Sunday, January 27, 2019

Everyone Has One Sermon

Luke 4:14-21; Psalm 19:14


        I believe everyone has one sermon in them. Most will never be preached in a pulpit because few will ever be spoken publicly. But when alone in the shower, or day dreaming during worship, I bet each one of you has some profound thought you would love to share with the world.

        A onetime sermon is a wonderful thing.  No one expects a first timer to be any good at preaching.  So we are all surprised with the energy, the honesty, the sheer raw emotion that comes from a neophyte brave enough to bear her soul.  I imagine we have all experienced Youth Sunday. Depending on the leadership, much of what is read has been carefully crafted by a professional hand. But some ministers and particularly educators are wise enough to trust the Holy Spirit. For a brief moment a child speaks her version of the truth and we are amazed.

        In the gospel of Luke, after Jesus left a supernatural encounter in the wilderness, his first official stop was to worship back home. The local Rabbi asked if Jesus could assist in the service. This happens quite often to seminary students before they receive their first call. After three years of lectures and examinations they come home to the folks who first believed in the young preacher. The congregation wants to celebrate the product of their own loins. The graduate speaks but seldom is any word heard. Each member of the congregation is lost in memories of their first encounter with the young soul. When the service ends, members stand in line to offer words of wisdom and encouragement. They are so proud. Yet the graduate is left wondering if anyone actually heard what was said.   Jesus did not encounter this breach of first-timer protocol. His audience was more than amazed. They were outraged.

        For thirty years Jesus must have thought about what he wanted to say to his first congregation. When that opportunity arrived, unlike Amos, who offered his first time sermon to strangers, Jesus spoke to friends and neighbors. But the results were similar. Amos went to the city of Bethel and told the king, the priest, and anyone else who was listening that they were all headed to hell in a hand basket. After the sermon the congregation took Amos out behind the Temple and killed him. When Jesus finished his first sermon, his friends and neighbors tried to throw him off a cliff proving sometimes the congregation is listening, much to the chagrin of the one who dares to speak the holy words.

        Ironically Jesus did not write his first sermon. He lifted it from the 61st chapter of Isaiah. It was not some vague passage members of the synagogue had never encountered. Everyone sitting before Jesus knew the story.  After two generations of captivity, the surviving Hebrews were released from Babylon to return to Jerusalem. Through the inspiration of Ezra and Nehemiah they rebuilt both the city and the Temple. Each Sabbath they entered the Holy Place and offered prayers asking for a return to the glory days of King David. But Jerusalem remained in the shadow of Persia, and Egypt, and Greece and eventually Rome. Jerusalem forgot the ways of the Lord and once again became a divided people, enslaving and impoverishing others with acts of greed. Then the poet proclaimed, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me to bring good news to the poor, bind up the broken hearted, to offer liberty to the captives, sight to the blind, and let the oppressed go free.” Rather than being uplifted by these words of joy, the poet was suppressed with silence. How can emancipation be announced when powerful hegemonies still ruled the land?

        Jesus read the words and boldly proclaimed, “Today, in me, this scripture will be fulfilled.” Suddenly visions of the little boy they watched grow up were swept from their collective memories. Whispers filled the congregation:

 “So, the son of a carpenter thinks he can mend our broken world?”

“Who inspired him to such nonsense?”

“He must have spent too much time in the wilderness?”

“What will happen to us if word gets out there is a dreamer living in Nazareth?”

“When did Jesus become so political?”

“Will Rome hold us responsible?”

Jesus responded with exactly the wrong words. “I tell you, no prophet is accepted in his home town.”  The congregation turned into a mob intent on killing him. But Jesus passed through the midst of them and disappeared.

First time sermons, what do we do with them? We all have one but few are preached. Usually that spirit of the emancipating God is pressed deep into the depths of our soul. We discover clever words which entertain but seldom inspire. Eventually we are converted to the ways of the world. It keeps us safe. It shackles our feet to solid ground. After all, who wants to be thrown over a cliff?

I once was privileged to hear Desmond TuTu speak. He was asked how he found the courage to stand against a government that practiced apartheid. He told an ancient story. He said we the people of South Africa were riding in a truck when it lost its breaks. The truck was hurtling down the mountain and so we jumped, tumbled across the road and over the cliff only to be saved by clutching a single vine that kept us from death.   Not able to climb back up the cliff we hollered out, “Is anybody up there?” That is when we heard the voice of God say,

“Let go of the vine.”

We responded, “Is anybody else up there?”

Again God spoke, “LET GO OF THE VINE.”

And we did.                                       (Stop)


What are we to do with naïve folks preaching poetic sermons? What good is hope in the face of reality? It seems to me there are two types of preachers. The realist who preaches what the congregation wants to hear. And the poet, who silently prays before each sermon, May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.

To God be the glory.   Amen.


Sunday, January 6, 2019

Moving Toward the Light

Isaiah 60:1-3; Matthew 2:1-12


        On Christmas Eve many of you were here for the 6:00 service. Needless to say our Christmas Eve services are a little different from the experiences you might find at a “normal” church. Certainly nothing wrong with Lessons and Carols but over the past few years we have ventured into different waters. Using the creativity of this congregation and the brilliance of our choir, we have dared to look at Christmas Eve through a different lens.

        For the rest of my life when I think of Joseph I will imagine he is Roger Elliott. Many of us remember the Christmas Eve when we heard five different women give voice to Mary. Sarah Armstrong not only took one of the parts but helped craft each role. With her gone, I am not sure I will ever be able to repeat that experience.

        This year, because of my love of the Book of Isaiah, we explored those beautiful poems that conclude the prophet’s message: 

I will create a new heaven and a new earth.

The Spirit of the Lord will bring good news to the oppressed and the brokenhearted.

You shall give birth without pain. 

Each poem is wonderfully reflected in the Christmas Story found in the Gospel of Luke. A new creation emerges as refugees from the north travel to Bethlehem and experience the most miraculous birth of all time. But Luke wasn’t the only gospel writer familiar with the poems of Isaiah. Matthew’s gospel centers on the joyous promise:

Arise! Your light has come.        

What other response is possible than, “O my!”


Out of darkness comes hope, not as a sunburst, but as a single flicker. We dream of winning the lottery but Isaiah offers only a glimmer of tomorrow. Yet that light becomes the foundation for rediscovering life.

In Mathew’s story we are introduced to astrologers rather than shepherds. Folk protecting livestock have reason to fear the night. In contrast astrologers spend a lifetime looking into the darkness with the hopes of finding something new. These visionaries were not found in Jerusalem because Herod feared any light which might expose his madness. These Magi’s come from afar. They had seen a new light and they had no choice but to follow. Imagine Herod’s surprise when they brought their good news to the unsuspecting king.

There is no Herod in Luke’s version. This might be why we prefer his account. In Luke’s version we encounter mangers, angels, shepherds, and an old man in the Temple. Luke has no fear of Jerusalem. But the gospel of Matthew warns of the dangers lurking in the not so Holy City. Matthew’s gospel calls for a new kingdom which extends far beyond the darkness of any earthly tyrant. Matthew finds its genesis with a single light in the heavens. That light became a revelation to those in darkness, informing the past while opening hearts to new possibilities.

We don’t know who those astrologers were. But we do believe, driven by a solitary light, they dared to travel to an unknown land in order to witness what most could not see and only a few dared to imagine. And while we might still cling to the babe swaddling in Luke’s gospel, Christians all around the world prefer Matthew’s dangerous story of a light that dares to expose Herod.

Last night children throughout Central and South America filled their best shoe with grass and hid it under their bed. Feeding imaginary camels in Nicaragua is no more ludicrous than leaving snacks for reindeer in Nellysford. Before the children lay down to sleep they peaked into the darkness of the vast sky looking for a new star. Then they prayed that wise men would bring both gifts and a flicker of hope to their village.

In contrast most of us have already put away our Christmas decorations. We have grown weary of the holiday tunes we so longed for just a month ago. We even moved our Fourth Friday Film Festival up a week because it just didn’t seem right to show It’s a Wonderful Life after December 25th.

But epiphany is Christmas without Madison Avenue. Epiphany is Christmas without Santa and Rudolph. Epiphany is Christmas without all the bells and whistles, all the parties and lights, even all the joys and disappointments. Epiphany is about The Grinch. You remember the Grinch. He is the ugly Green Guy that unsuccessfully tries to steal Christmas. In the gospel of Matthew the Grinch is better known as Herod.  The light of the world is born eight miles from his palace and the Grinch didn’t have a clue. Then the astrologers come looking for direction and the Grinch became determined to put out the light before others became aware of it. In an act of desperation the Grinch ordered every child under the age of two to be slaughtered.  But the light survived because hope is more than wishful thinking. It is God appearing where only darkness exists.

I am told there are 353 shopping days left till Christmas. I understand you can still get outrageous bargains on wrapping paper and Christmas cards. You still have time to exchange those ugly sweaters and get what you really wanted. And it is never too early to pass along a hint or two so your loved one can get it right next year. But if Christmas only happens once a year what good is it tomorrow?

Herod works 365 days a year!

But so does the Light.


So let me suggest,


                When our bodies betray us,

                When the possible seems impossible,

                When Herod has seemingly blocked our way home,

Epiphany comes.

And miraculously we discover,

Light in our darkness,

Joy in our silence,

                        Even hope among the disheartened.

For when it seems all is lost,

When another war arises,

When another child is shot,

When another Herod rises from the ashes,

Someone will see a star,

        Someone will arise,

Someone will rush to Bethlehem,

        Someone will exclaim, “O my!”

                And there is nothing Herod can do about it.


To God be the Glory. Amen.