Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The Captivity of Not Enoughs

Advent 1, 2016
Isaiah 2:1-5
O Come O Come Immanuel
Chatfield UMC
Rev. Debra Jene Collum

Advent! Can you believe it?
Between the weather and the events of this past year, it is hard to believe that we are in the last few weeks of 2016. But I really need Advent this year. I need a time to wait for the coming of the Christ. To anticipate some good news. To be reminded that Good News is on the horizon. That restoration is just over the next hill.

Because that is what Advent does for us: it reminds us that we serve and are loved by a God who is coming to restore the earth.
So many people talk about God as a god who is coming to destroy the earth. To punish us for our wickedness. To wipe out all of life. They are waiting for something called the Rapture. In a Rapture scenario all the chosen of God are removed from the earth and the rest of us are left to fend for ourselves, while people possessed by evil intentions destroy the earth.
But Advent reminds us that we are not waiting for a Rapture, scripture teaches us that we are waiting for the Reconciliation. When all of the things that are captive to sin and evil will be free and ransomed.

This time of waiting for the coming of Jesus isn’t about when Jesus will come to destroy the earth but when Jesus comes to restore and reconcile the earth.

This is the coming of Jesus that I look forward to. I look forward to it most days.
I remember once being asked when I expected Jesus to return. I said with all seriousness and with total conviction of my beliefs that I expect Jesus to walk around the corner every moment of every day.

I really do. Not in great lightening bolts of glory or even with a star shining in the sky to point the way. But in the ways we are the hands and feet of Jesus, Jesus returns. Each and every day.
I want to show you a little video clip that always warms my heart and reminds me that Jesus comes back even when the culture may not recognize Jesus as Jesus.

In the clip the question is asked, “What does he get from his acts of kindness and sacrifice?”
Will he get rich? Famous? Respected? That is what our society tells us it the goal and ultimate reward for a life well lived.
But what does he get?
In the translation from the Thai language what he gets are emotions.
Emotions. I like that. He gets feelings.
When Jesus comes, Jesus doesn’t come promising us wealth and fame.
Jesus comes promising us feelings.

Of self worth, community connections, friendships, the betterment of others.

Seeing this clip reminds me of all the work we do as a church throughout the world promoting children’s education. The employment of women. The care of the earth.
Through UMC missions, through Operation Classroom, through UMW. It is through these ministries and the ministries we do right here, right now we are proclaiming and living as if Jesus has come back already.
Just by making uniforms we are proclaiming together Jesus has come right here right now.

In the hymn text we are looking at today, the writer is longing for the coming of Immanuel to break the chains of captivity, to give us wisdom, and to remind us that we are all a part of the reconciling work of God.

O Come O Come Immanuel. And ransom captive Israel.

Did you notice in the video clip that there were bystanders looking on, watching the young man and shaking their heads? Why should he do such things? How does he think what he does will make any difference?

These cynical on lookers are captive to the idea that one little act is so foolish.
That nothing so small will make a difference. They are captive to the idea that wealth and fame are the indicators of a well lived life. They are captive to cynicism.

This is the cynicism that makes us captive, too. We have been taught that small acts of kindness are just that; small acts of kindness with no redeeming value. That we aren’t important enough to make a difference. That we have too much baggage in our lives to make a difference. That we don’t love well enough, don’t forgive deep enough, don’t have enough faith, enough joy, enough courage...enough. We simply don’t have enough. And these words put chains on our lives. We become captured.
O come O come Immanuel and ransom captive Israel. O Come Jesus and free us from the captivity of our not enoughs.

Jesus, the savior for whom we wait and who we expect to come to us each day of our lives,
Jesus told us, we are the light that shines in the darkness. And we would be foolish to put that light under a barrel.
Foolish to believe that our little light will make no difference in the world.

O Come, Thou Wisdom from on high, and order all things, far and nigh:
To us the path of knowledge show and cause us in her ways to go.

Cause us in wisdom’s ways to go...What if that was our path for these weeks of Advent. That we would take the path of Wisdom rather than cynicism. What if we would chose to believe that Christ does come to us each and every day and we will see if through the wisdom of the little acts of goodness and kindness that we experience each day.

Was it wise for Joseph to accept the angel’s message that he should take a pregnant Mary as his wife and care for the baby she bore as his own son?
Was it wise for Mary to say to the angel, be it done to me as you will?
Was it wise for Mary and Joseph to set off to Bethlehem in the weeks before Mary was to give birth?
Was it wise, for Jesus to be born to this earth?
Was it wise for Jesus to love us, to die for us?
Was it wise for Jesus to become our Savior?

Our track record as a human race was not stellar at the time he came.
Isaiah says the signs of a wise and godly human race is that we would pound our swords and implements of war into farming tools. That our focus would be on nurturing the earth to feed the world.
But instead, we keep making weapons of mass destruction and find new ways to destroy the earth at every turn.

Yet, Jesus saw that the wise thing to do was to bring his Light into the world. Believing that any darkness that was here would not put it out. That his Light would shine into the darkest corners and reveal the grace and love of God.

And then he had the wisdom or foolishness, depending on how you look at it, to insist that anyone who followed him would also bear the same light.

So as you light your trees and your candles, add sparkles to the candies and cookies, turn on the outside lights in this season of darkness; remember that you are participating in the way of wisdom. The way of the holy family. The way of Christ.
Lighting the way out of the darkness into the advent of the coming of the Prince of Peace into the world.
One small act of Love at a time.

Monday, November 21, 2016

A Place Where a Cross Means Life

Reign of Christ Sunday
Colossians 1:11-20
Chatfield UMC
November 20, 2016

It isn’t often we look together at the scripture from the books of the bible called Epistles. These are the books of the bible in the back of the New Testament. They are the books that don’t tell stories as much as tell us how to live as disciples of Jesus Christ. But the thing with the epistles is that if you don’t know the stories of Jesus, it is hard to discern exactly what the writers of the epistles are trying to teach.

Lots of anti-Jesus messages have come out of bad preaching and teaching from the epistles. Teaching such as: Slavery is ok. Homosexuality is wrong. Women should be silent in the church. Men can demand their wives obey them. Children have to always obey their parents. How many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

Ok, I made the last one up.

Those last books in the bible are written to specific churches, for a specific time in response to a set of specific issues.  We must read them from the lens of the truths we know from the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. And Colossians  and what was happening in the church in Colossae is a great example of what happens when we don’t keep the Life, death and resurrection of Jesus at the forefront of our discipleship.

The text we are looking at this morning is a beautiful text written to a church that was in the midst of a national crisis. The people of Colossae were conflicted from within and without. Their town had once been an affluent trading city in the Roman territory of Asia. But the trade routes had changed and with them the local economy floundered. Yet, a church was established and it must have been a growing church.

Something else that is important to understand about Colossae is that it was a religious town. Before Christianity came the town was known for its exuberance in its worship of the Greek and Roman deities.  Great displays of emotion, music, dancing and even orgies were part of the worship practices in the Greek and Roman temples.

So it is no surprise that when Christianity was embraced by some of the Gentiles of the town it was easy for them to get side tracked from the truth.
Not that emotional exuberance always leads to heresy, but in this case it did. The Colossae Christians whose religion had previously included lots of rituals and emotion and show and works were not sure that grace alone was enough. They were not sure that everything they knew about Jesus was enough.

Was he truly enough to be their Savior? Was he truly enough to be called their God? Was Jesus truly the one in whom all the fullness of God has been revealed?

The combination of their previous religious experiences, their reliance on emotional highs and rituals and
worshiping unknown and unknowing heavenly deities,
and the need to show somehow their religious fervor.
And the uncertainty of the future of their town’s economy, led the Colossians down a dangerous path:
They began to emphasize works of righteousness, ritualism, abuse of the body and even, worship of angels.
And began to question the deity of the Christ.
Is Jesus really who he says he is?
Is Jesus really strong enough for everything we need?
Is following Jesus and accepting Jesus’ grace enough?

Well, one thing I don’t have to worry about around here is emotional highs, too much dancing in the aisles, or worship of angels. We are a quiet, level headed bunch. But I do think these questions are relevant for us.

As we watch this incredibly strange period of transition from one president to another I see and hear so much raw emotion and fear and anger and angst. Some of it is justified, some of it is overblown.

And it is so easy to begin to think that we need to put that worry into acts that protect ourselves.
Keep our heads down.
Don’t look anyone in the eye.
Don’t confront evil when we see it.
Don’t stand up to oppression in whatever form it presents itself.  
I’ll just go through the rituals of church and make my concerns known to the sky above and hope no one will notice me too much. So that I can be safe.
We are probably tempted to be the opposite of the Colossian Christians. We will revert into our quiet, personal, safe place.

Well Jesus didn’t die and rise again and show us how to live to keep us safe. Jesus said, pick up your cross and follow me.
Pick up your cross and follow me.
Like the prophets of old Jesus said: I hate your new moon festivals and your little rituals that make you feel as if all is right with the world.
I hate your prayers that you pray to make it look like you are a righteous person.
Pick up your cross.
Get out there and do something.

Because I am your King. I am the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. The First and the Last. I am!
Jesus said: In the midst of the angst, anger, uncertainty, and change, remember My cross, my death, my resurrection gives you a new way to live into a world that needs a Savior.
That is the most important thing right now: that we live into the world that needs a Savior.

Paul writes about Jesus: And hear these amazing words for what they are, a lifting up of the Jesus who lived and died and rose again so that we can have LIFE.
Christ is the image of the invisible God,
All those stories you know about Jesus? Those stories are actually about God. How God would act if God showed up in the world. Because through Jesus God did show up. If you don’t know what God would do, look to what Jesus did. Jesus is the revelation of God.

He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together
Isn’t that amazing. Do you feel like things are falling apart? That your very atoms are exploding out into space. Jesus created those atoms, those feelings, those bits of you that seem to be exploding and Jesus is able to hold them all together because he has created a force of Love so strong that nothing can break it apart.

He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything.
It might feel right now as if in one small stroke something terrible or something incredibly good could happen. But it doesn’t work like that for us. Change takes time. Lots of time.
In reality there has only been one stroke in the history of our world that has changed everything. When Jesus became the first born of the dead. When Jesus proved that even death could have no victory. No power. This one stroke changed everything. Because now we know that we can pick up our cross without fear of death. We can follow the way of the Christ. We can love our enemies and our neighbors and ourselves without fear that we will be stepping over some line that will be the end of us. I have heard so many wonderful stories this week of people who took up their cross and gave life to someone else.
The older man in the parking lot who asked a Muslim woman in a hijab: “how are you doing”. Never met her before; didn’t know her. But knew she needed a good word.
The school in Maple Grove that after a horrible incidence of racial violence came together to say to their students of color, you belong here. We will not let hate drive you away.
The thousands of words of encouragement shared by women to women who are hearing horrible, horrible words of sexual violence.
These and more, I believe are the stories of the Spirit of Jesus the Christ giving life into the midst of what could be death.

For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,
All the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. Once again, if we want to know what God is about, get to know what Jesus is about.
and through Christ God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
Everything the writer tells us is reconciled. Is brought together in harmony. It really does sound like one of those peace songs. We are the world, we are the children...
Because it is true.
There is nothing that separates us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
This is the God we worship. Not a God that divides but a God that unites.
This is what Jesus taught us through his life, death and resurrection.

Now hear this carefully.
We tried to divide the world finally and completely by putting to death the one person who lived so that we could learn to live completely as God intends us to live.

We thought that if we silenced the love of the Christ by murdering him on the cross.
We thought that if we mocked him as a false king
We thought that if we totally humiliated him by killing him alongside common criminals
We thought that we would finally divide the world into those who are like us and those who are not.

That we could finally love those whom we wanted to love and despise and abuse those we wanted to hate.

We thought that we could finally say: we killed unconditional love. Not knowing that we were also killing ourselves.

For Jesus, God and the Holy Spirit knows that if we don’t love neighbor we can’t love ourselves. Ever.
And so God wouldn’t let us kill ourselves.
No matter how hard we tried.

Jesus broke through the final barrier of hatred and turned evil on its side. 
Jesus would not let us murder ourselves.

Jesus declared us all reconciled, harmonized, as one.
Now it is our job to live into that reality. No matter how we express our emotions, our job is to take up our cross, quietly, or with great passion, or with tenacity, or with dread. Our job is to take up our cross because we know it will not kill us. Where loving neighbor and enemy means loving ourselves.

Because we live in a kin-dom where a cross means life, not death.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Being Fools in an Apocalyptic Time

Isaiah 65: 17-25
November 13, 2016
Chatfield UMC
Rev. Debra Jene Collum

Love is not a victory march it’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah[1]

We are moving towards the end of the church year. The stories we are encountering in the scriptures, particularly in the Gospel which we will soon hear, remind us that things are falling apart at the seams. But unlike the secular messages we hear. Such as:
There is no hope. I will never be able to enjoy life.
The world is going to hell in a hand basket. We have to build walls to keep ourselves safe. We should be afraid, very afraid.

In contrast, our scripture echoes the words of Pope Francis: Fear weakens and destabilizes us, destroys our psychological and spiritual defenses, numbs us to the suffering of others, and in the end it makes us cruel.”
I think I should repeat that to let it sink in.
Fear weakens and destabilizes us, destroys our psychological and spiritual defenses, numbs us to the suffering of others, and in the end it makes us cruel.”

Fear in the end makes us cruel. I had to stop and think about that for a while.  And this is what I thought about: Probably because I am really sad that I can’t get a kitty right now. And there is a little kitty living under the parsonage shed that is soooo cute. And soooo wild. And that is going to get fixed soon, I hope.

Anyway, think of the most gentlest of pets that you know of. Maybe a member of your family or someone else’s family.
Now imagine if someone did something to that animal to make it afraid. So that it was no longer gentle.
Once even the gentlest of animals feels threatened and learns to fear, it is very, very difficult to change that animal’s behavior. The animal becomes dangerous. “Careful,” we have to say to our guests: “that cat bites.” “Careful, we have to say to children, when that dog growls, look out.”

We despise those who create fear in the gentle souls of our animals.  They are cruel and heartless.

On Saturday the Pope even called those who promote fear as false prophets, which is one of the worst things you can call someone in the bible: he said that he urged the defeat of “false prophets who exploit fear and desperation, who sell magic formulas of hatred and cruelty or selfish well-being and illusory security,”[2]

I love that idea of a magic formula. For that is what fear can feel like. A magic formula of feelings of dread, even when you don’t want to feel fearful.  A potion that can turn the gentlest and most trusting of human beings into a fearful and frightful person.
And a small sip of that potion can poison our souls.

We are not called to fear or to be fear mongers. We are not called to be false prophets who exploit fear and desperation.
We are called to be purveyors of Hope.  Givers of Grace. Reflectors of Love.

Even Jesus in his apocalyptic words from the Gospel today will not have us preach a message of terror.

Hear Luke 21 paraphrased by Timothy Wayne Goode
They were talking about their church in the grocery-store (at the cafe, at the post-office, on the sidewalk - you know how we are). They were bragging about the building (its antiquity, its decor, its beauty, its "glory" - you know how we are). But then a Stranger spoke:

"All that you praise is fleeting, and will one day it will all fall."

Now, the church was a dear treasure to them, and in fear they begged the Stranger for more details: "How can this be?" "When will this be?" What of our investments?" "What of our improvements?"

"Many will claim to know when you will have to close your doors, and warn you of impending doom - do not give your ear to these false prophets. You will see horrible wars and atrocities on the news, and be tempted to see approaching Armageddon. Great division will form among people, and you will be tempted to see rapture and end-time. The environment will collapse, and you will be tempted to despair. The World will attack you of the Body because it can not harm the Head - this is not a punishment but an opportunity! You will then talk about greater things than upholstery, carpeting, and drapes. You will testify!

"But beware of locking-in your testimony in advance. You must make room; room for the Spirit to act through you. At the proper time in the proper place, words and concepts will come to you that no earthly or demonic force can stand before. Yes, other members of your church will betray you, and friends and family will abandon you, and you will be hated because they hate me; but, you will be sanctified as you abide.

"Though the building will fail and your church will fall, the Church will endure and be perfected."[3]

You see what Jesus did there: he told us, yes, it is scary out there, but don’t let the fear overcome your ability to Testify!

AND Don’t think you have to know or even SHOULD know what to say. Make room. Make room for the Spirit to do her work in you. And then Testify! With words you might never have expected would come from your heart.

Testify! To what you see here every Sunday. Testify! Not to the color or state of the carpet. Not to the glory of the building.
But to the people who are being fed.
Testify: To the children who are being baptized.
To the elderly who are being cared for and honored.
To the men and women whose service to country and world is lifted up.
To all of us who come together in such a strange and beautiful way on a Sunday morning.
Testify to those who made a choice to be named part of the church.
Testify: To the Savior who makes all this possible and who gives us the strength to hope in the midst of fear mongering.
Especially testify to the Savior who gives us hope when all around us the walls are cracking.
Maybe you can’t speak hope right now. But you can speak ‘Jesus’. Just saying the name quietly, might be testimony enough for you right now.
Maybe you can’t speak out-right hope now, but maybe you can hear others testify and quietly say ‘amen.’ Or “I hope so”
Or maybe you will need to let someone else sing it for you. It is ironic that Lenard Cohen died this week because many of us needed to hear the words of his song Anthem again and again:
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.
That's how the light gets in.
That's how the light gets in.[4]
That is what Jesus is saying: there is a crack, a crack in everything, and the light will come in. I, the light of the world, will come in.

Or maybe instead of using words to testify you might need to do your testifying with actions. And maybe that is the best after all.
Today, in the midst of apocalyptic-like national and international headlines: we baptized a baby. How ridiculous. To proclaim, to testify that we believe children can have a future and a hope. To place on this child the blessing of God, this community and the power of the Holy Spirit and to say: be the light. Be the light. We are a bunch of fools, a bunch of optimistic, Jesus loving, God believing fools.
Pope Francis ended his remarks with these words: “Fight the fear with a life of service, solidarity and humility on behalf of the people, especially those who suffer,” “Against the terror, the best remedy is love. Love heals all.”
That is the ultimate Testimony. To say and do Love. I think I remember Jesus saying that: Love God, Love yourself, Love neighbor. May it be so.

[1] Leonard Norman Cohen, Hallelujah https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hallelujah_(Leonard_Cohen_song)
[2] As election nears, Pope Francis warns against fear, building walls Washington Post, November 6, 2016 By Sarah Pulliam Bailey https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2016/11/06/as-election-nears-pope-francis-warns-against-fear-building-walls/