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Sunday, January 25, 2015

“Prayer: Thanks” Psalm 95:1-6

Last week we started our sermon series on prayer by discussing perhaps the most common type of prayer, prayers of help or petition. Today’s prayer is the second most common type of prayer - prayers of gratitude or thanksgiving.
Growing up my Sunday School teachers used to try to teach us the ACTS method of praying - with prayers of thanksgiving firmly planted near the end. But I think we need to re-examine how we pray - thanking God for the many blessings we have received first. Its one of the reasons that I love how we do prayers of joys and concern in this parish, with prayers of joy or thanksgiving almost always coming first. We need to remember that our blessings overflow and claim God’s goodness in our lives. 
Prayers of gratitude can look like many different things. For some it may be that “rush of relief” that you feel when you don’t get pulled over by the cop for speeding, finding the item that you thought you lost, or hearing that it was not the diagnosis that you most feared. Its in these times, after things seem uncertain or a time of fear, that the words “Praise God!” readily pass our lips. But it is much harder to express prayers of praise and gratitude in other situations - especially when things don’t seem to be going well.
It’s during times like this that we sometimes hold our thanksgiving hostage like a bargaining chip with God. We state that if only God comes through for us or gives me what I desire then I will show that I am thankful, only to find that our thankfulness wains after a time of trial. As a pastor who ministers to people during times of crisis, it is not uncommon for me to hear people say that “if only God will….” then they will come to church or then they will tithe. That is not a true prayer of gratitude, because it doesn’t lead to us acting as the Psalmist described today, coming into God’s presence with thanksgiving and worshipping.
Instead of bargaining with God for the praise that God is due, prayers of gratitude invite us to think more deeply about all that God has blessed us with. I read a story this past week about a teacher at a boarding school. He had one boy in his class that always acted out - often becoming physically or verbally abusive to other students to the point where they did not want to be around him. One day after class the teacher called this student-bully aside and told him that he was going to have a new assignment - to come to that teacher each and every day and tell him five things that he was thankful for. At first the student balked, saying that he had nothing to be thankful for, but the teacher stuck with the assignment. Over time, the boys personality changed, and he started to be kinder to others students, often reaching out to help them instead of harm them. 
What changed for this student? For him gratitude became a habit. A habit that so many of us are desperately in need of. If any people should be grateful, it should be Christians - for we have been offered the greatest gift ever given in Jesus Christ. And yet, Christians can be among some of the meanest people I know. Never offering a kind word. I loved what our District Superintendent, Beth Jones, said at change conference this year - if you are a grumpy person, don’t try to reach out to lead others to Christ, it only gives Christians a bad name. 
To get over our grumpiness, we need a habit of gratitude. Often this means we need to reframe situations to see what God is offering us. That awful thing you are going through, is there a life lesson in it? That time of trial, does it help you grow closer to God or others? That unanswered prayer - could there be a blessing in God giving the answer of “no” or “not yet”? Author Anne Lamott points out that if we got everything that we ever prayed for or wanted, we often would be short changing ourselves, because God’s blessings and plans are so much better. Can we praise God even in the midst of life’s storms because of who God is?
The Psalmist today tells us that we are to make a joyful noise to God. To worship God and bow down at God’s throne. Perhaps one of the best examples of seeing gratitude in action is when it leads us to service. Anne Lamott says, “Gratitude begins our hearts and then dovetails into behavior”. Have you ever noticed that it is joyful people who seem to give away more freely their time, treasures, and talents? That people who are always praising God with their lips are manifesting their joy with their actions?
This past Thanksgiving, nine different churches came together for an ecumenical Thanksgiving service. Instead of having one pastor give a sermon, all seven pastors took turns standing up and saying ways that their churches were reaching out into the community. They weren’t sharing these things to brag - at least not brag on themselves - but to brag on God. To talk about how their love and gratitude for God has lead them to want other people to know about God’s goodness by our actions. This, brothers and sisters, is what it means to truly be the Church. To serve out of the well-spring of our joy and praise. Gratitude leads to service and the more we serve and see other people’s lives blessed, the more readily we ask “how can I give more?” Do you see what a big difference there is between a prayer of gratitude that leads to action and prayers that tell God to give us something first, before we will even say that we are grateful?  
Joyful noises unto the Lord come from our lips and our actions, which are inter-connected. They express what our heart is feeling towards God. At the close of the thanksgiving service the light of Christ was shared, in a similar way to how we share it as a parish on Christmas Eve. It was a tangible reminder to me that we praise God our light shines - we reflect the will and the heart of Christ - which was always praising the Father - not just when circumstances were going well, but at all times.
At its core prayers of thanksgiving reflect what we will testify to in our life. What we will proclaim and share with others. If we have reflected upon what God has done for us and what we are grateful for, we are more likely to share that with others - more likely to shine it through our actions - then if we only dwell on what is wrong. Will we testify to God’s goodness at all times?
The book that this sermon series is based off of, Help, Thanks, Wow by Anne Lamott, was first introduced to me at an ordination retreat. For the opening worship the leader asked us to lift up prayers of petition, thanksgiving, and amazement. During the time of thanksgiving, she asked us a powerful question that I want to leave you with today. What are you most grateful for these days? My guess is that if we each actually sat down and reflected upon that question we could fill up pages and pages. But the real question is how that gratitude for the abundance of blessings, some of which we probably never took time to consider before, lead us to live our lives different. Lead for us to rejoice in God’s goodness like the Psalmist. To come into God’s presence, not demanding something, but simply because we are grateful. 
What are you most grateful for these days and how does it lead you to live your life? Amen. 

Friday, January 23, 2015

Pastor Appreciation

   Our parish is working on a list of possible ways to show appreciation to one's pastor. We aren't looking to do all of these things, rather to create a list of possibilities. What would you add?

Compensation Package:
For younger clergy - offer to put money towards student loan payments
For older clergy - offer to put more money into their retirement account

Generous Continuing Education allowance - especially if they are pursing specific educational goals. 

Compensation package that reflect education of pastor as well as years of service. The annual conference encourage additional compensation for those with advanced degrees in ministry.

Extra personal days

Paying a fair salary

Offer a membership to the YMCA for the family. 

Non-Compensation Package:
Notes of thanks and appreciation, both from individuals and in the form of a card shower.

Acknowledge when your pastor goes out of his/ her way to do something

Deal with parsonage concerns in a timely fashion. Strive to make the parsonage the best possible living situation.

Gift certificates to go out to dinner or engage in relaxing activities 

Staff appreciation dinner at least once a year

Offer to give the pastor an extra weekend or two off a year from preaching/ leading worship. 

Encourage new pastors to repaint the parish office or re-arrange the space to make it their own. This could also possibly include getting new furniture. 

Offer to cook and deliver one dinner a week during Advent and Lent, which are particularly hectic times of the year. 

Held accountable for taking Sabbath. Remember all Pastor/Staff Relations Committees shall encourage their pastors to take a minimum of one day off per week.

Offer birthday, time around Christmas, and time after Easter as days off (non-vacation days)

Get to know pastor’s primary love language (Gary Chapman’s The Five Love Languages) and communicate appreciation in that way.

Pastor’s Birthday

Pastor’s Anniversary

Pastor Appreciation Month (October)

Sunday, January 18, 2015

“Praying: Help” Phil 4: 4-7 Psalm 121

How did you learn to pray? What were some of the first prayers you remember praying? For me two distinct prayers come to mind. The first was a plaque hanging on my brothers nursery wall that we prayed together every evening: “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. And if I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” I’m not sure that we ever realized the magnitude of what we were praying, but we said that prayer night in and night out at bedtime. The second prayer was around the family dinner table. We each had a turn praying it throughout the week, but the prayer remained the same “Dear God, bless this food to our bodies. Amen”.  As we grew older, the prayer changed a little bit, but the basic request remained the same, blessing and nourishment. It was around the bed and the family dinner table I learned to pray, taught by my parents. Certainly other people also taught me,but it was through these basic prayers that I learned to take my needs before God. 
For the next three weeks we will be discussing what it means to pray. How we pray. And some basic prayers. Author Ann Lamott writes, “Prayer is communication from the heart to that which surpasses understanding - communicating from the heart to God”. Prayer is meant to be simple. Simply talking with the God who loves us. But somewhere along the way, some of us have got it into our minds that prayer needs to be complicated - involving “thees” and “thous”. Or done a certain methodical way. Many people have fears about praying aloud, not because they don’t pray or even because they have a fear of public speaking, but because they are afraid that they will do it wrong. But that simply cannot happen because there is no wrong way to pray to God. Prayer is meant to be simple. 
In fact, prayer can be as simple as crying out “God, help me!”. Asking for help for the people we love. Help when facing trying situations. Help in meeting our needs and desires. When we ask for help, it is often out of desperation, and all fancy words and formulas are set aside. Its when we pray honest prayers, not what we believe that God may want to hear. 
When we pray for God’s help we do so for two reasons. First, because we believe that we are in relationship with God and that we communicate through prayer. Second, because we believe that God deeply cares about us and what we are going through. We communicate with people that we are in relationship with. I am quite a distance away from many of the people I love the most. But we chat on the phone or Skype a few times a week and text almost every day. We are in constant communication because we care about what is going on in each other’s lives. So it is with God. We are in constant communication with God through prayer, because we are in a relationship with God. Its okay to just sit down and tell God about your day. Or pray short prayers like “help” in times of need. Once again, there isn’t a wrong way to pray - its just important that we keep the lines of communication open.
We also believe that as God’s beloved children, God cares deeply about us and what we are going through - both in times of joy and pain. Paul writes in his letter to the Philippians that we are to bring everything before God. Not just the good things. Not just the bad things. But everything. Think back to the example of important people in our lives. For the people I’m closest with, I want to know everything that is going on in their lives - the good and the bad. If they only tell me the good things, I feel like they are keeping themselves from me. If they only tell me the trying things, I can feel like they are using me. But when we bring whatever we may be going through at the moment - the good and the bad - that is how we know that we are in an authentic relationship. So it is with God. We don’t just try to sugarcoat things for God, or say when something is going well. But we also don’t just go to God in times of need. We go to God in all things, because God cares about us at all times. 
Paul goes on to write that we are to make our requests known. It may be hard to articulate what prayer exactly is - in fact books upon books have been written on this topic. But actually praying is only difficult if we make it so. We are simply talking to God, like we would talk with anyone else that we deeply care about. We are telling God what is going on. It doesn’t need to be fancy. Some of my favorite examples of prayers in scripture are the Psalms, because they express such authentic emotion. The psalmist lays before God what they are feeling at any given moment, because they know that God is already aware. They are simply handing it over to God in trust.
And at its core, that’s what prayers of trust do - hand over our requests in trust. Requests like “hold my friend in your light”, “help my child”, “I don’t know what to do next”. “Help, enter this mess”. Sometimes when we pray for help we want to tell God what to do. Or have God tell us what to do. But often when we hand them over in trust we will find that they are answered, even if it is not in the way we expected. 
Prayers for help remind us that we are not in charge and that we cannot fix anything. In America we are often told to “pull ourselves up by our bootstraps” - but that is not Biblical. We are to turn to God with our needs. And we are to open ourselves us to the help from God. Where does the Psalmist say that our help comes from - God. The only one who never stops watching over us 
The problems arise when we fail to act as if our help comes from God. In fact, prayers of help often only comes when we are at our absolute last resort. When we have exhausted all other options. When we feel as if we have failed. When there isn’t any other path to take or magic solution to try. But Paul reminds us to make our requests known to God - not when we don’t have another option, but as soon as we have them. It is not a bother to God to hear what we are going through. God wants us to come before the throne of grace. God wants to brings us the peace that passes understanding. But we don’t get it because we don’t want to admit that we have a need and come. We need to learn to open ourselves up to the help of God, but this is especially hard for those who don’t like to ask others for help. Those that have to fix everything on their own. But God asks us simply to come, so our load can be lighted and our burden lifted.
Another pitfall we can run into when asking for help is handing our problem over to God only to pick it up and take it back a short while later. When we do so, we are essentially saying that we don’t trust God to help us. Don’t trust that God cares. For those of us who are visual or tactile learners, you may want to try writing down your prayers of help on slips of paper and locking them in a lock box - symbolically showing that you surrender your prayers for help into the hands of God. Others may have different way to affirm that God is their source of help. But we all need reminders of this from time to time. 
Prayers of help aren’t easy to pray. They aren’t easy to admit. And its often when we are at the end of our rope, with no words left, that we even say them. When I talk to people about prayers for help, I often say that these are the type of prayers that the apostle Paul talks about in Romans, those that are sighs too deep for words. Spiritual writer and Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, said his most often prayer for help was “My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me”. We all have such moments. The question is do we hand these times of distress and trial over to God? Do we trust God with the deepest concerns of our soul? Or do we simply go on trying to find a way out on our own? 

Our times of distress can make or break our relationship with God. I have seen far too many people flee from God in times of distress only to ask where he was when things go wrong. But other people I have seen endure things that are beyond my wildest comprehension only to emerge with a closer relationship with God, because they handed all of their pain over to the God who can handle it. Will you cling to or flee from God? Will you cry out for the One our help comes from? Amen. 

Sunday, January 11, 2015

“In Covenant” Jeremiah 31: 31-34 Matthew 26:28

A rainbow. Blood brothers. Pinky swears. Marriage certificates. What do all of these things have in common? They are a sign of a covenant. Now it may seem odd to compare pinky swearing to being married, but at their heart they show a binding agreement to either do or not do something. With marriage their are lots of things that are covenant, to be with each other in sickness and in health, to forsake all others, and to be with one another until death, to name a few. With the Biblical covenant of the rainbow, God made one promise to never again destroy the whole earth. 
Biblically, covenants were a form of law. When God made a promise, God did not go back on it. Perhaps the most famous Biblical covenant was between God and Abraham, when God promised that Abraham’s decedents would number the stars. That he would be a great nation who would be blessed and they would have a land to dwell in. In order to symbolize the importance of this promise and to seal it into law, both Abraham and God traveled through animal carcasses that had been split in half. Perhaps a little odd to us now, such severing of an animal was important to the parties entering a covenant at this time because it symbolized that those who broke the covenant would have similar fate. 
After Abraham, there was a new covenant under the leadership of Moses. God promised that he would make Israel his chosen people, a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation. However, there was a twist with this new covenant - God now had expectations of the people as well. It was no longer just God making a promise to the people, God now had an expectation of the people’s behavior as well. They were to follow the ten commandments and remember that God had brought them out of slavery in Egypt. Unfortunately, the people failed in upholding their side of the covenant, and as a result they often felt distant from God. 
Covenants often were accompanied by a sign to remind people whenever they saw or experienced it of God’s faithfulness. Following the destruction of the earth in the time of Noah, it was a rainbow. Every time the people saw it in the sky they were to remember God’s promise that the whole earth would never be destroyed again. For the people of Israel under the leadership of Moses it was the Sabbath, a time of rest that they never received as slaves in Egypt. A time to wholly commune with God.
The next time we Biblically see a covenant established it was between God and David. David was described as the greatest king to rule Israel and a man after God’s own heart. The Davidic covenant was a bit more complex. God promised David that one of his decedents would succeed his leadership. That one of his offspring shall build a temple to worship God as a holy place, set apart. And that through him, the kingdom of God would be established forever. However, the people of Israel forgot about the Davidic covenant when his reign came to an end. They went searching for their own leadership and king, instead of trusting that God would provide one for them. Ultimately, their lack of faithfulness and breaking covenant ended in their captivity, which is where we find them in this morning’s scripture lesson found in the book of the prophet Jeremiah. In a time of complete desperation, God meets the people’s need by telling them that a new covenant is on the way. It will be an unbreakable covenant, one where the very love and law of the Lord will be in the people. Under this new covenant their unfaithfulness and sin will be forgiven. 
Enter Jesus. As Christians we believe Jesus is the fulfillment of the promise made in Jeremiah. In fact, we remember the covenant God made with us through Jesus, every time we celebrate holy communion and recite the words from the gospel of Matthew, that he shed the blood of the new covenant on our behalf. 
Why are we spending time talking about promises made long ago? Because this Sunday we are celebrating different covenants that we make in the church. During the sacrament of baptism we promise to help raise the one being baptized up in the faith, looking after their spiritual care and well-being. When we take vows of membership we promise to give to the local church and the Church universal our prayers, presence, gifts, witness, and service. These aren’t just words that we say they are promises we make. 
My friends and family will tell you that I strongly dislike broken promises. In our present culture, we seem to make promises left and right that we have no intention of fulfilling. Or we make promises that we try to keep for a short period of time and then give up when it becomes hard. But if there is any place that the words “I promise”, or “I vow”, or “I covenant to” should matter it should be the Church. For God has made an unbreakable covenant with us through Jesus Christ, who we strive to both worship and emulate. 
Some promises we can only make once, like vows of membership or promises made at our baptism. But John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, believed that we needed a reminder of those promises. Like celebrating an anniversary or the people of Israel remembering God’s covenant through the keeping of the Sabbath, as Methodists we gather once a year to reaffirm what we believe and who we covenant to be together. In your bulletin you should have found a copy of the Wesley covenant prayer this morning. I’d like to invite you to take it out and read over it. In a few minutes we will read this covenant aloud together, saying that we want God to be first in our live and that we will submit to the will of God, whatever that may be. This is our binding promise for the year, one we will remember when we gather together for worship or fellowship. One that we will remind each other of. I’d encourage you to put this card some place where you can see it every day, and remember both the covenant you are making and the covenantal promise God has offered to you.
Additionally, our parish is entering into two new covenant starting this year. The first is a covenant between the Pastor Parish Relations Committee and the Pastor. This covenant combines the vision of each church with the role of the Pastor in the coming year, specifically focusing on areas of spirituality, leadership and administration, worship leading, education, pastoral care and counseling, community service, representation, and personal responsibility. From time to time this year you may wonder why I am doing one thing and not another and reference will be made to this covenant. The covenant helps the churches define what is important to them and how we are going to live together as two churches sharing one pastor.
Another covenant will be for our leadership team/ council. This covenant speaks to how we are going to treat each other as people of God following Biblical principles of love and respect. Before entering a meeting, those present will be reminded of the covenant and the promises that we make to each other and to God. Copies of this covenant will be made available following the worship service today as well. If we do not follow the covenant during meetings, the pastor or chair will stop the meeting and gently remind each of us to read over the covenant again. 

Promises matter because they speak to where our heart is. They show the binding truths that we believe are crucial between ourselves, God, and others. May we now join our voices together, affirming who we are and what our guiding truths will be in this coming year as we pray together Wesley’s covenant prayer….

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Matthew 2:1-12 “Who Shall Seek Him?”

There is a very short story by Henry Van Dyke that I would like to share with you this morning entitled The Story of the Other Wise Man. It tells the tale of a wise man who was not part of the group that reached Bethlehem. He too saw the star rise in the sky. He too had heard the prophecies. He invited other wise men to come to his home and he told them that he was going to venture off to see the King with gifts of precious jewels. The other men the room just starred at him at first. Then they started to come up with excuses. This wasn’t truly the fulfillment of the prophecy. Others thought he was crazy. One could not leave his office. Another was too old. Yet another had a wife and children to think of first. Another stated that he was ill. So the wise man was left to venture out with a small group of other pilgrims. 
As I was first reading this story, I had to wonder how many of us wouldn’t have sought out Jesus if we lived during the time. How many of us would have made excuses? Or wondered what other people would think of us for going on such a pilgrimage? How many of us would truly set out on a journey based on a prophesy and a star? To an unknown place for an unknown period of time. 
The truth that stings just a little is many of us probably would have reacted just as the many wise men in that house in Van Dyke’s story. We wouldn’t have made the journey that took years - almost two years in fact - because we could have thought of a thousand reasons not too. And probably the men who made the journey could have thought of some of those same reasons not to go, yet they went anyway. 
Their journey brought them to the palace of King Herod where they blatantly asked him “where is the child who has been called the King of the Jews?” Now maybe they thought that Herod already knew about the new King’s presence, or maybe they thought that was just as excited as they were at the thought of the promised one, but Herod didn’t quite respond the way they expected. He responded with fear and he sent the wise men to search for the child on his behalf.
The question of the wise men and Herod’s reaction still apply to us today. The wise men arrival would not have been a common thing in the palace. The fact they were foreigners from so far away made them exotic and novelties. Yet, they had a purpose in their visit, even if it concerned Herod, they had come to see the King. Not him, but someone greater than him. What do you think the Magi thought when they found Jesus? Was he the type of King that they expected to find? Or the one that we would expect to find? Probably not. Because of his birth. His parents. His followers. His death. Jesus was not the King that everyone expected.
And yet, maybe that should have been the type of King they expected. For the God of the Jews, not their God, had reached out to them through a star, something they studied and knew, to lead them to this unconventional place after a long, unconventional journey. That’s why we still celebrate the Wise Men today, and even have a day set apart in the Church Calendar for them. The Sunday we celebrate Epiphany is a testimony that God uses unusual means to reach people exactly where they are. God can show up in the midst of the expected or the unexpected. This is the day that we celebrate that God showed the way of Christ to the gentiles. But we also celebrate that God still shows up today, with new spiritual insights or perspectives, that we may or may not expect. 
But Herod did not see the wise men’s presence or proclamation as a good thing. He didn’t have eyes and a heart that were open to see the appearance of the star from the same perspective that the wise men did. So he acted out of fear - fear of losing his power and place. But don’t we act the same way from time to time as well? We try to control Jesus and his message and story because we are fearful that it will make us unpopular? Or will lead to us losing our place in society, or amongst are friends and family? So we send out others to search for Jesus, not because we want them to have a relationship with Christ, but to make us more popular with them, when they come to believe. 
Back to the story of The Other Wise Man. At one point the other wise man became separated from his companions when he stumbled across someone on the road in need of medical assistance. He offered the struggling stranger the last of his supplies before heading back from the way in which he came in order to sell one of his precious jewels in order to get enough supplies to make the rest of the journey. As a result he missed the arrival of the wise men at the home where Mary and Joseph were staying. 
We are told in the Biblical account that the wise men had come to pay homage to the baby Jesus and when they reached where he and his parents were staying that they were “overwhelmed with joy”. They didn’t come to study Jesus, or just to see him - they had come to worship this child they had went lengths to meet. Can we say the same today? Do we come to church because we feel like we have to or to learn something new? Or do we come to truly have our hearts open to worshipping Christ? 
When they went to present the child with their gifts - they weren’t exactly what you would call child appropriate. Right now I am preparing for the birth of my first niece. Every time I seem to turn around in a store, I find another cute thing for her. Or another thing her parents are going to need. But the wise men brought gifts that weren’t necessarily useful - gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. They were however, gifts that proclaimed just how precious they believed this child King to be. And were generous. In the words of pastor William Arnold, “spiritual maturity inspires us to be generous.” Are we as generous with giving Jesus our treasures today? Or do we worry more about what he may ask us for instead of what we are to give? Are we concerned about giving him too much or too little? Does the use of resources proclaim just how precious we believe Jesus to be?
The story of the other wise man doesn’t end quite as one would expect. He did arrive at the home of Mary and Jesus, but only after they had fled to Egypt. He was there during the raid when baby boys were killed, but he gave away another of his precious jewels in order to help save a child’s life. He made it his life mission to find the one who was King of the Jews, and he finally did, over thirty years later, as Jesus hung on the cross under a sign proclaiming that title. But the man was transformed by his search for this King.
And so it was with the wise men. They too were transformed by their journey and worship of the Christ Child. After praising him, they were warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, as he was seeking to kill the child. So they left home by another way. But Pastor James C. Howell wonders if this is not true for all of us who encounter and fully worship Jesus. Aren’t we too transformed? Isn’t it true that we can no longer take the same road which we came on? Isn’t it true that nothing in our lives is ever the same?
I have to wonder what stories the wise men had to share when they returned to their group at home. How did those who made excuses feel about missing this opportunity to meet the True King? Did their excuses seem silly now? Did they wish they could have such a transformative experience as well? 

My hope and prayer for us this day is that we are transformed. That we do truly worship the Christ child instead of just studying him and give to him our very best. I pray that we approach the news of his birth, life, death, and resurrection, not out of fear, but out of utter excitement, even if he is not exactly the type of King we expected. May we, like the wise men, encounter him and be transformed.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

“A Community emerges from Waiting” Luke 2: 22-38

The Sunday after Christmas. The presents have been unwrapped. The Christmas dinner eaten. The relatives are on their way home. And it would seem like there is nothing left to say or celebrate - the candles have been lit, Christmas hymns sung, and now we just get back to life as normal.
But that isn’t true at all for those of us in the Christian faith. The celebration doesn’t end after Christmas day. In fact, some of my favorite narratives surrounding the birth of Jesus are yet to come. They are just often forgotten in the Christmas hustle and bustle.
We pick up on the story of Jesus’ life today about forty days after he was born. Thirty-two days after he was ritually circumsized. Now he and his parents are back at the temple again, this time for Mary’s ritual cleaning, the sacrifice of two doves or pigeons, or if she was of wealthy means a lamb, that would allow her to enter the sanctuary again, worship, and handle sacred things. 
I always find this part of the story humorous in a way that only God could have designed. Mary is now allowed to handle sacred things, yet in her arms she holds the most sacred person in history. In the words of author Liz Curtis Higgs, “Think of it! Mary brought no sacrificial lamb, yet in her arms she bore the Lamb of God”. Mary held the very one who would be the sacrificial lamb for us on the cross. And Jesus, the very son of God, is being presented like all other first born male children before God. Higgs comments, “There is something wonderful about Jesus the Son being presented to God the Father”.
Mary and Joseph were still located in Bethlehem at this point - a five or six mile walk from the temple in Jerusalem. So they gathered their infant and their sacrifice, heading in the early morning hours for the temple. Maybe they were thinking of the much longer journey they had taken just a few weeks earlier that resulted in the birth of Jesus. Maybe they were still caught in awe of everything that has happened - the shepherds, the angels, the star. But nothing could have prepared them for the community they would encounter in the temple that day.
As Joseph presented the sacrifice of the birds to the priest, Jesus and Mary would have waited in the court of women. As Joseph approached, a movement caught their eye - an uncommon sight, an old man rushing towards them. Simeon isn’t described in scripture as a priest or a prophet, yet that is how he acted that day as he approached the couple. We are simply told that he is righteous and devout. We know nothing else about him other than the meaning of his name, “he has heard”. And he has heard, he has heard the call of the Holy Spirit within his heart prompting him to be at the temple that day. Somewhere along the time line of his life he had been told by God that he would not die without seeing the Messiah, and something tugged at his heart to tell him that today would be the day.
On one hand, Simeon seems eccentric, picking up the infant Jesus and holding him in his arms as a stranger. But sometimes the Holy Spirit leads us to do eccentric things, things other people won’t understand when we are so filled with the joy of the Lord. And Simeon was surely filled with such joy. We know his spiritual condition. Know that he was open to the movement of the Holy Spirit. And as he held the baby Jesus, words that must have shocked his parents started to flow. First he started with a blessing for both parents, telling them that this day he was beholding the Messiah with his very eyes, just as God had promised. Jesus was only about six weeks old at this point, yet in him Simeon saw eternity and salvation. 
He went on to declare that this child would be the consolation of Israel. To console is to comfort, especially in the face of grief, and Israel surely has much to grieve. They have wandered into sin, even as God’s chosen people. They have doubted God’s promises. Broken God’s covenant. They have sought after salvation through Kings, prophets, wars, and the law, instead of seeking the heart of God. Now Jesus, would offer them true salvation, true restoration in their relationship with God. And now that Simeon knew that, now that he had laid eyes on the promised Messiah, he could die in peace.
Watching people as they approach their death bed can either be enlivening for our spirits or heartbreaking. Sometimes you see people who just cannot let go, cannot leave their bodies behind because they feel that they have unfinished business, unspoken words, or unkept promises. Simeon was not like this - he now believed that he had been blessed by God and could die in peace. He had witnessed the one who would restore Israel. 
After Simeon finished praising God he offered a prophecy just for Mary, albeit not a comforting one at all. He told her that her son would be disliked by many and that her soul would be pierced. Could you imagine as a young mother hearing these words, especially on the day when you are dedicating your son? What must Mary have felt as she left Simeon’s presence? Had she been blessed or cursed?
But shortly after meeting Simeon, Mary and Joseph were greeted with joy by the prophet Anna. As a female prophet, Anna was very rare. When I imagine Anna, I think of the quintessential story tale crone, very old, filled with wisdom but marginalized by society. Anna was marginalized because she was only married for seven years before her husband died. She didn’t bear any children, which we heard was seen as a sign of God’s displeasure when we studied the character of Elizabeth during Advent. Yet, Anna did something very odd in her widowhood at an early age - she didn’t try to remarry or have children, instead in the words of Higgs, she “ran to God, giving her broken heart and her service”. 
How many of us would do the same things? Run to God with our heartbreak and strive to serve the Kingdom of God first, even in our grief? We are told that Anna never left the temple, she worshiped and prayed and fasted night and day. What I love about this passage of scripture is that the words served and worshiped are used interchangeably, they were one and the same to Anna. 
We don’t know if Anna overheard Simeon’s blessing, or if her heart too was tugged on by the Holy Spirit, but either way she began to praise God for Jesus. In fact, as soon as she opened her mouth, praise sprung forth. She was one of the first evangelists, telling everyone about this child. 
Mary and Joseph surely left the temple in shock from the prophecies and blessings. They entered to perform a standard sacrifice, just like Zechariah, but left filled with messages of hope and unsettling words of what was to come for their son.
During the season of Advent we talked about what it means to wait in community. To wait for that which we cannot quite grasp, but know is to come. To wait with accountability, love, and challenge. Now as Advent has ended and Christmas has erupted, we see even more beauty that community has to offer - words of wisdom, hope, and promise. Consolation when prophecies are difficult to hear. Men and women who are lead by the Holy Spirit to be in our lives for a purpose, that we may or may not understand. A community that shouts with joy and proclaims that the Lord’s favor rests on us.

Community can come in unexpected places - maybe a worshipping community or a small group. Maybe around the dinner table. Or maybe in the words of a stranger. The question is - are we willing to open ourselves up to such community? Are we willing to stick it out and see what emerges from the seasons of waiting? And are we willing to be open to the movement of the Holy Spirit, so through community, we can be the Simeons and Annas in other people’s lives - speaking words of hope and promise at just the right times and places? Amen. 

Friday, December 26, 2014

To Be a Pastor

  Recently I posted an entry about the truths I would want people to know about being single. It lead me to start thinking about truths I would want folks to know about being a pastor.

1.) We really do work more then Sunday. In fact, it is not funny when you insinuate that I only work one day a week. That "one day" alone is usually 10-14 hours. It is not uncommon for pastors to put in 60 or more hours a week.

2.) Its insulting to tell clergy that we should be happy with a low salary because we work for God. Yes, we do work for the Church. Yes, we are called. But, especially in my denomination, we have a minimum of 4 years of undergrad and 3 years of a master degree. Call doesn't mean bills don't need to be paid. And we put in more hours then we will even be compensated for with this level of education. No, we don't do it for the money at all, but at the same time it doesn't help to hear that you feel that we should work for less.

3.) The best gift you can give us is to say that you are praying for us and mean it.

4.) The worst thing you can do is tell us how you would do our job better, what you don't like, or talk behind our backs. Sometimes we can't explain everything to you, because of pastoral confidence, but decisions are made only after prayer and with wisdom. Sermons have a lot of hours of work and prayer that go into them. And we hear a lot more criticism then positive comments.

5.) When you have an opinion about the church, please remember that everyone else in the pew also has an opinion, some of which will also be shared. Is it kind? Relevant? Necessary?

Clergy, what else would you add?