Archive for December, 2013

Luke 1:39-45

December 20, 2013

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”  Luke 1:39-45

 

Traveling has always been part of the Christmas story.  Traveling has always been part of the entire Christian story.  But more than that, traveling IS the story of human life.  From ancient ancestors crossing the land bridge in the north or heading across vast seas on rickety little boats, we have always been on the move.  We are always going somewhere.

 

Mary rushes to the home of Zechariah and Elizabeth.  Joseph taking Mary to Bethlehem.  The shepherds leaving their flocks behind to look for the stable.  The three wise guys from the east chasing the star.  The whole story is one of movement.  Of God coming to us in the baby in the manger.

 

It will start this weekend.  People piling into cars with the presents in the trunk.  People heading to the airport to leave or to pick up.  Homes are being cleaned and food is being bought and sheets are being washed – all part of the journeys of this season.

 

Not all of these journeys are full of joy.  There will be fear, nervousness, anxiety in plenty of traveling hearts.  There will be memories – good and not so good – of Christmases past and hopes that this year will be better or as good as “that one” was.

 

The season brings out the best of us and the worst of us and then drives us into one another’s company again.  Because that is always what our movement has been about, to be together, to fight back the darkness, to strive toward hope, healing, life.

 

Then the moment arrives and we are there.  Elizabeth hears Mary’s greeting.  We come to that front door, or to that brightly lit church sanctuary, or to that street that always has brought us into our home town – we get where we are going and we are there.  The child leaps for joy in Elizabeth’s womb.

 

The waiting is over.  The trip has reached its destination.  The family is gathered.  The friends are all at the table.  The organ is playing and the congregation is singing and the angel chorus echoes in the farthest reaches of our imaginations.  And for those blessed with ears to hear, God is with us.  Emmanuel.  In the strangest of places.  In the most unexpected of ways.

 

Bringing what?  Bringing gifts.  Perhaps joy, perhaps anger, perhaps fear, perhaps gratitude.  But always bringing just what we need to take us to that next step on our journey.  For God will always travel with us.

 

Emmanuel.

 

May God bless you this weekend and throughout the Christmas season.

 

Let us pray:  O come, O come, Emmanuel.  Come to us in our broken hearts and give us hope.  Come to us in our broken bodies and bring healing.  Come to us in our hopes and dreams and guide our journeys.  Come to us in our gatherings and give us gratitude.  Come to us when we least notice you and when we need you the most.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

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Matthew 9:2-7

December 18, 2013

And just then some people were carrying a paralyzed man lying on a bed. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.” Then some of the scribes said to themselves, “This man is blaspheming.” But Jesus, perceiving their thoughts, said, “Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” —he then said to the paralytic—’stand up, take your bed and go to your home.” And he stood up and went to his home.  Matthew 9:2-7

Kelley and I will spend Christmas Day with my daughter and her family at their house. The other day I found myself thinking about our first Christmas in Houston. Kate was 2 1/2. The Christmas season, my first in parish ministry, was brutal. But we were bound and determined to open our presents on Christmas Eve. Tradition!

Kate was exhausted. She kept falling asleep. And we kept waking her up to show her the presents she received. She didn’t have the energy to tear the paper much less play with the boxes. But we wanted pictures with her and the presents she received from her grandparents and nothing was going to get in our way.

We were exhausted too. But we were dedicated. We thought we were doing the right thing. After all, if we didn’t take those pictures, what kind of parents would we be? What kind of message would we be sending to our own parents about how they raised us if we didn’t help Katie express her gratitude? (HER gratitude…an exhausted 2 1/2 year old….)

So I thought about that night this week and I suddenly realized something that I had never realized before. And it took the kids in Peru to teach me. Left to her own devices, Kate would never connect a wrapped box from Toys R Us with the birth of Jesus. We had to TEACH her a value system wrapped up in the values of materialism. She didn’t need that to learn or even to appreciate the story of Jesus’ birth.

I learned a couple of years ago that cattle are naturally allergic to eating corn. It wreaks havoc in their system. Yes, it very quickly fattens them up and prepares them for market much sooner, but the only way that can happen is if feedlots add copious amounts of antibiotics to their diet, to fend off the disastrous effects of corn.

I wonder if we do something just as unnecessary and even dangerous in how we join in our culture’s annual tradition of rooting materialistic values into young lives – and using the birth of Jesus to do it?

So today’s Bible reading – of the wonders of the healing ministry of Jesus, the power to forgive us our brokenness, to restore us to life and health, working through friends who love us – which is really what Jesus is about, I hope brings us back down to earth. Back down to what really matters. Back down to what is available to us everyday, not just once a year. Back down to something really worth celebrating and feeling grateful for. The gift of God’s love poured out for us in the life, ministry, and on-going presence of Jesus in our lives.

Let us pray: Thank you, Lord, for showing up in our lives. Thank you for friends and family who love us, who support us, who lead us to you. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Isaiah 61:1-3

December 17, 2013

 The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion— to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.  Isaiah 61:1-3 

 

Christmas Eve is a week away.  That is amazing.  I’m so focused on what needs to be done each day that I am hardly giving a second thought to what it coming up around the corner.  It wasn’t always like this.

 

I remember Christmas as that bright beacon of hope standing in the dead center of life called “winter.”  From the moment we first starting thumbing through the Sears Christmas Wishbook, whittling down our dreams to the one or two things that we couldn’t possibly face the rest of our lives without, Christmas was the watery mirage twinkling through the icicles on every roof, the crunchy snow under every step, those final horrific days of school before vacation.

 

What changed?

 

I can’t answer that question.  So many things changed that I can’t single out anything.  I just don’t look at life like I used to.  In so many ways, I’m the person that I’ve always been but in many others, I’m not.  I’ve learned, no matter what it is that I am looking forward to, eventually the day will come.  And looking too far off in the future lessens my appreciation for each day.  So my focus has narrowed.

 

Isaiah made great promises.  The year of the Lord’s favor, the year of Jubilee, was clearly a day to look forward to.  All the wrongs of life would be righted.  The broken restored, the mourning comforted, the captives freed.  It was a great promise.  A day well worth yearning for.

 

They received glimpses of the day.  Like peeking ahead into a wrapped Christmas present, little glimmers of hope would appear.  But they would fade.  The darkness would deepen again.  There was great wisdom in planting Christmas in the dead of winter.

 

For one day a child would be born.  He would grow into his destiny and one day would reach for these words from the prophet Isaiah.  In front of those who knew him best, he would recite these words, he would renew this promise.  But the people would reject him.  Strange, isn’t it?

 

But not so strange.  Because the truth is that many Christmas’s have been great disappointments in our lives.  So many hopes remain unfulfilled – at least in the way and the timing that we would prefer.  Eventually a person grows accustomed to disappointment.  And perhaps then misses the miracle in their midst. 

 

All the more reason to slow down, to take one day at a time, to notice…

 

Let us pray:  Gracious Lord, our Redeemer, our Savior, our Liberator.  May today be a great day for us in you.  May today be the day that we know freedom, comfort, hope, and healing.  And if not today, may today be the day that we are renewed in our hope and conviction that that day will come, and that we will be part of it.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Malachi 3:1-4

December 16, 2013

See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.  Malachi 3:1-4

 

Rare is the person who doesn’t remember that sick feeling in their stomach as they worried about what would happen when the Enforcer in their family returned home.  If you had done something wrong, and you knew there was no way out of it, little felt worse that waiting for the moment when you were “going to get it.”

 

In most cases, the wait was worse than the enforcement.  Disappointing a parent might be as painful as the punishment meted out.  Yet “this is going to hurt me more than it hurts you” never felt like an adequate assessment of reality.

 

Many of us live with a conception of God that is still connected to those moments of fearful anticipation.  We live fearful that God is going to show up, and when He does, we are going to get it.  We know we deserve to get it.  We might take a defensive stance, thinking that we have a whole list of other people who deserve to get it far more than we do.  But that doesn’t really help.

 

So we listen to the words of Malachi with mixed feelings.  We hear the reference to the Lord “whom we seek” and the promise that he will show up.  But then we notice that he will show up in the temple.  And maybe then we read a little closer and realize that this passage is about the Lord showing up to refine the “descendants of Levi”.  It is a warning to the priests rather than the rest of the people.

 

Which lets most of you off the hook.  Not so much on this side of the computer.

 

So I also read this a bit closer and I see the magic words – as a refiner and purifier – and I realize that there is little more that I want in my life than that.  I want, I need, and I long for, God’s love to refine me, to purify me, to focus me.  Left to my own devices I am just going to mess things up. 

 

I need – we all need – God to be satisfied with nothing but the best of who we are and what we have been called to do.  If God is willing still to purify, to refine, to shape, then I say bring it on.

 

Let us pray:  Come to us, fill us, shape us, refine us, O God of love and promise.  Work in our lives the power of your redeeming and transforming love.  Use us, that our offerings might be pleasing to you.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Isaiah 9:6-7

December 13, 2013

For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.  Isaiah 9:6-7

 

I work in a church that cares deeply for children. With both a Day School and a Mother’s Day Out program, you can’t walk across the property without seeing children, usually doing what children do.  Any time I walk out to the parking lot in the afternoon I know I’m going to hear a chorus of little voices crying out, “It’s Pastor Kerry….Hi Pastor Kerry.”

 

I’ll admit it…I love that.  I love being a caring adult presence in the lives of little children.  I love being part of a church that will hold a special place in childhood memories.  Because I also know the darkness of life, perhaps the darkness at home for some of the children we serve, and certainly the darkness of the world in which they are growing up.

 

So the 9th chapter of Isaiah brings us today to those wonderful words, “for a child has been born for us, a son given to us…”  Perhaps we hear the echoes of Handel’s “Messiah”, certainly we see Mary, Joseph, and the infant Jesus.  God come to earth.  Vulnerable.  Defenseless.  Human.

 

God, in the day of Midian, made Gideon reduce his army from 33,000 to just 300, so that Israel wouldn’t get the wrong idea that they were responsible for defeating their own enemies.  God wanted to be clear that he was the one doing the rescuing.  Now even 300 warriors are reduced to a little infant.

 

One little child, enabling and inspiring a new way of being in this world and the promise of an open door to the next.  A life of righteousness and justice.  A light in the darkness.

 

This weekend is the anniversary of the deaths of 20 children, 6 educators, one mother, and the deeply disturbed young man who took all their lives.  What an absolute, tragic, insane waste.  So what do we do with that?

 

The people of Newtown have decided not to hold any kind of commerative event.  Instead, they are dedicating themselves to a “Year of Service.”  Its purpose is to encourage “small acts or large” that will bring out “the best in each other through repeated acts of service.”  They are asking residents willing to join the movement to place a candle in their window.

 

Newtown resident and psychiatrist John Woodall explains the town’s decision: “We thought, really, what grief is is a form of love, but with the loved one gone, so it’s really the heartbreak of separation from the loved one.  So the work of grief is to find a new form for that love, to find a new expression for it, a new commitment, a way to honor the love. . . . We came back to this idea that a commitment to transform that anguish into a commitment to compassion and kindness, that’s where we wanted to keep the focus.”

 

I think that is what life looks like under the Lordship of Jesus.  It makes for a world where it is good to raise children.  A world where there is help for the broken.  A world of both justice and righteousness.

 

Let us pray:  Gracious Lord, as we continue to wait for Christmas and all that means in our lives, we pray that you draw near to those who seek the peace the passes understanding that only you can give.  Transform grief into compassion, rage into kindness, and despair into hope and resolve.  In Jesus’ name. Amen.  

Isaiah 9:3-5

December 12, 2013

You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder. For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.  Isaiah 9:3-5

 

I care deeply about people who “walk in darkness”, whatever that might look like in their lives.  They might be living in horrific physical conditions, hungry, thirsty, cold.  They might live with debilitating physical or mental illness.  Their families might be struggling to find work, or struggling to make ends meet no matter how hard they work.  I care about people and families who live in the gut wrenching power of untreated addiction.

 

So, when I hear this simple line from Isaiah, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” I feel a new measure of hopefulness.  There IS hope.  There IS a way forward.  There IS good reason to hold on, to hang on, to let go, to let God.  There is hope in the God who increases joy, who works that people might feel the yoke of their burdens lifted, no more stung with the rod of their oppressors.  “As on the day of Midian”.

 

That phrase hearkens back to the story of Gideon in Judges 6-8.  Israel was suffering because they “did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, and the Lord gave them into the hand of Midian seven years.” (Judges 6:1)  Sometimes we experience darkness in our lives as victims.  We realize we were just in the wrong place at the wrong time or had the bad luck of being born into the wrong family.  But that isn’t the case here.  The Israelites are not just getting what they deserve, God is making it happen.

 

Ouch.  Sometimes discipline, even from those who love us, hurts.

 

So the Israelites cry out to God for help as we all do when the pain gets painful enough.  And God listens.  He sends an angel to find a young man named Gideon.  When the prophet shows up, Gideon is crushing grapes to make wine to hide from their enemies.  The angel tells Gideon, “The Lord is with you, you mighty warrior.” 

 

Gideon answered him, “But sir, if the Lord is with us, why then has all this happened to us? And where are all his wonderful deeds that our ancestors recounted to us, saying, ‘Did not the Lord bring us up from Egypt?’ But now the Lord has cast us off, and given us into the hand of Midian.”  Judges 6:13

 

Like Moses at the burning bush, or Mary in the night, Gideon could not understand why or how God could do anything to change the painful circumstances of his life, much less why God would reach out to someone as unlikely as him to be part of that change.

 

I don’t understand it either.  But that is God.  God hears the cries of the broken and in the most amazing, yet utterly down to earth, ways, God brings healing to bear.  I want to be part of that.  I want that.  For everyone, everywhere.  No matter how long it takes.

 

Let us pray:  Dear Lord, be our deliverer.  Work in our lives to do what we cannot do ourselves, that we do do what only we can do.  Draw near to those who suffer with a word of encouragement and a hand of friendship.  Bring food to the hungry and safety to those who live in terror.  Bring light into darkness.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

December 10, 2013

The people who walked in darkness

   have seen a great light;

those who lived in a land of deep darkness—

   on them light has shined.

                        Isaiah 9:2

Image 

The family who lives right next door to Vida Nueva Lutheran Church in Lima – the green house to the left – has lived there for 32 years.  The grandmother was the first to lay claim to the land – a small rectangle of deep sand on a steep hill.  She had heard that the government was allowing people to settle up on that hill and she wanted a place to call her own.

 

The requirement was that she begin living there immediately.  She spent the first few nights sleeping in the open on the hillside.  During the day she would climb back down the hill, looking for anything that could be turned into a shelter.  A piece of canvas.  A few boards. 

 

She dug into the sand, trying to create a level space.  Eventually she built a sort of retaining wall.  Each day she climbed back down the hill.  She would haul water and, bit by bit, build a place to live.  Finally her husband agreed to join her in scratching out a place to live on the side of that mountain.

 

They lived there 10 years before the government gave them a deed to their property.  They lived there 20 years before they had electricity and then water.  They lived there 30 years before the street in front of their house was finally “paved” – the rut filled sand was leveled and compacted so that a car could actually reach them.  But they have never owned a car and probably never will.

 

Now their home is quite nice.  It has lights, indoor kitchen and bathroom.  It is hard to imagine living life, raising a family, hauling water, and lighting candles each night, but that is how they lived for a long long time.

 

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light…

 

Isaiah sings a song of hope in the 9th chapter.  It is a song sung yet in the hopes of better times, better days, which Isaiah is convinced will come.  Isaiah sees God in the future, reaching back into the present, as a ray of hopeful light.

 

May you sense and trust in the light of God, even as you walk in the darkness.

 

Let us pray:  Gracious Lord, sometimes the darkness feels overwhelming.  Darkness is fearful, often dangerous.  All we long for a glimpse, a peak, a moment, that reassures us that the darkness will pass.  Be that light in our lives.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.