Monthly Archives: November, 2014

  1. Sermons : Considering Advent

    Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
    Isaiah 64:1-9

    Our men’s breakfast group is reading about great men in history. The first person in our book is George Washington, which prompted me to do a little extra American History reading, which led me to John Meacham’s biography of Thomas Jefferson from a few years back. I had some of the typical stereotypes of this founding father – brilliant but conniving, sophisticated, smooth, but also manipulative. We know of the beauty of Monticello and Charlottesville, know the whispers about Sally Hemings. But I didn’t know how much suffering he carried. His wife Patty bore six children in ten years, four of whom died as children, a fifth by 26. At age 33, Patty’s body was exhausted. The exertions of the war, Meacham writes, culminating in the family’s evacuation of Monticello, exacerbated the state of her health. She may have suffered from tuberculosis. By the early summer of 1782 she was confined to her bed.1

    Throughout the summer she remained in bed, and throughout the summer Jefferson stayed close. On Friday, September 6, Patty died. Jefferson was overwrought, alternating crashing on the floor in grief, and rushing outdoors in a frenzy, walking, then on horseback, on back roads, through the woods for hours. A month later he was alluding to the possibility of suicide. "This miserable kind of existence is really too burdensome to be borne," he wrote, "and were it not for the infidelity of deserting the sacred charge left me, I could not wish its continuance a moment."2

    "O that you would tear open the heavens and come down," Isaiah cried. The Babylonians had come with their armies. Wanting to subdue Israel, but not have to occupy it, they simply took away anyone who was in charge of anything. Leaders, priests, intellectuals and artists, those with the power to shape the people’s thinking. In the decade following came the destruction. With the temple burned, their faith shaken, their way of life crumbling, they wondered if God had abandoned them. So they prayed this communal lament found in Isaiah 63 and 64.3

    Its power comes in the prophet’s honest desperation. You can feel that same desperation in our world. From Jefferson’s grief to that of those killed by Isis. Ebola. Ferguson. Over these holidays some troops rush into the embrace of a loved one. Some have an honor guard escorting a casket. I’d bet you encountered some of that desperation in a family member over Thanksgiving, some sadness, some grief. Someone who wasn’t at the table who you really miss.

    The prophet roots his plea in who GOD is, first in the Exodus. Back then, he says, YOU did awesome deeds we didn’t expect, came down among us. Mountains quaked, nations trembled. You have saved us before, they cried. None of us have seen or heard of anyone but YOU O God, You who works for those who wait. The verbs are all about God – GOD meets. God remembers. God was angry. In a season in which we get caught up in our stuff, our preparations, our anxiety – the prophets reminds us of the One who comes in power.

    YET. This is the turn in the text. Literally the Hebrew is AND NOW. Despite all that has gone before, O Lord. You are our Father. Our loving parent, our forefather, the first, the beginning, the One who made it all. NOW, O Lord, we are the clay, You are the potter. We are nothing but the work of Your hand, powerless without you. The prophet then steps back. Do not be angry. Do not remember the things we have done. Not consider – this is the other word that really moves me here. Consider. As a child looks up, tenderly, with anticipation, at her parent. Behold. Look upon. Consider – it sounds like pleading. Consider, God, we are all your people.

    Today Advent begins with candles and joyous music. But we do so feeling unsettled, knowing that the world is not as Christ intends. But what Advent does, what GOD does, what the church is called to proclaim, is the radical entrance of God into our ordinary and anxious and exhausting time, into our regularity and our pain. For us to consider a different story than the one we are so often told. A story of the same conflicts and the same grief, a story of the same divisions and the same anger, a story of us, once again, doing what the cartoon said in yesterday’s paper – we take one day, Thursday, and ‘be thankful for all we have.’ And then the next day, we rush to the mall, concluding that whatever we were thankful for wasn’t enough.4

    Layer on the pain of the world. This year it’s Ferguson, and the anger and violence gnarled up in really complicated conversations about race and the justice system and communities without hope. I have spent most of this week feeling caught. I don’t know what it feels like to be an African American male in America. I don’t know what it’s like to be a police officer who risks his or her life every day for their community. I don’t know what happened on that street back on August 9. But I know it stands in as a symbol of our collective brokenness. O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, O God.

    But once in a while Advent breaks through. On Tuesday in Portland, 12 year old Devonte Hart, an African American boy, who grew up in desperate circumstances and was adopted as a 4 year old, was holding a sign on the edge of a protest that said, ‘free hugs.’ A white policeman, Sgt. Bret Barnum, saw it and walked over. They spoke for a moment, as Sgt Barnum said later, about school, art, and life. Then, he pointed at the sign. Can I get one of those? They share a powerful embrace, tears welling up in the boy’s eyes. The photograph is amazing, and I’ll post it with this sermon online this week.5

    I don’t know what to tell you about so much of this. But for a moment this Advent I want you to CONSIDER. Look at. Gaze upon. More than the shimmering candles, the shiny brass, the smell of the green. Consider. God’s great love for you, breaking into the world. A love that would lead God to send God’s only son to earth, born, here again in a few weeks, in a manger, surrounded by hay and manure and animals and some scared parents. A love, in Jesus the Christ, that changes everything. Consider that this Advent. Consider that Love.

    All praise be to God. Amen.

    1. Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, by Jon Meacham (New York: Random House, 2012), p 145.
    2. The rest of this comes from Meacham, pages 145-148.
    3. Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 1, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2011), Exegetical, by William Brown, 3. "Composed sometime between the Babylonian conquest of 568, but before the rebuilding of the temple in 515, this lament reflects Israel’s complete disorientation in the wake of the devastating exile."
    4. The News and Observer, November 29, 2014, page 18A, cartoon at top of page.
    5. "Police officer and young demonstrator share hug during Ferguson rally in Portland," 11-28-14, The Oregonian.

  2. Bulletins & Sunday Announcements : November 30, 2014

    November 30, 2014 Bulletin 

  3. Sermons : How Soon Is Now?

    Psalm 145:1-13
    Matthew 25:31-46

    "Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison and did not take care of you?" they ask. When?

    When was it? Were you there, Lord, among the 850 million malnourished people around the world?1 Were you there, Lord, amidst the line of guests at Urban Ministries? In those villages across Sub-Saharan Africa without access to clean water or at the corner asking for a bottle of water? Was that you, Lord, who was pushed out of your home by military insurgents, by religious zealots or left on the street to fend for yourself? Were you there, Lord, among the endless number of children orphaned by disease – by Ebola and AIDS and alcoholism and drug addiction? Or standing in a prison cell, chained to the wall, given no justice, no due process? Was that you?

    Today, we celebrate Christ as King, as Lord of all, as our ruler full of glory and strength. Christ, the King of a pained, sinful, broken kingdom. Christ, the King of all people, of the most and the least and the in-between.

    Today, we celebrate that Christ is a different kind of King. A king who lives among those whom the world shuns and shames. A king who chooses grace over greed and mercy over might. A king who loves all – all – and gave of his life for all. Christ is not an ordinary king, a ruler who divides and conquers, who pillages and sets forth caste systems, drowning in riches while his kingdom drowns in debt. No, our King, is different – do we perceive it?

    In our passage from the gospel of Matthew, Christ sits with his disciples for the last time before the passion narrative begins. He has few moments left with his friends, with those who will share the Good News of his life, death, and resurrection, with those who will be responsible for building the church in the days to come. He has told them what is good and what the Lord requires of them – told them in parable and deed, in miracles and prayer. And now, he reminds them one last time of their calling, of our calling.

    To feed the hungry and offer thirst to the weary, to clothe the naked, tend to the sick, visit the prisoner, befriend the stranger – what daunting tasks. And yet, this is what Christ calls us to do. We who have busy schedules and demanding jobs; we who have our own family to tend to, our own hungers and thirsts and hopes. We who have limited resources and unlimited anxieties. If we took into consideration all the hungry, all the thirsty, the sick, the homeless, the imprisoned, the estranged and ostracized, our daily thoughts would know nothing else. The call is consuming and full and bigger than us.

    Christ knows that. Christ knows that his kingdom demands constant attention and dedication, constant compassion. But Christ also knows that he has left us with instruction on how to respond. He says it plain and clear in his final discourse to the disciples: feed, clothe, visit, tend. Take it bit by bit. The sin and sadness of the world is too looming to take on by one’s lonesome or to respond to all at once. We aren’t called to cure world hunger or to house every homeless person we meet. We are called to be of Christ’s kingdom and to respond when we can with what we have as much as we possibly can. Bit by bit.

    I am often reminded of this passage from Matthew around Thanksgiving. Many years ago, my dad and I were leaving my grandma’s nursing home after an exhausting, anxious, last turkey dinner with her. We had packaged up the mushy sweet potatoes and dry turkey in a styrofoam box to take home, he a bachelor, me a college student. As we drove home in the bitter cold of a Kentucky November, we passed a man walking through an abandoned parking lot. My dad pulled in next to him and rolled down the window. I don’t remember what was said but I do know how my dad chose to respond. He took the box of lukewarm food and handed it to the man. They nodded to each other, as if it was understood: today was sad for many reasons but right now, in this short moment, it isn’t. Right now, the kingdom is aching and we will respond with what we have, how we can, with our imperfect offering. Right now is all we have and that is enough.

    Within the confines of our own hearts, we can feel the weight of our own hunger and loneliness, imprisonment and sickness. It holds us hostage at times, binding our hands and feet from moving forward. We attempt to hold the brokenness of our beloveds – our partners, our parents, our children, our friends – but sometimes, their pain is too heavy for our weak shoulders. To even begin to consider the pain and suffering of others – of others outside of our daily circles, of our routines, of our boundaries real and imagined – is frightening and too much to bear. We know the answer to the question When was it that we saw you, Lord?, for we are not blind. We see the homeless men and women and children lining up outside for a warm meal; we see the news of yet another bombing and siege; we see the ways men of color are incarcerated at an undeniably unjust rate.2 We are not blind. But we are often unsure of where to begin.

    The enormity of the world’s grief is too much for one to take on all at once. The Talmud, the body of Jewish law, interprets our beloved Micah 6:8 as such: "Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it."3 Christ, our King, did not expect us to solve all manner of injustice and pain in his earthly absence. He did and does expect us to respond – to start with what we have, to give when we can, to see what we’ve dismissed. To simply begin – for indeed, his kingdom is at hand.

    The writer Catherine Woodiwiss reflects beautifully on how people often respond to trauma, after experiencing several traumas of her own. The pain of this world is a trauma unto itself – the ways we’ve allowed for sin to break us and break others, break the goodness God created. Woodiwiss writes, "In times of crisis, we want our family, partner, or dearest friends to be everything for us. But surviving trauma requires at least two types of people: the crisis team – those friends who can drop everything and jump into the fray by your side, and the reconstruction crew – those whose calm, steady care will help nudge you out the door into regaining your footing in the world."4

    Friends, we are not and cannot be everything to all people at all times. But we are capable of filling the roles we can – of being present at time of crisis, of rebuilding when the long nights come. Some of us are firefighters and some are builders and the kingdom requires both – requires all – to respond to the suffering of the world. Bit by bit, doing justice now, loving kindness now, walking humbly now.

    Earlier this week, the staff and several members of our church gathered under a tent, huddled close to space heaters. American flags boldly flew in the wind and veterans of different genders, ages and races. On that cold morning, the Denson Apartments for Veterans was dedicated and opened, providing permanent housing to eleven formerly-homeless veterans. These homes, these warm, safe, new, clean spaces were named after our own Alex Denson, the first board chair of CASA, the supporting agency for the apartments that "develops and manages affordable rental housing, primarily for veterans and people living with disabilities."5 It was a most humbling event – to hear the trumpet sound out the songs of each branch of the military, to see politicians and social justice leaders, the formerly homeless and the never homeless all stand together, to gather in joy as one small part of Christ’s kingdom was repaired. Alex walked to the podium to offer a few words and quoted this week’s words from Christ, saying, "‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’" And then, Alex looked at all of us with recognition and hope saying, "We are in a position to give help." We, the people of the kingdom. We, who like Alex, have gifts and passions and can respond to the kingdom’s deep suffering. We, who like Alex, can join with others to do justice now, love kindness now, walk humbly now. We, who have much among a community that needs much.Whatever we can do with whatever we have whenever we can do it – we are capable, we are called, we are needed.

    When Jesus gathered his disciples for one last lesson, they asked, "When was it that we saw you, Lord?" When were you in need? Truly I tell you, the answer is always. Go and do justice now, love kindness now, walk humbly now. The kingdom is waiting and needs you and all that you are. In the name of Christ, our King. Amen.

    1. Hunger Statistics, World Food Programme.
    2. An article to consider on the mass incarceration of black men. I also recommend reading Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.
    3. Pirkei Avos (Ethics/Chapters of the Fathers) 2:16 (although this was hard to find and I’m certain this is a paraphrase of what it actually says).
    4. Catherine Woodiwiss, "A New Normal: Ten Things I’ve Learned About Trauma," Sojourners.
    5. From CASA’s Facebook page.

  4. News : Lovefeast 2014

    2014 LovefeastThe early Christians met and broke bread together to signify their union, fellowship, and love. In 1927, the Moravian Church revived this practice, which originated in the 1700s, by partaking together of a simple meal known as a "lovefeast."

    Westminster’s own annual Lovefeast will be held Sunday, December 7, at 5pm. Join us in the Sanctuary for a service of lights, hymns, anthems, and fellowship. Organ preludes begin at 4:30pm. Childcare will be available for children 5 and under.

  5. News : Warm Coats for Local Students

    The temperatures are dropping, and local children need warm coats and jackets. The counselors at Githens Middle School have quite a few students in need of outerwear and have asked for help. 

    If you have any new or gently used jackets, hoodie sweatshirts, or coats, please bring them to the yellow collection bin in the Holderness Mission Center through December 14. All sizes are appreciated, but especially Youth Large to Adult Large. Hats and gloves are also appreciated. Please contact Jennifer Feiler with questions.