Archive | December 2011

Christmas Eve: Were You Born in a Barn?

24 December 2011

Christmas Eve

St. John United Church of Christ

St. Clair, MO

 

Were You Born in a Barn?

Based on St. Luke 2: 1-20

By Rev. James Semmelroth Darnell

 

Several years ago the film Love Actually came out to rave reviews. The film depicts the intimate relationships of several different couples during the Christmas season. In one of its most memorable scenes, a young girl, Daisy, tells her mother excitedly, “We’ve been given our parts in the nativity play. And I’m the lobster.” Her mother asks, “The lobster? In the nativity play?” Daisy beams, “Yeah, the first lobster!” Her mother asks “There was more than one lobster present at the birth of Jesus?” To wit Daisy just responds, “Duh.”

As the saying goes, it’s funny ‘cause it’s true. Nativity scenes like this exist – where penguins, giraffes, and lobsters are added to the scene. One of our locals stores sells nativity scenes featuring your choice of snowmen or marshmallow figures. They’re cute in their own way, and harmless enough. We don’t really know what animals were really present in the stalls where Jesus was born anyways. I suppose a lobster could have been present, if say, he had been born under the sea.

            But we make a great risk when we cute-sify the story of Jesus’ birth. When we domesticate and sanitize the nativity we rob the story of much of its meaning. It is a good thing for children and adults alike to reenact the story, because it helps us to live out the story in the midst of our lives. But the meaning is deeper than a serene and beautiful Mary, ruddy and confident Joseph, baby Jesus who doesn’t cry, and all the adorable farm animals that bow in worship. St. Luke gives us a narrative that is deeper and complex, which leads to a more profound meaning in the Christmas story. Let’s take a closer look.

            St. Luke begins his gospel with Jesus’ genealogy. A few weeks ago in Sunday morning worship we took a look at the genealogy in St. Matthew, reflecting that both saintly and shady characters comprise Jesus’ family, which is Good News for all of us as a part of God’s family. He continues in his second chapter, where our reading tonight began, stating that “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David.” This is important because once again it places Jesus as the descendant of the great king David, from whose house the messiah is supposed to come. It also places the family in Bethlehem to fulfill the prophecy that the messiah will be born there. We often skip over those first lines though. Just a bunch of names of old guys and old places nobody remembers, right? Well, not so much when we look at the history. Emperor Augustus was the great-nephew of Julius Caesar. He was the emperor of the Roman empire. Quirinius, well, just replace the title of governor with something like overlord. Why begin with these guys? Because it places Jesus’ birth in the midst of Palestine’s occupation by Rome. Those Jewish people who hoped and prayed for the coming messiah, often did so with the hope that he would overthrow the Roman rule that oppressed them. So Jesus’ birth is placed in contrast to the Roman rulers, who we are told, had just ordered the first census (along with their regular, unjust taxing) of the area, hence why Joseph and Mary head to Bethlehem. They come from Nazareth to go to Joseph’s hometown of Bethlehem, over 70 miles away. While Nazareth is now a bustling city of 72,000 and relatively stable economy due largely to so many pilgrims who visit there, it was then a backwater that most people had never heard of, probably having then less than 400 citizens. In fact, the name of the town was so obscure that the New Testament is the first place it’s found in print – and wasn’t mentioned outside of the Christian community for another 300 years. No wonder a Pharisee would later say of Jesus, “Can anything good come out of the Galilee?” It is there in Nazareth that the Holy Family will eventually live and raise Jesus, not in a center of power and prestige, but out in the sticks, on the margins, where they go much unnoticed. It is worth mentioning, that then as now, Bethlehem and Nazareth remain occupied by outside forces.

            So they go back to Bethlehem, a long journey of 70 miles of rough terrain. Scripture doesn’t say whether they walked or rode animals, but likely Mary, full with child rode a donkey while Joseph led by foot on the long and arduous journey. St. Luke tells us “While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” Here we get to the part most everyone knows: Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes in the manger filled with hay, because there was no room in the inn. But don’t forget this is a barn. It smells like a barn, it stinks like a barn. The animals –horses, cows, goats, chickens, or even pigs –whichever was there, probably weren’t as cute to Mary as we make them out to be, certainly not as sanitary as they look in our nativity scenes, particularly for giving birth to a baby. Some theologians used to try to suggest that Mary had no birthpangs, no difficulty giving birth, because she was believed to be without sin. I think the mothers here can attest that there was probably plenty of pain. Remember, there were no nurses, doctors, no sedatives, no anesthetics for the mother Mary. It was not easy to bring the very flesh of God into the world, it was painful. Mary probably always struggled with understanding her role of being the earthly mother of God’s Son. And so she struggled in the midst of childbirth, with the same searing pain that all mothers bear. She probably yelled some of the same things at Joseph, or at God, that mothers giving birth yell still at their husbands. I’ll leave it to the fathers here to let you know what those words might be. Yes, there was blood and pain and screams on the dirt floor of the barn, in the midst of the stink of the animals. This was no silent birth. But there was also surely tenderness and love. Was this an arranged marriage? We don’t know. But perhaps Mary and Joseph only had begun to know one another, and there on the road to Bethlehem and there in the stall of a barn was their relationship and bond formed as Mary squeezed Joseph’s hand in the midst of childbirth. They’re not the perfect figures in our nativity scenes – they’re probably dusty from their journey, disheveled, Mary exhausted, and Joseph still thoroughly confused. Perhaps they don’t know exactly what to think, with this child who both their son and the Son of God. But they gaze at him and hold him, taking turns nestling him in their chests. They find some piece of clothing to warm the baby Jesus. Joseph searches the barn for something to lay the child in. All he can find is a trough that the animals feed out of – or a manger as we know it. He cleans it out the best he can and places the hay in it, and there they place the babe.

            It’s almost an afterthought “there was no place at the inn,” found as it is at the end of the gospel writer’s sentence.  We often rightly place a great deal of focus on this part of the story. It is a scandal that God takes on the form of a human, a poor baby no less, an no room can be found in the inn. We often target the innkeeper for his inhospitality, but to be fair there must have been many returning to Bethlehem for the census and surely the inn was completely full. And after all, God does choose to be born in a barn. I imagine Mary frustrated with teenage Jesus saying, “Were you born in a barn?!” and Jesus’ snarky response of “So I’ve been told!” But apart from inhospitality, perhaps there’s a different angle here. Ron Rolheiser offers that, “there is a deeper lesson in Jesus having to be born in a stable because there was no room for him in the inn. What is being stressed is not so much lack of hospitality by an innkeeper, but rather the fact that Jesus was born outside of a city, outside of what is comfortable, outside of glamour and fame, outside of being recognized by the rich and the powerful, and beyond notice by the everyday world. Jesus was born in anonymity, poor, outside of all notice, except for family and God.”[1]

            The only others to notice we are told are the shepherds out in the fields watching their flocks by night. No little drummer boy or kneeling Santa Claus here. These shepherds are as bad as the animals. While to us they seem innocuous, in Jesus’ day and culture they were considered unclean, among the most unclean, because of their daily physical contact with the sheep. According to theologian Bruce Epperly, “Shepherds lived a hardscrabble life, had few assets, and were often maligned as shiftless and untrustworthy by people in the trades and in more comfortable and remunerative occupations.”[2] What we have here are not only shepherds, but the guys stuck on the night shift. Those of you who work the night shift or ever have, know what short shrift you get. These shepherds are considered to be little more than hired hands, tasked with the dirty work that no observant Jew would be stuck with. And yet, it is to these shepherds that the angel and the heavenly host appeared saying “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’” It is to these dirty, grubby guys that receive the news first; not kings and queens and all the elite, but those who lived on the margins of society, in the fields with their sheep. We are told that they went and saw the child with Mary and Joseph, as the angels had promised. The shepherds were the first to go out and spread the news, and we hear that ‘all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.” The Good News is disseminated not from top to bottom, from the center of society to the outskirts, but from the outskirts, from the lowest classes to the upper.

            Mary ponders what has happened, and the shepherds go back to work, all the while praising God for having given them this marvelous opportunity and gift to see heaven come down lying in the manger. That’s where our passage ends. The wise men will wait – they do not come until later, which we will commemorate in two weeks on Epiphany Sunday. David Lose, who our adult education class has been reading the past several weeks, summarizes the whole event saying, “Luke sets his story amid a census, the act of ordering — that is, registering, counting, and taxing everyone — par excellence. Yet this is only background for Luke; the main action takes place elsewhere, on the fringe, far away from the centers of power, in a little backwater town called Bethlehem, where a scared young girl and her equally scared husband can’t find any decent place in which to birth their first child and so are forced to take refuge with animals, with only dirty shepherds and their even dirtier sheep to notice.”[3] So what does all this mean? Where is the hope in this nativity scene?

            On the first Sunday of Advent, we traditionally sing ‘O Come, O Come Emanuel.’ Immanuel means “God-with-us.” The Good News and the hope here is that God is indeed with us. God so loves us, so desires a relationship with each and every one of us, that God takes on human form to demonstrate that love, and to teach us how to love God, each other, and our own selves. God comes to live among us as Jesus Christ, and comes not powerfully like Caesar’s triumphal entry into Rome, but humbly and vulnerably as a poor, homeless baby to a scared young mother and earthly father unsure of his role in the whole thing. The United Church of Christ Statement says that “In Jesus Christ, the man of Nazareth, our crucified and risen Savior, you have come to us and shared our common lot.” This means that Jesus has shared our worldly experience, and the messiness of our lives, for himself. He was born a crying baby, hungry for his mother’s milk, and would be a pre-teen who ran off to the temple scaring his parents, he probably sassed his parents as a teen, surprised his hometown when he preached prophetically and healed, and his mother watched in horror as he was crucified and died on the cross, and his family and disciples were as astounded as anyone at his resurrection. That sharing of our common lot began in the manger, in the same weakness and helplessness we are all born into. Jesus came in much the same way we all do, to experience life much the same way we do, in order to give us new life and give it abundantly. He does this not among the powerful elites, not in the centers of culture and politics, but on the margins to the marginal. The shepherds were thought unclean, Mary and Joseph were considered of no account by those who supposedly mattered. And yet it’s there in the midst of all that that God comes breaking into our world to make all things new, to transform our very lives. The hope was and is and will always be that God is with us. God shares the joys and pains of life with us – the birthpangs, crying, screaming, in the blood, muck, and mire the stench that’s almost unbearable, as well as the love and tenderness that comes with bearing life into this world. God is there with us, walks beside us, grieves besides, has joy beside us, and ever teaches us and prods us on to live in love.

            This Christmas remember you don’t have to have a perfect holiday. The first Christmas wasn’t perfect in the world’s eyes either. It barely went noticed except for a few blessed shepherds and farm animals. Given that God is present in the messiness of life, perhaps the more imperfect our holidays are the more God’s presence can be found in them. So don’t worry about that present you couldn’t afford, the dish that got overcooked, the string of lights that keeps going out, or the Christmas tree the cat keeps knocking down- Jesus was born in a barn after all.

            Jesus is born this night! Rejoice, God is with us! Merry Christmas!

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3. Advent: From the Line of Rahab

11 December 2011

Third Sunday of Advent

St. John United Church of Christ

 

From the Line of…Rahab

Based on Matthew 1: 1-18 and Prostitute in the Family Tree by Doug Adams

Rev. James Semmelroth Darnell

 

           

            Now I suppose you may wonder, why Jesus’ genealogy? What edification could we possibly get from a list of Jesus’ forefather, and a few foremothers? I think the answer lies in what we personally understand of our own selves from our family lines. Often we look at our families, and find them to be a mixture of cherished tradition and other histories we’d rather leave behind. I strongly believe that no matter how far we’ve traversed from our origins, we always maintain some of the traits of our ancestors. In other words, if we can’t blame our faults on our genetics, what can be blame them on?!

            The gospel writers attempted to show how Jesus fulfilled the prophesies of the Messiah in the Hebrew Bible. There are two genealogies of Jesus in the New Testament: in Matthew and Luke. The differences cannot be resolved, however, as one scholar put it “The purpose of the genealogy is not to give accurate history, but to set the story of Jesus into the context of the ongoing story of God’s acts in history that will eventuate in the coming of God’s kingdom.” The two gospel accounts are strikingly different, disagreeing on many ancestors. But both agree: Jesus is the heir of King David. That was crucial in anointing him Messiah. While Matthew began with Abraham as his starting point, Luke began at Adam. Besides this, Matthew is a much different genealogy in another way—it includes women, Gentile women at that, and it includes disreputable men within Israel’s history.

            Why does Matthew include such people? What is he trying to tell us about Jesus? A framework that is helpful here is from the late Rev. Doug Adams. Doug, a United Church of Christ scholar, was for many years the Professor of Christianity and the Arts at Pacific School of Religion. He often spoke of parent and grandparent stories. Parent stories, as he told it, are those stories parents tell about how obedient and studious they were growing up; stories that have been cleaned up more than a bit. Grandparents, however, tell different versions of these same stories—ones that are more colorful, that leave the rough edges—stories that tell us the truth of how our parents really acted as children. The best biblical stories, those in which there is hope for us, are like granparent stories. Adams wrote:

Jesus, Paul, and the Hebrew scriptures tell stories that include rough edges—unethical or ambiguous characters, unresolved or surprising endings –and so we laugh and know that we and others may live through the rough times in our lives too. Biblical stories present monarchs, patriarchs, matriarchs, and disciples not as perfectly faithful and ethical persons who we could hope to emulate but, rather as persons who are often immoral, unfaithful, and thickheaded. Therefore in spite of our failings, we, too, can hope to be disciples.[1]

 

Matthew’s genealogy is one of those grandparent stories. Take King David for example—David, Israel’s greatest king, the man after God’s own heart. But Matthew can’t help but stick it to David, referring not to his greatness but saying “David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah.” Matthew reminds us that the great King David seduced, or more likely just wielded his power over Bathsheba, and later had her husband killed. Uriah, her husband, was a Hittite—not an Israelite, and therefore a Gentile. So, Bathsheba was likely a Gentile as well. Such ethnic mixing was not looked kindly upon, and was sometimes blamed for the desperate fate of the Israelites in exile. David is a central part of Jesus’ line, after all it is what establishes him as the Messiah at the very beginning of the gospel—the very same passage as establishes a mixed-ethnic line.

            The other women in the genealogy, excluding Mary, were not likely candidates to be included in any royal genealogical line, let alone the Messiah’s. We have first Tamar, who pretended to be a prostitute and had sex with her father in-law in order to bear a son after her first husband died. (Biblical family values anyone?) Rahab, was a prostitute in actuality, who nobly hid Israelite spies in the city of Jericho while it was being attacked. Both women were Canaanites; again Gentiles. Matthew’s genealogy is actually the first time Rahab was counted in David’s line. Finally, we have Ruth, also a foreigner, who seduced Boaz on the threshing floor. These women are treated by men as sex objects. They are pieces of property, nothing more. And yet they find their way into the line leading to Jesus—at a time when women were not significant enough to be named, breaking through one small part of the patrilineal structure. According to Eugene Boring, “Matthew is interested in showing that God worked through irregular, even scandalous ways, and through women who took initiative.” It is important not to forget that these women are also aliens, so-called “illegal immigrants.” They were sojourners not fully welcomed into a strange land, though the biblical mandate commanded otherwise—much like immigrants in our own communities today.

            This genealogy is about all we know of Joseph and Mary. Much else is church legend. What little else we know of them is not impressive. Joseph was a carpenter, an artisan, little above a peasant laborer. Mary was a “young girl,” a teenage mother. At that time it may not have been early for her to have children, but today what scurrilous looks would we give her? They will provide no royal quarters for the baby Jesus—but will struggle to find a place to birth the child and will soon be on the run as refugees.

            And we have the men—all the men. There is Abraham and Isaac, the fathers of Israel, known as holy and righteous men (though their lives were a bit spotty in reality when it came to always being faithful). Numerous kings are mentioned—the majority of which, truth be told, were oppressors who cared little for the law of God. And the rest—well, they give us a collective “Huh?” They are long-forgotten and we have to wonder how they rated a mention from Matthew. Adams wrote that “A fine king, Jotham, was the father of a very bad king, Ahaz; but Ahaz was father to Hezekiah, who restored the kingdom to justice and piety. Hezekiah was the father of Manasseh, who ruled for 55 years and was evil for all of them.” Yikes. It really is a mixed bag here. But perhaps in the midst of all this is the message is that God can work through us, even with our baggage and past and failing ways, our genetics notwithstanding.

            So what does all this mean? Well, first, irregardless of who St. Matthew includes between Abraham and David and Jesus, we are reminded that Jesus does not come onto the scene without any connection in history. But Jesus is born into many generations of God’s saving acts in history. He is a descendant of Abraham who received the promise and King David, chosen by God to lead the Israelites. For Matthew, God’s history is being fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

Further, women and Gentiles are given a place in Jesus’s family, which is a mixed one. This is just a preview of the nature of Christ’s ministry – welcoming especially those in the margins, acknowledging that we are all part of God’s family. There are the great names of the history of the Hebrew people, but also a good number of despots as well. Jesus’ family isn’t too different from our own—many of us, if we go back far enough, can trace ourselves to distant (and not so distant) relations with kings and queens, presidents, and celebrities. But we’ve also got some fruits and nuts in our family tree—and sometimes a whole herd of black sheep. Michael Joseph Brown reminds us that “Jesus descends not only from a distinguished bloodline full of kings and queens but also from outsiders and persons of questionable character and practice.” For Gentiles to be included, it shows that Jesus ushers in a kingdom in which lines of race and class are erased—in which all are considered children of God. For women to be included, it prefaces how Jesus will welcome women into his inner circle and it affirms that God blesses and gifts women, even to the extent of entrusting the Light of the World to a teenage mother. For the disreputable, dishonorable, and downright shady characters to be included, there is good news. Adams said, “The good news is, that if out of the worst can come the best, there is hope—for our children.”[2]

            A United Church of Christ advertisement asked, “If Jesus welcomed lepers, prostitutes, and convicts, shouldn’t we?” Well, according to St. Matthew, he may not have had a choice—they were his own family. Perhaps one of those forgotten names was a leper in-fact, if not a social leper. If we claim Jesus, we claim his family, so our decision is made for us—we are called to welcome all: the royal kings, good and very bad, immigrants, prostitutes, adulterers and the faithful, and refugees searching for a room at an inn. This is our family—there is grace in all this, because if the one we await, Emmanuel, comes from such a family, then perhaps our Christmas dinner doesn’t look so bad after all, but is a holy banquet of God’s own family.

                                                                        To God be the Glory. Amen.


[1] Doug Adams, Prostitute in the Family Tree (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1997) 1-2.

[2] Adams, 3

2. Advent: The Beginning of the Good News

Second Sunday of Advent

St. John United Church of Christ

St. Clair, Missouri

The Beginning of The Good News

Based on St. Mark 1: 1-8

By Rev. James Semmelroth Darnell

            St. Mark’s is the shortest of all of the Christian gospels, and also the oldest. He wrote with a sense of urgency to the Christian community to get down on paper the oral tradition of the stories and teachings of Jesus, before they got too far from its source. This sense of urgency is prevalent in his gospel. In just 16 short chapters, he uses the word ‘immediately’ 28 times, and uses it 4 times alone in the first chapter. Jesus’ ministry for St. Mark was of vital importance, hence the urgent and immediate nature of his gospel.

So here we are on the 2nd Sunday of Advent, at the beginning of St. Mark’s gospel – but where is the nativity story? Where are Joseph and Mary, the angel Gabriel pronouncing that Mary will be with child, where are the shepherds being told not to be afraid, where is the inn with no room, the manger filled with hay, and the wise men following the star? What happened to Bethlehem? Well, they simply aren’t there. They don’t appear in St. Mark’s gospel. In fact, they only appear in St. Matthew and St. Luke, with each of them beginning with a different genealogy. St. John takes a different approach going back even further to the cosmic Christ being a part of the very beginning of Creation. This all should serve to remind us that the gospels are not centrally focused on offering a chronological, biography of the life of Jesus of Nazareth, but an account of the Good News of Jesus Christ. Now on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day we will recall Luke and Matthew’s nativity stories, but for now we are left with Mark. For St. Mark the birth story was not important, and we get no information about Jesus prior to adulthood, not even the story of Jesus in the temple as a precocious boy – but find ourselves just prior to Jesus’ ministry as St. John the Baptist prepares the way with his preaching of repentance.

St. Mark begins his gospel with these words: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber points out that “What makes it news is that it is something new that is external to us that we have to be told. The idea that it’s also the beginning suggests much more good stuff to come from this Jesus Christ, Son of God.” St. Mark doesn’t just say that it is the Good News of Jesus Christ, but the very beginning – that this isn’t the whole story, but just where it begins.

He continues by quoting the prophet Isaiah, saying “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” Why begin with Isaiah? The Good News begins here because Isaiah’s prophecies about the coming Messiah are fulfilled and manifested in Jesus Christ. Those familiar words from Handel’s Messiah, “every mountain and hill made low, the crooked straight, and the rough places plain…for unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given…comfort ye my people,” they all come from Isaiah. So now we find John the Baptist as the promised messenger sent ahead of Jesus to prepare the way. Not only did Isaiah cry out, but now John himself cries out in the wilderness.

It’s almost a throwaway line here –“people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him.” But wait, people should be able to hear the religious message of the day in Jerusalem, right? That’s where the temple was after all. And yet they travel to the margins, out to the wilderness to hear this message of repentance and forgiveness. Having been to Israel and Palestine, I know how rocky and dusty that trip must have been on their donkeys or camels. But the message here is that God is found not only in places of power and prestige, but especially on the margins and in unexpected places, as we will see as God takes on flesh through an unwed teenage mother, Mary.

John in his prophetic get-up of a camel-hair coat and leather belt, eating locusts (the food of judgment) and honey (the food of comfort) draws the crowds in all the way from Jerusalem and all across the countryside. You’d think with such crowds he’d be preaching prosperity like Joel Osteen – but he’s not preaching about ‘Your Best Life Now’ or ‘A Purpose-Driven Life’ but John’s message is about straight-up repentance. He is a bold and brash man, not afraid to call the Pharisees and Sadducees a “brood of vipers,” and would literally lose his head over telling Herod he shouldn’t have taken his brother’s wife as his own. He boldly announces to the people to turn from their sinful ways to the ways of God.

John tells those who have come for their baptism of repentance and forgiveness that “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” How do they prepare for the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit? With cookies and cake and punch and egg nog? With incessantly cheery 24/7 Christmas songs on the radio? With daily viewings of the Grinch, Scrooge, and Old Man Potter, or even beloved Charlie Brown and his scraggly tree? With rushing to all the concerts and parties and festivities? With mountains of presents and stockings hung with care? Not one of these things. Now, there’s not necessarily anything wrong with any of these things, except when we gorge ourselves on them. I myself love the festivities of the Christmas season. But often we become so focused on creating the perfect Christmas for ourselves with all the right presents, decorations, and recipes, that we just wear ourselves out and completely miss the beauty of God coming to us in the form of a helpless, crying baby in a manger.

No, those who sidled up to John on the banks of the river Jordan didn’t prepare with all the trappings of our modern Christmas celebrations. To paraphrase the great Dr. Seuss, “It came without packages. It came without tags. It came without ribbons, boxes, or bags.” According to professor Alyce McKenzie of the Perkins School of Theology:

“John is just not cut out to fit in with our cultural Christmas. He would make a poor Santa on a fire engine. Instead of throwing candy canes, he’d stand up and shout, “This year better be different! Going through the motions of a cultural Christmas will not guarantee you joy, peace, or the perfect gift on Christmas Eve.”

John wouldn’t last five minutes on the Santa throne at the mall. He doesn’t want to hear what we want from Santa for ourselves and our families. He is a prophet, here to tell us what God wants from us.

Rather to prepare for the one who would baptize with the Holy Spirit, John calls his followers to repentance. Now we may shy away from that, really out of a reaction to those who preach fire and brimstone, end times and damnation with sandwich board signs shouting “Repent! The End is Near!” But repentance is more simply about turning. It’s turning from our old ways, from our old beaten path – to the new way John is preparing, to as the prophet Isaiah says “Make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” John calls his followers, and we’re called too, to take the exit off the old worn out road we’re on, to that new highway where every valley has been lifted up, every mountain and hill made low, the uneven ground become level, and rough places made plain.” Can we get off that old comfortable road we’ve been driving on, so long we’ve made ruts in the road – and make a quick turn off on that highway that God’s stimulus package just built? This Advent can we turn away from those old sins of materialism and consumerism and greed and lust for more, more, more? McKenzie again reminds us, “We need a turnaround. We need to repent. We need someone with courage, someone who cares about us, to take us by the shoulders and turn us around from trivial to transcendent, from irritability to incarnation. Because if we don’t turn around, we won’t see who is coming.” Brother John is ready to take hold of our shoulders and look us straight in the eye and say that if we stay on this tired old road we won’t see the One who is coming, we won’t even realize he’s the Messiah. We’ll just scoff at that unwed teenage mother and her really confused carpenter boyfriend, and say “Maybe if they had made reservations they wouldn’t have to sleep in a barn.” You see, we have to turn, we have to turn to God and say we’ve screwed up here and there.

The really good part here – and remember St. Mark tells us this is just the beginning of the Good News – is that this repentance, this turning is accompanied by forgiveness. When we’ve emptied ourselves, and sought that new way of God, we are forgiven and granted newness of life each and every day. Eternal life is in the hereafter, but it’s also in the here – and its in that turning and finding that newness of life each and every day that we receive it in the here and now. This forgiveness tells us that we are not trapped by our old ways. We are not bound to past mistakes, by wrongs committed. We are not who we were yesterday, a week ago, a year ago, a decade ago. That forgiveness releases us from the past we think we are bound to – it tells us that while our past may inform who we are today, it doesn’t define us. That forgiveness shows us that we are God’s beautiful creation and can live more and more fully into that each new day.

This Advent are you ready to experience that newness of life? Are you ready to use this waiting time for more than presents, parties, and pageants? Don’t just prepare for the celebrations and concerts, but for Christ. It is by turning and seeking forgiveness that those by the river Jordan first prepared to meet their new teacher, the one who redeems us all. Are you ready? The turnoff from that old road onto that new highway of God is awaiting you.

 
+To God be the Glory. Amen.

This entry was posted on December 8, 2011. 1 Comment

Christ the King Sunday: UnChristian

20 November 2011

Christ the King Sunday

St. John United Church of Christ

St. Clair, MO

UnChristian

Based on St. Matthew 25: 31-46

By Rev. James Semmelroth Darnell

            Have you ever had someone say to you something like this: “I know plenty of atheists, agnostics, secular, or non-religious people who lead perfectly good, happy lives…and they’re some of the most kind, compassionate, caring and loving people I know. And I know too many Christians who are judgmental, critical, closed-minded hypocrites who could care less about their neighbors.” Or maybe you’ve thought it yourself. Well, I’ve had that conversation plenty of times. It’s can be a frustrating conversation to have – especially when you come from a Christian community that is welcoming, nurturing, open and accepting, as I believe St. John to be. There is plenty of information from the media that seems to only give voice to versions of Christianity that are exclusive and fundamentalist, but unfortunately sometimes these perceptions of Christians are earned. A few years ago, a book called UnChristian was published, documenting how young people outside Christianity feel about the religion. The vast majority of the people in my age group, from ages 16-29, described Christianity and Christians as antigay, judgmental, hypocritical, too involved in politics, out of touch, insensitive, old-fashioned, boring, not accepting of other faiths, and confusing. Less than 20% said that Christianity was a faith they respect, shows love for other people, offers hope, something that is genuine and real, and relevant to their lives. A fifth of these young people said they had these opinions, not because of the media, but because of direct interactions with churches and Christians. These are more than numbers and statistics, they are a warning sign of a difficult future if Christian culture isn’t radically reformed. These perceptions of Christians come out of real experiences, and we have our work cut out for us. But, several years ago when the United Church of Christ  premiered its ‘God is still speaking,’ message and commercials saying that ‘No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you’re welcome here,’ many people were excited to find out about a church that not only isn’t exclusive and judgmental, but has been on the forefront of welcoming persons from the margins of society and a leader in civil rights and social justice. People who have been alienated by the church are still spiritually hungry. Gandhi said, “I like your Christ, but I do not like your Christians. They are so unlike your Christ.” Many nonreligious people, including those who are formerly Christian feel the same way – and as is revealed in this book, often feel like people in the Church are unchristian. It is a sad state of affairs when a religion that was known in its earliest days as caring for its most vulnerable members, sharing all property in common, and not letting others go in need, is now so negatively viewed by those outside it.

I believe that today’s gospel passage, one of the most oft-quoted passages in the New Testament, has much to teach us about the way Christians are perceived, and what our goal might be. This passage is about judgment – something we might not find helpful when trying to counter the idea that Christians are judgmental. But, as counterintuitive as that might be, it really is there. Jesus says that on judgment day all people will be divided like a shepherd divides the sheep from the goats. To the ‘sheep,’ he says, “for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” But they, the ones Jesus calls righteous, say, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” They had no idea they were serving Jesus – they were just doing what was right. Here Jesus says that part so many of us know by heart: “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” And to the others, the goats, he says, “for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” But they did not know it was Jesus they were turning away from either. The passage says, “hen they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” Essentially what Jesus is saying here is that those who cared for the poor and marginalized, knew him even when they didn’t acknowledge him –and those who ignored those on the margins, did not know Jesus even if they did acknowledge him. It is when we treat others, especially those in need, as Christ treats us, that we really see the face of Christ, and really follow him.

Episcopal priest Fr. Rick Morley writes that “What Jesus is doing here, at the end point of his earthly ministry, is making it very clear to people who claimed to be his disciples and supporters that there is no gray area at all when it comes to following him. You’re either with him, or you aren’t. The way to tell which it is, is by looking at how you live your life. To be on Jesus’ side means that you’re actively caring for the poor, the needy, the sick, and the lonely. To not do such things means that you’re really not with him at all, but against him.” The end message Jesus is leaving with his disciples, just a week before he will be crucified, is that if they know him, they will do what he did. The message is that if we know Jesus, our lives should be different.

But all too often our lives aren’t different – and people outside of the faith see this. The active perception of many Christians as too legalistic, exclusive, and judgmental should be a reminder to us that when we act that way, we are just acting like a bunch of goats.  Stanely Hauerwas says that, “The difference between followers of Jesus and those who do not know Jesus is that those who have seen Jesus no longer have any excuse to avoid ‘the least of these.” We have no excuse for our lives to be different. Sure, we could make up plenty of excuses – but the reality is that if we are really followers of Jesus, if we love Christ, our lives should be marked by that. They should be marked by caring for the sick, hungry, thirsty, and imprisoned. If we know Jesus, we realize that the judging in this story is done by him, not by us. If we know Jesus, we realize that our behavior matters. Even if we believe all the right things and follow all the rules, but ignore the cries of the needy – what good has it done us? Are we really following Jesus? Even if we go to church every Sunday, sing every hymn, and pray every prayer, but it does not take root in our lives, and we’re still running the rat race for the rest of the week – what good has it done us? Are we really following Jesus? Remember St. Paul said “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.” God can give us marvelous gifts, including material goods and the ability to support and advocate for others less fortunate, but if we don’t use them we are a resounding gong or a clanging symbol. Or worse yet – we could be alienating others from the Christian. Certainly, I don’t think any of us want that. I’d imagine that most of us desire that others come to know the Risen Christ and the power of transformation it can have on lives. So much of our world is desperate for a message of grace, hope, acceptance, and love. Many would receive it openly – but only after work is done to heal much of the alienation and hurt caused by those who claim to follow Jesus, but do so in a goat-like manner.

Many people don’t like being called sheep – it sounds demeaning. Sheep aren’t the brightest animals. But they have one thing right – they follow their shepherd. If the Lord is our shepherd, we should be following him, and that means ministry with the least of these, doing what we can in our small corner of the world to bring healing to this broken world. If Christianity is ever to recover from this idea that we are a soley judgmental and fundamentalist people, we who come from an open and accepting Christian environment have to demonstrate transformed lives. Our belief should lead to right behavior, and our being faithful members of the Church should mean that what we do on Sunday changes the way we act and relate to others the rest of the week. It’s not about showing how we’re better Christians than others, because after all we all stumble on this journey of faith. But it’s about love. Dorothy Day said, “I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least.” It’s struggling to love those we really don’t want to. It’s living into a higher calling – because what the world needs now really is love. And if those outside our doors are going to be able to accept that love, and the grace and mercy of God, we have to be able to show that it really makes a difference.
To God be the Glory.

 

Reformation Sunday: Boars in the Vineyard

Reformation Sunday

29 October 2011-10-25

St. John United Church of Christ

St. Clair, MO

Boars in the Vineyard

Based on St. Matthew 23: 1-12

By James Semmelroth Darnell

St. Matthew wrote his gospel and Martin Luther nailed his theses to the Wittenberg church door at two times in history that were not dissimilar. Matthew’s gospel was likely written in 80-90 AD to a community of Jewish Christians attempting to differentiate themselves from the Jewish Pharisees leadership. They attempted to straddle the line between accepting Jewish law and resisting the legalism of the Pharisees. In this passage we find Jesus railing against the Pharisees, accusing them of not practicing what they preach, pretending to be righteous, exalting themselves, and burdening others. Later in Matthew he really lays into them, calling them hypocrites and says they are “like whitewashed tombs which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and all kinds of filth.” So much for meek and mild Jesus! Martin Luther was a biblical studies professor at the University of Wittenberg in Germany when Johann Tetzel began selling indulgences in 1516. Tetzel sold indulgences (the forgiveness of sins, or time off from purgatory, for a price) in the Saxon region, to pay for the building of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and to help the local archbishop pay off his debt incurred while buying his position. Luther, who was a Catholic monk, initially sent a letter of inquiry to the Archbishop, but would in 1517 post his theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. He would rail against the injustice of poor peasants, so afraid of eternal punishment, who contributed their meager earnings, while the Pope very well could have paid for the basilica out of his own treasury. In 1521, standing before the Holy Roman Emperor, asked to recant all his writings, he stated, “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason. . . , I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God.  I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience….Here I stand, I can do no other. God help me.” It was for such bold speech, a monk calling to task the Church, that Pope Leo said of Luther and his supporters, “foxes have arisen seeking to destroy the vineyard… The wild boar from the forest seeks to destroy it and every wild beast feeds upon it.” The label of a wild board run amok in the Lord’s vineyard has stuck ever since to Dr. Luther. But as Jesus’ speech against the Pharisees illustrates, sometimes righteous anger, and even rage against injustice is perfectly appropriate.  Luther raged, yes sometimes like a wild boar, against the hypocrisy of  Church elites placing their desires above the wellbeing of peasant believers. And Jesus raged, against the Pharisee elites who paraded their religiosity to the detriment of the poor.

Too often we confuse the Christian message with politeness and nicety. But Jesus doesn’t tell us this, and Luther certainly didn’t. Yes, we are called to be kind, gentle-hearted, and gracious. But, the God of mercy and compassion is also a God of justice. The prophet Isaiah tells us, “Shout out! Do not hold back, lift up your voice like a trumpet!” Today on Reformation Sunday, we are reminded to lift up our voices for justice and reform in our society and in our Church. The work of the Reformation found its turning point in the stand of Dr. Martin Luther. But it was fermenting as early as the 1100’s when the Waldensians in Italy were charged as being heretics for encouraging laypeople to interpret the Bible. It continued with the likes of John Calvin in Switzerland, John Knox in Scotland, John Wesley in England, the Puritans and Pilgrims who founded the Congregational Churches that formed part of the UCC, and many others. Among the gifts of the Reformation is the ability to worship and read the Bible in our own languages, the belief in the ‘priesthood of all believers,’ that is the belief the we each have gifts for ministry and each can confess directly to our God, and congregational hymns. But the work of the Reformation is not done, as the Church and our world constantly need reforming. In order to be a viable presence in the world the Church has to be authentic, transparent, and demonstrate that it can rise above the corruption that has so often plagued it. To do this requires continual reformation, for each of us to hold ourselves and the Church accountable to living out Christ’s Good News for each of God’s children.

As we go about this work, it is important to keep perspective. Martin Luther was not a perfect person, and neither are we. Luther was obsessive compulsive, and quite possibly bipolar. He could be crude, and in old age became increasingly obstinate against any who would stand in his way. In his later years, he was quite anti-Semitic. St. Matthew’s gospel also has been used against our Jewish brothers and sisters. Much blood was shed during the Reformation in Europe between Catholics and the emerging Protestants. In acknowledging the Church’s own history and attempting to live into a better future, we would do well to remember Jesus’ admonition at the end of this morning’s passage. After his diatribe against the pridefulness and hypocrisy of the Pharisees, Jesus says “The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” As we go about the work of justice and reformation, trying to live faithfully in Church and society, we must do so with humility. The self-righteousness and hypocrisy of those Jesus and Luther railed against is a risk in our own selves. We can easily become self-righteous and think we, and only we, have it right. Especially as we work for reform and strive to better the Church, it would be easy to boast and be prideful. But Jesus reminds us that is not the way. The real way to go about this reform, to fighting injustice, is by being a servant leader. To do this, we have to let go of our egos, our titles, our pride and selfishness. We have to get down on our knees and wash others’ feet like Jesus did. Robert Greenleaf writes that “”The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions…The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types. Between them there are shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature.” As long as we are putting the care and service of others before ourselves and our own self-satisfaction, we should remain humble. And whatever accomplishments, achievements, and successes we attain, we must remember that it is by the grace of God.

Luther said that Christians are simultaneously sinners and saints. What he meant was that we each, having received the grace of God, are saints, but continue to wrestle with sin. Recognizing that we are not one or the other, but both at the same time should also humble us. It is because we are in such dire need of God’s grace in our lives that we can claim this.

The world and the Church have benefited from the gifts of the Reformation and particularly Dr. Martin Luther. But we also need to acknowledge and repent of its errors, particularly against our Roman Catholic and Jewish brothers and sisters. As we continue this work of the Reformation, Jesus reminds us to do it not with pride or boasting or even great religiosity, but making ourselves servants in the service of others, having deep humility.

In closing, I’d like to share with you a poem written by Dr. Luther, written in 1523. It stands the test of time and I hope it will speak to you today.

From trouble deep I cry to thee,
Lord God, hear thou my crying;
Thy gracious ear, oh, turn to me,
Open to my sighing.
For if thou mean’st to look upon
The wrong and evil that is done,
Who, Lord, can stand before thee?
With thee stands nothing but thy grace
To cover all our failing.
The best life cannot win the race,
Good works are unavailing.
Before thee no one glory can,
And so must tremble every man,
And live by thy grace only. . .

Although our sin be great, God’s grace
Is greater to relieve us;
His hand in helping nothing stays,
The hurt however grievous.
The Shepherd good alone is he,
Who will at last set Israel free,
From all and every trespass.

+Glory be to God. Amen.

For All the Saints

6 November 2011

All Saints Sunday

St. John United Church of Christ

St. Clair, Missouri

Based on St. Matthew 5: 1-12

By James Semmelroth Darnell

            Happy All Saints Sunday! We Protestants sometimes have a difficult relationship to the saints, eschewing them as ‘too Catholic.’ But this morning I want to suggest that saints are not just those whose lives seem nearly perfect, who performed amazing miracles, and even are officially recognized by the Church, but rather people just like us who strive to follow Jesus in their daily lives. One of my mentors, David Ruhe, the pastor of Plymouth United Church of Christ in Des Moines, Iowa recently said, that “All Saints’ Day is also a reminder that we are all a part of what the Bible’s Epistle to the Hebrews calls a “great cloud of witnesses.” These are the ones who have gone before us to light the way in faith, and we have all been blessed by the witness they bore with their lives. They are church members

and family members and friends and pastors and teachers. They are still living and long dead. They are aunts and uncles and sons and daughters and second cousins twice removed… whatever that means. The lessons they have taught us live on in us and through us. This is a day to recall all these witnesses to mind with a prayer of thanksgiving.” So today we give thanks for all those who have gone before us, blazing the path of faith in Jesus Christ. Common and uncommon, ordinary and extraordinary, we reclaim all our forebears and we claim each other as saints of God.

It becomes all the more important for us to reclaim the language of sainthood, being in a faith community called St. John, and a town called St. Clair.

At age 17, I was late entering confirmation. My pastor and I met one-on-one every week the summer before I left for college. Together as we studied the Apostle’s Creed, one thing confounded me more than any other: the communion of saints. I just didn’t get it. I thought to myself, we’re Protestants, we don’t believe in saints! In God’s great sense of humor, I now relish saying, “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints.” I rejoice that we belong to one unified body as the United Church of Christ’s Evangelical Catechism says, “the Church and all its members, the blessed ones who have gone before us, and those who shall come after us; all who believe, love, and hope in the graciousness of God and participate in the treasures entrusted to the Church. The communion of saints shall always be found under the cross.”[1] A friend asked me recently why I so cherish this aspect of the creed, affirmed in the catechism. In short, I am grateful for those who have gone before us—those who blazed the trail of faith, from Abraham and Sarah to Moses and Miriam to Joseph and Mary to St. Francis and St. Clare to Martin Luther King and Mother Theresa. I am grateful for all they teach us, and for how they surely cheer us on from Heaven. I am grateful for those who will follow us, who will carry on the faith in new ways we have yet to imagine. I am grateful for all those around God’s Earth who share with us in witnessing to the Good News of Jesus Christ. It would be lonely without them!

But what is a saint after all? Jan Richardson says, “The saints are not models of perfection but rather people who opened themselves to the ways that God sought to work in and through their particular lives and gifts.” Joan Chittister offers that “”For centuries the church has confronted the human community with role models of greatness. We call them saints when what we really often mean to say is ‘icon,’ ‘star,’ ‘hero,’ ones so possessed by an internal vision of divine goodness that they give us a glimpse of the face of God in the center of the human. They give us a taste of the possibilities of greatness in ourselves.” Matthew Fox writes that, “All who are attempting to imitate the Christ in their lives merit the title of ‘saint.’ Some do it more fully than others and are willing to let go of more to get the job done.” They are all correct – a saint is a real person who offers us a glimpse into how to live a Spirit-filled life. But perhaps on of the best explanations of what it means to be a saint comes from Dean Lueking:

Saints are given a clarity about what passes for the good life but is phony at the core. They can hear Jesus’ pronouncement on those who would appear to have anything but woes: “you who are rich. . . who are full now. . . who laugh now. . . who are well spoken of by all.” Why woes on these? The good life portrayed here is detached from its foundation in God. These ideals of life have become idols, ends in themselves which finally bring not blessing but blight. Thus saints are given the backbone to warn with woes as well as uplift with blessings.

This brings us into this morning’s passage from St. Matthew. I am reminded of a UCC congregation named after this passage that earned the nickname, The Church of the Bad Attitudes. But rather, this morning’s passage is what is known as the Beatitudes. Beatitudes actually means a list of things or attributes that are considered blessed. They occur a few times in the Bible, and here they come as the very beginning of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Jesus preaches a long sermon to his disciples and followers about what discipleship entails. It is the longest ‘teaching’ passage in the New Testament, lasting 3 whole chapters, and it begins with “blessed are the poor in spirit…blessed are those who mourn…blessed are the meek…blessed are those who hunger…blessed are the merciful…blessed are the pure in heart…blessed are the peacemakers…blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake…blessed are you when people reviled you…”

It’s an odd list if we think about it. It doesn’t jive with our notion of “common sense.” A blessing to be poor, mourning, hungry, and persecuted? But here blessed doesn’t mean happy, because certainly those things don’t offer happiness as we normally think of it. Rather it means honorable – honorable are those who are poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Even so, the wisdom of our culture would more likely say, blessed are the rich, blessed are the full, blessed are the powerful, blessed are the warmongers. But as Lueking reminds us, Jesus says woe to such things and that it is exactly the opposite qualities and virtues that open the gates to the Kingdom.

Jesus preached the Beatitudes to the same people he had previously healed. He preached it among those living under the oppression of Roman rule. He preached it to those who were being persecuted. He was preaching to the very poor, meek, merciful, and pure in heart that he was pronouncing blessed. He was telling the very crowd in front of him that theirs was the kingdom of heaven. And get this, he didn’t say that the kingdom of heaven would be theirs in the future and those awful rich folks would get their comeuppance then. No, he says “theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Right then and there, the kingdom is theirs, because of the way they are orienting their lives toward God with values that are counter to the wisdom of power and politics. Dr. Amy Oden, the dean of Wesley Seminary, and one of my favorite professors at my alma mater writes that, “The poor in spirit, those who mourn, the pure in heart–all of these are blessed not because they are exemplars of the law, but because of their inward orientations of heart.  The righteousness of this newly inaugurated kingdom of God is more than following rules. It requires and empowers a life surrendered to God and neighbor… Jesus shifts our attention from particular behaviors we must avoid to particular interior orientations we must cultivate. Kingdom righteousness saturates our whole lives, and promises much more, too. It is the way of blessedness.” This is what is honorable, to cultivate in ourselves peacemaking and purity of heart. Rather than worrying about what and who we have to avoid, and legislate that for others, it is about orienting our lives to be centered on God and the harmony of God’s world.

The saints, they are those who demonstrate this for us. They model the way of following Jesus even when they are mournful and poor in spirit, they show us how to love more fully. When I think of saints, I am reminded of the nurses I worked with as a chaplain intern at the Washington Hospital Center. A large trauma facility that often treated victims of violent crimes, our doctors and nurses dealt with many trying situations. But yet the nurses especially acted with grace in the midst of those storms. The head nurse on one of my units even once asked me to bless a particular room where no matter which patient was there, always seemed to have more issues. She demonstrated a life oriented around the Beatitudes and is, I would argue, a saint in scrubs.

A beloved saint in this congregation, who we will honor later this morning, was Albertha Panhorst. Now I of course never had the privilege of meeting her, but was fortunate enough this week to view a DVD of the interview Rev. Spivey did with Bert shortly after her 100th birthday. Among the saintly wisdom from that interview, she said, “Be grateful for what God has done for you, and I am grateful… I don’t know that it’s up to me to give advice, maybe more important for me to listen to other people and not try to impose my views on everyone.” These are certainly the words of one who oriented her life toward God.

In my home church, we had two such women, Dorothea Diamond and Elda Gardiner. Dorothea was born just one block from the church and was a member there all of her 93 years. She was one of the first to be confirmed in English in the church. I remember looking at her confirmation photo with her, seeing her 80 years younger in her white dress, and she just said “Oh goodness, that’s ancient history!” She was a one-woman altar guild, and there was no one on God’s green earth who could iron altar linens as perfectly as she could…not to mentioned she changed her own flat tires. She and her sister wouldn’t complain about something, they’d put up the money and have something fixed, often without telling the trustees. When our building was restored to its 1891 glory, they made sure we got doors authentic to when they were little girls. Elda moved to Washington in 1939, and was a member of the church for 69 years until moving with her daughter at age 93 to Wisconsin. For many years she faithfully led our Women’s Fellowship and was the cashier with Dorothea’s sister at our Fall Sale. When these two beloved women died at ages 93 and 96 in the past two years, they left a void not easily filled, as I’m sure Bert Panhorst’s passing also did. It was not just their longevity, but faithfulness that made these women exemplars. They quietly lived out their live oriented toward God and service to the Church, hungering and thirsting for righteousness. They stood by their faith communities through thick and thin, watching things go from German Evangelical to Evangelical & Reformed to the United Church of Christ. Pastors came and went, but they stood by with grace and love and blessing.

It is by the witness of such people, who followed Jesus from where they lived that reminds us that we too are saints when we daily seek to live as disciples of Christ. We find persons in our own lives who demonstrate Christ-like living and the blessedness of the Beatitudes who become role models, icons, and our patron saints. Their example encourages us on in our own striving. We are reminded too that this is how even the most honored and revered of saints began. St. Francis was to some just like Bert Panhorst was to some of you, and like Dorothea and Elda to me. Surely we can find miracles in their own lives no less impressive. So today, give honor and thanks for all the saints, each and every person who has sought to follow God’s way. We each do it, sometimes falteringly, but we do it in community with one another striving for the kingdom of heaven, which is already ours. Thank God that we do it not alone, but with that great cloud of witnesses, all those who are blessed, as they cheer us on.

Glory be to God. Amen.

 


[1] Irion, Andreas, translated by Frederick R. Trost. The Evangelical Catechism: A New Translation for the 21st Century, Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2009, 89.