While the aches in my knee slow me down and make me a less interactive campus pastor, I hope that my expanded perspective will add something to my service as our campus pastor.

Tom was spot on last night, as he offered our devotion.  God is ever present and ever ready to aid us at times of stress and anxiety.  The verse he shared was an affirmation that we do not face life's challenges alone.  Wise words; from a young man!

Every burden is easier to carry when we have someone to carry it with us.  You have someone - you have many someones.  

These next two weeks will be hectic and tiring and perhaps overwhelming.  But they will go much better as you place them in perspective and allow others to share your burdens.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Devotion - Wednesday, November 29

I Peter 2:9 became very meaningful to me during my college years.  Peter reminds the people of God: "You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation."

I am sure I heard these words and comments on them during my childhood, but hearing them during the critical years of self-identification affected the way in which my relationship with God developed.

It is extremely comforting to know that we are chosen.  The feeling of not being wanted crushes us and dashes so much of what we hope to be.  But we are chosen, chosen by God.

The priesthood is no private club or tightly controlled circle.  In reality, there is a royal priesthood and we are all chosen to be part of it.  One of us might have a seminary degree and wear a funny looking collar on Sunday morning, but we are all priests - making present in the world the presence of God.

The holy nation to which Peter refers is not a political identity but a universal one which holds our allegiance.  These words from I Peter were making their impression upon my life as I was discovering youth and young adult ministry in South Africa, Germany, and Tanzania.  I found a this world-wide bond of God's royal priesthood to be comforting and assuring.

I seek to give to you that which I have first received.  It is my prayer that you receive and experience yourself as a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a citizen in the holy nation which is God's.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Devotion - Tuesday, November 28

My devotional guide gifted me with a comforting prayer this morning.  It asked:  "Be present in our prayers, and protect us by day as well as by night."

"Be present in our prayers....."  God's love is not poured out in portion to the number of prayers offered by the faithful.  Each is loved, whether there are a million prayers or a single petition offered on their behalf.  But the request here is that the prayers we offer makes the presence of God more powerfully known.  

I trust you know that God is with you.  But I want you to know that I pray for you.  My prayers are not going to alter or influence God's compassion, but they may serve as a reminder to you of God's presence.

It is not a small thing; to have another remember us in their prayers.  It is a wonderful thing; for the prayers of another to make present the love God has for his children.

" day as well as by night."  The darkness of night and the inability to control our dreams and our terrors are surely reasons why we ask for protection during these hours of each day.  But the daytime brings those who insult us or belittle us or ignore us.  Sometimes, getting up in the morning and leaving the safety of our room is the greater terror.  

My prayers are with you here, too.  And the community of faith we call LCM is eager to serve as a shield for you against any and all threats.  As we pray, we pray that this shield will be present with you.

"Be present in our prayers, and protect us by day as well as by night."

Monday, November 27, 2017

Devotion - Monday, November 27

There is this line, in I Peter 1:12:
It was revealed to (the prophets) that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things which have now been announced to you by those who preached to good news to you through the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which the angels long to look.

"Things into which the angels long to look."

The God whom we worship became incarnate.  God takes on our flesh and lives among us.  To behold the goodness of God, one needs to be on the earth rather than above the earth or circling the earth.

We speak of heaven as that most desirable place, but what is revealed to us is the stuff into which angels long to look.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Sermon - Christ the King Sunday

Matthew 25:31-46     

                                                  The “New Belgium Brewery” Way of Life

One of the conferences y’all paid for me to was this fall in Asheville.  Pastor Jon used the free afternoon to do some hiking in the glorious mountains; I spent that afternoon touring one of the local breweries.  New Belgium Brewery selected Asheville because of its clean, fresh water; because they could build the brewery on what would have otherwise remained a trash pile and waste site; and because the local folks demonstrated an eagerness to become a member of the “New Belgium Family.”  --- Can you tell I was paying close attention to the tour-guide?

I was, or I did, and I found myself intrigued by her presentation.  After the tour, over another round of beers, I asked her how much of her presentation was a script and how much was from her heart.  Considering myself a reasonably good judge of what is spoken as contrasted with what is said, I felt that she did believe what she was selling.  And, what she was selling was not beer.  She was lifting up a way of life; a way of seeing oneself in the world; a way of interacting with others which establishes and builds meaningful interactions and community.

All of this – from deciding to drink, buy, support a particular brand of beer.

I am not implying that this young woman has made beer her god.  I am clearly saying to you that her talk about beer evoked emotions within me which align very closely with my search for God.  Care for the earth; a corporate model in which every worker is a share-holder (not an expendable employee); a community where hard-work is kept in balance with enjoying life.  (Did I mention there is an adult-size sliding tube which takes you from the entrance to the lower floors of the building?  And there are bicycles of every style and description in racks all around the place which folks can ride or borrow for days off?)

I was at this brewery with a group of pastors.  After we had had a few, we fell into a discussion of the compelling story shared with us as we walked the campus of New Belgium Brewery.  We wondered if the story we tell, on our campuses, is as compelling.  Or more specifically, if we are telling it in an equally compelling way.

What is the story we tell, on this last Sunday of the Liturgical Year?  Christ the King Sunday is intended to be the culmination of our year-long journey and spiritual quest.  It is a time to consider well where it is that we place our hope and allegiance.  Are the visitors here this morning likely to experience a compelling presentation of the marvels and joys and life-giving aspects of the reign of Christ?  Does our liturgy and hymns and prayers and sermons evoke emotions which align closely with the search for ultimate meaning and purpose?

Is Christ the King Sunday, and the notion of Christ as our final authority consistent with that which flows naturally out of our hearts?  Or does coming to worship feel as if you are trapped and strapped to your chair and forced to once again hear over and over what needs to change or be different about how you understand yourself and your life?

Those are a lot of question.  Spoken too fast and too close together.  They – and the parts of this sermon not made up as I go along – are posted at that blog where I share my sermons and e-devotions.  You can go there and take time with each question, if you want.

Do try to remember this:  I am not interested in ever giving anyone a tongue lashing.  If it feels that way, when I preach, remember that emotions arise from within.  No one can make us feel a particular way.  What they do might trip a trigger, within us, which turns on an emotion. 

When I preach, my aim is to evoke.  The hope is that what lies at the core of your heart and soul will be switched on.  That you already know what the Law of God requires, you may be in need of assistance in allowing that switch to be flipped. 

No words or images or theological declarations are capable of bringing change in another person’s life.  But a well-placed invitation to examine what lies at the core of our lives may drill its way into your heart and soul and from there begin a re-make of both. 

So – allow me to ask those questions again.  And pay attention to how you respond in your bowels; ignoring as best you can what bounces around in your head:  Is Christ the King Sunday, and the notion of Christ as our final authority consistent with that which flows naturally out of your heart?  Or, upon entering this room, do you feel as if you are trapped and strapped to your chair and forced to once again hear over and over what needs to change or be different about how you understand yourself and your life?

The appointed Gospel Lesson for this Christ the King Sunday, is not or should not be used as a tool for tongue-lashing.  I say that, knowing how many sermons I have preached which focused on the particular actions to which Jesus refers. 

I had agreed to write a reflection/text study for youth leaders in the ELCA on this lesson, and in doing so I realized that Jesus isn’t trying to cram something down the throats or into the lives of those to whom he preaches.  Jesus merely reflects on what has come so naturally to them that it is part of their lives which happens without them giving thought to it.

Neither the goats or the sheep are aware of when they had in any way participated in actively bringing about the Kingdom of God.  Or when they had failed to do so.  It is just what they did, without thinking or without thinking about how much reward they would get if they did act.

Christ the King Sunday isn’t one last chance to trap you and strap you to your chairs and lecture you on what you have done wrong or what you need to do better.  Think of it more as a tour, through a local brewery.  What is said will (hopefully) evoke those emotions in you which align closely with your efforts in searching for your final hope and ultimate concern.  If it ain’t happening; it may have less to do with the skill of the tour guide and more to do with the disconnect between what Jesus says and that which is at the center of your life and self-understanding.

You are not trapped, or strapped to your chair, or being blasted.  But - being in God’s house is likely to force upon you some self-examination.  And this Gospel text in particular is likely to lead to some soul-searching and looks over the shoulder at how you have been living and interacting with others.  What do your actions reveal about where you find your hope or place your ultimate trust?


Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Devotion - Tuesday, November 21

Sometimes the Bible reminds us of things we too quickly forget.  I was reading this morning from Revelation, Chapter 4.  There is an image of Heaven in these verses which one seldom hears preached at a funeral.

When we talk to one another about Heaven, we tend to portray it as more of the best of life here.  "He is sitting by the river, catching the biggest catfish of his life!"  Or "Mother and Daddy are surely please to be back together."

In Revelation, the image of Heaven is the opportunity to continually praise God.  There are these living creatures which never cease to sing "Holy, holy, holy....."  Whenever they give glory, the elders "fall down before him who is seated on the throne."

It is not my intention to deter you in your pursuit of Heaven.  Strive to find yourself there!!!!  My prayer this morning is for hearts and lives grateful and thus eager for the opportunity to spend eternity giving God thanks.

These days can be an opportunity to reflect on these things and to consider all that God has done for you.  Use them well.  And prepare for the time when what resides in the deepest folds of your heart will shine through.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Devotion - Monday, November 20

We don't talk a lot about "unclean spirits."  But Jesus did.

In Matthew 12 Jesus warns that when one unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it sometimes returns.  When it sees the house from which it came "empty, swept, and put in order," the unclean spirit returns; and "brings with him seven other spirits."

Thinking of an invasion of unclean spirits may allow me to be more gracious toward those whose behaviors concern me.  We live in a culture in which self-determination rules; what if we entertained the thought that not all offenses were the intention or fault of the offender?  Such a view might allow me to love the sister or brother whose actions reflect evil.  Such a view might enable me to aid them in their struggle rather that call them names and relegate them to the trash-heap.

We don't talk much about unclean spirits.  Maybe we ought to do so.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Devotion - Thursday, November 16

The way in which things came together last night was still bringing joy to me this morning.

Justice offered a wonderful insight on prayer, the various styles of prayer and the differing ways in which prayer allows us to share with God what is happening in our lives and what is weighing on our hearts.  

His reflection took its origins in Thanksgiving, that many of us would be gathering next week to give thanks; and that last night was our LCM Thanksgiving Meal together.

In the room were many of the post-student-stage-in-life persons whose prayers of thanksgiving include praying for all of you.  Persons whose prayers of intersession include the joys and challenges of your life.

And, it was obvious from the way you joined in the Thanksgiving Feast, that you are praying for them and expressing thanks for their love and support.

The Kingdom of God is like so many things.  It is surely also like a gathering in which we are allowed to experience the care of others and we are given opportunity to give thanks for all that God is doing.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Devotion - Wednesday, November 15

When the religious leaders criticized Jesus' disciples for plucking grain and eating as they walked through a grainfield, Jesus attempted to remind them the purpose of the Sabbath and God's Torah.  He ends with this:  "And if you had known what this means, 'I desire mercy, and no sacrifice,' you would not have condemned the guiltless."

The Pharisees, including modern-day Pharisees known by other names, would evaluate Jesus' followers in terms of sacrifice.  "In order to show one is a true believer, one will not........"  

To be driven by mercy places our following of Jesus in a different place.  To be motivated by mercy is to live our lives in such a way as to help the other and aid them in their life.  We may sacrifice our time or even our resources in this effort, but it is an outgrowth of our desire to see mercy increase.

Jesus' care and compassion for others lies at the center of his life.  When we follow Jesus, we follow his way of loving and caring for those whom we encounter on our journey.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Devotion - Tuesday, November 14

This morning's devotion is more of a thanksgiving.   In a conversation yesterday morning I found myself talking about the significance of LCM-Clemson.  We were talking about reasons why LCM-C was worthy of the support of others.  The words which I heard myself speaking brought tears to my eyes.

It is often reported to me that you came from home congregations in which there were one, or two, or maybe three other persons your age.  This means that rarely have you had a community of peers, walking with you as you sought to determine your life path.

We not only need peers as we make our way.  We need mentors and guides; we need the wisdom of those who have gone before us.  But having peers is a special and very useful gift.

After a few opening references, Jesus seems to have never traveled alone.  When he sent the disciples out into the world he sent them two-by-two.  We need travel companions and we need someone to be with us as we face challenges and decisions.  Those persons do not necessarily need to share our confessions and affirmations, but they understand us differently when they do.

You are not a community of my peers.  But I can walk into practically any congregation and find my age group.  But I am grateful for the opportunity to set up a structure which allows this gift to come your way.  

Take a moment today and give thanks for those who journey with you.  And, pause just long enough to send them a meaningful snapchat or text or message which will let them know you are grateful.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Devotion - Monday, November 13

Matthew 11:16-24 is another section of the gospel which causes me discomfort.  Jesus is asking why it is so impossible to hear his words and accept his message.  

This section is difficult for me because I prefer not to blame folks for their unbelief.  The world (and even some of our fellow Church members) dangle many alluring opportunities to choose an alternate underpinning for one's life.

But, out of faithfulness to the scriptures, I need to be open to Matthew 11's message.

What is the source of your beginning to follow?  Maybe I should ask what more it might take for you to give your life over to Jesus?

In Matthew 11, Jesus speaks of the signs and wonders that the people of Bethsaida and Capernaum had witnessed.  Did they fail to understand the magnitude of these events?  Or did they find ways to explain them away - as a natural cause which coincided with Jesus' words? 

There are many alluring attractions, offering to be the matrix which under-girds our lives.  Be wise enough to recognize these; and faithful enough to see the presence of Jesus and God's Word.  It is doing the latter which enables us to avoid the lack of commitment which characterized Bethsaida and Capernaum.