Sunday, January 31, 2016

Rescue Assistance: El, the God of Power and Might

How do you need God to show his power in your life? One of God's names means "power" and "might," as near as we can determine. That name is El, and it's a generic word translated "God." El is the only Hebrew name of God re-used in the New Testament. When Jesus is on the cross, he cries out: "Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?" It's a quote from the Old Testament, from Psalm 22, and it means, "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" Matthew and Mark chose to leave these words in the original language, which is actually not pure Hebrew, but Aramaic, which was kind of like modern day Yiddish, a mixture of Hebrew with other local languages. Why do we hear these words in the original language? Why is Jesus on the cross calling God Eli, my El, my God, my power, my might?
    When the writers of the Gospels, in this case, Matthew and Mark, left something untranslated, it often meant that saying of Jesus was so special, so important, that they wanted to preserve what he said in its original form. In Mark 5:41, there is a little girl who Jesus heals, and Mark records that he said to her, "Talitha koum," which means "get up and walk." And we can see that those words mean much more than that this little girl should get up and walk; they mean that as followers of Jesus Christ, Christ calls us to get up and walk, to follow him in a new life of resurrection and hope. Another phrase that the Bible writers kept in Aramaic was "Maranatha" which means "Our Lord comes!" And we can see that text is the very essence of what we hope for, what we believe in, what we're praying for: Come, Lord Jesus!
    So if most of the Aramaic expressions in the New Testament are these profound statements of faith, which were considered so important, so central to the faith, that they were left in the original language of God's people, why does this statement on the cross preserve Jesus's words? This statement, My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? That seems to be not a statement of faith and hope, but a statement of doubt and despair? Why is this the only time the New Testament uses a Hebrew name of God?
    Maybe it's to show us why some people thought he was calling for Elijah, to show us that the words Jesus used might have been mistaken for the name Elijah. But I don't think that's enough.
    I believe that Matthew and Mark used this original language, used the very words of Jesus, because for them, this moment was at the very heart of Jesus's work. Because this moment, when all seems defeated, when all seems lost, when the God of power and might looks like the God of weakness and defeat, this is the moment when God won. This moment is the culmination of all the prophecies and predictions, this is the moment the Jewish people have been waiting for for centuries, this is the moment when El Shaddai, El Olam, El Tsadik, El Roi, El HaShanayim, shows himself to be the greatest power in the universe. God defeats the power of sin and death the moment Jesus died on the cross. This is it. If Jesus will die on the cross, all the sins of everyone who believes in Jesus will be completely erased, the power of evil is utterly and completely broken, and death will cease to have any power at all. God knows this. You know this. I know this. So why isn't Christ rejoicing? Why doesn't he quote some other Scripture, like the one Moses cried out when he marched the people across the Red Sea? Why is he crying out in doubt and despair? Why does he feel abandoned by God?
    Because Jesus had to surrender in order for God to win.
    Jesus, in his human nature, had to give up. He had to feel totally abandoned by God, totally alone, totally afraid, and trust God anyway. He had to see no possibility for hope, and choose to trust God where he could not see. He had to totally surrender everything to God when he didn't understand the plan. Because God works through total surrender. Total trust. Saying to God, I don't know where this is going, but I know you do. When we quit relying on our own power, our own might, our own plans, our own vision, and surrender to God's power, God's might, God's plan, God's vision, that's when God can do something amazing with us. Like even just in creating this powerpoint for worship, I had problems, I was defeated, I had to call the Geek Squad. So I called the help desk for the worship program, and they said, you know, can you just let us into your computer? And I said, sure, fine. And I had to click on this button that literally said "Rescue Assistance" and Sam, my new best friend, who knows a lot more about the program said to me, any time your computer asks you a question click yes, OK, or "I Agree." And I did this and I watched as, from his computer in Tennessee, he literally took over my computer and fixed it. It was so weird. Somebody else was moving my cursor. Somebody else was typing on my keyboard. But I realized I couldn't do it anymore. I had to let someone else take over. I had to surrender.
    Or here's another example I heard on a podcast recently: think about the hummingbird. The wings of a hummingbird beat up to 70 times per second. Seventy times! A hummingbird is constantly beating and beating its wings, constantly working and flapping just to hover and flit from flower to flower, hundreds of times a day to survive. Does that sound like your life? Constantly working? Constantly in motion? Constantly beating your wings?
    An eagle is different from a hummingbird. While a hummingbird is constantly fluttering its wings, an eagle effortlessly soars. An eagle can fly up to 32 miles per hour. It's one of the fastest birds, but it barely flaps its wings at all. Why? Because God created the eagle to catch the updraft of the wind and soar. It doesn't have to work as hard because it's able to catch the force of something much bigger and more powerful than itself—the strong winds of the earth will carry the eagle faster than it could ever go on its own power. And that's how God created you and me. Isaiah 40:31 says, "They that wait on the Lord renew their strength; they shall mount up on wings like eagles; they shall walk and not grow weary; they shall run, and not faint." We were created to be moved by something much stronger and greater than our own mortal ability. We were created to catch the updraft of the God's power and God's love and soar! And we can only do this when we quit fluttering and flapping and beating our wings and surrender. When we click "Yes," "OK," "I agree," and let someone wiser and stronger and better than ourselves take control.
    This is true in your life. Whatever you're dealing with, whatever you're struggling with, wherever you need God's power—surrender. Stop fighting and trying to do it your way and listen to what God is trying to tell you. Let the wind of the Spirit carry you through. Let God's power catch your wings and you will soar.
    And this is true of our lives as Starr Church. If we keep working and fighting and beating our wings, we'll work really hard just to hover in the air, fighting to stay alive, fighting to stay where we've always been.
    But there's another choice.
    We can surrender to the Spirit.
    We can say to God, yes, OK, I agree.
    We can catch the wind.
    We can turn to God's power instead of our own.
    We can soar.

Monday, January 25, 2016

God of the Storm: El Shaddai

In a world of terrible suffering, how can we believe that God is Almighty?
Do we believe that God permits or even causes the suffering we see?
When a  when a whole region is devastated by an earthquake or a tornado or a hurricane, is that an act of Almighty God?
This week, the East coast has been struck with a terrible winter storm, killing eighteen people. Was this the will of God?
When Hurricane Katrina struck in 2006, killing one thousand, eight hundred, and thirty six people, disproportionately poor and African American, Pat Robertson called the storm an act of God's justice, punishment for American policy on abortion.
If God is Almighty, why isn't Pat Robertson right?
Are the storms of life punishment for our sins?
Today we consider God's name "El Shaddai," which is traditionally translated "God Almighty."
There are three different theories on the name El Shaddai, and they all point to the great power of God.
First, the Hebrew word "Shadad" means "Destroyer."
Want to prove you're more powerful than anything else? Destroy it.
My son and I have been playing a game: I build a tower of blocks, he breaks it down.
He takes great delight in showing off his incredible power of destruction.
God is all powerful because He can destroy anything else. Another way to say all-powerful is that God is Omnipotent.
Second, the Akkadian word "Shadu" means "Mountain."
Mountains are a symbol of power because they encompass the heights and the depths, the high and low. There is no where you can go God has not already been. The mountaintop or the valley of the shadow of death—doesn't matter. God is there. To use a fancy word for God is everywhere, He is Omnipresent.
Third—and this will probably be my husband's favorite explanation of the name El Shaddai—the Hebrew word "Shad" means "breast."
One female scholar described the name "El Shaddai" as meaning "the breasty one."
God is all powerful, in this view, because he supplies our every need. God is like a mother supplies every need of her child. He is All-Sufficient. He is all we really need.
So El Shaddai is the Almighty God: Omnipotent, Omnipresent, and All-Sufficient.
How, then, can we understand suffering?
If God is all-powerful, why doesn't he stop it?
If God is everywhere, why doesn’t he seem to care?
If God is all-sufficient, how come there are so many people who don't get what they need?
The name El Shaddai, by far and away, is used in one book of the Bible
Of the 47 instances of the name El Shaddai, 30 are in the book of Job.
And this is so interesting. Because the name Almighty God occurs most often in a book that's all about this question: Why does God allow human suffering?
For those of you who aren't too familiar with the book of Job, here's a quick overview.
There's a very righteous man named Job, and God and Satan make a deal; Satan can test Job with every kind of evil, and God says, he won't curse my name. And Satan does his worst. He destroys Job's home. Job's children are all killed, seven sons, three daughters, not one is spared. His wife leaves him. His body is covered with these terrible sores. Job's life is like a bad country song, we expect to hear next that Job's dog runs away.
For a lot of the book of Job, Job complains. He asks, how could an Almighty God, how could El Shaddai, do this to me? And the conclusion Job comes to is that God's a jerk. He even asks, is there somebody else up there who's a little bit nicer?
Job's friends pipe up next, and they defend God. They say, no, Job, God is good, and God is Almighty. The problem is, you did something wrong. You're being punished.
What I want you to understand right now is that Jesus rejected the idea that suffering is punishment for sin outright. In Luke 13:1-5 Jesus talks about a tower that fell over and he says, do you think the people who were crushed by that tower were more sinful than any other people? And he says, absolutely, not. "I tell you, No!"
Jesus rejects the Pat Robertson thinking, the thinking of Job's friends. Suffering is not a punishment for evil. If it were, there are a lot of billionaires out there who ought to get struck with their own personal Katrina.
After the friends' arguments are rejected by Job, out comes another guy, named Elihu, and it's his speech we heard from this morning. Instead of a punishment, Elihu's argument is that Job's suffering is meant to teach him. And you hear a lot of Christians use this one too. I understand the idea, and maybe sometimes it's true, but it's usually not very helpful to tell someone, God is trying to teach you. That doesn't help me here and now, when I'm in total despair.
In general, Elihu, like the other friends, is unhelpful. But in the book of Job, Elihu describes who God is. Elihu describes, in the passage we heard today, who exactly is this El Shaddai, this Almighty God. And he describes God using the image of the storm.
Elihu says, "listen to the thundering of his voice."
Some scholars say that Elihu describes the storms of the four seasons.
First there's the autumn storm, the thunder and lightning in late September,
Then the winter storm; Elihu says, "by the breath of God ice is given,"
And "the broad waters are frozen fast,"
And even the animals have to go in their dens.
But then spring comes, and God "loads the clouds with moisture,"
And finally God sends the south wind in summertime, and Elihu says, look Job, even your own clothes will become so hot you can't stand them,
The same God who froze the earth solid makes the sun shine so bright we have to look away.
For Elihu, El Shaddai is the God of the storm.
When life hurts, when your pain is all you see, when the storms of life engulf you, the book of Job has an answer for your life. The book of Job tells you how to trust God in the midst of the storm.
There are three lessons in the book of Job.
First, the storm is bigger than you.
In the Lil' Abner cartoon strip by Al Capp there was this character named Joe who had a raincloud always hovering over him, and it's been copied a bunch of times since.
But this is how we tend to think of weather, isn't it?
As though you were the only one affected. And it's the way we think of our problems too. Whatever problem you're going through, whatever storms you face, feels like it's all about you.
It's like the child that hears mom and dad are getting a divorce. All she can think of is that it's her fault. She can't imagine there could be a problem that didn't really have to do with her.
Elihu says, “Hear this, O Job; stop and consider the wondrous works of God. Do you know the balancings of the clouds, the wondrous works of the one whose knowledge is perfect?"
In other words, the storm is bigger than you can possibly get your head around.
The storm isn't really about you.
Even Job, who we know was the direct target of Satan's actions, his suffering was not really about him. It was about the larger story of good and evil and suffering and redemption that God wanted to tell. In a way, it was about you and me. God knew we would read these words, El Shaddai, Almighty God, knew we would come seeking answers in the storm.
And it's the same with your own storms of life.
Illness, poverty, addiction, suffering, all of the pain of human life, was not invented to torture you alone. They've been around before you and they'll be there after you. You can see the raindrops falling on your head, and to you, that's everything—but God can see the satellite picture, the bigger story, and it's not about you, it's about good and evil and sin and grace and love. So that's the first lesson: be humbled. Don't think of yourself as the center of the universe.
And how do we do this? We look beyond our little raincloud and help others in the storm. When you look beyond yourself it helps you to gain perspective, and then the storm doesn't seem quite so bad. So the first lesson: it's not about you. The storm is bigger than you.
The second lesson is that storms don't last forever. The storm is not the norm.
Most of the time, the sky is calm.
Almighty God, El Shaddai, could have done anything with his boundless power and might: what he chose is to share it with you and with me, to give us the gift of life. And most of the time that life is pretty darn good.
The storm is not the norm. That's part of what makes it so difficult—we are used to calm weather!
Suffering, in its own nature, is nothingness. It's without substance, it's the lack of something good. St. Augustine said on its own, evil has no reality. Even the devil is a fallen angel. Evil is the corruption or absence of something by its nature good.
Sickness is the lack of health. Poverty is the lack of wealth. Why is death so difficult? Because we know what life is.
Whenever I meet with someone who is is falling apart because they've lost a loved one, it's sad, but from my perspective, outside the grief, I just think, what a gift. What a gift to have that kind of love in your life. What a gift to have brought someone that much joy.
We see the storm, but the storm is only difficult because we have known days of great beauty.
So how do we put the storms in their place? By giving thanks for the lovely days. By soaking up the joy of each day. These are the good times. Don't spend them worrying about the storms that will come. Unwrap the gift of this day. And in the midst of the storm, hold on to the memory of calm, and know that this too shall pass. The storm is not the norm.
Finally the third thing that the book of Job teaches us is this: God is with you in the storm.
You are not alone.
Elihu's knowledge of God is abstract. He describes an El Shaddai who is Almighty and distant, above everything, directing the north wind and the south wind and the sun and the rain.
But what Elihu doesn't know is that this Almighty God, this God who is above the earth, is even while he is speaking on the way to be with Job, personally, in his suffering.
That God who is above the heavens, the creator of the universe, won't settle for words about him. Won't settle for academic descriptions. He wants to meet Job face to face.
He isn't just above it all, directing sky traffic.
He is down on the ground, with Job in this storm.
I remember when I was a little child, and I was afraid of the thunder and the lightning. My mother, she didn't leave me alone. She wrapped me up in her arms on the couch, and we looked out at the sky. And she said, did you know how far away the lightning is? No, I said. And she said, the time between the thunder and the lightning tells you how far away the lightning is. Now let's count together. And so we waited, together, on the couch, for the lightning. And she whispered, one one thousand, two one thousand, three one thousand. And there was the thunder. We waited again. The lightning flashed. It wasn't so scary now, with my mother's solid arms around me, whispering four one thousand, five one thousand, six one thousand. The thunder boomed. "See?" She said. "It's almost past."
If an human woman will so comfort her child, how much more will El Shaddai watch over us through the storm?
Almighty God doesn't leave us with academic descriptions.
He doesn't stay in the heavens, directing traffic.
He wraps his arms around us and leads us through the storm.
The God of the universe didn't settle for words about him.
He wasn't content to live in a book or a temple or a scroll.
He came down to earth with us in the storm.
He knew what it was to live and to love, to suffer and to die.
He knew what it was to face pain and to feel alone and to cry out to God, my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
And to face only silence.
And that very moment, when all seemed lost, when evil seemed to have the upper hand—in that moment, when God entered into our deepest suffering and pain, right then God conquered the storm.
You see, the problem with our understanding of Almighty God is that we see God's power and God's love as if they are two different things.
What if they're not?
What if the power of El Shaddai, the power that makes God Almighty, is not the power of domination but the power of love?
A love that's omnipotent, a love that's omnipresent, a love that's all-sufficient, a love that's everything we really need?
What if we saw the arms that were circling us, even now, what if we heard the whisper, counting one one thousand, two one thousand, three one thousand,
What if we felt the hand stroking our hair,
The warmth of the love so strong, so powerful, it makes the storm just fade away.
If we listened closely enough, would we hear the whisper, the soft, calm voice of one who loves us like a mother loves her child.
Some people say God won't give you anything you can't handle. I don't believe that. If that were true, no one would ever take his own life.
But what I do believe is, God won't give you anything God can't handle.
So let Him handle it.
Stop trying to control the storm. Surrender.
This is nothing new. We know this. It's the same message. As it was in the beginning, it is now and ever shall be, world without end, Amen.
Trust, and be held, and listen for the whisper:
One one thousand, two one thousand, three…see? It's almost past.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Beyond Downton: Adonai

When I think of servants and masters, I think of the show Downton Abbey on PBS. This is a Masterpiece Theatre program that tells the story of Lord and Lady Crawley, their children, and their servants, in the early twentieth century. The world of Downton Abbey is a world of position and parlors, of class and cravats. It's a world where everyone has a place. Servants call their masters "milord" and "milady." They are available at the ring of a bell, and perform every task, from arranging the mistress's hair to walking the family dog. Above all, a servant was not to put on airs or act above his or her station. The watchwords were "respect" and "obedience." Equality and workers' rights were unheard of.
    One wonders why Americans are captivated by the Downton way of life, so unlike our American notions of freedom and independence. Perhaps we idealize the beauty and grandeur of the past—or perhaps we just like a good old-fashioned romance. Yet most of us would not actually like the life of a servant in early twentieth century England, working seventeen hour days, at the beck and call of the master. We don't think of ourselves as servants, but if you call yourself a Christian, that is exactly what you are.
    God is named in Scripture as Adonai, My Lord—"milord." Adonai is closely related to other Near Eastern words that have the sense of a foundation or a cornerstone. God is the foundation of life for his people, their rock as we studied last week. The word Adon means "Lord" and is used often in the Bible when humans speak to the head of a community or family. The title Adonai adds the personal possessive "My." So God is not just the Lord and Savior, he is My Lord and Savior.
    To be a Christian means not just to view God in the abstract as the Lord of heaven and earth, but to personally accept Him as Lord of your own life; to don the servant's garb, the footman's livery, the maid's apron, to answer when he calls, to wait upon him, to work for him, not seventeen hours a day, but twenty-four; not to put on airs or to act above your station, but to live by the watchwords "obedience" and "respect." This is not a life of freedom and independence. Christ is your boss, your CEO. To quote a podcast I heard this week, when you accept Christ, he can't just be a resident in your life. He's the President of your life.   
And what Jesus is asking goes beyond even the drudgery of Downton. Jesus doesn't promise his disciples a life of safe servanthood inside a secure country house. He sends them out to do his work in the streets and towns and villages. And he doesn't provide them with transportation, or money, or even sandals for their journey. He sends them, in fact, promising that they will be rejected, humiliated, even beaten, he assures them that they will be arrested, that they will likely face death as servants for him.
    I ask you: would you take this on?
Would you put on the footman's livery, the maid's apron, and become a servant of Christ, if this is what it meant?
Because the name Adonai tells us that God wants us to think of ourselves as servants of Christ, servants of the Master.
And like the disciples, we are called to go out as sheep among wolves, to risk everything for our Lord.
This week I think of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He was a servant of Christ. He gave and risked everything to share Christ's message of justice, peace and love. He knew that in this culture, that would mean imprisonment, persecution, and even death. demonstrated his faith by giving everything for justice.
God is asking you and me to do the same.
If we take God seriously, we must become his servants, and go out into the world to share his message.
He can't just be a resident, he must be the President.
We may not face death.
But we may face ridicule for our beliefs.
We may not be beaten.
But we may have to be uncomfortable at times.
A lot of Presbyterians like to be under-the-radar Christians. We aren't comfortable with what Matthew is saying, with what Jesus, really, is saying, that we have to go out into the community and speak out for God. Some of us don't even feel comfortable praying out loud at church, let alone in our workplaces or in our communities. But that is exactly what being a servant of Christ entails. It means going out into the world to reach people for Christ, even if that means great risk to ourselves, even if it means discomfort and humiliation or even persecution. It means work too. If being a servant is anything, it's work. Christianity is not a consumer enterprise. It's not a spectator sport. It's work.
If anyone worked hard on behalf of his master, it's Isaac's servant in Genesis 24. As I have studied this passage, I believe it's a model of how we are called to go out and do God's work; to outreach to our community and world and share God's love. God included this story in his Word for a reason; we don't just hear, the servant went out to Abraham's people and brought back a wife for Isaac. We get all these amazing little details, which I believe tells us what it means to be a good servant.
 First, a good servant seeks direction from his master. In the case of Abraham's servant, that meant seeking direction not just from Abraham, but Abraham's God; he prays. Abraham's servant did not receive an answer from God in the form of God speaking to him. Instead, this servant watched carefully the women who came to the well for a drink. The servant's prayer is actually not asking for some kind of magic sign; it seems almost like, to me, he's conversing with God—what would be the sign of a good woman, a good wife? And this is the sign that he and God agree on—the sign of a woman who practices good hospitality. So when Rebecca not only gives the servant water, but goes above and beyond, watering his camels as well, he knows God has answered his prayer. This servant models a conversation with God in which he asks God for direction, using not only his faith but also his reason to determine what God wants him to do.
Second, a good servant serves his master not just in what he does, but in the way he does it. A good servant looks out not for his own interest, but for the interest of his master. Look how seriously this servant takes his job! He could just go and find any wife for Abraham's son. But he wants to find the perfect person. This servant has carefully thought out the best way, not only to find Isaac a wife, but to woo her. He's made a plan. Have you made a plan of how you are going to serve God with your life? Look at how good this servant's plan is. First of all he brings the bling. The first thing the guy does is give Rebecca a bunch of jewelry. Always a good idea when you're seeking to convince a woman. The servant is a smart guy, and he brings all his wisdom to bear on the way he acts for his master. Think about how you conduct your work, your retirement, your day, your family life. Is it for your best interest, or the best interest of God? Are you doing God's work with energy, enthusiasm, patience, and love, or are you a reluctant servant, doing exactly what you have to do and nothing more? Can you give more to your Master? Are there people in your life you can invite to church? Are there people with whom you can share your faith? Are there people you can invite to help with the warming shelter? As Jesus assures us, God will give you the words. God will give you the wisdom, if you trust, and if you seek to serve.
Why do this? Why be a servant of God? Why, when, I'm telling you upfront, actually, Jesus is telling you upfront, it's going to be hard? It's going to mean sacrifice? It's going to mean work? That he can't just be a resident—he must be the President?
Because this Master is different from all the rest.
In Downton Abbey, the lords and ladies live a life of comparative ease. They don't even have to dress themselves. But the Lord we serve lived a life of humble service. He was not just a Lord, or Duke, or a Count—he was a King, and not just a King, the King of Kings—but he who could have lived upstairs in the grandest of mansions came downstairs to live the life of a footman, to wash people's feet. He wants to give us every good thing, and he'd give his life for us. He is unlike any other lord or master we could choose to serve.
But serving Jesus is not only better than serving any other master, it's better than serving ourselves. When you live life as your own master, you can have some happiness. But when you live life with God as your master, you can have joy. And joy is different from happiness. It's thicker. It's richer. It has more depth. Happiness is grounded in the present. But joy brings in faith in the past, fullness in the moment, and hope for the future. Joy is that flooding, ecstatic, overwhelming feeling that all will be well. And I have found more joy when I am serving others than myself. When I try to go my own way, I don't find joy. But when I seek what God wants for me, I discover joy, I discover peace.
I applied to a lot of churches before I came to Starr. And I was turned down by every one. It's hard on your ego when it seems like no one wants you. It's hard for your faith when you thought you were called into ministry, but nothing is working out. Trying to go my own way, looking for a job anywhere and everywhere, I found nothing but frustration. Finally, when I gave up searching, and let God direct me instead—that's when God brought me to you. There were reasons those other churches just weren't right. But when I look at you—you want to grow. You want to serve. You aren't afraid of change. StarrCross plays the modern praise music I love on the radio! You're the fit God wanted for me, and you have accepted me and my family with open arms.
God doesn't promise everything will be easy. But this Master promises us joy. He promises us hope. He promises to love us and care for us and give us every good thing. And what's more—he promises something no lord, no duke, no master would ever do.
In Downton Abbey, the servants are lucky if they can ever even own a home of their own.
But in God's service, the servants become heirs to the kingdom.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Monday, December 21, 2015

A Star Shines

Light redirects us. When we wake in the morning, it's to the light of the sun, or the flashing alarm clock, alerting us that it's time to get up. Traffic lights direct us forward as we drive, telling us to when to go, pointing us away from obstacles in our path. Like a beacon flashing morse code, or a lighthouse directing the ship to the shore, light directs our every movement. We are, all of us, truly as simple as insects that are drawn wherever we see light.
The trouble is that some of these lights redirect us away from our true purpose. The lights of our cell phone screens call us daily. The flashing lights of television cry, "look at this!" Some of the lights around us seek to draw us away from the straight and narrow path. The flashing lights of the slot machines; the neon signs of the liquor stores; these attract us with their brightness, promising joy and life. Yet the glimmer of neon quickly fades; the glimmer of gold is fleeting. These flashes of brightness are poor substitutes for the Light of the World.
How do we distinguish the true Light from all the false lights that distract us?
How do we know which Light to follow?
We have to be watching.
The magi were watching. Matthew records the story of these Persian or Babylonian experts in the occult. "Magoi" can be translated as "sorcerors" or "magicians." These star-gazers were seeking supernatural power and might; they were not necessarily seeking the one true God. They were similar to modern-day astrologers, who tell fortunes according to the movement of the stars. They were seeking supernatural powers, but the God of power was seeking them. They didn't know what they were looking for, but they were looking for something: and they saw a light.
This light was different from all the others. For one thing, it moved in a different direction from every other constellation. The magi were in the East and followed the star westward. It stopped directly in Jerusalem, where they inquired of Herod, the king, where the new king could be found. The star then led them, not only to Bethlehem, but to the exact location of Jesus, where it stood miraculously still. This was no natural phenomenon. It cannot be explained by a comet, or ordinary planetary movement, or a UFO. In the natural rotation of the earth, all natural heavenly bodies appear to move east to west. The magi were seeking supernatural power in the sky. They were watching for a sign. And those who seek God will find the Light of the World.
The Light that is coming into the world is different from all the others. While the lights of neon signs, the flashing light of the television, promise predictable things—money, pleasure, distraction, fun—the Light of Christ promises us something amazing: eternal life. His light cannot be explained or understood. His light is a miracle.
We have to be looking for a miracle.
If we go about our days doing the ordinary, expecting the ordinary, seeking the ordinary—the daily routine of work, chores, errands—the daily distractions, the usual entertainments—if we never look beyond the ordinary, we will miss God entirely.
We have to look beyond.
We have to have our heads in the clouds.
We have to be star-gazers.
Do you ever come across star-gazers? People with an incredible desire to believe? People who will forward you the miracle stories on the internet? People who devour every word of "Heaven Is For Real"? People who seem a little star-struck, overcome with amazement at the power of God?
Or how about the Star Wars star-gazers? People who talk about the first time they saw the movie in terms of "seeing the face of God?" People who camp out to see The Force Awakens and get dressed up and make scaled models of the Death Star?
Do you, like me, tend to dismiss the star-gazers?
Do you, like me, in a little part of your mind, think there might be some other explanation for the things people call miracles?
Do you, like me, wonder if the star of Bethlehem might have been a story Matthew made up?
Do you, like me, find the star-gazers hard to believe?
The question is, if you won't follow the star, what do you follow?
They might sound crazy. They might seem a little odd. But the star-gazers realize that if the promises are true, if there is something more to this world, there is no better light, no better cause, no better reason that seeking God.
The star-gazers aren't distracted by the shimmer and shine of this world.
They are seeking the eternal things. They are looking beyond this world. They are looking to the heavens. And so they will be the ones who God finds.
We cannot be so distracted by our daily concerns that we fail to seek God. We cannot be so distracted by the concerns and entertainments of the day-to-day that we fail to think about destiny and eternity and what lies beyond. We cannot be so caught up in the ordinary that we ignore miracles. We cannot be so caught up with little lights on the ground that we miss the stars.
The magi might have seen the star as a trick of the light. They might have dismissed it as too hard to believe. They might have chalked it up to an astronomical oddity and moved on.
Instead, they allowed the light to redirect them. Instead, they followed that light to the end of the world.
There is no better light than the light of Christ. There is nothing stronger than the power of God. There is no concern more important than seeking God in your life.
God will send you signs.
God will send you stars.
God will try to direct you to Jesus just as he directed the magi.
Will you be looking?
Will you believe?
As many of you know, my aunt was recently diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma. As the hunting season approached, her husband and son didn't want to pressure her to go. With the chemotherapy, hunting would be difficult for her.
But there was one big buck—a nine-pointer—they had been watching all this autumn, and she was really hoping my uncle or my cousin might get it. She didn't want to let cancer win. So she pulled herself together and she went up north.
As she was sitting in her blind that morning, she found it difficult to stay awake. The chemo had its effects. Exhausted, she fell asleep in the blind.
When she woke, at the moment she looked out, there was the nine-pointer, about ninety yards away.
She took aim and took her shot. The buck was hers.
Later that day, she and her husband and son were sitting with their neighbors, celebrating. When the neighbors asked her, "who was in Bob's blind this morning when you shot the buck?"
My aunt replied, "there was no one there."
You see, my grandfather passed away a few years ago, and that blind was special to him.
But these neighbors both insisted there was a light up in Bob's blind that morning.
You can see a light. You can see a star. You can see a miracle and dismiss it out of hand.
Or you can follow that star wherever it leads.
You can allow that light to define your life.
You can be a star-gazer.
You can risk everything you have on the possibility that the miracle is true: that the star is real: that the light is meant for us.
My aunt followed the star, and it led her to faith.
The magi followed the star, and it led them to Jesus.
I believe God has sent you a star. I believe God has sent you a light. I believe God is trying to show you the way to go. You just have to trust. You just have to believe.
You just have to keep following the star.
You and I just have to join the dreamers, and the star-gazers, the true believers and the trusting children, and believe in Christ.
Believe in the miracle of Christmas.
Believe in the baby in the manger, and the star in the sky, and the angels singing to shepherds.
Believe with all our might that there is a God who loves us, who would give anything for us, who is trying to show us the way.
Keep following the star. Don't give up. Don't fall behind. Gather your gifts for the king, and follow that light, wherever it leads.
And if you believe, and if you follow, that light will lead you to your deepest joy.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Advent Lights

Dan and I have very specific opinions about Christmas lights.
We drive up and down the blocks of our neighborhoods, critiquing.
It is our opinion that white lights are too sophisticated for Christmas.
If you’re going to use glowing electric bulbs to celebrate a holiday, you should just give up trying to be tasteful about it.
Multicolored lights, we feel, are the way to go.
If they flash, all the merrier.
But the best lights, the really hard core Christmas lights, are the old fashioned, big bulbs.
When I drive down the street with Dan, critiquing the Christmas lights,
I wonder if in its own way, the culture has created a bit of an Advent display,
After all, light is such an important part of Advent.
When we light the Advent candles, we are referring back to the first chapter of John:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…What has come into being with him was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
I always want to turn off all of the lights when we light the Advent candles in church, so we can see the light shining in the darkness.
A light shining in the darkness,
That gets brighter and brighter as we move towards Christmas.
Mary bears within her a life which is the light of all people.
In our reading today that life, that light, is tiny,
Insignificant, faint, barely even there.
The light of the world is at this point, a tiny clump of cells smaller than the head of a pin.
As soon as she learns she is pregnant, Mary travels with haste, the Gospel tells us, to meet Elizabeth.
Why?  Mary and Elizabeth were cousins, but not close in age.
Mary is a teenager and Elizabeth is post-menopausal.
They would never have sat together at family get togethers.
They were not girlhood friends.
What brings them together is not personal warmth,
But the strange, parallel way in which God is acting in both of their lives,
Creating miraculous new life.
These women are connected not only by blood, but more importantly by the mystic workings of God,
Who has been working in their lives bringing them to this moment.
This moment of the turning of history that is marked, not by a trumpet fanfare,
Not with crowds kneeling in homage,
Or a festal parade,
But by the tiny movement of an unborn child,
Noticeable only to one old pregnant woman.
God is working in a way that is totally unexpected, totally weird, totally unpredictable.
God has announced that God is about to save the world,
God is about to bring down the powerful from their thrones,
And feed the hungry with good things,
And make a crooked way straight,
And a rough place smooth,
And fulfill all of the promises of salvation of all the great prophets.
And how is God going to do it?
How are you going to overthrow the armies and emperors of the world
And bring peace and justice and righteousness?
Why, with this pregnant teen and this pregnant senior citizen, both women.
The two first prophets of the New Testament age.
It’s not a very spectacular start is it?
I mean, Elizabeth is full of joy in this moment,
Crying, who am I that the mother of my Lord comes to me?
Interpreting her baby’s kick, which in my experience, happens all the time,
As a miraculous leap for joy.
And this teenage girl Mary sings her heart out that her soul magnifies the Lord,
Who has done great things for her and for her people.
But let’s face it, all this excitement is over a fetus and a zygote,
Neither one of them born into the best of circumstances.
In the case of Mary, the child is coming way too early,
Before she is married, while it will create significant dangers and difficulties in her life,
And in the case of Elizabeth, way too late, almost embarrassingly so.
God is not acting in the way we would like,
In the way most helpful, most convenient for us.
Why does God not come in a way that will really make a splash?
Really show the high priest and Herod and Pilate and the Emperor of Rome what’s what?
Why does God come in a way that already seems doomed to end in despair, defeat, and death?
Why does the Almighty and Everlasting God, the Light of the World, show up first as this weak, helpless clump of cells in this weak, helpless pregnant girl?
When we look at the world we want, we need Jesus’s coming to be spectacular.
We put out our lights and we trim our trees,
We shop and we cook and we plan,
We put on fabulous parades and spectacular shows,
We glow up all the stores in town because
We need this light to be big,
We need it to conquer all the darkness around us.
The darkness that is all too real.
We need this light to drown out the darkness that Grandpa's Alzheimer's is getting worse,
And he won’t recognize us this Christmas,
We need this light to drown out the darkness that this is the first Christmas that Dad and Mom won’t be together.
We need this light to drown out the darkness that the bills are piling up and as soon as we get them paid, something breaks down, someone gets sick, something always pops up.
We need this light to drown out the darkness that just a few miles from here is a city that has the lowest math test score ratings in the country,
Where a child is more likely to end up in jail than in college.
We need this light to drown out the darkness that 13,000 children in this state are in the foster care system,
Without a permanent family,
Without a real home.
A few years ago I was asked to give the invocation at Oakland County's Adoption Day ceremony.
Adoption Day is a day set aside for the finalization of adoptions of children out of the foster care system.
That day, six children were to be adopted into four families.
As judges spoke of the situation, the significant problems in our foster care system, that number of 13,000 children stayed in my head.
13,000 children that are wards of the state.
As one of seven million Michigan citizens,
We are each one seven millionth of their parent and we are responsible
For their present circumstances,
And for their future.
These children who go through life feeling, believing they are unwanted by anyone.
And as I watched these four families waiting to adopt these six children, many of them older children, doubtless with emotional, physical, and developmental problems and difficulties I cannot imagine,
And even with this chance, so many obstacles lie ahead,
It is so unlikely that that these six will really be able to thrive.
And I thought, only six.  Only six out of 13,000.
So much darkness.
Then the time came for the adoptions,
And the judges came forward and asked the families, one by one,
Do you understand that you will be responsible for the financial, moral and spiritual welfare of this child as if he were your own?
Do you understand that this child will become your legal heir?
Do you understand that becoming the parent of this child will create significant inconveniences large and small on your life?
As the parents solemnly answered, yes, as each question was asked,
I witnessed a miracle, families being created:
Not out of biology,
Not out of necessity,
Only out of a choice to love.
After all the adoptions were complete, a teenage girl walked to the front of the courtroom.
In the program it said she was going to sing “wind beneath my wings,”
But we were informed that she would be singing Anyway, by Martina McBride.
She began to nod in time as a recording piped into the courtroom.
She lifted her little head, and these were the words she sang:
You can spend your whole life building
Something from nothin'
One storm can come and blow it all away
Build it anyway.
You can chase a dream
That seems so out of reach
And you know it might not ever come your way
Dream it anyway.
This world's gone crazy
It's hard to believe
That tomorrow will be better than today.
Believe it anyway.
You can love someone with all your heart
For all the right reasons
In a moment they could choose to walk away.
Love them anyway.
God is great
But sometimes life ain't good
And when I pray
It doesn't always turn out like I think it should
But I do it anyway.
As I listened, the tears began to stream down my face, as I thought of another teenage girl singing her heart out anyway,
And I thought of those four families,
Of every sacrifice they will make,
Of the disappointing parent teacher conferences and the undone homework,
Of the nights they’ll stay up late and the kitchen table confrontations,
Of the fights and the tears,
Of the day that kid will doubtless scream, I hate you,
And of the way those parents will choose to love them anyway.
There are twelve thousand, nine hundred, ninety four kids still out there.
But here for a moment it didn’t matter, because I saw then that the light was love,
And that light was just shining anyway.
Not because it was easy.
Not because it was logical.
Not because it wouldn’t be easier to just throw in the towel.
The light kept shining anyway, and it meant everything.
Amidst a world of death, new life keeps showing up, anyway.
I remember a day, some years ago, when I woke up early and the morning, and I came to the bedroom, and I said, "Dan, I need a second opinion." And I held out the stick.
So he looked at it and said, "well, that line’s very faint."
I was silent for a moment, and then said, well, maybe I’m just faintly pregnant.
It took me a few days to understand that there is really no such thing.
That line was faint, but it was there,
And its being there, however faint, however small, meant everything.
That faint, faint blur of pink on that field of white, meant life, and hope, and love.
The miracle—the miracle isn’t that there is no such thing as death.
The miracle is that life keeps persisting anyway.
The miracle isn’t that there is no darkness.
The miracle is that the light keeps shining anyway,
Despite everything that threatens to put it out.
John begins his Gospel saying, that this life, this light was coming into the world.
A few chapters later, John begins the story of Easter with these words: early in the morning, while it was still dark.
The miracle happens not because there is no darkness,
The miracle happens in the midst of the darkness, despite it.
The light persists anyway.
That’s why Elizabeth rejoices,
That’s why Mary sings,
Because if this tiny life, this tiny light,
Keeps persisting,
Despite everything that seeks to destroy it,
Despite death itself,
Then the darkness ceases to have any power at all.
This year, Christmas will come and Christmas will go,
And Christmas will not do all we want it to do.
There will be bills left unpaid,
Illnesses left unhealed,
Children left alone.
Jesus will come quietly, humbly,
Without changing all the things we need him to change,
Without doing all the things we want him to do.
God will be born
Not in the way we want,
Indeed he will be born only to later die.
But God will be born.
The light will not give up.
It persists.
It keeps going despite everything.
In hidden places, in unexpected people,
Goodness and love live anyway.
And this Christmas Eve when we look out at this dark sanctuary,
The sanctuary won't be flooded with light.
There will be less candles than we think there should be.
But in this little corner of a dark world, the light will shine.
In that moment we will know that there is no such thing as a faint light,
That this small light means everything,
That this tiny, persistent life is indeed the light of our world.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Speech for the St. Andrew's Society of Detroit

As you heard, my name is Rev. Marianne Grano, and I am the pastor of Starr Presbyterian Church. Since I am a pastor, you hopefully won't be surprised to hear that I am a religious person. At one month of age, I played baby Jesus in the Christmas pageant at the First Presbyterian Church of Ann Arbor, when my parents were students at a fine university. When I myself attended that same university I came to the First Presbyterian Church where I told the pastor, "hello, I am Jesus, and I've come back."

I have a cross hanging in every room of my house. There's a communion set in the front seat of my car. I can count the number of times I've missed church on a Sunday morning—and two of them were because I was giving birth!

Religious people place a lot of stock in spiritual practices, like prayer, Bible study, going to church. Religious people tend to give money to their church and to proclaim their faith to others. These are good things. But what the prophet Isaiah says is that religion is utterly useless if it does nothing for the poor. All the crosses in the world won't save you, and a lifetime of sitting in a church pew won't cut it, if you don't care for those in need.

What kind of worship does God want? What kind of praise does He desire? According to Isaiah 58, "to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house."

At Starr Presbyterian Church, we have brought the homeless poor into our house. We are proud to partner with South Oakland Citizens for the Homeless, which runs the Welcome Inn Day Center, and to be a part of the Royal Oak Warming Shelter Ministry. Monday through Saturday this winter, those in need will be welcomed through our doors and will receive a hot meal, warm clothing, nursing care, and help from case workers who will direct them to additional support. Welcome Inn is a low-barrier center; what that means is that anyone is welcome through our doors. This ministry began in Royal Oak several decades ago because police were picking up dead bodies in the snow outside libraries and stores, where those without housing were kicked out after a certain time. We are, to put it simply, in the business of saving lives, giving people a safe place to keep warm and be cared for.

Our openness to sharing our space with the Welcome Inn comes from our Presbyterian faith. The Presbyterian tradition, one of the great Scottish religious traditions, has maintained that religion is not a purely personal matter, but that true religion affects change in society. John Calvin, the father of Presbyterian thought, preached that following the law of God meant not only avoiding sin, but just as importantly, doing good. Thus the eighth commandment, Thou shalt not steal, meant not only that the Christian should refrain from taking what is not his but that he should further economic justice in his community and world.
The history of the reformation in Scotland demonstrates the Presbyterian commitment to the poor. As a person with some Scottish origin myself, ironically from Clan MacPherson, the clan of the parson, I was interested in the history of care for the poor in Scotland. The Scottish government's website shares the following history: "One element in the growth of reformed or Protestant opinions had been the apparent wealth of many of the clergy and religious in contrast to the relative neglect of the poor by the pre-Reformation Church. The Protestant reformers’ ambitious plans to provide for the poor, as set out in the First Book of Discipline, had been thwarted by vested interests and available sources of revenue had proved to be inadequate to meet the needs of the poor. Individual burghs were forced to make their own piecemeal arrangements to provide some poor relief. Poor relief was to be provided in the parish where you were born or lived in for some time. The destitute were only allowed to beg in their own parish after being issued with a beggar’s badge and becoming a licensed beggar or ‘gaberlunzie’."
John Knox, the founder of the Scottish Presbyterian church, said the following about care for the poor in his First Book of Discipline: "Every several kirk must provide for the poor within itself; for fearful and horrible it is, that the poor, whom not only God the Father in his law, but Christ Jesus in his evangel, and the Holy Spirit speaking by Saint Paul, has so earnestly commended to our care, are universally so contemned and despised. And therefore, for such, as also for persons of honesty fallen in[to] decay and penury, ought such provision be made that [of] our abundance should their indigence be relieved. How this most conveniently and most easily may be done in every city, and other parts of this realm, God shall show you wisdom and the means, so that your minds are godly thereto inclined."
This tradition of Presbyterian care for the poor lives on at Starr Presbyterian Church. We are proud of our partnership with Welcome Inn and the many ministries with those in need we support with our time and funds. Thank you for your support of the South Oakland Citizens for the Homeless with your generous gifts. George Boyd, one of Starr's faithful attendees, has a list of items needed which you can bring to him or to the church for distribution to those in need. In addition, we are always in need of volunteers. If you are interested in helping during the day, evening, or overnight, feel free to speak to me after the event. "Thenk ye uncoly" for your time and "Merry Yuil!"

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

A Refiner's Fire

I was talking to a friend about Advent, this season in which we, as a church, experience the light of Christ gradually growing in our midst, and she remarked, "Oh yes! It's time for Elf on a Shelf!"
In many families, an Elf appears during Advent, sitting on a shelf, or a countertop, or a fireplace mantel, to watch the children and see if they are behaving, so that he can report to Santa. The Elf only moves at night, and each morning, the children seek his new hiding place. The Elf keeps the children in line, gets them ready for the coming of Santa, gets them to behave so they can receive his presents.
A far cry from the chortling elf, the church prepares for Christmas, not with an Elf on a Shelf, but with John the Baptist, who arrives, not in jingle bells and festive green, but clothed in scratchy camel's hair; not munching on candy canes, candy corns, and syrup, like Will Ferrell, but chewing on bugs and wild honey.
He comes, not so we can receive Santa's presents, but so we can receive Christ's presence.
John the Baptist's message to us is not "Have a Holly Jolly Christmas." It is this:  "Repent! You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the time to come! The ax is lying at the root of the trees, and any tree that does not bear fruit will be thrown into the fire and burned."
He warns of an unquenchable fire that is coming to purify the people. The ancient preacher Malachi also warns of the coming of a messenger, crying, "Who can endure the day of his coming? And who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner's fire."
In the church, we observe in Advent the ancient theme of light. God is light, and in these dark days of winter, we see that light shining where we would least expect. Last week, we hoped for the light of the coming Day of the Lord, that dawn that will break from on high in the end of days, and we saw how light Reveals.
Light reveals what is hidden, and on the Day of the Lord the deeds of all flesh will be revealed in the light of God's glory.
Today we consider how light is like a fire, a fire that Refines.
Light purifies all that it touches, brightens it, cleanses it, makes it new. And this is what our relationship with Christ will do for us. As Malachi preaches, "He is like a refiner's fire." He will purify our souls this Advent.
And there is much that must be burned away. The condemnations of the Baptist and the prophet are as applicable to us today as they were centuries ago. John the Baptist calls the people a brood of vipers. He compares the people to trees that do not produce fruit. John the Baptist challenges us—what fruit have you produced? Who have you shared the Gospel with? When have you stood up for justice? How have you borne fruit for God?
And Malachi recites the shortcomings of the people:
Sorcery, or trusting in forces other than God;
Adultery, or being unfaithful in relationships;
Oppressing the poor, by reckless spending, by habits of injustice, by simple indifference,
Thrusting aside the alien, by selfishly keeping others out—when we turn our backs on refugees and immigrants,
And swearing falsely, by telling and believing lies.
In short, we are impure. We are like gold with traces of lead, weighing us down, dimming our brightness.
But the fire can change all that.
The light can burn away our impurities. Have you ever seen a piece of driftwood, that's been sitting out in the sun? The sun bleaches it, cleanses it.
In the same way, I have found, if you hang your whites on a clothesline, the light will bleach the stains away, and your clothes will return to you shining and clean.
Light purifies.
The refiner of gold or silver places the metal in his crucible, and simply exposes it to the flame, and the heat will separate out the lead and copper and mercury and leave behind pure gold.
Do you see what the Word of God is telling us? He is telling us that we are precious gold. He is telling us that we are of immeasurable worth and value. He is telling us that we are made to shine.
While the world is settling for the fake shimmer of tinsel, God wants us to recognize the real silver and gold of Christmas, not in the muted glisten of a department store window, or the quickly fading shine of an ornament bulb—the real silver and gold of Christmas lies in the human heart.
You and I are like precious metals—meant to be worked into something beautiful—and we can become that something beautiful only when we draw near to the flame of Christ, to the refiner's fire.
What God intends to do will not be easy.
It is not easy for the gold to be in the fire, to be completely melted down and remade. It will mean looking at everything within you and me, the untruths we believe, the idols we worship,
the injustices we condone, the half-truths we accept, the desire for Santa's presents instead of Christ's presence, to let all that lead be drawn out by the refiner's fire, to let all those stains be purified by the light of Christ.
You know what sins you are carrying. I don't.
You know the lead that dims your shine.
Why not let Christ purify you this Advent?
Advent is an unexpected time for spiritual renewal. Amid all the parties and cards and preparations, who has time to prepare the way of the Lord?
Amid all the presents, who has time for Presence?
But what do you possibly have that is more important than your relationship with God?
The most important thing we have to do is not to prepare for Christmas, but to prepare for Christ.
God calls us to let the Advent candles burn away all that separates us from him.
God calls us to be refined, to be the beautiful works of art he intended.
God made us to be his treasures, each of us unique and precious. The Jewish theologian Martin Buber said, at the end of time, when he meets his Maker, God will not ask, "Why weren't you more like Abraham?" or, "Why weren't you more like Moses?" God will ask, "Why weren't you more like Martin Buber?"
Are you shining like precious gold, reflecting the light of Christ to all, an ornament to your maker?
Or is your reflection dimmed by the impurities, the lead, you're holding onto?
Come to the Advent flame.
Bask in the presence of Christ.
Let him remake you in this season.
May you shine.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.