God has place this wonderful creation in our hands. As U2 sings, "It's a beautiful day, don't let it slip away." We have this one life to live on this beautiful planet so enjoy these reflections on God, faith, life, and music. "After the flood all of the colors came out. It's a beautiful day."

Friday, December 30, 2016

We have hope. Rebellions are built on hope!

“We have hope. Rebellions are built on hope!” Jyn Erso

Reed and I made our after Christmas pilgrimage to the movies. For a while it was Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit. But this year the movie was Star Wars. I went without having read anything about the movie or the outcome because Star Wars movies were an important part of my childhood and important part of Reed’s childhood. These movies are built around the idea of Hope. Most of us didn’t realize this quite so overtly, because us older folk thought the name of the first movie was Star Wars; we didn’t realize it had a subtitle till years later when new movies were made and old movies were rereleased. But these movies gave us hope. Hope for stories set in far away places, hope that rebellions could succeed, hope that empires could be taken down, hope that unlikely heroes and misfits could form bonds of trust and community, hope that bad guys could be redeemed.
Rogue One has the main character speaking of hope when others are set to give up and let the empire win. Jyn Erso (echoing another character) says “We have hope. Rebellions are built on hope!” Rebellions are built upon hope. We don’t normally think about Jesus and his followers as rebels, as the start of a rebellion and yet…
When Jesus began his ministry in the gospels, he challenged the religious and political assumptions of his day. He called out people for excluding others, for making tradition more important than compassion. Jesus moved through Galilee sharing the love of God with all those he encountered. If you needed healing he was there with a Band-Aid, if you needed to be set free from evil he would breaks the yoke of oppression, if you were hungry he would find food, he welcomed the powerful and the lowly, he partied with the sinners and the elites, he taught about a God of love and the kingdom. Rebellions are built upon hope.
In Matthew 5-7, Jesus teaches us about hope. He shares with us in the Sermon on the Mount what it means to live in the kingdom of God. Jesus teaches us to love our enemies, to forgive unconditionally, to let go of anger, not to judge others, to speak the truth in love, he shares with about lust and divorce, revenge and charity, prayer and fasting. This text is rich with teaching us how to live together the way God intends. As I planned our next series of sermons I was struck by the hope found in those first 12 verses known as the Beatitudes. These are when Jesus tells us what it means to be blessed. He blesses what most of us would not. Blessed Are You When – You’re at the End of Your Rope, You’ve Lost What’s Most Dear to You, You’re Content with Who You Are, You have an Appetite for God, You are Full of Caring, Your Inside World Put Right, You Practice Cooperation not Competition, You Disrupted the Comfortable. These words are hope personified in those places where we are most vulnerable. This hope where causes seem lost, where life seems scary, lonely, dark. Yet Jesus invites us to see these times and people differently. Jesus gives us Hope.
The movie ends with Princess Leia saying one word – hope. She is asked what is in her hand, she says – hope.  Hope what fuels rebellions, what sees us through tragedy, what makes us courageous in the face of oppression. May your hand hold hope.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Creating a Community this New Year

It Happened on Fifth Avenue (intro)

The scene begins with a man, a homeless man, with his dog making their way through an affluent neighborhood. This is winter and people need a place to get out of the cold. McKeever has a system for living. He knows that this rich family heads south for the winter so he takes up residence in an empty house while they are in their other home.  Normally, McGeever leads a solitary life – just his dog and him. But this year he meets a veteran who has just been kicked out of his apartment. McKeever invites him home. This invitation leads to more veterans and their families coming to stay in the mansion. Soon the house is full of people from old to young. There is life in this house that usually only has the divorced second richest man in the nation. His wife is gone, his daughter has run away and he has a house that even when occupied by its owner is very empty and lonely.
But now the house is full of life. The daughter who has run away actually is invited to stay. The rich man who finds the squatters and his daughters is invited. Eventually even his divorced wife comes to stay. In what had been an empty house there is fullness and life. Laundry is done together, meals are shared, laughter and singing becomes part of the routine. There is someone to watch the young while the parents work. McKeever is worried that all of the noise and life will mean an end to his winter squat. Being a movie, it all turns out happily ever after. The veterans find jobs that allow them to provide for their families. The daughter falls in love with the single veteran, and the divorced get back together.
What struck me this year as I watched “It Happened on 5th Avenue,” was the way in which we create communities, families, even in the hardest of times. When we come together, we can all bring enough of what is needed to the table that everyone can have what they need not just to survive but to thrive. As we enter the new year, I hope that we can begin to experience how Jesus invites us into a new community where traits that alone can lead us to despair when part of a community can be healed and provide the place where God works in and through you. As we walk through the Beatitudes this new year, the Blessings we see mourning, meekness, poverty, hunger, mercy, peacemaking, persecution become a vehicle to a new community as followers of Jesus that show the world a new way to live fully, completely, in the love of God.
 “Let me tell you why you are here. You’re here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth. …  “Here’s another way to put it: You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. …Now that I’ve put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand—shine! Keep open house; be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you’ll prompt people to open up with God” Matthew 5: 13-16
Jesus invites us to bring out the God flavors, to bring out the God colors, to so shine before all people that they want to join in this new community. “Love and joy come to you,…”And God bless you, and send you A Happy New Year, And God send you a Happy New Year.”

Monday, November 28, 2016

Letting Go of the Chains that Bind You: Learning from Scrooge

"You are fettered," said Scrooge, trembling.  "Tell me why?"
"I wear the chain I forged in life," replied the Ghost. "I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it.  Is its pattern strange to you?"
Scrooge trembled more and  more.

                            Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, Stave One
 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
      "Darkness is cheap and Scrooge liked it." This time of year we understand the dark, we live in a time when days are getting shorter and shorter and we start to miss the light. During the Christmas Season we are invited to journey out of the darkness in the anticipation that God's light and love is coming, has come, and will always be coming. We wait in anticipation for the light to dawn into the darkness of our lives.
     "Darkness is cheap and Scrooge liked it."  Literally Scrooge keeps his office and house dark with the bare minimum of light needed to see by.  He is so stingy his clerk is using his one candle to warm his hands. The beginning of A Christmas Carol points out the darkness we can become trapped in. We are introduced to Scrooge as a "a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner." At the beginning of a Christmas Carol Dickens wants to show us a world of darkness where a man who is so disagreeable and greedy can be invited into a journey of redemption.
      Into the darkness of Scrooge's life come the ghost of his former business partner Marley, he is covered in chains that rattle around him. Scrooge asks Jacob why he is fettered? Marley says that he wears the chains that he forged in life. The chain is made up of the links he forged link by link, yard by yard. His chain was weighed down with what he thought was important in life: "cash-boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses." Marley's chain reflects what bound him in life. He was chained by his possession. He tells Scrooge his chain is even heavier and longer. Scrooge wants to know why Marley has come. Marley tells Scrooge this night he has the chance to change his life. He can release the chains. Part of Scrooge still wonders if Marley is just a piece of undigested beef. So Marley pulls him to the window:

The air was filled with phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they went.  Every one of them wore chains like Marley's Ghost; some few (they might be guilty governments) were linked together; none were free.  Many had been personally known to Scrooge in their lives.  He had been quite familiar with one old ghost, in a white waistcoat, with a monstrous iron safe attached to its ankle, who cried piteously at being unable to assist a wretched woman with an infant, whom it saw below, upon a door-step.  The misery with them all was, clearly, that they sought to interfere, for good, in human matters, and had lost the power for ever.
Whether these creatures faded into mist, or mist enshrouded them, he could not tell.  But they and their spirit voices faded together; and the night became as it had been when he walked home.
Scrooge is be invited to take the next step on the journey that will lead him out of the darkness. We too are invited to take the next step out of the darkness. We are invited to think about what binds us, what chains we have forged and that we need to transform. As our lesson this week from Isaiah 9:2-7 offers us a chance to journey out of the darkness and into the light.  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. During this season, we are invited to anticipate the coming of Jesus and to be reminded of what it looks like to encounter the light and love of God.
     What is holding you back? What area of your life has created chains that you need the light to break apart? Jesus encountered many people lost in the darkness of wealth, relationships, sickness, tradition. Remember the story of Jesus' encounter with the young man. This man meets Jesus and asks him what more he can do to follow God. Jesus asks him about his life what he has been doing. They talk about how he has kept the commandments and has tried to lead a life in God. Jesus looks at this man with compassion and says there is only one more thing you need to do. Sell all your possessions, give them to the poor and follow me. The man is crestfallen. He can't do it. He can't let go of his wealth. He can't give away his possessions. He is trapped there in the darkness. He can't let go. How many of you are trapped in the need for wealth, are caught up with you possessions, with what you own?  Scrooge is a classic example of being trapped in the desire for more wealth, But not a wealth he shares, but a wealth he hoards. When his nephew comes to invite him to Christmas dinner, Scrooge and the nephew argue over wealth and the meaning of Christmas. Scrooge says:
"What else can I be," returned the uncle, "when I live in such a world of fools as this?  Merry Christmas!  Out upon merry Christmas!  What's Christmas time to you but a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older, but not an hour richer; a time for balancing your books and having every item in 'em through a round dozen of months presented dead against you?  If I could work my will," said Scrooge indignantly, "every idiot who goes about with 'Merry Christmas' on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart.  He should!"
Have you let money bind you up? Here Jesus invited you to be freed and enter the light. Will you accept the invitation or like the young man will you walk away?
      Jesus was out journeying through the land. He was tired and sat down by a well to rest and get a drink. While he is sitting there, a woman comes up to get water and Jesus asks her for a drink. She says you don't want a drink from me. You aren't supposed to talk to me and that's just because of our different cultures. But you really don't want water from me, didn't you notice that I came here when no other women are around. I'm despised by my own people. Jesus sees her, he sees inside her. They start talking. Jesus learns about her life. She can't be without a relationship. One relationship ends and she is on to the next. She has had seven husbands and is currently not married to the one she is with. She doesn't want to be alone. She is scared to be alone. She is scared to be with herself, to learn about herself, to discover who she is apart from her relationship. Jesus offers her the living water. He offers her a piece of the light that will change her. She accepts the offer and enters the light and wants to share it with others who can't see her transformation and don't believe her. How many of you have let yourself be defined by a relationship, have wrapped your life around another and have lost yourself in these role of wife, mother, lover, sister, grandmother, husband, boss, father. Are you willing to release your chain and enter the light?
     Jesus while walking through a crowded street feels his light rush out of him. He looks around for who had touched him. He finds a woman. A woman who has been sick and suffering for 20 years. She has tried everything from natural cures, to quacks, to doctors, and healers. She has tried everything to get better. She had heard about Jesus and how he was able to bring the healing power of love to people. She thought if she could just touch him, she would be made well. When she touched him, she felt it, she was different, she was brought to wholeness. Jesus searched for her and confirmed that she had been made well. Sickness, illness, suffering affects many of us. Some of us have illnesses that are debilitating. But some of us let the illness define us. We stop living and focus on the pain and suffering. Jesus offers us the opportunity to not necessarily be cured but to find a way to live in the light.
     Jesus was at home for the night. In that time of darkness, Nicodemus enters the house to speak to him. Nicodemus was a man who believed strongly in his traditional faith and religious practices. He believed in the church as it had been. Jesus in the dark of the night has a very deep conversation about faith. They really dig in and discuss faith. They each share their position. Nicodemus hears about Jesus' new teaching. Yet he leaves back into the darkness. He goes back out the way he came in. We don't know whether the conversation changed him, yet. We just know that tradition, the way things have always been are important to him. Some of us also get locked into the ways things have always been. We resist the invitation that Jesus extends that often challenges our way of life. Asks us to think differently, to live differently, and to enter into a rich spiritual life with God. We like our faith to be safe, to be comfortable, to stay the same in a world changing so rapidly.
     The people who have walked in the darkness have seen a great light. What chains are binding you? What are you fetters - possessions, relationships, sickness, tradition? Are you letting your fear hold you back from moving into the light and love of God. Our Advent journey this year invites us to be open to the redemption, the mercy, the grace and love of God. Will you allow yourself to be transformed, to accept the healing forgiving love of God? 
    Take a moment to rest in the stillness, the quiet, the forgiveness of God's love. Ask God to show you what it is you need to let go of. Then release the link in your chain.
A manger filled with our chains.
On Sunday we placed our chains in the manger. Laying what fetters us down and giving this to God. I then gave them a bell to carry with them and when it rings to use the sound to remind them of what they are letting go of.

Variations on a sermon delivered November 27, 2016 at St. Paul's UCC Hinckley, IL.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Advent Bells Are Tolling

Have you ever thought about how many songs of Christmas are about bells?
Carol of the Bells: Hark, how the bells, sweet silver bells, all seem to say, throw cares away,
I heard the Bells on Christmas Day: Their old familiar carols play, And mild and sweet their songs repeat
Ding dong merrily on high, In heav'n the bells are ringing: Ding dong! verily the sky
Ring Out Ye Bells: right merrily, for Christmas is here; sing out, sweet voices cheerily
Jingle Bells: Jingle all the way, O what fun it is to ride in a one horse open sleigh
Silver Bells: Silver bells, It's Christmas time in the city, Ring-a-ling, hear them ring,
Are you singing now to the sound of Christmas Bells Ringing? I know I can’t stop singing when the carols start and the bells start chiming. For me, and I would guess for most of you the sound of bells at Christmas bring you to a joyful place. In one of the congregations I served, the bells would chime out a Christmas tune at the hour. So while I was at work I had this daily reminder during the Christmas season to stop and sing about the coming of hope into the world. But at another church I served when the bell would chime it was to signal the start of worship or it would start tolling ringing out the years in the life of someone who had died – 70, 80, 90, 40, 10 – the tolls of the bell would call you back to remembrance of a life that was lost.
In some ways, the bells we will be experience this Advent, will be a mixture of the joyful ringing of Christmas Carols and the somber tolling of a life lost. Bells play an important role in A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens.

The ancient tower of a church, whose gruff old bell was always peeping slyly down at Scrooge out of a Gothic window in the wall, became invisible, and struck the hours and quarters in the clouds, with tremulous vibrations afterwards as if its teeth were chattering in its frozen head up there.
…. As he threw his head back in the chair, his glance happened to rest upon a bell, a disused bell, that hung in the room, and communicated for some purpose now forgotten with a chamber in the highest story of the building.  It was with great astonishment, and with a strange, inexplicable dread, that as he looked, he saw this bell begin to swing.  It swung so softly in the outset that it scarcely made a sound; but soon it rang out loudly, and so did every bell in the house. This might have lasted half a minute, or a minute, but it seemed an hour.  The bells ceased as they had begun, together. 
A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens, Stave One

The bells in the story begin to chime signally that spirits are drawing near. When the bells toll Scrooge is drawn from his current world of fear, greed, grouchiness to visit places he has been or will be. When the bell tolls he knows that he will be learning about himself, and be slowly drawn to a new life, a life of joy. The bell tolls and a messenger comes bringing news. This Advent we too will listen to the bell toll inviting us to hear the messenger who invited us to change to move from the chains that are holding us down into a world of love and hope. I invited you to use the sound of bells tolling to deepen your faith this Advent. Every time a bell chimes take a moment to remind yourself of the chains you need to lay down and to pray for God to fill you with love.  Will you listen as the bells toll drawing you into transformation, inviting you into a life lived in the presence of God.