Made Holy

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To those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints! – 1 Corinthians 1:2

This morning we begin by traveling back in time to the ancient city of Corinth in the year 49 AD. The city of Corinth was a wealthy and thriving Roman colony. It was located in southern Greece and because it was a port city, Corinth was a center of trade and commerce in the ancient world. Sailors, merchants, and tradesmen were continually passing in and out of the city. Corinth also had a bustling entertainment district with courtyards surrounded by shops and theaters and other public amenities. Now since the Corinthians lived 2,000 years before Netflix and HDTV, their idea of entertainment was quite a bit different from ours. In fact, one popular way to pass the time was to go and listen to professional orators and speechmakers who would travel from city to city, and people who pay to listen to long and elaborate speeches. Can you imagine people today actually paying money to listen to sermons!?!

CorinthIn addition to its thriving business and entertainment sectors, Corinth was known for its cultural and religious diversity. Throughout the city, there were temples and shrines dedicated to various gods and goddesses and Roman citizens from throughout the empire would come to the city of Corinth for wild parties and festivals and celebrations. In America, we have the expression “what happened in Vegas stays in Vegas.” In the ancient world, they probably would have said, “what happens in Corinth, stays in Corinth!” In the year 49 AD, Corinth was a solidly pagan Roman city and almost nobody had ever heard of the man called Jesus of Nazareth.

But all of that was about to change. Because right around the year 49 AD, give or take a few years, a man named Paul came to the city of Corinth along with some of his partners in ministry. And Paul began to teach and preach in the name of this man named Jesus. Now it’s important to know that Paul didn’t come in on a Friday night to do a three-day tent revival, take up an offering and skip town. Paul lived and worked in the city of Corinth for no less than a year and a half. We know that Paul was a tentmaker or “working of cloth” by trade, and for 18 months, Paul set up his tentmaking business on the streets of Corinth and started telling people about Jesus.

After then 18 months, having established a worshipping community in Corinth, Paul decided it was time for him to move on and so, he so he sailed across the Aegean Sea to the city of Ephesus. A few years went by and Paul decided to check in on the church he had planted in Corinth. And what he discovered was that although this community had certainly heard the gospel that was proclaimed to them, they had come to believe in Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God, they had received the basic message of the Christian faith – but their thinking, their mindsets, their behavior, their interactions with their surrounding culture had not significantly changed.  Although they believed in Jesus, the way they lived their lives was still very much influenced by the cultural and social reality of the world around them. And this lack of transformation resulted in division and animosity and outright conflict within the church.

And so, Paul begins to communicate with the church in Corinth by writing letters.  One of these letters has survived in the form of First Corinthians. This is not a book or a sermon or an essay. It’s a letter written by a pastor to his congregation. In this letter, Paul is teaching the Christians in the city of Corinth how to live together as a spiritual communityhow to be God’s beloved communitya community not shaped by the values and principles of the world, but shaped by the values and principles of the Kingdom of God.

And so, during this season of Epiphany, we get to listen in on this conversation between Paul and his congregation, we get to listen in on this dialogue about what it means to be a spiritual people, what it means to be God’s beloved community. Are you ready?

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Burn the Ships

The following music video by For King & Country partially inspired this sermon.

Just over 500 years ago, the famous Spanish conquistador, Hernando Cortes, left his homeland and sailed for the new world. Cortes and his crew endured the perils that came with a voyage across the dangerous Atlantic. They survived disease, dissent, and possible destruction. Cortes finally landed on the island and Hispaniola and then sailed on to Cuba. But ultimately, Cortes and his men were commissioned to explore and conquer what is now present-day Mexico. They sailed their ships west and landed on a new continent – a new land, full of new possibilities and new adventures, as well as new risks and new dangers.

Now Cortes knew that his men would be tempted to turn back to the safety and security of Cuba. He knew the human tendency to return to what is known and what is familiar. And so, to prevent this backward movement, Cortes ordered his commanding officers to burn the ships, to destroy the only possible means of escape. His men had no choice but to move forward. They had no choice but to enter into a new day and to embrace a new future.

Some historians have suggested that Cortes likely sank his ships rather than burn them and today we certainly don’t celebrate all the means and methods that Cortes employed during his mission. But this particular demonstration of leadership and his legendary command to burn the ships have stood the test of time as an example of what it looks like when we are called upon to let go of what was in order to embrace what will be.

This morning, in our Old Testament reading from the Isaiah, we hear once again the promise of God’s covenant, the promise of renewal and restoration, the promise of healing and reconciliation. What we don’t hear is the fact that these words of promise are being spoken to the people of Israel while they are in exile. They are separated from their homeland. They have witnessed the destruction of their Temple, their city, and their homes. They have endured unimaginable loss and trauma in their lives. And yet, God says, “I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and held you. I have given you as a covenant to the people. I made you a light to the nations.” And as for the former things – they have all come to pass. They are finished and over with. You can’t go back there, because I am doing a new thing and it is about to burst forth into the world. In the very next chapter of Isaiah, God says the exact same thing, but even more clearly. He says, “Forget what lies behind you, because I am doing a new thing, do you not perceive it?” God knows our tendency to go back to what is safe and predictable, to go back to what is known and familiar. And so, God says to his people, “Forget what lies behind you. Let go of the past.  Burn the ships. The former things have come to pass. A new day is dawning. A new light shining. A new life is starting. “

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Restored to Dignity

Image of God

God wonderfully created, and yet more wonderfully restored the dignity of human nature. 

It’s a new year. A new decade. A new beginning. A fresh start. Which means that approximately 141 million Americans have made a new year’s resolution. Now every year the top ten list of new year’s resolutions is pretty much the same. People resolve to get organized, to eat healthier foods, to exercise more, to spend less money, and, of course, to lose weight. But I am convinced that underneath of all these various resolutions is a deep desire to live a more authentic, abundant, purpose-driven life. In other words, there is something inside of us that yearns for a joy filled life, a life of genuine connection, a life of meaning and value. And all our various resolutions are actually an expression of that yearning, an expression of that deep desire in our soul.

Now, of course, most of us fail miserably at keeping new year’s resolutions. Within one week, which means by this Wednesday, about 25 percent of our resolutions will have already been broken. Within one month, over 40 percent will be abandoned. And, according to one statistic, only about 8 percent of all new year’s resolutions are actually accomplished. And this, of course, represents a much larger pattern in our lives. The pattern of seeking change, seeking transformation, seeking the authentic, abundant, purposedriven life we are longing for, but ultimately falling back into the same old patterns, the same old behaviors, and habits of the past.

Why? Why do we do that? Not just in the month of January, but every day of our lives. Why do we step out into the new only to fall back into the old? There are some obvious answers. Fear. Doubt. Busyness. Laziness. But there is one answer that I think we often avoid. One answer we don’t want to confront. And that answer is shame.

Now you might be thinking, Fr. Doug, we are here on the first Sunday of the year, we’re all excited and ready to go, and you want us to think about shame? Yeah, I do want us to think about shame, because the reality is that shame has a significant and crippling impact on our emotional and spiritual wellbeing. Author and speaker, Brené Brown refers to shame as an “unspoken, hidden, epidemic.” She says, “shame is the secret behind many forms of broken behavior.”

It’s important to note the difference between guilt and shame. Guilt says, “What I’ve done is wrong.” Shame says, “Who I am is wrong?” According to Brené Brown, shame is “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.” And so, when we so desperately want to step into the abundant life of God’s kingdom, it is shame that more often than not holds us back. When we step out into the new, it is shame that pulls us back, and causes us to return into the old patterns, behaviors, and habits According to Brown, “shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change!”

If we go all the way back to the beginning of the Book of Genesis when God creates humanity in God’s image. When the man and woman are fully formed and placed in the Garden of Eden, the very last description of humanity before everything goes wrong says simply, “they were not ashamed.”  Shame was not part of God’s original design. We were created with dignity. We were created with purpose. We were created with meaning. We were created in the very image and likeness of God. But in the very next chapter of the Book of Genesis, after humanity rebelled against God, our eyes were opened to our nakedness and we went into hiding. And in so many ways, we have been hiding ever since.  

But this morning, we are here because Jesus came to call us out of hiding. He came to heal, renew and restore. He came to restore our humanity, to restore our purpose, and to restore our dignity. At the beginning of our service this morning, we prayed the Collect of the Day, which is the prayer that is supposed to summarize the theme or intention of our worship. And as we prayed this morning, we declared that God is the One who “wonderfully created and yet more wonderfully restored the dignity of human nature.” Jesus came to heal, renew, and restore us back to fullness of who we were created to be.

The Apostle Paul takes that even a step further. He says in his Letter to the Ephesians, “before the foundation of the world, God chose us to be holy and blameless before him in love.” God chose us. Before anything came into being, God chose us. Before the very pillars of the earth were set in place, God chose us. Before light was separated from darkness, God chose us. Before any creepy thing creeped along the surface of the earth. God chose us. And he chose us to be holy and blameless, to walk with dignity, to live lives of meaning and purpose, to reflect the very image and likeness of God. And yet, somehow in the midst of the brokenness and chaos of this world, we experience pain and hurt and loss and failure. We feel ashamed and we go into hiding. Continue reading

The Parable of the Birds

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“No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son,

who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.”

Throughout the month of December, we have been surrounded by the traditional characters of the Christmas story. Whether it’s the cover of a greeting card, the plastic nativity scene in the yard down the street, or the children in the annual Christmas pageant, we can’t escape Mary and Joseph, shepherds and angels, stars and donkeys, and cows and camels. And, of course, every Christmas Eve, all of these characters come together in the climatic reading of the second chapter of Gospel of Luke and we hear once again the song of the angels announcing the birth of Jesus, the Messiah, the Savior of the World.

But then we come to Christmas Day, and we come to the actual season of Christmas, and all of those characters fade into the background. And the famous prologue of the Gospel of John moves to the foreground. The Word became flesh. The Word came and dwelled among us. At the beginning of the Gospel of John, we don’t know who the parents of Jesus are. There are no shepherds or angels or stars or donkeys. There is no heavenly chorus announcing the birth of a Savior. It is the simply the Word made flesh. The very essence of God made human. In so many ways, the beginning of the Gospel of John cuts right to the heart of the matter – God becoming one of us.

For nearly two thousand years, theologians and philosophers have wrestled with the mystery of the incarnation. Why did the infinite step down into the finite? Why did the fullness of divinity enter into the fullness of humanity? Why did God become one of the us? This morning, I would like to share a simple parable that was published exactly 60 years ago this month. It’s called the Parable of the Birds.

Now the man to whom I’m going to introduce you was not a scrooge; he was a kind, decent, mostly good man. He was generous to his family and upright in his dealings with his neighbors and friends. But he just didn’t believe all that stuff about God becoming a human being, which the churches proclaim at Christmas time. It just didn’t make sense, and he was too honest to pretend otherwise. Why would God become one of us?

So, on Christmas Eve, the man told his wife, “I’m truly sorry to distress you, but I’m not going with you to church tonight.” He said he’d feel like a hypocrite and that he would much rather just stay at home. And so, he stayed home, and his family went to the midnight service. Shortly after the family drove away in the car, snow began to fall. He went to the window to watch the flurries getting heavier and heavier. Then he went back to his fireside chair to read his newspaper. Minutes later he was startled by a thudding sound. Then another and another — sort of a thump or a thud. At first, he thought someone must have been throwing snowballs against his living room window.

But when he went to the front door to investigate, he found a flock of birds huddled miserably in the snow. They’d been caught in the storm and, in a desperate search for shelter, had tried to fly through his large landscape window. Well, he couldn’t let the poor creatures lie there and freeze, so he remembered the barn where his children stabled their pony. That would provide a warm shelter, if he could direct the birds to it. Quickly he put on a coat and galoshes and then he tramped through the deepening snow to the barn. He opened the doors wide and turned on a light, but the birds did not come in. He figured food would entice them. So, he hurried back to the house, fetched breadcrumbs and sprinkled them on the snow. He made a trail to the brightly lit, wide-open doorway of the stable. But to his dismay, the birds ignored the breadcrumbs and continued to flap around helplessly in the snow. He tried catching them. He tried shooing them into the barn by walking around them and waving his arms. Instead, they scattered in every direction, except into the warm, lighted barn. And then he realized that they were afraid. To them, he reasoned, I am a strange and terrifying creature. If only I could think of some way to let them know that they can trust me — that I am not trying to hurt them but to help them, that I am trying to show them the way. But how? Any move he made tended to frighten and confuse them. They just would not follow. They would not be led or shooed, because they were afraid, confused, and lost.

 “If only I could be a bird,” he thought to himself, “and mingle with them and speak their language. Then I could tell them not to be afraid. Then I could show them the way to the safe warm barn. But I would have to be one of them so they could see and hear and understand.” At that moment the church bells began to ring. The sound reached his ears above the sounds of the wind. And he stood there listening to the bells pealing the glad tidings of Christmas. And he sank to his knees in the snow. “Now I understand,” he whispered. “Now I see why you had to do it. That’s why you came!

 “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” That’s why he came!

Word Made Flesh

Manger

“And the Word became flesh and dwelled among us” – John 1:14

We can learn a lot from our children. I have been thinking about an experience I had with my older son, Clayton, when he was about four. We were at home, just the two of us, Clayton was playing with Legos on the floor and I was working on my computer. Everything was going fairly well until the Lego spaceship my son was building fell apart. He said, “Dad, can you put this spaceship back together.” And I said, “Clayton, I am busy with some important work, you need to play quietly.” As he tried to put the broken Lego spaceship back together, he became increasingly frustrated with the situation and he said, “Dad, how does this spaceship go back together.” This time I attempted to provide instructions for the rebuilding of the spaceship and continue my work at the same time. So, I would look over and say, “Try connecting those two yellow Legos to the big red one.” But I was still typing an e-mail and I really wasn’t invested in the Lego rebuilding project. Finally, my son said, “Daddy I just need you to come down here and help me.” And so, I got down on the floor with Clayton and together we rebuilt the Lego spaceship. (And I must say that it was one of nicest Lego spaceships I’ve ever seen!).

I think this simple story illustrates the various ways that people understand their relationship with God. For some, God is utterly distant. Perhaps God created the world, he is far too busy to be involved in our everyday lives. For others, God is available in time of need or crisis. And when we need Him, God simply provides guidance or wisdom.

But this morning, we have not come to worship a God who is utterly distant. Nor have we come to worship a God that is simply available at some moment of crisis. We have come to worship the God who comes down to us, the God who gets down on the floor with us, the God who rolls up His sleeves and gets involved in the messiness of our lives.

In the gospel reading for today, we are told that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…and the Word became flesh and lived among us.” The phrase “lived among us” literally means “to set up one’s tent” – “to set up one’s residence.” We are here today because Jesus Christ is GOD WITH US. The Word made flesh. The Son of the living God with us and among us. But I think the question that we must continually ask ourselves is WHY? Why was the WORD made flesh? Why did God come to us? This is a question that theologians and philosophers have wrestled with for nearly 2,000 year, but this morning I am going to attempt to summarize 2,000 years of theological reflection in two words.

The first word is RELATIONSHIP

We were created to be in relationship. We were created with the capacity to give and receive love. We have that need built within us. We see this dynamic played out in our lives. I read an article recently that said that an estimated 18 million people utilize online dating resources each month. That’s over two hundred 200 million people each year. People are searching for something meaningful. People are searching for something that will fill the void that we often experience in our hearts.

One of the earliest theologians named Augustine wrote a famous prayer in which he said to the Lord “You made us for yourself. Our hearts are restless until they find rest in you.” And I believe that these words have resonated with people’s lives for nearly 1600 years, because they capture an essential truth – the truth that all of our other relationships only find meaning in our relationship with God. In other words, we search to find fulfillment in the various relationships in our lives, but the only relationship that truly brings fulfillment is our relationship with God through his Son, Jesus Christ. In the gospel of John tonight we are told that “to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.” In Christ, our relationship with God is brought back into alignment. Through Christ, we are adopted into the family of God. Why did God come down to us? RELATIONSHIP!

The second word is REVELATION.

And the revelation comes through the relationship. How do you get to know someone? Through relationship! When I met my wife, I didn’t go on the internet and do research to find out about her. No. Her nature and character were REVEALED to me through my RELATIONSHIP with her. In the same way, the nature and character of God are revealed to us through our RELATIONSHIP with Him. We have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

We are gathered here on this holy day to give thanks to God for the gift of His Son. And we are gathered here especially to give thanks for God coming to us. Unfortunately, our lives are more complicated than the days when we simply needed help putting our lego spaceship back together.  But no matter what circumstances we face in our lives, God’s love is always present. God’s promise to be with us is always true. God’s grace is always sufficient.

Keep Your Eyes Open

Shepherd

 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch…

When I was a young priest and just starting out as the Rector of my first parish, I met a woman named Anne. At the time, Anne was in her eighties and her countenance revealed a life of hardship and challenge. Anne was as an author, an activist, a professor of literature, who had traveled the globe, but what captivated me was the depth and complexity of her faith. She possessed a peace and tranquility that I have rarely witnessed before or since, and when Anne looked at you with her gentle smile and kind eyes, you just knew that she was looking right into your soul.

Over time, Anne and I developed a friendship and we would meet periodically to talk about spiritual things. On one particular occasion, we sat down together, and I offered to begin with a prayer. I closed my eyes and tried to pray the most sophisticated prayer I could muster. Before I finished the prayer, I opened my eyes and noticed that Anne’s eyes were already open. I wondered for a moment whether she had closed her eyes at all during my prayer. When our conversation was over, I again offered to pray, but this time I peeked! And not only were Anne’s eyes opened, but she was looking around the room. I thought to myself, “Here I am in the presence of this spiritual giant and I am boring her with my prayer!” Everything inside of me wanted to ask this powerfully spiritual woman why she didn’t close her eyes when she prayed, but I stopped short, not wanting to offend my friend. After we had said our “goodbyes” and as I turned to go back into my office, Anne paused and said, “Doug, keep your eyes open, because God is always on the move!”

Tonight, we gather to once again hear the message of the angels. “Behold, I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ, the Lord.”

If I could paraphrase the angels for a moment, I think what they’re saying is, “God is on the move. The promise you have been waiting for is being fulfilled. The expectations that you have been holding onto all these years are being met. The One whose coming you have been longing for is finally here.”

The good news of Christmas, my friends, is that “God is on the move.” But this good news, this history changing news, this life transforming news was not proclaimed to those in positions of power or privilege. It was not professed to those seated on thrones or chariots. It was not pronounced to those with titles living in towers or temples.

The good news of Christmas was announced to a lowly company of shepherds. Shepherd were social outcasts, considered unclean and uncivilized. There weren’t many groups further down the socio-economic ladder than shepherds. Yet they were the ones who received the good news. They were the ones who saw the angel of the Lord. They were the ones who witnessed the very glory of God.

Why? Because it was the shepherds who were keeping watch. They were keeping watch over their flocks for sure. But I think there is something deeper going on. The shepherds are the ones who are watching, who are paying attention. The shepherds are the ones who are intentionally keeping their eyes open. And so, the shepherds are the ones who, before anyone else, see that God is on the move.

The powerful and the privileged didn’t see it. The political and religious leaders didn’t see it. The ones who should have been paying attention didn’t see it. But the shepherds, the most unlikely of people in the most unlikely of places in the most unlikely of circumstances, they were given a glimpse of the very glory of God, because their eyes were open!

My friends, our world desperately needs good news. Our world needs history changing, life transforming news. However, I think we can all agree that when we turn on our televisions or scroll through our social media news feed, we don’t often see a lot of good news. We don’t often see the signs of hope we are looking for. We don’t often see the possibility for true healing and transformation in our world or in our lives.

It can be tempting to just put our heads down. To close our eyes to the needs of the world. To choose to not pay attention. And yet, the experience of the shepherds compels us to keep watch. To pay attention. To intentionally keep our eyes open. Because when we do, we will see God on the move in the most surprising and unexpected ways.

About a month ago, my wife and I spent a few days in Key West for our 20th wedding anniversary. I’m an early riser, so I typically sneak out before Shannon wakes up to go for a walk and grab a cup of coffee. On this particular morning, I found a local Starbucks. I ordered my Grande Christmas Blend, my personal favorite, and found a quiet corner to sit and read. Now this was a rather large Starbucks with seating for at least 30 or 40 people and there was only one other person in the store at the time. As I was sitting there sipping my coffee and reading my book, a homeless man walked in. He ordered a cup of coffee and a Danish. I watched as he pulled a handful of loose coins from his pockets and paid his bill. Of the 30 or 40 remaining empty seats, the man proceeded to sit in the leather chair right next to me. I looked at his face and our eyes met briefly. Like my friend Anne, this man had a gentle smile and kind eyes, and when he looked at me it felt as though he was looking right into my soul.

We exchanged greetings and then we sat in silence as he ate his Danish and sipped his coffee. We didn’t say another word. Nothing particularly significant happened. There was no heavenly chorus. And yet, in those few moments we sat next to each other I can only say that I felt as though I was in the presence of Jesus in a way that have only felt a few other times in my life. Jesus told us that we would encounter him in the least of these our brothers and sisters. After the man left, I couldn’t help but think of the words of my friend Anne, “Doug, keep your eyes open, God is always on the move.”

Among the most unlikely of people in the most unlikely of places in the most unlikely of circumstances, we catch a glimpse of the glory of God.  Whether it’s a company of lowly shepherds in Bethlehem or a homeless man in a Key West Starbucks, God is on the move!

Tonight, as you leave this place and forth into the world, keep your eyes open. Even when it seems like disillusionment and disappointment are taking over, keep your eyes open. Even when it seems like fear and uncertainty are crowding in, keep your eyes open. Even when it seems easier to put your head down and shut out the needs of the world, keep your eyes open – because, my friends, God is always on the move.

The Surrendered Life

Christian Woman Sitting Down in Prayer Silhouette

This morning at our 10:00 service, our Sunday School children will be presenting their annual Christmas pageant. The Christmas pageant has been around for nearly a thousand years as a way of retelling the miraculous and glorious events surrounding the birth of Jesus. Of course, when you’re dealing with small children, you can always count on there being at least one giggling wise man, one or two crying angels, and more than a few wandering sheep. But I’ve always had a one major problem with most Christmas pageants. And the problem is that most Christmas pageants take Matthew’s version of the story and Luke’s version of the story and mash them together, even though the two stories are quite distinct.

Luke begins his story in Nazareth. Matthew begins in Bethlehem. Luke tells us about Elizabeth and Zachariah. Matthew tells us about King Herod and his sons. Luke tells us about Shepherds and angels. Matthew tells us about the mysterious Magi from the east. And most importantly, Luke focuses his story on the experience of Mary, while Matthew focuses his story on the experience of Joseph.

Now most of the time I think it’s important not to confuse these two different stories and to focus on one or the other. But this week it occurred to me that these two different stories – the story of Joseph and Mary are meant to intersect and overlap with one another. After all, together they were the earthly parents of the Son of God. And so, this week, as I read through Matthew’s story, which we heard this morning and then read through Luke’s story, what I discovered is that both Joseph and Mary have an experience a spiritual transformation. Both Joseph and Mary experience a movement from resistance to surrender.

Let’s begin with Joseph. Joseph and Mary are engaged to be married, but are not living together, implying there was no physical intimacy between them. And yet Mary is found to be with child. Now we, as the readers of Matthew’s gospel, know that the child is from the Holy Spirit, but in the story, Joseph doesn’t know that. Joseph is completely blindsided and so, we can only imagine the emotional wrestling that he was experiencing. Ultimately, being a righteous man, Joseph decides to dismiss Mary quietly. He doesn’t want to make a big deal about this. But when it comes to God’s plan, Joseph is in a state of resistance. He is resisting because he has no clue what is going on. At this point, he simply doesn’t understand God’s plan.

Mary, on the other hand, is visited by the angel Gabriel in Luke’s version of the story. And Gabriel lays out the whole plan. He says, “Mary, here is how this is going to work. You’re going to have a son. His name will be Jesus. He will do great things and he will ultimately change the world.” The angel lays it all out for Mary before anything begins to happen. And yet Mary’s response is “How can this be?” After all, she is young. She’s not married. She’s from a no-name town called Nazareth. And so, Mary, like Joseph, is in a state of resistance, but not because this news is not understandable, but because it’s not believable.

These two different experiences of Joseph and Mary,  I think represent the different ways we often respond to God’s action in our lives. Sometimes our response is like Joseph. Things happen that we simply don’t understand. Things happen that don’t make sense. Things happen that challenge the status quo. And rather than seek to see with the eyes of faith, we resist. We hold back. We pursue our normal human response. It would have been perfectly understandable for Joseph to send Mary packing her bags. But that wasn’t God’s plan. At this point it the story, Joseph doesn’t understand.

Sometimes our response is like Mary. We know what we are being asked to do. The assignment is clear. The mission is clear. The purpose that God has for us seems abundantly clear. And yet, we have a hard time believing it’s true! We think we’re too young or too old. We’re not spiritual enough or not educated enough. We don’t have enough experience or training. And so, like Mary, we say, “How can this be?”

Sometimes, like Joseph, we resist God’s plan because it’s not understandable.

Sometimes, like Mary, we resist God’s plan because it’s not believable.

But both Joseph and Mary experience a movement from resistance to surrender. The angel of the Lord appears to Joseph and says, “This thing that is happening is the work of the Holy Spirit.” The angel who had been speaking with Mary says to her, “This thing that is happening is the work of the Holy Spirit.” The angel said to Joseph, “This is the fulfillment of the God’s promises made long ago.” The angel said to Mary, “Nothing is impossible with God.” Ultimately, Joseph did as the Lord commanded him. And Mary famously declared, “Let it be to me according to your word!”

Both Joseph and Mary have a transformational encounter with the presence of God both of them move from fear to faith. Both of them move from doubt to determination. Both of them move from resistance to surrender.

I think quite often in our lives, we get stuck in a place of resistance. We get stuck in a place of trying to figure everything out. We see the disconnect between the reality of our world and the promises of God and we grow weary;we grow doubtful that things will ever really change. We grow suspicious and even cynical. And most significantly, we lose the capacity to trust – to trust God and to trust one another. But the experience of Joseph and Mary challenges us to move from a place of resistance to a place of surrender, to move from the question, ‘How can this be?’ to the declaration, ‘Let it be!”

This morning we are drawing close to the end of our Advent journey. Over the past month, we have talked about living the unexpected life. We’ve talked about living the imperfect life. We’ve talked about living the joy-filled life. But this morning we are challenged to live the surrendered life. To acknowledge that there are things about God’s plan that are hard to understand and, at times, even hard to believe. And yet, God calls us to trust. To let go. To let it be. Because with God all things are possible. 

The Joy-Filled Life

Life in extreme conditions

“The desert shall rejoice and blossom.” – Isaiah 35:1

Exactly three centuries ago this year, the great English hymnwriter, Isaac Watts, penned one of the most popular Christmas carols of all time. At one point this hymn was the most published hymn in the world and over the past fifty years in the United States, this particular song has been the second most recorded Christmas song, surpassed only by Silent Night. This beloved Christmas carol is, of course, Joy to the World. For me, it’s hard to imagine a Christmas season going by without the joyful proclamation that heaven and nature sing of God’s salvation, that we are called as God’s people to repeat the sounding joy, that God’s blessings flow far as the curse is found, and that the nations of the earth are called to show forth the wonders of his love.

But when Isaac Watts wrote the lyrics for Joy to the World three hundred years ago, he never intended for it to be sung as a Christmas carol. The song never mentions the name of Jesus. There are no shepherds, no angels, no star, no Mary, no Joseph, no Wise Men, no manger – none of the typical images or characters associated with the season of Christmas. The lyrics are actually based on Psalm 98, which says “Shout with joy to the Lord, all the earth, lift up your voice, rejoice, and sing!” The words of this great hymn call our attention not to a baby born in Bethlehem, but to a God who is powerfully redeeming and restoring all of creation. They are words that remind us that when God’s joy breaks into our lives and into our world, nothing is the same.

Now, during this season of Advent, we have been reflecting on the challenge of Advent. Two weeks ago, we explored the challenge of living the unexpected life. Last Sunday we reflected on what it means to live the imperfect life. This morning, on this third Sunday of Advent, I would like to invite us to explore what is means to live a joy-filled life.

This is an appropriate theme for today because on this third Sunday of Advent we light the rose-colored candle, and the traditional theme for that third candle is joy.  In our Old Testament reading from Isaiah, we hear the theme of joy loud and clear. Isaiah says that when God shows up on the scene the wilderness and the dessert will blossom and rejoice with joy and singing. He says the blind will see, the deaf will hear, and the speechless will sing for joy. And when God shows up the people of God will march to Zion, the Mountain of the Lord, and everlasting joy shall be upon their heads, and they shall obtain joy and gladness.

Isaiah is describing the promise that God is in the process of the renewing and restoring all of creation. And to describe the experience of this new creation Isaiah uses one word over and over and over again – and that one word is JOY. So, this morning what I would submit to you is that if joy is such a central theme when it comes to the promise of God’s new creation, we probably should understand what it means to live a joy-filled life.

First, we need to understand that joy is a spiritual gift. Joy is not something that we can create. It is not something that we can manufacture. But rather joy is a spiritual gift freely given and freely received. Isaiah actually refers to joy as something that has a tangible quality, he says, God’s people will go forth with “everlasting joy upon their heads!” Think about JOY resting upon your head! You might think of joy is something that you wear like a garment. It is an expression of who we are.

This understanding of joy is important because it helps us to distinguish between the spiritual gift of joy and the human emotion of happiness. HAPPINESS is an emotional response to positive events and circumstances in our life. Therefore, happiness is primarily determined by external factors. JOY, on the other hand, is a spiritual “state of being” and is primarily determined by internal factors. Joy is about who we are, not necessarily how we feel. JOY is not an emotion, but a spiritual gift. Continue reading

The Imperfect Life

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When I was a child, the beginning of the month of December brought with it the selection of our annual Christmas tree. We would make our way to the Christmas tree lot and my dad would hold up a series of trees until we found “the one.” We would proudly take the tree home, set it up in our living room, and then begin the annual tradition of lighting and decorating the tree.

Now about twelve years ago, my family and I decided to invest in a quality artificial tree. It’s more costeffective over time. It’s creates less of a mess. And, after all, artificial trees are manufactured to be essentially perfect. The trunk of the tree is exactly straight. Each branch is evenly spaced around the circumference of the tree. The shape of the tree is perfectly balanced with no extraneous, protruding limbs. And, of course, most importantly, it doesn’t drop its needles. Now for someone like me who likes symmetry, balance, order, and consistency, an artificial tree is ideal. So, for more than a decade, an artificial tree has adorned our house.

But this year, the Jupiter High School Band department was selling Christmas trees as one of its major annual fundraisers. Since my son is a part of that program, we, of course, wanted to support him and the program, so we bought a tree. We picked up the tree on Friday night and spent last night decorating the tree as a family while we drank hot cocoa.

It’s a beautiful tree. We had a fantastic time. And I am actually very excited to begin the tradition of having a real tree again. But here’s what I noticed – real trees aren’t perfect. The trunk is bit crooked. There are some gaps between branches. The tree is wider on one side than the other. And, of course, it drops its needles. All of that has got me thinking about the differences between the fake and real trees.

The fake tree is essentially empty and lifeless. The real tree is full and alive.

The fake tree is the product of a manufacturing process in a distant factory. The real tree is the product of growth and endurance and adaptability.

The fake tree is stored safely in a cardboard box in the protection of my garage. The real tree has faced the elements of wind and rain, heat and drought, and the unpredictability of simply existing.

Ultimately, the fake tree is a symbol of the perfectionism of our manufactured world. The real tree is a symbol of the imperfections, the blemishes, and the flaws of life.

Last Sunday, we reflected on the season of Advent as a time when we are challenged to live more fully into the present moment, to engage the reality and complexity of real life. This morning, I would like to invite us to reflect on the season of Advent as a time when we are challenged to recognize the imperfections of our world and our lives, and to reflect on our deep need for healing and renewal. 

It doesn’t take very long and you don’t have to search very far to see the imperfections, blemishes, and flaws in the world around us. Just turn on your television, read the newspaper, or scroll through your Facebook newsfeed. We see imperfection all around us. We see inconsistency. We see injustice. We see inequality. We see war. We see violence. We see brokenness. We see people hurting. We see pain. We see despair. We see the imperfections of this world.

But, of course, one of the hardest things to do is to recognize those imperfections within ourselves. It’s difficult for us to acknowledge our own complicity in the imperfection of the world, our own brokenness and sinfulness. And this is hard for us to do, because we spend a lot of time and energy trying to cover up our imperfections. The dominate message of our cultural context is to deny our imperfections, to cover up our brokenness, to make sure everyone thinks we have it all together. Over the last decade, the rise of social media has fueled this perfectionist mindset. Facebook is plastered with images of the perfect family, the perfect vacation, the perfect dinner, the perfect gift, the perfect house – every image is cropped and filtered and edited in such a way as to remove the imperfections, to eliminate the flaws, to cover up the blemishes, to deny the inconsistencies. And as a result, we live in a cropped, filtered, and edited world.

Yet the season of Advent is a time when we are challenged to confront our imperfections, to confront the injustices in our world, to confront the sinfulness of our lives. John the Baptist came preaching a message of repentance, a message that called people to account, a message that was brutally honest about the imperfections of the world. I mean, he calls the religious leaders a “brood of vipers.” You don’t get more brutally honest than that. The very leaders who were charged with shepherding God’s people are confronted with their own issues, their own brokenness, their own need for repentance and renewal. The message of John the Baptist is to “get real.” Advent is a time when we are challenged to confront our imperfections.

But even more than that Advent is also a time when we discover that God actually works through our imperfections to bring about the perfection of his kingdom. 

Our OT reading from the prophet Isaiah begins with the image of a shoot coming forth from the stump of Jesse. Jesse was the father of King David. Jesse was the starting point of what would become the great Davidic dynasty. But, guess what? Jesse wasn’t perfect. David certainly wasn’t perfect. The sons of David weren’t perfect. Their children, and their children’s children weren’t perfect, and so on and so forth. There was brokenness and shame and pain and hurt. And what was once a towering tree of spiritual and political leadership was ultimately reduced to a stump. Everyone looked at the stump and thought – it’s over, it’s done, it’s finished.

But Isaiah looked down the road a bit, he looked with the eyes of faith, and he declared, “Out of that stump, there is going to come a shoot. Out of that brokenness, out of that disappointment, out of that imperfection, something great and glorious and majestic is going to come forth and it’s going to change the world!”

And centuries later, long after prophetic words of Isaiah were uttered, that shoot came forth. Out of the messiness and brokenness and imperfections of Jesse’s family tree, a baby would be born in a manger and that baby would turn out to be the Savior of the world!

My friends, whatever the imperfections are in your life – whatever the blemishes and flaws and brokenness – our God is a God who redeems and restores and makes all things new. Our God is a God who works through the imperfections of our lives to bring about the ultimate perfection of his kingdom.

One of my favorite prayers in the prayer book is a collect that is prayed on Good Friday, at the Easter Vigil, and at every ordination of a bishop, priest, or deacon – and part of the prayer goes like this – O God of unchangeable power and eternal light, let the whole world see and know that things which were cast downare being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Unexpected Life

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Advent is a challenging season. While the culture around us has already jumped into the stream of Christmas celebrations, we are called on this first Sunday of Advent to wait, to watch, to stay alert, to be spiritually prepared. As a mentor of mine once said, “If the season of Advent doesn’t make you feel like we are swimming upstream, then you probably aren’t doing it right!” We are called to push against the strong cultural currents of consumerism and secularization. For example, during the 48 hours of Thanksgiving Day and Black Friday, Americans spent a record breaking 11.6 billion dollars in online sales alone. And yet, the season of Advent challenges us to be still, to be quiet, to actually slow down, rather than speed up.

But I think there is an even deeper challenge that we face during the season of Advent and it is that deeper challenge that would like us to explore this morning. This deeper challenge can be summarized by two words. These two words represent two actions that consume a great deal of our time and energy. And these two actions represent one of the primary ways we organize and understand our lives.

The first action is ANTICIPATION – Anticipation is an emotional response involving excitement or, at times, anxiety regarding some expected or longed-for event. We spend a lot of time and energy engaged in the process of anticipation, the process of planning, preparing, and dealing with expectations about the future.

The second action is REFLECTION – Reflection is the emotional processing that takes place after the expected or longed for event. Sometimes reflection is a formal process that includes things like journaling, meditation, or counseling. But more often reflection is simply the soundtrack of our brains. We have a tendency to analyze certain events or experiences over and over and over again.

It has been said that life is primarily a cycle of anticipation and reflection. If you think about it, almost every day of our lives, we experience this cycle in some form or another. There are days when I wake up in the morning, before I am even fully conscious, a flood of events and meetings and items on my to-do list seems to come crashing into my brain. And so, from the moment I wake up I am already engaged in this cycle of anticipation, planning, preparation, I am full of expectations.

When the day is done, we typically spend at least some time reflecting on the day that has passed. We talk things over with a friend or a spouse. Or many people today engage in the process of reflection by updating their Facebook status. Social media has become a virtual world of mutual reflection. As we spend time reflecting, sometimes we feel good about what has happened and sometimes we don’t!

We see this cycle most clearly play out when it comes to significant events in our lives, such as going to college, preparing for a career, getting married, or having children. But we also see this cycle play out in the mundane, everyday activities of our lives, such as going to the grocery store. Working on a school project with our kids.Planning a party. Remodeling your house. Going on a vacation.

ANTICIPATION and REFLECTION. These two basic actions consume a great deal of our time and energy and they represent one of the primary ways we organize and understand our lives.

But here is the great irony with this cycle of anticipation and reflection. The irony is that more often than not, when we engage in the process of reflection, when we look back over the events and circumstances of our lives we end up saying to ourselves, “That’s not what I anticipated, that’s not what I planned and prepared for, that’s not what I expected!”

There is this gap in-between ANTICIPATION and REFLECTION. And this space in-between is the present moment. This is where life actually happens. We spend a lot of time over here. We spend a lot of time over here, and yet the space in-between represents the reality of our lives, and what we discover in this in-between space, in the reality of our lives, is that things don’t always go as planned, we discover that more often than not life is full of the UNEXPECTED. We plan, we prepare, we anticipate, and yet our lives are often dramatically different than what we planned for, what we anticipated.

Sometimes this space is filled unexpected blessings. Perhaps a dreaded meeting at work becomes an unexpected opportunity for growth and healing and reconciliation. Perhaps a financial burden is unexpectedly lifted, or a healthissue resolved. Or maybe it’s just a thank you note or a word of encouragement or some other unexpected acts of generosity. There are times when this in-between space is filled with blessings.

But often this space is filled with unexpected trials and unexpected pain. Perhaps it’s the remembrance of someone close to you that is no longer there. Perhaps it’s a financial crisis that just won’t go away. Perhaps it’s the report from your doctor that’s not very encouraging. Or perhaps there are unhealed hurts from your past that are still a source of pain in your own heart and mind.

Those are times when you reflect upon your life and say, ”That’s not what I anticipated, that’s not what I expected, that’s not what I planned for!” But my friends, the challenge of ADVENT is truly live into this in-between space, to live in the present moment, to embrace the reality of our lives. This is the challenge of Advent.

Because in just a few weeks we are going to celebrate once again that we have a Savior who has come and has entered into this in-between space. Jesus came to enter into the reality of our lives. Jesus came to enter into the midst of our greatest joy and deepest pain. This is the space of true waiting. This is the space where we learn to trust God.  This is the space where we discover our own need for grace. This is the space of total surrender. This the space where we are most fully alive. 

Did you notice that all of our readings this morning use the language of everyday life, the language of the present moment, to describe our spiritual journey? The prophet Isaiah calls us to go for a walk in the light of God’s presence.Paul reminds us that it is time to set our spiritual alarm clocks, to wake up and pay attention because salvation is nearer than when we first believed. Jesus challenges us to stay awake because he will return at an unexpected hour.

We spend so much time over here anticipating, planning, preparing, and so much time reflecting, evaluating, and critiquing. Yet God challenges us to live in this in-between space, the space where life happens. And so, during this Advent season, what would it look like for you and me to enter into this space? What would it look like in the midst of the frenzied activity of the world around us for you and me to just be? To wait. To watch. To wake up. To enter into the unexpectedness of the present moment. And to catch a glimpse of the very glory of God.