2005 Sermons

Breathing Through The Wilderness

Sermon September 18, 2005
Breathing Through the Wilderness
Rev. Beth Ann Estock
Text: Ecclesiastes 1:2

Emptiness! Emptiness upon emptiness!
The world is fleeting of form,
Empty of permanence,
Void of surety,
Without certainty.
Like a breath breathed once and gone,
All things rise and fall.
Understand emptiness, and tranquility replaces anxiety.
Understand emptiness, and compassion replaces jealousy.
Understand emptiness, and you will cease to excuse suffering and begin to alleviate it.
Ecclesiastes 1:2
Translated by Rami Shapiro

“The words of the Teacher, the son of David, King in Jerusalem. Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.”

What a way to start out a book of wisdom, or any book for that matter with the declaration that all is vanity. But especially a book that makes it into the Bible. Are we not to be a people of hope, joy and love? Are we not to come here on Sunday with praises and thanksgiving for life?

And here we are confronted in black and white with “vanity of all vanities.” How cynical and pessimistic! If life is so worthless why should we go any further?

Maybe we could discount this book as written by a spoiled king who had access to everything and was having a pity party on a day when he wrote this. But these words must have some truth if the council of Nicea way back in 325 AD decided that this book of wisdom merited the seal of Holy Scripture.

A few years ago I came across a new interpretation of Ecclesiastes entitled “The Way of Solomon” written by Rabbi Rami Shapiro who throughout his years has felt a strong connection to the wisdom of Ecclesiastes. His interpretation comes with a prayerful, studied reading of not only the words but also what he believes to be the soul of the message of this book. (show the book)

He sees Ecclesiastes as a “brilliant paring away of our illusions about life.” He says that Solomon was not despairing of life rather he celebrates life and knows how to live it well. He believes Solomon wrote this book to help us to understand life correctly. So that we can embrace our lives with joy and contentment.

Last Sunday Joyce and I referred to this time in the life of our Church as being in the wilderness – the in between time. This can be a scary place but it can also be a place where we can find new direction and hope. So this Sunday we turn to the wisdom of Ecclesiastes to help us on our journey through the wilderness as we search for new life.

So what would Solomon say is the key to life? Havel havalim — which is not vanity or futility the way most Bible scholars translate it, but rather empty of permanence, full of change and surprise.

In Hebrew the phrase havel havalim literally means “breath of breaths.” The Teacher Solomon would say that life is no more substantial than a breath. Life is fleeting, impermanent, in a state of constant change.

I know, at first glance this is not something that brings much comfort. But sometimes the truth hurts.

Two years ago this month I was preaching at Aloha UMC from a wheel chair. I had lived 41 years of my life with the illusion of perfect bones. As far as I was concerned I would never break a bone, that was not in my life plan and certainly not two within a month of each other. Then in a havel havalim down I went, not once but twice. I broke my wrist and then a month later my foot. The permanence I sought was an illusion. Life does not stay the same. We are born and grow and change. We experience health and sickness, marriage and divorce, life and death, work and unemployment, joy and pain, whole bones and broken ones, sunshine and hurricanes, Everything changes.

Yet we so easily want to forget that life is fleeting as we whisper in our prayers, “Maybe it happens to others but not to me. God forbid not to me.” We hold our breath and close our eyes against anything that would threaten our craving for permanence. We second-guess, make excuses and find fault, not wanting to look at our own mortality.

“If she had taken better care of herself she wouldn’t have died so soon.” “If he had listened to the doctor he wouldn’t have had the stroke.” ” If I would have only had a better childhood I wouldn’t be so angry, depressed or alone.” “If the government had done a better job of maintaining the levees New Orleans would not be under water.” “If the conference leadership had done a better job managing people we wouldn’t have to be going through this process as a church right now.” Then if all else fails us we pull this one out of the hat. “There is no God. How could a God have let this happen?”

The Truth, as painful as it may be is this — Life is a gift. It is not something that is owed to us. It is not something we deserve or earn. It simply is havel havalim. Breath of breaths. Moments, this one and this one and this one. Like a breath breathed once and gone. To make it more than this is to make ourselves into gods trying to micro-manage a world beyond our control.

Now before we all slump over into a depression let us ponder this breath a little bit more.

What else does our faith tell us about breath? Rauch — life force, God essence, creative spirit. Out of nothing, out of emptiness, God breathed life and made our world.

“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while the wind (The breath) from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said ‘Let there be light’ and there was light…. And then God created humankind in God’s image.” (Genesis 1)

God continues to breathe life into us with every breath that we take. Not only that but we participate in creation as we live and grow, as we work and share, as we create families and communities.

Breath is powerful. And it comes out of the void, out of emptiness. To breathe deeply we have to let go of the air already in us. When we have nothing everything is possible. Emptiness is an invitation to creativity.

Emptiness! Emptiness upon emptiness!

Possibility upon possibility — a blank slate, a void, a new beginning.

How many of us spend much time simply being empty? Empty stomach, empty mind, empty agenda? How many of us live in the state of total possibility?

You see there is a difference in trying to control the outcome of our lives and living into new possibilities. When we try to be in control we are in effect turning our backs to God. “NO God, I don’t trust that your divine possibilities for my life could be any better than what I have planned. Not your will God, but mine be done.”

One of the problems with this kind of controlled living is that if things don’t go our way we can get very stressed out and worried. We have to get out our plan b, c and d’s and even they don’t work as well as we thought they should.

What would it be like to let go of our need to control, our need to look good, our need to be free of suffering? What would it be like to ponder emptiness everyday?

Solomon the teacher says that if we spent some time practicing emptiness our anxiety would melt away.

Understand emptiness and tranquility replaces anxiety.

If we practiced emptiness we could experience life as an unmerited gift — not to be compared to other’s lives.

Understand emptiness and compassion replaces jealousy.

If life is truly empty of permanence, a breath breathed once and gone, then we could be free to live each moment as new. We could be released from a past that haunts us, binds us, or scars us.

How can I live this moment fully — and this one, and this one? What I am holding back? What thought or experience is preventing me from living fully now? What am I afraid to let go of?

If we understood that we are the creators of our stories – our blame, our resentments, our fears — then we could be free to make up other stories that free us from the burdens of the past and of who we think we are or need to be. There is no past to redo or future to worry about. There are no more distractions, nothing to defend, nothing to attack, nothing to compare. There is only this moment and our embracing of it. And in this very moment there is potential for anything – for insight, for quiet joy, for connection, for peace. The cup half-empty could become the cup half-full.

Understand emptiness, and you’ll cease to excuse suffering and begin to alleviate it.

If we really could sit in emptiness, experience emptiness even for a few minutes a day we could begin to embrace the present with freshness. We could find each breath breathed, even those that are painful and sad, an opportunity for blessing and joy.

Two years ago when I broke my foot after breaking my wrist I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry so I did plenty of both.

At first I was terrified because I could do nothing except lay in bed with my foot up. I had to face my need to constantly do, to be busy, to be of worth, to give. Instead I was forced to sit — pondering emptiness and receiving help. I had plenty of time to look at my life and what I had been running away from. And of course time to try to find the blessing in all of it.

The blessing in that moment was feeling the support of my faith community, family and friends. It was the opportunity to have the sometimes painful and awkward conversations with loved ones about how I was living my life. The blessing was learning how to let go of things that really didn’t matter. The blessing was having the time to ponder my priorities and listen to the yearnings of my soul. It was a painfully good time and a powerful turning point for me.

The image I had of my life before my broken bones was of me trying to enjoy a walk on the beach but instead finding myself balancing on a ball and juggling three others at the same time.

As I ponder that image I realize that when I broke my wrist I could no longer juggle the three balls in the air and when I broke my foot 5 weeks later I could not balance on the ball any longer. And I was finally free to enjoy the beach! I finally had some clarity about what was most important and a powerful reminder that we learn the most through our pain.

Those broken bones gave me the courage to step out in faith, to take a family leave last year. Those same bones have allowed me to take another leap by coming here this year.

I bring to you my experience of brokenness in hopes that we can travel together during this church’s time of brokenness as well. What I learned is healing is a slow process that cannot be rushed if we want to learn all that God is trying to teach us about ourselves and our life together. I also learned that healing begins deep within.

God has blessed us with this opportunity. Let us travel through the wilderness breathing deeply, trusting what comes to us in each moment.

I invite you to practice this emptiness, this breath of breaths this week with a centering prayer practice found in the back of your bulletin. Try sitting quietly for 5 minutes every day this week.

Time to be curious about what comes up for you. Not a test but a spiritual practice – a way for us to open to God working in and through us.

Centering Prayer

Centering Prayer is a contemplative prayer practice that helps us to first notice and then let go of our inner chatter so that we can be open to the still small voice of God.

Find a comfortable sitting position with your feet firmly on the ground and your hands resting on your lap in a turned-up position. Close you eyes and sink into your chair.

Focus on your breathing. As you breathe in become aware of your inner body. As you exhale become aware of where your skin touches the air. Then as you continue to breath become aware of where your breath ends and where it begins. Linger in that space for a while.

Begin to focus on feelings of peace and tranquility that naturally arise when we breathe deeply.

When you begin to think mentally repeat a word or phrase of your choice – prayer words like thank you, peace, I am that I am. As soon as your mind quiets down again, let go of the words. Your intention is to sit quietly in the peace of God’s presence.

Try this form of prayer for 5 minutes every day and then if you find it comforting add 5 more minutes until you are sitting for 20 minutes every day. As you practice this pay attention to what comes up for you – not judging but simply being curious.

What’s Love Got To Do With It?

Sermon – October 2, 2005
What’s Love Got To Do With It?
Rev. Beth Ann Estock
Scripture: Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20

How many of us here have broken a commandment? (I raise my hand.)

It is reassuring to know that I am not alone. In all honesty few if any of us could claim to observe each and every commandment to the letter of the law.

The 10 commandments are not something that we particularly care to be reminded of in our daily lives. It is like being asked by the doctor how we are doing on our weight loss, exercise or healthy eating program. It is like being asked by our parents or teacher if we have all of our homework finished on a sunny day when all we want to do is play.

I don’t know about you but I don’t like to look at how I have fallen short in my religious or moral duties when it comes to my relationship with God and others. I don’t like to be reminded that at times I don’t live what I profess. I’d rather just pretend that the shadow part of me doesn’t exist. Sure we all make mistakes. We all sin. Enough said. Change the subject. Let’s just not dwell on that, okay? Especially now as we are faced with the transgressions of a trusted leader in the church. That makes all of us uneasy.

And come to think of it, aren’t the 10 commandments a bit archaic for us to follow in the 21st century anyway? I mean look at the ways that people have used those commandments throughout the centuries to oppress, hurt and pass judgment on others. Didn’t Jesus say something like the most important commandment is to love God and our neighbor as ourselves? Can’t we forget the rest of it if we simply love each other? You know… love the sinner but not the sin…

Why should these commandments be so important to us now?

I wonder what it must have been like for the Israelites the day they were instructed by Moses to stand at the foot of the mountain to witness the power and majesty of God. They had come out of slavery in Egypt only to find themselves in the wilderness with little food or direction. They probably were second guessing why they had listened to Moses in the first place. Where was the land flowing with milk and honey that they had been promised? Freedom certainly sounded more appealing in their dreams while in Egypt rather than their lived out experience.

Imagine there were no agencies such as FEMA or the Red Cross to help them in their recovery. No other nations came to their rescue. They were on their own living as refugees in a strange place. And just as the people in the superdome in New Orleans were growing more fearful for their safety and began to express their anger and impatience with each other so too were these Israelites. Fear was about to erupt into mutiny.

I don’t envy Moses a bit in this situation. And then it happened on the third day just as God had warned Moses. The mountain began to shake and smoke as thunder and lightening lit up the sky. And out of nowhere came ear-piercing blasts of trumpet. All the people gathered around the base of the mountain were shaking with fear from head to toe, except for Moses who was listening to God through the sound of the thunder.

I picture Moses standing his ground marveling in awe rather than in fear. If it wasn’t clear before, it was now – God was real. Moses did have a mission and they had better listen if they were going to make it out of the wilderness.

The gift God gave to the Israelites after that was the 10 commandments.

They were rules by which the Israelites could order their lives. They were rules that helped them to feel safe and to give them clarity as to how to love and honor God as well as God’s creation. These laws helped them live in community with one another. It was like their Bill of Rights. It gave them inner meaning as well as outer order.

I like to think of these 10 commandments as one of the greatest gifts that God has blessed us with. The first 4 commandments are about being in right relationship with God and the last 6 are about being in right relationship with each other. With them God says, “I will be your God and you will be my people. When you follow these commandments you are ultimately placing your trust in me. You are living by my will and not your own.”

“I don’t give them to you as a moral litmus test but rather as a way for you to order your life… as a way for you to practice your trust in me… as a way for you to grow and maintain loving and trusting relationships with one another.

“For as I have created you and all the cosmos everything can fall into harmony by following these simple rules. When you find yourself no following them it is a sign that you are out of balance with me and your neighbors. And there are natural consequences to being out of balance. Instead of unity and peace there will be mistrust and discord. Instead of love there will be hate and a desire for revenge. The rules are not to be used as a way to force good behavior. Rather I want them to be written in your hearts so that you naturally live them out as part of who you are. I created you in love. So you are love, you are loving and you are lovable. Simply live that love by following these simple rules.”

Jesus put it like this when he was asked, what is the greatest commandment? “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and strength and love your neighbor as you love yourself.” Some have phrased these commandments as “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

What is important to remember is that they are a gift to help guide all of us in the ways of love. We are a free people in God’s eyes. Free to make our own choices, free to make our own mistakes, free to listen to God’s will or listen to our own. But with each choice we make God is saying that there are consequences. All of our choices affect not only us but also our families, our community, and our world. When we break a commandment we not only break a sacred trust, but we leave a trail of brokenness around us. That brokenness becomes a part of us and our history. It plays into our fears and worries. It can fill us with sadness, anger, guilt or shame. No matter how much we may want to deny the effects of that broken trust it is there affecting our spiritual, emotional and physical health. It is like a stone dropped in water. The ripple goes on and on and on.

Now I don’t say these things to make us all feel bad. I say these things to help us understand how much we need the grace of God. One way to define grace is to say that it is God’s way of rebalancing us – God’s way to bring us back into harmony with the created order.

God does show us the way through the life and ministry of Jesus that healing and new life are possible. But the journey is not an easy one. WE have to be able to reflect upon our actions, admit our wrong-doing and then let go of the anger and guilt that continues to keep us stuck. It takes trust in God, humility, honesty and courage to do the work of reconciliation. The work is messy and painful at times. But it is worth the effort.

This month Joyce and I will be guiding you on this journey. It is one that all of us are familiar with – “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

We practice that journey when we gather for worship. During worship we Praise God, give thanks for God’s grace, share what is heavy on our hearts, listen for God’s word and then ponder how we have strayed away from God through the act of confession. After confession comes a time of pardon and reconciliation followed by communion with God through the breaking of bread and the sharing of the cup. We do this in a community of support as we share in our brokenness and pray for our healing so that we can be at peace, in harmony with ourselves, one another and God.

How fitting it is today to share in that sacrament with people all over the world, human beings just like you and me in need of that same grace.

Let us now have a time to practice being honest with ourselves as we too enter into a time of confession. As Christians we learn to forgive others, but often we forget to turn that back on ourselves. God’s grace and forgiveness is one of the most precious gifts that God offers us. Each time we can accept forgiveness we grow in our ability to have compassion for ourselves and others.

Practicing our Faith

I Invite you to close your eyes, settle into your seat, and breathe deeply.

Focus on your heart. Call to mind someone that you love deeply. Someone who brings you joy. Can you feel your heart open as you think about them? Focus on that feeling of openness. Open your heart wider and wider. See it being filled with light and love from God. Sink into this feeling of fullness and peace.

Now bring to your mind, into your heart, the image, or the sense of someone who you have hurt or wronged in some way. Bring to mind a situation for which you feel guilty. Bring to mind a person whose heart is closed to you.

Mercifully invite them or that situation into your heart and say to them,

“I ask your forgiveness. Forgive me for whatever I may have done in the past that caused you pain, intentionally or unintentionally, through my words, my actions and even through my thoughts. However, I may have hurt or injured you, what ever confusion, what ever fear I caused you, I ask your forgiveness.”

Know that it is by God’s love in and through us that we are able to forgive and be forgiven. Imagine God at work in this person’s life opening their heart as God opens yours. Allow yourself to be touched by their forgiveness. Allow yourself to be forgiven. Allow yourself back into their heart. Have mercy on yourself. Have mercy on them. Allow them to forgive you.

Feel their forgiveness touch you. Receive it. Draw it into your heart.

If you feel your mind pulls back or thinks that you deserve to suffer know that this is darkness speaking through you. Open your heart and feel God’s light, love and mercy for you. God desires for you to let go of this burden. God desires for you to experience forgiveness and peace. Feel God’s mercy and forgiveness touch you. Draw it into your heart.

Cleanse me, O God, from all my hidden faults. Keep me from boldly acting in error;

Let my fears not have dominion over me! Then shall I become a beneficial presence,

freely and fully surrendered to your love. Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart find favor in your Heart, O my Beloved, my strength and my Joy!

Psalm 19:12-14 — translated by Nan Merrill

Stuck or Unstuck: That is the Question

Sermon – October 9, 2005
Stuck or Unstuck: That is the Question
Rev. Joyce Sluss

Scripture: Luke 15:11-24

Let us pray:

Gracious God, have compassion on each and every one of us today as we look deeply into our hearts and seek a path which is pleasing to you and to us. Amen.

How do you introduce yourself to others?

Do you mention your family: husband or wife and children?

Do you talk about your work?

Maybe you give them some idea of what your interests or hobbies are.

Do you mention where you live?

You might give some other detail that connects you to the situation.

(For instance, when I am meeting many of your for the first time it isn’t unusual to be told how long you have been part of this congregation.)

I like that. It’s helpful to me… even though I might not remember it.

When I introduced myself to this congregation I explained

that I am new to the area and why.

I spoke of my husband and our grown children and grandchildren.

I gave my status as an ordained Deacon in the United Methodist Church and some specifics about my two Master’s Degrees.

I included some of my special interests, both professional and personal. I also named my particular sense of call into ministry.

If you want to check out my story go to the church web site.

With obvious personal differences,

I probably introduced myself in the same way most of you would.

We tend to take our personal identity from our surroundings:

family, neighborhood, job.

We mention the things that set us apart.

We see our identity as based upon our achievements or connections.

Interestingly, nobody has ever introduced themselves to me as, a child of God.

(And I don’t think I’ve ever done it either.)

It’s a true statement but nearly always overlooked.

But think how important that is! I am a child of God!

That grounds me and connects me in the most important way!

The Bible says we are created in the divine image of God!

That’s a very special family resemblance!

We are—all of us—part of God’s family.

Each of us was created to love and be loved by God.

We were born to serve and be served by Jesus Christ.

We are all destined to enjoy the vitality of the Holy Spirit.

We are part of God’s family… that means that God is absolutely delighted with each of us and always will be!

Wow! That’s incredible!

We don’t have to do anything. It’s not a matter of where we are or what we accomplish or how much we can pay.

God’s love is always available and is absolutely free!

Sort of like the love of your mother…. maybe even better.

That makes all of us pretty special. We are all children of God… and loved.

Now that sounds incredibly simple…

but it’s amazing how often we forget that awesome and simple truth.

In reality we often beat ourselves up.

We see ourselves as less than others. We aren’t good enough… or deserving.

Being humble is good… but we often slip into self-denigration.

And if that’s not enough we get the message in other ways.

Our bodies aren’t like the images on T.V. or in magazines.

We often get the message from others that we have failed in some way… or are slow or even stupid.

We are not always nice to each other.

At those times we fail to remember that we are Blessed by God! Blessed by God! To be blessed we usually think of having enough food,

adequate shelter or clothing, decent education, loved ones,

a pleasant surrounding or a sense of security.

If we think we are short of any of those things

we work or even fight to secure them.

And indeed, those are blessings… but Jesus has a different view… the long view.

Jesus tells us that time is the precious gift which allows us

to learn to live as God’s beloved children.

In other words… to be truly blessed is to know that you are loved by God…

and you can return that love out of pure joy and thankfulness.

You become part of the family from which you recognize your identity.

Many of you will say that’s the ideal… and it is.

Others will say… it doesn’t always work that way.

Life throws us curves and there are bumps along the road.

Sometimes those bumps become huge set-backs or even obstacles.

The reality is that life experiences and choices…

along with the accompanying feelings and reactions…

can lead us far away from our blessed, child of God, identity.

And the primary things that rob us of that feeling of blessing are shame and guilt.

And shame and guilt are both critical to

how we handle forgiveness and reconciliation.

Our own shame and guilt are at the core of how we get along with others,

and how we get along with God.

Shame and guilt are very important…

so we need to make sure we all understand what I’m talking about.

Shame is our bad feelings about who we are.

Guilt is related to our feelings about what we have done.

Shame is about who we are….. and guilt is about what we do.

Let me give some examples:

Shame might be about addictive dependencies, dysfunctional behaviors,

or dark family secrets.

We might receive our shame from others:

“you’re a bad boy… or clumsy… or dumb.”

Culture might inflict us with shame…the wrong gender or skin color

or having a mental or physical handicap.

Even our religion can cause our shame… like an emphasis on original sin

and the impossibility of ever being like Jesus.

You can repent of deeds…. But you can’t repent your way out of shame.

You are who you are or what you are.

You must be rescued from shame… and that’s what Jesus does for us.

If we have shame over what we have no control over…

like skin color or a deformity…

then forgiveness is not at all necessary.

But if shame is linked to a genuine guilt….

like falling victim to alcohol or drugs…

then forgiveness is critical to healing.

All of us have known the burden of guilt.

It might be over things we’ve done: mistakes we’ve made,

bad decisions or bad judgments.

Or, our guilt might be over things we have NOT done:

like neglecting something or missing an opportunity.

Shame and guilt are inextricably linked because what we DO reflects who we are.

What we do with our time and talent and resources

becomes who we are and what we believe.

For instance, if we believe in cleaning up our environment,

Do we spend the extra money on cleaning products without bleach or other harmful chemicals?

Do we buy natural products or

coffee grown in shade to protect the rain forests?

Those are just little examples of how what we DO shapes who we are.

And I completely believe that we ALL try to be good people.

We try to make wise and responsible decisions.

We try to look out for others… and not just ourselves.

We try to take advantage of our God-given gifts and talents.

But, either in reality or just in our minds, we all fall short.

We all have guilt and shame. None of us are perfect! –or immune!

So what do we do about that?

Well, a few things come to mind.

First… remember who you are!

You are a child of God… loved and blessed by God.

What a great place to begin!

Next, we have to get in touch with our own shame and guilt.

We have to recognize it and name it for ourselves.

We have to separate out the shame over things we can not control…

from the guilt over things which we can control.

It is those things… the things we make decisions about

(conscious or automatic)

that we must face up to.

It is those things we must put before God and repent of them.

Now “repent” is an interesting “church” word.

It is more than just feeling sorry… or having remorse.

It is more than just admitting your guilt.

It is more than just asking forgiveness.

Repentance means to literally turn around and go the other way.

Repentance incorporates stopping your guilt-ridden behavior,

AND making sure that you do what is necessary to never do it again.

Repentance is to turn your behavior around… and not look back.

Repentance is very hard work!

It might mean changing long-established habits.

It might mean admitting your judgmentalism and

broadening your outlook.

Repentance always means acknowledging your own guilt and wrong-doing.

And that is very hard indeed.

I said there were a few things we can do to cope with our guilt.

First, remember you are loved by God, and then,

Second, repent of your wrong-doing.

Then, third, forgive yourself.

As Christians we talk a lot about forgiving others.

Talk is cheap… it’s the follow-through which causes us problems.

Jesus told us to forgive our enemies 70 x 70 times…

which is literally always.

Yes, we know about forgiveness….

But we don’t always think about how important it is to forgive ourselves.

This step—forgiving ourselves—is absolutely crucial!

It is only through forgiving ourselves… that we gain compassion.

We gain a better, more accurate picture of ourselves,

and we are then free to have compassion for others.

That means we are better able to see from another perspective.

We are better able to understand the thoughts and motives of others.

We can look on others with compassion because we have admitted our own frailty.

And when we have forgiven ourselves and have gained compassion for others…

then the magic begins!

Then, and only then, we free ourselves to forgive others.

And that’s what Jesus was talking about all along.

“Love your neighbor as yourself” is all about forgiveness!

And it is through forgiveness that we can really live in harmony with everyone else,

and we are free to love and appreciate God more fully.

See! It’s like magic!

Everything falls into place!

And forgiving ourselves is the key!

Now you might be wondering… “What does this have to do with the scripture?”

Good question… so I’ll tell you.

Today’s scripture reading was the story of the prodigal son.

The second son wants his share to use in his own way.

Call it selfishness, rudeness, wantonness, or irresponsibility.

Call it anything you like… but none of it is good.

We know from the very beginning that nothing good

is going to come of this second son.

And we’re right! He lives and does just what he wants and pretty soon…

everything is gone.

He is reduced to near nothing.

But then he realizes… this is his own doing.

He has made some very bad choices…

and he needs to change his ways.

So he throws off his new, selfish ways, and with a great deal of humility and remorse he returns to his father.

He wants only the opportunity to be a hired hand.

Did you follow the steps?

He realized he was not dead… in fact he was still a person of worth.

He figured out what he did wrong… his guilt… and repented.

Quit literally he turned around and went back home.

Then, did he forgive himself?

Yes, I think so… with a great deal of help from his father.

Because his father welcomed him with wide open arms.

His father confirmed that he was still loved because of who he was…

no matter what he did.

He still had value and worth… he was still a blessed child of God.

And the celebration began!

It sounds so very simple… so easy.

But in fact…most of us choose the alternative…

And that is to stick with our shame and guilt.

We stick to it so tenaciously that we become attached

and comfortable with it.

In fact we would be a little lost without it.

We overlook our inherent blessedness…

and continue to believe in our own righteousness.

We convince ourselves that we are good people and

that whatever bad happens is someone else’s fault….

maybe even God’s fault.

And we wonder why we’re not happy.

We wonder why we don’t get along with others.

There must be something wrong with THEM!

So the task before each of us is to determine if we are stuck or not?

Are we willing to do the hard work of self-examination

which might find us to be less than we want?

Then… are we willing to do something about it?

And here’s the really tough part…

can we actually get to the part of forgiving ourselves?

All of that is getting yourself unstuck… unstuck from shame and guilt.

All of that will free you to realize who and what you are and

then make the changes that are necessary.

Then you can forgive yourself and LET the MAGIC BEGIN!

By forgiving yourself you can look at others with the eyes of real compassion.

Only then, can you begin to forgive others.

Do you get it? This whole process… this whole circle…

allows YOU to become more free… and more whole!

You become closer to others…

AND closer to God. Amazing!

So are you stuck with shame and guilt?

Or are you free to really live as a beloved child of God? Amen.

The Healing Power of Anger

Sermon – October 16, 2005
The Healing Power of Anger
Rev. Beth Ann Estock
Scripture: Mark 3:1-6 “Go ahead and be angry. You do well to be angry – but don’t use your anger as fuel for revenge. And don’t stay angry. Don’t go to bed angry. Don’t give the Devil that kind of foot hold in your life.” St. Paul’s wisdom for the Ephesians 4:26-27 translated by Eugene Peterson

“Go ahead and be angry.” Have you ever heard anyone say this to you in church? Have you ever had anyone welcome your anger?

Anger is something that I have struggled with most of my life. As a child I was not allowed to express my anger. If I did I got into trouble. This was only reinforced at church where I learned that Christians are supposed to be forgiving and compassionate. We are to live our lives above the emotional bonds of anger or revenge. As a matter of fact I seemed to pick up the notion that anger in and of itself was a sin.

So my normal pattern growing up was to get scared of anyone who expressed anger. If they did I would simply shut down. I became very good at feeling like a victim at the hands of bullies. God would get them for their behavior. My role was to sit back and take it.

I thought I was being a good Christian at the time. But as I grew up I realized that Christ does not call us to be self-sacrificing doormats. As a matter of fact what I found with that victim response was that even though I denied my anger I could not let go of the inner turmoil that arose out of the conflicts that came as a natural part of life. And throughout the years the more I denied my emotions such as anger or grief the more depressed I became.

I know what it means to NOT be angry , and to spend a lot of energy NOT being angry. I was an expert. I could not seem to use this emotion constructively, and I suffered.

By God’s grace I married an Italian man who was raised in a different kind of environment. He has taught me a lot about anger and how to hold my own even when I feel like shutting down in fear. In our early years of marriage I went from being a wallflower to the full pendulum swing of discovering my rage. Neither of which St. Paul says is a good idea.

There IS a matter of balance, and in search of that balance, you and I come to worship today. God calls us to find balance, in our own personal lives, and in our collective life as a body of faith. You and I are members one of another, and so our balance matters deeply to God, if we are going to grow in health and community.

St. Paul did not seem to be afraid of anger and he certainly does not view anger as a sin. He says, Go ahead and be angry. Anger is a worthy emotion that we need in our lives. Anger protects us and keeps us connected to our sense of honor. It warns us that a boundary has been violated. We can’t go through our lives pretending that we don’t get angry.

If we don’t honor our anger we become what I call “emotionally constipated.” And constipation is very painful.

Let me share with you how I still get stuck in emotional constipation. A few years back I became very close friends with a woman who I meet at a spiritual retreat in California. We talked to each other almost everyday on the phone. She came to visit several times a year. She even put my children in her will. We were like soul sisters. It felt like we had known each other forever and that we would be friends forever as well.

As all relationships go we had our disagreements, but nothing that I ever thought would affect our long-term relationship. Then one day I got a letter in the mail telling me that she could no longer be my friend since I had forgotten her birthday and was not calling her as often. She literally divorced me saying that we were no longer friends.

This was very confusing to me. First I blamed myself, questioning my ability to be a good friend. Maybe she was right. Then I went to excusing her accusatory letter. “ Well, she is just going through a difficult situation right now. I can give her space and honor her need not to have anything to do with me.”

But secretly I was hoping that she would miss me as much as I missed her and our friendship would continue.

I made excuses. I denied reality. I questioned my part in it all but I never allowed myself to feel my anger. Over a year has gone by since I received her letter and I still carry a lot of pain and grief in my heart. Every time I think of her I get knots in my stomach and my emotions go right to the pain of reading that letter.

How could such a good friend never want to see me again based on such seemingly petty reasons? Did I misjudge her character? Does this mean that all that she meant to me as a friend was a sham, meaningless? Can I trust myself to be in another close friendship? Will I get hurt again if I do?

My husband thought that she was obviously not a healthy and balanced person, and that the matter should be over, and not concern me. Period.

That certainly didn’t help. It was like we were speaking two different languages. The more he pushed me the more I dug in and shut down. “Don’t you understand Jeff, How much I love her and how much our friendship meant to me?”

I couldn’t let go, contrary to all evidence that the ground rules of the relationship and the actions of my friend were irrational, unfair. So I held onto my pain, held onto my confusion, held onto my hope of reconciliation. I try to keep my feelings hidden – shamed that she continues to have that kind of power over me when she has moved on with her life. I am like the man with the withered hand, only I have a withered heart.

I bring that heart to you now, with the assurance that it is a heart that along with all of yours can be healed and whole. I do believe that there is hope beyond such an experience. How could we dare to be followers of Christ if we did not believe that, and dare to live it?

By God’s grace now I am here serving as your pastor in a ministry of healing from a broken trust. And the similarities are striking.

Some of you were very close to your previous pastor, Fred Kane. He loved you; he helped you to grow both spiritually and numerically. He was a good preacher. He said all the right things. He did so much for this church. Your bond with him you thought would never be broken even if the conference moved him to another church. You would continue to hold him in esteem and trust.

Then it happened. You got a letter that said Fred was having an affair. Fred was lying to his wife, his family and to you. He wasn’t the man of integrity that you thought he was all those years.

When this happens, a kind of earthquake goes off in the lives of relationships, families, and churches, and in the Conference. Our accountability to one another is part and parcel of our support for one another, and we have all been taken advantage of, by a colleague in my case, and by a pastor in yours, who took our trust and abused it.

And then last week we found out that Fred was keeping secrets about the finances as well. No one knew except for Fred that the church had been borrowing money from designated giving to pay the bills for at least the past 4 years. Some of you are just finding out for the first time that the church had no working finance committee, ministry teams or administrative council in which to make decisions. You are just beginning to realize the truth – that you had little or no voice on the mission and ministry of the church for the past several years.

Somehow, it seems all just happened, and now there is so much to deal with at once.

Can you feel that tension in the pit of your stomach? I don’t think that you are alone.

This is what I have heard from you this last month, “Beth I know what Fred did, but I still love him. How do I make sense out of all of this? Does what I am discovering now about the mismanagement of the church cancel out all the good ministry that happened here for the past 8 years? And how did I play a part in all of this? Maybe if I had done something different this wouldn’t have happened. Can I even trust myself, or you or the church again? I don’t even want to come to church anymore because it just makes me hurt thinking about it. Can’t we just get on with our lives and forget that it happened? I am ready to move on. Help us to move on.” The feeling is deep. . . . and complicated.

I have witnessed confusion, second-guessing, guilt, grief, denial, but no anger. How can we get angry when we loved him? How can we get angry when we think that it is somehow our fault? How can we get angry when, well, we are called to forgive?

St. Paul was such a wise man. Somehow he knew that the path to forgiveness could only be traversed through the boulders of anger. If we can’t acknowledge our anger we can never really move on, we can never heal and let go.

If we don’t claim and process our anger we can only get as far as cheap grace.

Cheap grace believes that we are so spiritual that we no longer walk waist high in the mess of life. Rather we float over it denying our humanity. With cheap grace we end up not only going to sleep with our anger but also having it eke out in all kinds of passive aggressive ways in our life not to mention our health. When we don’t acknowledge our anger the trauma of the betrayal continues to wreak havoc in insidious ways for years and years. That’s when as St. Paul says that we let the devil have a foothold in our lives.

I invite you to take several spiritual deep breaths as we are together in this place, listening to Paul, and listening to Jesus. Joyce and I are reaching deep to discern how to be with you, how to lead you, how to follow the Christ who calls us all into wholeness and health. Both of us feel blessed to be in this place, at this time. Sometimes we are confounded, but we also trust that the Spirit has called us to be in your midst, right here, right now through all the tough stuff.

Robert Frost said in a poem, that “the only way around is THROUGH.” We can’t get where we need to go by “around”.

Jesus shows us that the path to healing is through our anger. He got angry and overturned tables. He got angry at the arrogance of the Pharisees. He got angry about the lack of faith of his disciples. He wasn’t above getting angry. He didn’t deny his anger. Rather he welcomed it and let it flow through him as a sacred gift of his humanity.

And by doing so he used his anger for healing over and over again to the point where he healed the world on the cross. “Forgive them Father for they know not what they do.” He shows us the pathway of being angry but not sinning. He shows us the true Christian response when we have felt betrayed or wronged in some way.

Jesus gets angry with the Pharisees but notice that he doesn’t lash out at them in blame. He doesn’t seek revenge. He doesn’t get stuck in the adrenaline rush of anger. He realizes that he is responsible for his emotions. He welcomes his anger, grieves for his accusers and then reaches out to heal the man with the withered hand. But the Pharisees on the other hand get stuck in their anger and plot to kill Jesus.

Can we together walk on the journey in which we go THROUGH? Can we be ready to follow the Christ who calls for our courage, and our anger, and all that we are, to be yielded and offered, fully and freely? I promise you that I am ready to go on that journey of healing with you, beside you, listening to you, praying with you and for you, never letting go of the power of the truth and the power of love.

Some of creative ways we have found as a family for expressing our anger without hurting anyone have helped us greatly . . . to tear up or scribble in an old phone book, pull weeds, lift weights, to yell where no one can hear – to pound on a pillow with a safe plastic bat – to do things which help us experience anger safely. There are probably some ways you can think of to release anger, once you have recognized it, and we can all do some growing together in how that happens. Remember, the idea is to go THROUGH, yes to move on, but not to just go around, believing we can avoid some of the hard stuff.

Today we are going to write a letter. Everyone has been given a piece of blank paper in the bulletin. I invite you to write a letter to someone who you feel has betrayed or wronged you in some way. ANYONE If you had a knot or heaviness in your stomach or tenseness in your body as I was talking about Fred I challenge you to focus your anger toward the situation in this church. If you are angry with me for even bringing this up then write a letter of anger and direct it towards me. It could even be an angry letter addressed to God. You would be in good company if you did that, along with many of the Psalmists.

Now in order for each one of us to experience a sense of release we have to be willing to really let it rip with whatever comes to our mind. Even things you would never say out loud to anyone and never in a church I want you to feel comfortable saying in this letter. No one will be reading it except you.

What I have found in the process of writing such letters is that once I get out all the nasty stuff that my soul longs to say a shift happens. It may not happen right away. I may need to write a few more letters or allow the passage of time to work on me. But eventually I am able to come to a place of compassion for myself and for the person toward whom I am directing my anger.

There is such a release that I feel giddy and light, grateful and free. And instead of the knot lying heavy in my stomach — compassion flows out of my heart. I am unstuck. And I too, like Jesus can truly say, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.”

Now I realize healing from any kind of brokenness can be a long and slow process. I also believe that when we are willing to be on our healing path the spirit of God raises us up on Eagles wings and gives us strength to face our deepest fears.

So as St. Paul says, “Go ahead and be angry.”

Pause for 3-4 minutes.

Read over your letter and as you do invite Christ to be with you –blessing your feelings and giving you permission to feel outrage. Listen for his words of wisdom for you on your healing journey right now.

When you are ready to let go I invite you to walk forward and burn your letter in the purifying fire of God’s love.

You Can’t Take it With You

Sermon – November 13, 2005
You Can’t Take It with You
Rev. Beth Ann Estock

Scripture:
Leviticus 19:9-10
Luke 12:13-21

Last year while I was on my family leave one of the things I missed the most about working as a pastor was the process of writing a sermon. For my own spiritual growth there is nothing better than letting a passage of scripture enter into my thoughts and my everyday life. It wakes me in the morning and puts me to sleep at night. It is with me in my conversations, my reading, and my prayer to the point where it reveals some of its wisdom to me and hopefully begins to shape me in the ways of Christ.

This week however I had difficulty welcoming the story of the rich fool into my life. I think because it hits too close to home. You see I have sympathy for the man in the crowd who asks Jesus to help him get his fair share of the inheritance from his family. That sounds like a reasonable request to me. The man wasn’t asking for more than his fair share – only what he thought that he rightfully deserved. Wasn’t Jesus known for his passion for justice and the way he often stood up for the underdog?

But listen to Jesus’ response. “What makes you think it’s any of my business to be a judge or mediator for you?” Then he turns to the crowd and says, “Take care! Protect yourself against the least bit of greed. Life is not defined by what you have, even when you have a lot.”

Yes, but Jesus, How was this man greedy when he only wanted his fair share?

Then Jesus tells a story about a man who would do what any prudent person would do – save up for retirement. When I read this I think – wow! I’d love to be so blessed that I could retire early, take it easy and have the time of my life. Isn’t that the American dream?

Jesus ends the story by saying that God shows up and calls the man a fool. “Tonight you die. And your barn full of goods you can’t take with you.”

And that’s when I say, “Yes, but Jesus with the repeal of the inheritance tax at least it goes to my children and grandchildren. Right? Who would call such a person foolish when they have provided for their family even beyond their life? We call that person hard working and responsible.”

When it comes to stories like these some folks say, “The times are different now. We are no longer subsistence farmers. We can’t follow the things that Jesus said about the use of money and possessions in the Bible. And part of me wants to shake my head in agreement and move onto the scripture passage for next week.

But I can’t because you see for me it is still early in the week. So I read and reread. I awake and go to sleep with this story still working on me.

It works on me when I hear that our country gives less than one-half of a percent of our wealth for aid to third world countries – the lowest of any industrialized country in the world.

It works on me when I hear about congress voting to cut the deficit by cutting programs for the poor while at the same time lowering taxes for the rich.

It works on me when I get the new JoAnn’s fabrics flyer in the mail introducing their new store in Hillsboro. I want to go even though I am swimming in stacks of unused fabric.

It works on me when next week I will be boarding a cruise ship in San Francisco as you gather for worship begin here.

The farm of a certain rich man produced a terrific crop. He talked to himself: What can I do? My barn isn’t big enough for this harvest.

“The stocks of a certain upper middle class man did extremely well this year. He talked to himself: What can I do with all that money? I certainly don’t want to pay capital gains taxes.

A certain professional woman got a generous bonus from the company that she worked for. She talked to herself: What can I do with all that money? Buy that new car, pay off my bills?

A certain family received an unexpected inheritance from a distant relative. They talked to themselves: What can we do with all that money? Save up for that family vacation, remodel the bathroom, start that college fund?

“Here’s what I will do: I’ll build a bigger barn. I’ll gather all my grain and goods and I will congratulate my self for a job well done and then retire to have the time of my life.”

What is missing in these stories? All of them talked to themselves but not to anybody else. There are no thoughts of God. There is no mention of gleanings being left for others. Is there any sense of responsibility to use their abundance for the welfare of persons less fortunate? What could this money do for those in need? Is there any questioning of how much is enough?

There was a certain man named John Wesley who grew up in poverty and watched as his father was marched off to debtor’s prison in England in the early 1700’s. When Wesley became a teacher at Oxford University he began to enjoy having more than enough money to live on. He spent his money on playing cards, tobacco and brandy.

One day as he had just finished paying for some pictures for his room one of the chambermaids came to his door. It was a cold winter day and he noticed that she had nothing to protect her except a thin linen gown. He reached into his pocket to give her some money to buy a coat, but found that he didn’t have much left.

Immediately, he thought, “Will the master say, ‘Well done, good and faithful steward?’ Thou hast adorned thy walls with the money which might have screened this poor creature from the cold! O justice! O mercy! Are not these pictures the blood of this poor maid?”

It was then that John began to limit his expenses so that he would have more money to give to the poor…. He believed that with increasing income, what should rise is not our standard of living but our standard of giving.

As the founder of the Methodist movement he preached that Christians should look upon their money as a blessing from God in order to give it to the poor. This is exactly how Wesley lived out his life. As a matter of fact when he died his sole possessions were the clothes on his back, his hat, his Bible and enough money in his pocket to pay for his burial.

I know, I know … there are so many “yes, buts” that we could add to that story.

Yes but Wesley did not have a family to care for.

Yes but life is much more financially complicated now especially when we are unsure of our healthcare costs.

Yes but our entire economy is built on consumer spending. To be a good American is to spend more money than we have on things that we don’t really need.

Yes but we deserve to enjoy the fruits of our labors. We work hard for our money.

To walk in the ways of Christ often means we have chosen to swim upstream as those around us are swimming down. Especially when it comes to letting go of what gives us the illusion of security in this world – namely our money.

You see we cannot say that we believe in God and then when it comes to managing our life, dealing with our possessions and planning for the future we live as if there is no God.

Jesus refers to the misuse of our financial resources many times in the gospels. It is not that money is bad; rather it is what we choose to do with our money that can be troublesome.

Jesus reminds us that we have to watch out for our human propensity to be greedy with our time, our talents and our money. We have to watch out for our inflated vision of what our fair share ought to be. We have to be aware that we often live as if there will never be enough.

Those are the messages our culture bombards us with everyday. Our truth, the way of Christ, tells us something completely different — without a growing relationship with God we will never have enough. Jesus goes onto say that where our treasure is our heart will be also. What if we began to lay up our treasure for God instead of for ourselves? What would that look like for you and your family? What if every Christian in the world began to share out of their abundance? We could end world hunger and many third world diseases. We could bring healing to broken places and hopeless people.

How does the song go? “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.” What would it be like to set aside a tithe for God every week in our prayers, our presence, our gifts and our service? What kind of legacy would we leave if we did just that?

I don’t claim to have all the answers. What I can share is where I am on this struggle with my need for more. Letting go of my money, my time, my control, my possessions is a spiritual practice. I need God to help release me from the grip of greed. I have found that the more I allow God to open my heart, the more I am able to let go and the more I let go, the more I am able to trust in God. Because in reality my life is not mine to begin with. As the psalmist says, “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.”

When I can get beyond looking at the money I can see the deeper wisdom that Jesus offers me. It is a choice between my outer life controlled by my ego vs. my inner journey directed by God. It is a choice whether to hoard in fear or give in freedom. It is a choice whether to die alone with all my toys or live connected with all my love.

I know that what I do with my money reflects my faithfulness to God so it is important for me to be intentional with my giving. If I am not intentional I just fritter it away with feel good purchases or hoard it in fear preparing for that potential disaster.

This week you will receive a letter from the church asking you to consider setting aside a percentage of your income, your treasure, for the ministry of this church. I hope that when you ask yourself, “what can I do?” that you will go to God in prayer and ask what God desires for you to do. I realize that this is a journey for all of us and going upstream is arduous at times. But it can also be a wonderful adventure in trust and joy.

Let us ponder for a few moments that joy of giving.

Envision yourself as that man with the abundant treasure.

Ask God what God desires for you to do with this treasure. How much does God desire you to give to others?

Now think in terms of your own income. How much is enough for you and your family in order to live with the essentials? How much does God desire for you to give to others? How can you take the first step in being faithful to God’s call for you?

God of abundance,

Through your son Jesus the Christ, you remind us that our lives “do not consist in the abundance of possessions, but in our identity as your stewards. Awaken us again to the freedom and joy of our vocation that we might taste your life abundant. Be with us this week as we ponder how much is enough and as we seek your wisdom in how you desire us to give. We pray in Jesus name,

Amen.

God of Abundance

Sermon – November 20, 2005
“God of Abundance”
Rev. Joyce Sluss

Scripture:
Mark 10:17-31 and Mark 12:41-44

Let us pray: Gracious God, may the thoughts for this day be both a challenge and a comfort. Let them be your words as they seek to find truth in the midst of a troubled world. Let them remind us of your presence among us always. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

The two specific scriptures we have just heard challenge us in regard to our money.

In the one, Jesus advises that we sell all and give to the poor. In the other, she has very little but gives it all.

I might be very wrong, but I doubt if there is any among us who has done either of these things. I know I never have. In fact, they are so amazing that we almost dismiss them as out of the question — maybe even ludicrous — at the very least incredibly irresponsible.

In fact these teachings almost run counter to our rock solid Protestant work ethic

which tells us to work hard and accumulate those things which will give us security and protection. Take care of our families.

But Jesus is telling us to sell everything and give it all away. Give everything we have.

There are many ways to look at these scriptures — many ways to interpret them.

But I think they are about trust — trust in God. I think it is about what sort of God we believe in and can we trust that God.

We have arrived at the last Sunday of our stewardship campaign. Naturally I am going to talk about money. You wouldn’t expect anything less.

But over the past few weeks it has all been said. Here’s a re-cap if you happened to be gone or asleep. We have looked at the ways that God has blessed us, including hearing some wonderful personal stories about how some have been personally blessed by this congregation. We have considered the possibility of living more simply, or at least less extravagantly — or thinking about what we really need as opposed to what we think we want. In other words, using the blessings God has given us.

Today, we will talk about sharing God’s grace — multiplying the gifts we have been given so that others might be blessed through them.

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, said it succinctly:

Earn all you can. Save all you can. Give all you can.

Earn all you can: Count all the blessings you have been given.

Recognize God’s gracious acts in your life.

Save all you can: Use your gifts wisely. Be frugal. Don’t waste your gifts.

Give all you can: Share the wealth! Share your blessings with others!

That is money, yes, but also time and talent as well. It is also sharing the message of God’s love. Share the joy of your faith. Share what it means to you to have a relationship with God. Give all you can.

Roger Brunet was a young man who was struggling to make ends meet. He was married with 3 small children and another baby due at any time. Roger had a steady job and he worked hard but he came to the weekend and he had only two dollars to his name. Payday would not be until Thursday.

At church on Sunday, the offering plates were passed and Roger had a feeling inside himself that he had to put those last 2 dollars into the plate. In fact, he had the overwhelming feeling that it was the right thing to do. He put the two dollars in and offered up a prayer to God: “Lord, I’ve given my last bucks. I need you to take care of things until Thursday because we have a baby on the way, and I have to pay the bills.” Roger went home that day with empty pockets but a warm sense of having done the right thing.

That afternoon there was a knock on his door. It was a neighbor from the next block. He wanted to know if the old rusty car parked by the side of the house was for sale. Dan had given up on the car long before and had abandoned it, but he didn’t want to take advantage of a neighbor. But the neighbor didn’t really care about the rusty exterior. What he wanted was the engine. He offered to pay Dan on the spot. God had answered Dan’s prayer to take care of his family.

It would be nice to say that Dan never again worried about money and supporting his family. But lessons like that are hard to learn. Old habits die hard. In fact it took him years to really learn the lesson and really take it to heart. But he did eventually get it. He was eventually able to trust in God enough to give generously and extravagantly.

Trust! Doesn’t it boil down to a matter of trust? Can we trust in God?

And part of the answer to that question is what sort of God we believe in?

Do we believe in a God of scarcity — where there is precious little to be spread around and there might not be anything left when it’s our turn? That IS the fiscally responsible point of view. It is the work ethic point of view where you work hard and earn all that you get and you deserve all that you receive.

But that’s not what the scriptures tell us. NO! The scriptures tell us that God clothes the lilies of the field and even the tiny sparrow has a home. Jesus teaches us that God loves US even more than these lowly things that are given all they really need. It’s not about earning or deserving. It IS about loving and trusting.

How much does God love us? Enough to send the only beloved son to live and die for us — all of us — for all time. In hard times, when I am busy blaming myself for mistakes I’ve made Beth reminds me with a very broad smile. “It’s O.K. Jesus already died. You don’t have to do it.” And she might be laughing but she is absolutely right! Jesus already died for my sins. My repentance is enough.

God has already given me more love than I could ever earn or ever deserve. There is no scarcity of God’s love. There is far more than enough to go around. There is even more than enough for me in spite of the many times that I completely mess up.

There is more than enough love and forgiveness for me and I need a lot. But there is still enough left for you… and you… and you… and even you way up there in the balcony! And I can say that because I believe in a God of abundance. I truly believe that there is more than enough love and forgiveness to go around for everyone who needs it — and still enough if I need it over and over again and so do you… and you… and you.

A God of abundance is overflowing with love! A God of abundance blesses each and every one of us… over and over again… with more than we really need. A God of abundance gives us so much that we can share it with everyone!

As John Wesley said: Earn all you can… (don’t take your gifts for granted.)

Save all you can. (be responsible) But then — Give all you can. (Be generous because God has already been generous with you!)

In my former life — B.C. — that is before children, I worked for the Hennepin County Welfare Department in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I was in the family counseling division, not the money division. But occasionally I would get a call from a “money person” asking me to “counsel” a welfare recipient about how to be more responsible with the money they were given.

I made an appointment to go and visit this “offending” single mother. She told me her story. Every month when she cashed her welfare check she immediately gave 10% to her church. She knew that was the right thing to do and it made her feel good inside. She knew that she didn’t have very much but that there were others who had even less and she wanted to do her part. She also told me that she hadn’t always done that. “Those were hard times,” she said. “I really struggled then.” But ever since she had begun giving her 10% — her FIRST 10% — things had gotten a lot easier. She explained that she never knew exactly what that would mean but she always seemed to have enough of what she needed. When the weather began to get cold she would find kids coats and boots in a box outside her door. Sometimes she found food. She received Christmas gifts and sometimes rides to Parent-Teacher conferences. She said life was easier for her since she began giving her 10% to God. She also added, because she knew why I was there, that there was no way I could persuade her otherwise.

Well I didn’t even try. I decided right then and there that the “money” caseworker would have to be disappointed with my efforts. We did talk about ways she could stretch her remaining funds, but I never suggested that she stop tithing.

Now this church has prepared Christmas Baskets for many years so you know where those boxes of food and clothing and gifts came from. It’s no secret. That welfare mother knew too. But for her, her God of abundance was taking care of her. For her, there would always be enough to go around.

Earn all you can. Save all you can. Give all you can.

And that is possible because we believe in a God of abundance and not scarcity.

Today we read two stories from the Gospel of Mark about relying upon a God of abundance. I’ve told you two more stories from our own time. I’d almost be willing to bet that all of you have other stories. They might be your own and they might be stories you’ve heard. But I believe every single one because God blesses us all. But not many of us have the courage to trust in that love.

Jesus said to the young man, “Sell all that you have and give the money to the poor.” Then he told his disciples that it is very hard for anyone with wealth to enter the Kingdom of God. Well, we can rest easy. Who among us is wealthy? But truly we are all wealthy. Maybe not in terms of worldly standards with huge trust funds or great estates but each of us has all that we really need and probably a whole lot more. And that makes each of us wealthy. All that we have has come from God, and belongs to God. Our God of abundance has blessed us all. Therefore it is only reasonable that we share from our abundance because God shares with all.

So you see, God has a prior claim on everything — not just what we call a tithe (10%). Here’s the way we think — at least most of us. We think that we acquire as much as possible and then give to God part of what is left over after our own wants and needs are fulfilled. But actually, everything already belongs to God first! We just borrow some for a time. So do we save up and horde and think of ourselves first because there might not be enough? That would be good thinking IF we have a God of scarcity. But we don’t! We have a God of abundance! Our God loves each of us extravagantly and provides all that we need. Therefore we can afford to give off the top. We can afford to be generous. We don’t need to give from the left-overs because there is more than enough to go around. God gives abundantly and that means we can too!

It all comes from God! We share what God has provided.

What a great Thanksgiving message! You only thought I was talking about stewardship! But it is also Thanksgiving — a time to give thanks and to give abundantly out of thankfulness.

Here’s another story from a while ago. A young boy got a job in a local, neighborhood grocery store. He swept the floors, bagged groceries and stocked the shelves. One day he heard the owner tell his clerk that it was time to take an inventory. That was a new word for the boy so he asked what it was. Patiently the owner explained that it was a time when you made a list of everything that you had–from groceries on the shelves to wrapping paper and string. Still somewhat puzzled, the boy asked, “Why?” “Well, responded the owner, its easy to forget exactly how much you have each year. Every now and then you have to take an inventory just to see what all you have.”

That’s a big part of what we’re talking about. Have you taken inventory lately?

Now I don’t just mean the shallow “count your blessings.” I mean really sitting down for a heart-to-heart with yourself and thinking seriously about all of the blessings and opportunities and challenges you have in your life. Yes, I believe even the challenges can become blessings. That’s God’s hand again.

The woman in our scripture this morning gave all that she had. WOW! I hardly even know where to go with that one. But doesn’t it speak volumes about her trust in God? Doesn’t she know and live with a God of abundance who will take care of her even when she gives all that she has away?

Now I know that old habits are hard to break. I know that many of you will think about your pledge to the church and give pretty much what you have always given.

You will determine your amount in the same way that you have always determined it. But today I challenge you. Take an inventory. How much has God blessed you?

Do you believe in a God of abundance? Do you trust God enough to step out of your normal bounds? — enough to go out on a limb just a little way? Do you believe that God is out there with you?

Our God is a god of abundance who has far more than enough to supply. Far more than I will ever need. So I can afford to give off the top and give extravagantly — trusting in God all the way.

Amen.

Practicing Our Faith:

You can all probably guess what we will do today to practice our faith. Some of you have already filled out your pledge card and you have it with you. If you want to increase the numbers now is your chance.

For everyone else there are pledge cards in the pews. Take one in your hand and then say a prayer to God. Lift up to God whatever it is you want to say about that pledge. Then fill out your pledge and say another prayer of thanks to God.

You have a little time now because this is a very important spiritual practice. It’s not the only way to practice your faith but it is an important one.

I invite you now to think about how you will give back to our God of abundance.

Watch and Wait With Hope


Sermon – November 27th, 2005
Watch and Wait With Hope
Rev. Joyce Sluss

Scripture:
Mark 13:24-37

Let us pray: Let these words today be a reflection of your hopes and dreams for us all. Let them be words of truth and challenge and love. Amen.

This is the first Sunday of Advent. How does this scripture apply? It’s not about Mary or Joseph. It doesn’t have angels in it or shepherds. What does staying awake have to do with Advent?

Well, the Jews of Jesus’ time were under the oppression of Roman rule. They felt in desperate need of God’s help. They prayed fervently for God to intervene on their behalf. They waited and they waited but they were getting discouraged.

Many of us know exactly how that feels. We pray and we pray but nothing seems to happen. What is God waiting for? I need God’s help NOW! Often it seems as if God’s time clock is out of sync with ours.

A little boy named Jimmy learned that one day as he was laying on a hill in the middle of a meadow on a warm spring day. Puffy white clouds rolled by and he pondered their shape. Soon, he began to think about God.??

“God? Are you really there?” Jimmy said out loud.

To his astonishment a voice came from the clouds.

“Yes, Jimmy? What can I do for you?”

Seizing the opportunity, Jimmy asked,

“God? What is a million years like to you?”??

Knowing that Jimmy could not understand the concept of infinity, God responded in a way that Jimmy could understand.

“A million years to me, Jimmy, is like a minute.”??

“Oh,” said Jimmy. “Well, then, what’s a million dollars like to you?”

“A million dollars to me, Jimmy, is like a penny.”??

“Wow!” remarked Jimmy, getting an idea.

“You’re so generous… can I have one of your pennies?”??

God replied, “Sure thing, Jimmy! Just a minute.”??

Little Jimmy wasn’t ready for that response was he?

Our time and God’s time is not always the same.

Jesus tells a story, here, about a wealthy landowner going on a trip. The servants left behind were given charge of the estate and when the master returned he would check on their stewardship or how they took care of his property and affairs.

But the master failed to mention when he would return. It is a story about being prepared, and getting ready. In that sense then, this is an Advent story, for this is the season of preparation. It is a time to wait and be prepared for the coming of Christ.

When I was about 8 years old my grandparents moved to the town that we lived in.

It was a long walk to their house, but it was do-able and I did it often. I remember my grandmother getting ready for her baking day. For her it was a day of making pies – apple pies. She would make about 40 pies in one day and put them in her big freezer. That was the primary reason for having the freezer. I asked, “Why so many pies, Grandma?” She replied, “You never know when company will come. If I bake pies now I will always be ready.”

My grandmother was also a great champion of pockets. If we had clothes without pockets she would try to figure out a way to add at least one. Why? “Well you never know when you’ll need a hankie.”

My grandmother was nothing if not prepared. While going through her things after her death we found fabric in her sewing room that was labeled: “enough to make an apron”, “squares already cut to make pot holders”, “good fabric for pockets”, etc.

For her, nothing went to waste and nothing was left to chance. We felt duty-bound to make the aprons and the pot holders whether we needed them or not. Grandma would expect it.

I’ll bet every one of you out there knows someone like my grandmother.

Maybe you are yourself.

It’s good to be prepared. It’s even scriptural. But often in our advance preparations we think that we are in control. We get so caught up in our planning and dreaming that we imagine the future before it happens. We convince ourselves that we can determine the outcome by our preparations.

My daughter-in-law is a planner. She doesn’t want anything left to chance. A year ago last winter she became pregnant. As her pregnancy progressed she kept us informed of the news. First, “It will be a boy.” Next, “He’s good sized but not huge.” Then, “His name will be Matthew.” But then it was, “He will be born August 1st.”

“How do you know that.” I asked?

“Well my due date is over a week-end so my doctor told me I could decide what day I wanted to go into the hospital to be induced. And I decided August 1st.” “Why August 1st?” I asked.

“Well, because Emma (his big sister) was born June 1st and this way it will be neat and easy to remember.”

I thought to myself, if there is any fun in being pregnant it is the waiting and anticipation and the surprise at the end. And she just missed out on it all.

But God had the last word. In spite of all her planning the baby was born July 22nd.

And he was a good-sized, not huge, boy.

My point is, we plan so much we begin to think that we are in charge. We think that we can control what the future will be like. But usually God has other plans.

Another way we try to determine the future is to establish habits. If you do something over and over then that’s the way it must be.

You’ve probably heard the story about the woman who always cut a ham in half before baking it. Her mother observed her doing this when she was visiting. She asked her daughter why she cut the ham in half.

“Well Mom, you always did it. I’m just doing it the way you taught me.”

Her mother replied, “I cut the ham so that it fit into the only pan I had. You have a larger pan.”

We have all just celebrated Thanksgiving so this is something we can all understand.

I recently read that a tradition is what we call our ingrained habits.

And all of it is true. We establish patterns for ourselves. We do things the same way every time. We know what we like and that is the only thing we’ll accept.

We become comfortable in our ways. It feels good. Things are predictable.

We feel like we are in control!

But God has a unique sense of time. God isn’t always predictable. God doesn’t necessarily WANT us to be comfortable.

So we find ourselves in Advent: a time to prepare for the coming of the Christ child. But what’s the surprise in that? We already know how the story goes.

We already know there will be no room in the inn and the baby will be born in a stable with animals all around. It’s the same every year. We already know his first visitors will be a bunch of motley shepherds. So what’s new? It’s the same every year. What kind of preparing do we have to do when we already know how the story ends?

So we busy ourselves preparing our “things”. We decorate a tree. We bake cookies. We decorate the house. Oh, and we buy presents. We buy lots and lots of presents.

Then we have to wrap lots and lots of presents. And don’t forget the Christmas cards! We call all of that “preparing”.

But somehow, I don’t think that’s what Jesus had in mind when he told the people they would have to wait… that they had to stay awake and be alert.

I believe that Advent is a time to get our hearts and minds ready for the coming of the Christ child. And that is much harder to do because we are so pre-occupied getting our “things” ready.

The real truth is that Jesus was born, lived, and died to in order to shake up our lives. If we live the same way the world lives, then what was the point of Jesus’ life? If we live the same way every single year without ever changing, then what was the point of Jesus’ life? If we carry on making plans as if we are in control, then what was the point of Jesus’ life?

Jesus came to turn our thinking around: away from the world and toward God!

Jesus came so that we could get out of our ruts: the ruts that allow us to live every day without ever thinking about God. Jesus came to show us how to be more faithful to God. Jesus came to teach us that we are not in control!

If Jesus came to shake up our lives then I think it behooves us to get ready for some big changes! The truth is, we have to get ready for the birth of the Christ child just the way we have to get ready for the birth of a baby into our family lives.

What do we have to do to get ready for a baby? Well, we have to re-arrange our lives. We now have to stay home more often or make plans well in advance if we want to go out. We have to re-arrange our schedules. We cannot rely upon our own timing any more. Now suddenly naps and feedings have a very high priority. We also have to re-arrange our stuff. We have to make room for a new family member.

Where will they sleep? Where will their “things” go? We often have to clear out a whole room for a new baby.

It’s the same in our hearts and minds when we prepare for the coming Christ child.

How will we re-arrange our lives to accommodate the demands he will make on us?

How will we re-arrange our schedules? What will be the new priorities?

How will we re-arrange our “things” to make room for him in our lives?

Those are all hard questions that we each must ponder on our own. Isn’t it a good thing that we have the 4 weeks of Advent to do that?

And how about our church: Hillsboro United Methodist Church. Some big things have happened here. Some big changes have had to be made. How can we make the most of an uncomfortable situation? How can we turn things to our advantage?

One way, is by taking a good hard look at who we are and how we do things.

Over the past several months Beth and I have occasionally heard words like this:

“Well, in the past we have done this and that.” Or

“In the past we have done it this way.”

Now hear me in this: we LIKE to hear things like that. It’s important for us to know the way things have been. We want to hear what makes you comfortable. But we have before us a golden opportunity. We are at a crossroads. Right now we have a chance to re-examine all those things. You have an opportunity to look at each ministry, everything that goes on, and every group that meets and ask some important questions. Is this ministry still meeting the needs of the people we hope to serve? Is the way we have always done it still a good way that is helpful to most?

Is the group still viable and worth the time and effort?

Now these are only questions I can ask. I cannot answer any of them. Only you can look deep inside and look for a true answer. All I am saying is that we are at a point of discernment. How is God leading us into ministry? Many of the old answers are still perfectly good. But not all will be. It might be best if some groups or activities died. In that way we make room for new ideas or fresh ways of meeting our goals.

Advent is a time to prepare for the coming of the Christ child. It is a time to take an inventory to see what we have and what still works and what doesn’t. It’s time to make new room for Jesus in our lives and in our church. It’s a time to celebrate some endings, but also to anticipate some beginnings.

What will they be? I don’t know. But it is the important work of the next several months. And the answers will have to come from you– the collective body that makes up the church. Some of the discernment will be difficult. But I believe that often we will have fun together discovering new things and making new plans. Even Advent is a time for serious preparation and some serious fun!

So the work is laid out before us. We have time– all of Advent and even beyond into the new year. We have each other– to give support and assistance to each other. Most of all we have God– encouraging and loving us through it all.

And all of that means that we must watch and wait for new ways of learning and understanding. We must watch and wait to be ready when new ideas materialize and new opportunities present themselves. This is not the time to fall asleep. We have to keep awake because we don’t know what will happen next. But we watch and wait with real hope in our hearts. Because we already know how the story ends.

We already know that God loves us so much that God sent the only very beloved son to live among us, to teach us, and to ultimately die for us. And because he lived we have hope for the future.

Advent is a time of preparation.

Let’s take advantage of that time: in our hearts, in our lives, and in our church.

Amen.

Practicing Our Faith:

I invite you now to spend just a few minutes considering your own life.

What are some things you would like to stop or get rid of?

What things are still really important to you and give you life?

What ways can you prepare your own heart and mind to welcome the Christ child this Christmas?

There are no right or wrong answers here. There is only what is right for you.

Sit quietly for a few minutes.

Ask God to help you determine what is right for you.

Putting one Foot in Front of the Other


Sermon – December 04th, 2005
“Putting one foot in front of the other.”
Rev. Beth Ann Estock

Scripture:
2 Peter 3:8-15a

I have never given much thought to folks who talk about the end of the world – the Second Coming of Christ, the rapture. I know that at the turn of each century and particularly at the turn of a millennium people have talked and written more about the end of the world. We need only look at the impact of the “Left Behind” series in our country. We too are living in a time when folks fear the worst. “I wonder if this is the beginning of the end?” They read a newspaper or watch TV and filter what they hear through the lens of the rapture. They see signs in the unrest in the Middle East, the war in Iraq, growing terrorism, the continuing threats of AIDS and other diseases, and the seemingly growing destructive forces of tsunamis, earthquakes and hurricanes. The more we see the more numb we become as we try to shrug off the reality of the suffering in our world.

Then there are folks who seem to be thrilled with what is happening and are even working to bring on the end of times. The radical right wing of some conservative Christian groups including the Moral Majority are doing this by funneling large sums of money to radical Zionist groups in Israel in order to help them in their fight against the Palestinians.

They believe that if they can help Israel to wipe out the Palestinians then Israel will be able to rebuild the Temple. And they are convinced that once the Temple is rebuilt that Christ will come again and the world as we know it will not longer exist.

I just shake my head and wonder if we are reading from the same Bible. But then I guess Peter had a similar situation in his day as well. In his letter he is arguing against the false teachings that were spreading among an early Christian community. This community was probably living with the daily reality of persecution, the likes of which we can’t even imagine. They longed for Christ to come and release them from their fear and suffering. They longed for a time when God would bring human history to a close and begin with a new heaven and a new earth. And since Jesus had not yet come again they began to worry and think that something might have gone wrong.

Hopefully we will never have to experience the kind of persecution that the early church endured. But on some levels we too can understand the longing for a new heaven and a new earth. Think about the things that aren’t working in your life with work, school, family, and health. Ponder the social and political problems in our own country and then around the world. Did you know that every 6 seconds someone dies of AIDS in this world? Did you know that we only have about 50 more years of fossil fuels left on our planet at our rate of consumption? Wouldn’t it be great if we could just wipe the slate clean and start all over again?

But listen to what Peter in his wisdom tells us.

“Don’t overlook the obvious here, friends. With God one day is as good as a thousand years, a thousand years as a day. God isn’t late with God’s promise. Rather God is giving everyone space and time to change.”

God is giving everyone space and time to change. Let’s be honest, we just don’t want to work that hard. Wouldn’t it be easier to just start all over again some where else, in a different relationship, in a different church, in a different job on a pristine planet?

What does this mean – giving us time and space to change? What do we have to change anyway? It’s everyone else who has the problem. If the world just operated the way I think that it should everything would be fine. If we could just fix everyone else things would be fine, right?

But Peter says, “Not so fast people! Work on yourself. Abide in God; nurture the spirit of Christ in your hearts and minds. Do the holy work of love.”

Peter is reminding us that we have free will. God has entrusted us to make our own choices. And God is longing for us to choose the way of love and compassion. To live out the fruits of the spirit – joy, peace patience, understanding, love. There is no fruit of the spirit that mentions helping to bring on the end of the earth, trying to fix everyone else so that we will feel okay or throwing our hands up in the air in disgust and hopelessness when that doesn’t work.

Instead what Peter says is “Do your very best to be found living at your best, in purity and peace.”

This is not easy and sometimes it can be very painful. I believe that change only happens when we are in so much angst that we are forced to make a change. So when I am in a good space and I see chaos and anxiety around me I think – great – “God is about to do a new thing and now it springs forth!”

To make a change is to give birth to something new. And the birthing process is painful. Peter is reminding us to hang on and hang in there. Peter is reminding us to put our trust in God who is gracious enough to allow us the space and time that we need in order to open to God’s healing love in our lives.

I believe that the Second Coming of Christ happens here in our hearts as we become like Christ and are reborn into the ways of love and compassion, peace and joy, gentleness and mercy.

In this season of Advent Peter reminds each of us to look within:

to be honest about where we have fallen short,

to ponder what we would like to change,

to pray to God,

to ask God to heal us so that we can give birth to Christ in our own lives.

Meister Eckhart says, “ What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly but does not take place with myself? And what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace and if I am not also full of grace? What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to his/her Son if I do not also give birth to him in my time and culture? This, then is the fullness of time: When the Son of God is begotten in us.”

What does that mean for our time? How can the Son of God be born in each one of us? Where do we begin when we look at a world that seems to be falling apart around us?

One of my favorite Children’s Christmas cartoon “Santa Claus is coming to Town”, made in 1970 with Fred Astaire as the mailman narrator, is a story that can help us understand the power of change and how we can do the holy work of love.

For me Santa is the epitome of the Second Coming of Christ. Allowing Christ to be born in us and work in us so that we can bear the fruits of the spirit in this world, this world.

“You better watch out you better not cry, better not pout I’m telling you why. Christ is being born in our town.”

It is a prophetic call in modern day language to make straight the highways and prepare the way for the Lord. Repent! Get your act together, get your priorities in order, reevaluate your life. Christ is coming to town.

In this particular movie Chris Kringle has to go through the mountain owned by the Winter Warlock, a very frightening and mean-spirited magician, in order to get to Sombertown to deliver his toys.

Now let me paint you the picture of Sombertown – everything is gray. Hopelessness abounds, and people live in fear of the Burgermeister who has made it a law that no one can play with Toys. The people are judged by the amount of work they do and how clean their stockings are.

And in comes Kris Kringle in his red Santa suit and his jolly fun-loving, compassionate, accepting, joy-filled spirit. He simply wants to bring love to this town by sharing his gifts and the gifts of his family, the toy makers.

He meets up with some children to try to teach them about love and sings them a song. “Just give a little love and you’ll get a little love back.”

He even tries to give the Burgermeister and toy yo-yo but is run out of town. On the way back over the Mountain the Winter Warlock catches him. Let’s watch to see what happens.

“If I want to change the reflection I see in the mirror each morn. You mean that it’s just my election to vote for a chance to be reborn?”

You mean it is that simple? You mean it is up to me to be the change that I wish to see? You mean all that I have to do is ask Christ to be born in me and trust as I put one foot in front of the other that I can close the door on fear and hopelessness in my life?

That in a song is the essence of Christmas. The trees, decorations, family traditions and beautiful music are wonderful this time of year. But we are missing the point, the reason for the season as they say, if our focus stays on the trimmings or if we try to strong arm the coming of Christ in this world through the destruction of others whether that be in a far off land or in ourselves, our communities and families.

This is the season to be set free, to allow love to take up residence in our hearts. And this transformation, this rebirth is not a one time happening, rather we have a choice every moment of everyday to honor the Christ that lives in each one of us, by allowing it room to grow. In the midst of such fear and hopelessness not unlike that of Sombertown the simple gifts of kindness and hospitality can become instruments of healing and hope.

Turn Around and Rejoice!

Sermon – December 11, 2005
Watch and Wait With Hope
Rev. Joyce Sluss

Scripture:
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 and John 1:6-8, 19-28

These are the words of the prophet, Isaiah:

“The Spirit of God, the Master, is on me

because God anointed me.

He sent me to preach good news to the poor,

heal the heartbroken,

Announce freedom to all captives,

pardon all prisoners.

God sent me to announce the year of his grace—

a celebration of God’s destruction of our enemies—

and to comfort all who mourn,

To care for the needs of all who mourn in Zion,

give them bouquets of roses instead of ashes,

Messages of joy instead of news of doom,

a praising heart instead of a languid spirit.”

(From Eugene Peterson’s The Message)

Notice all the contrasts and opposites here: freedom for captives, pardon for prisoners, healing for the broken, comfort for the mourning, roses instead of ashes, joy instead of gloom. This is a passage about turning things around and starting again.

Isaiah preached these words to the people of Israel in the very worst of times. They were not only defeated, but they were in exile… hundreds of miles from home. Their temple, their homes and even their heritage had been destroyed. They were on the very brink of falling off the map of history. They were very close to being forgotten forever. And just at this moment of deep despair, Isaiah speaks these words, whispering to them, “Good tidings. You are about to be restored. Things will turn around for you.” What a gift! Could it be believed? YES, because in despair you latch onto any shred of hope that is available to you.

Think about yourself for a moment. What has been your darkest hour? When did you despair the most? When were you so lost and alone you had no one to turn to but God?

One of my dark times was shortly after the birth of my youngest child. At a time which should have been filled with joy I was overcome with sorrow.

At my son’s birth a very conscientious pediatrician took the time and patience to really LOOK into my infant’s eyes. It’s very hard to look deep into the eyes of a crying newborn with an ophthalmoscope in order to see back beyond the lens. When an infant cries they instinctively squeeze their eyes shut very tight. But this doctor persisted and saw what he thought might be a problem. And his fears were born out the next day when my infant son and I were wheeled to the Ophthalmologist’s office and it was pronounced that he was born with a dense cataract in one eye. Infant cataracts are not all that common but they are not usually discovered until the children enter kindergarten and have their first real eye exam. By that time it is far too late to do anything about it and the child is blind in that eye forever. You see eyes have to sort of “learn” to see. Light has to hit the optic nerve in the back of the eye in order to stimulate it into activity. The cataract blocked light from reaching the optic nerve so without surgery to remove the offending cataract the optic nerve would never be stimulated into use.

My husband is a doctor. That means that if he doesn’t personally have the knowledge needed he knows exactly where to find it. And 21 years ago “Googling” was not yet invented. So in a short period of time my husband had far more knowledge about infant cataracts than was good for me. We knew all the dangers of general anesthesia on infants, especially on premature babies like my son. We knew all the risks of eye surgery. We knew that this would effect his vision forever. We also thought about the social and emotional impact this might have on our son as he grew and matured. While I wondered if my son would ever be able to drive, my husband wondered if he would ever be able to catch a ball or even negotiate steps with confidence because it takes two good or at least equal eyes to have proper depth perception. We worried endlessly and contemplated whether to do the surgery recommended in a year’s time. Not at all satisfied, my husband got us an appointment with a highly respected Pediatric Ophthalmologist at Chicago Children’s Hospital. We were seen in just a few days and surgery was recommended for the next morning. It was a dark hour for us. We had so much information that predicted the possibility of bad outcome. In fact the prospects seemed bad with or without the surgery. Even after surgery the odds for good vision were fairly slim. Was it worth the considerable risk involved? How could I subject my precious little baby to all that surgery entailed? It was, for my husband and I, a dark time. We turned to God frequently, both together and individually. But we knew the decision was ours and had to be made quickly and permanently. We opted for surgery and our long and difficult journey began.

We all have dark times. It is part of the fabric of life. I don’t believe they are initiated or willed or even predestined by God. But I do believe that God stands firmly with us throughout our troubles. I didn’t read these words from Isaiah at that point in my life. It was during that next year that I started reading my Bible in earnest. Isaiah’s words were meant to bring comfort to the poor and oppressed. And I wonder, in my dark hour, would I have believed these words if I had read them. Honestly, I don’t really know. But I know they were meant to be a great comfort. And I know that the people of Israel received them with a great deal of rejoicing.

Isaiah brings hope to a people in despair. Note, that he does not give them anything tangible. He offers no proof for his words. He does no demonstrations to convince them of his truth. He just gives them words of hope and encouragement.

Well, Isaiah also gave them verbs of “doing”. He gave them a picture not only of what God would do for them but also what they could eventually do for others. Bring good news to the oppressed. Bind up the broken hearted. Proclaim liberty to the captives. Release the prisoners. Comfort all who mourn. Provide for them. Build up and repair what has been ruined.

What a gift! What an incredible gift to give to a people who were about ready to give up. The gift was: You are not alone. I hear your cries. I see your pain. I offer you help. But along the way, and when you are able, YOU can also help others.

What a gift! This is an early view of what Christmas would be like! Not the commercialism and the wrapping paper– but the real gift of the Christ Child born to deliver us all and for all time! This is turning from the darkness of despair to the light of hope in a bright, new future. God was saying, “Now you’re down, but soon you will be up! Now you mourn, but soon you will rejoice. Now you are in pain but soon the pain will be replaced with health and vitality.” God was saying, ”Don’t worry –‘Fear not.’ Because soon everything will be turned around and instead of tears you will have smiles and you will be able to dance with joy!

Everything will be turned around: sorrow turned to joy. Do you hear that?

That’s good news indeed!

Wow! I don’t know about you, but when I read this passage this past week I thought, “This is Hillsboro!” Isaiah wasn’t speaking to some Jewish folks thousands of years ago! Isaiah was speaking to US right here and right now! God was using Isaiah once more to bring words of comfort and joy to a people who have had a hard time of it. And don’t you see? The message is the same: You are not alone. I hear your cries. I see your pain. I offer you help. But along the way, and when you are able, YOU can also help others.

Now that is not to say that you have ever stopped helping others. But now, through the depth of your experiences, you can feel and identify with the pain of others more completely. You have the opportunity to reach out with the love of God in new and different ways.

Just like the ancient Israelites, you have needed release. You have needed binding up. You have needed comfort. God came to the aid of Israel and God is here with us now– right here in Hillsboro.

Wow! What a gift! Leave it to God to know just what we need the most and when we need it.

BUT here’s the catch. A gift must be accepted to be of any use. We have to believe that God is speaking to us. We have to believe that God is available to us NOW, when we’re hurting.

Those Israelites were sometimes pretty thick though. They often needed to be taught a lesson more than once… unlike any of you… or even me.

Several hundred years pass and instead of being in exile, now the Hebrews are under the oppression of the Romans. Again, it is a very dark time for them. Suddenly, in walks John the Baptist. He’s a pretty amazing guy and he has some pretty big talk.

“Repent! Change your ways because the Messiah is coming! Turn around! You will soon be delivered!”

The Gospel of John says this: “There once was a man, his name John, sent by God to point out the way to the Life-Light. He came to show everyone where to look, who to believe in. John was not himself the Light; he was there to show the way to the Light.” (From Eugene Peterson’s The Message)

Again, words of hope to a people about ready to give up. Again, words of comfort in a time of despair. We know now that John was pointing the way to Jesus. So here now, we finally approach Christmas.

Christmas came out of the depths of despair. Christmas was a new way for God to give the same message that Isaiah had given earlier: You are not alone. I hear your cries. I see your pain. I offer you help. But along the way, and when you are able, YOU can also help others. Christmas is a light shining in the darkness both literally and figuratively.

This is a story I recently read:

The United States suffered through the American influenza epidemic of 1918.

There was hardly a family that didn’t loose one or more member to this plague.

During the height of this epidemic all public places, including churches, were ordered to close. It was a time of deep despair. It was a time, more than ever, when the people needed a sign of hope and consolation. I’m sure that pastors everywhere felt the anguish of their inability to reach out to people in their time of need. At least one resourceful pastor took action. He thought of the magnificent stained glass windows that graced his church. They were large and faced a main thoroughfare. So he placed floodlights inside his church. In that way, the pictures on those large stained glass windows were brightly illuminated and all who passed on the outside could see their message.

There for all to see were the portrayals of Jesus: one holding a lamb in his arms, one praying in Gethsemane, one on the cross, and one in triumphant Resurrection glory. It was a silent but eloquent sermon of light and stained glass. Thousands passed those lighted windows. Many received the message and were filled with new resolve and encouragement. They saw, that even in that time of great sickness and death, the light of Christ’s glory was coming into the world.

A light is shining in the darkness. At one time or another we all need it. We need it as individuals. We need it as organizations, like Hillsboro United Methodist Church.

God is giving us a clear message: You are not alone. I hear your cries. I see your pain. I offer you help.

Some of you might be in despair right now. Please take this message to heart.

You might know others who are in the midst of a dark time. Offer them this light– the light of Christmas– a gift of hope and encouragement that never goes out of fashion.

I need to finish my story of my own despair over my infant son. He had the surgery at 10 days old– two weeks before he was to have been born. What followed was difficult but doable. Now he is 21 years old. Corrected with a contact lens the vision in his bad eye alone is 45/20, which is nothing short of miraculous and far better than any doctor ever predicted. He continues to fail every depth perception test invented however, unexplained and again miraculously, he has learned to compensate. He walks up and down stairs, catches balls and drives a car… all with a great deal of confidence and skill. He does not think of himself as disabled in any way.

God truly was with us in our dark time. The oppressions we felt then were lifted and turned around into prayers of heartfelt thanks and praise. From despair we can now rejoice.

That is the message of Christmas. It is a light shining in the darkness. It can be a gift of hope for all. All you have to do is reach out and grab it. Then REJOICE! For God is with us always and forever.

Amen.

And so we come to another opportunity to practice our faith. Write a list of people you would like to invite to church. It could be as broad as every single person

who walks down the hall at work, or as specific as “Kathy next door.” It is a “to do” list, or a “to invite” list. It could turn out to be the most important list your friend’s name will ever be on. It is your opportunity to offer the light, and life, and hope that is Christmas to a friend. There can be no greater gift that you can give.

And this seems a good time to tell you what the thought for the day was this week on our Conference w-mail communication:

“Studies indicate that 80% of unchurched Americans say that no one has ever invited them to church. We may think we have invited them because we have signs outside our churches, we have ads in the yellow pages, and we may even send flyers around the community. But unchurched people say that no one has cared enough to invite them personally. Over half of those unchurched Americans say that if someone ever did invite them, then they would probably go to church.” – Bishop Michael J. Coyner, Indiana Area, United Methodist Church

Giving Birth to Love


Sermon – December 18, 2005
“Giving Birth to Love”
Rev. Beth Ann Estock

Scripture:
Luke 1:26-38

I remember well the joy I felt as I carried a child in my womb for the first time. Yes, I had my share of nausea, fatigue, and heartburn but I also glowed with the truth that I was an integral part of the creation process. God was at work in me in a very intimate way. I was blessed as any mother is.

I sang as Mary, “My soul gives glory to my God. My heart pours out its praise. God lifted up my lowliness in many marvelous ways. My God has done great things for me: yes, holy is this name. All people will declare me blessed and blessings they shall claim.”

As I grew to love the life being formed in me I also grew in my need to protect this new being at all costs. And as it came time for me to give birth I didn’t know whether to be joyful or be in mourning because I knew once my daughter was born I would no longer be able to protect her within me. I knew that with the gift of life comes hurt and pain, heartache and loss.

I wanted her to live abundantly, joyfully, freely. And Yet I knew that I could not control her life or the decisions that she would make. She would be born to be her own unique self that I only hoped to understand and nurture.

It was then that I realized the depth and fierceness of God’s love for me. If I could love this tiny baby that much, how much more does God, the source of all love, love me? God wants for me what I want for both of my daughters — to learn the ways of love, to be free to make wise choices, to use our gifts and grow in our talents. To basically live full abundant lives — to let our light shine.

Oh how I want that for my children, for all children, for all of us.

This is the day when we give thanks to God for the very gift of life. Today we remember that God becomes infleshed not only in Baby Jesus but also in each one of us. We come here today pregnant — co-creators with God in the dance of life and love.

I have a hunch that some of us came here because this is what we do on Sunday. We certainly didn’t expect to give birth to God. Surprise! Or as the angels said, “Fear not!” Fear not your life, your blessings, and your purpose for being. Fear not! For unto you is born this day. Live it!

A while ago I listened to an interview on the radio of a poet and playwright in New York City who had undergone a Kidney transplant. What is unique about this story is that even though he had to get dialysis for a year before receiving his transplant he never asked anyone to donate a kidney to him. A bunch of his close friends began to get together and brainstorm how they could help to save his life. They saw in him what he could not see in himself – his blessedness, his gifts, and his ability to help others see life in transforming ways. They did not take for granted his presence (his present) in their lives.

His friends decided that all of them would be tested to see if there might be a match. They even came up with an order in which they would determine who would be the doaner if more than one of them matched.

It happened that his agent was the number one choice and her kidney was a match so he was able to receive this gift of a kidney from one of his closest friends. He was told after the surgery that some people who receive transplants take on some of the characteristics of the person who donated the organ. He says that he is much more emotional even crying as he watches certain commercials.

But the other interesting point is that after the surgery he did his best to follow all of the doctor’s orders in a way that he had never done in the past. He said he did this because now he carried this precious gift from his friend — her kidney — in his body. He wants to honor that gift and honor life in a way he has never done before.

This poet received the gift of life twice — once at birth and then through the love of his friends and the donation of a kidney that happens to make him more tender.

Could it be that God wants us to get it the first time around? Could it be that the gift of Christmas is the gift of our unique spirits that have become infleshed at our births?

In the Greek Orthodox Church Mary is called “theotokos” God bearer. The one who bears God.

Each of us bears God in us. When we trust in that truth as Mary did, God can work through us as well. Making us more tender. Opening us to the ways of love. Humbling us to the awe and wonder of life. Helping us to risk our egos to be the change that we wish to see. You see nothing is impossible with God!

What would it be like to leave here today honoring your beings the way this poet honors his new kidney? What would it be like today to honor and love God the way God honors and loves us? How can you bear God to this world?

God comes to us in the form of a baby to say I love you so much that I cannot bear being without you. I love you so much that I want to show you how to love and honor yourselves and your neighbors. I come to remind you that life is precious. So what are you waiting for? Now is the time to let your light shine. Do something outrageous. Honor your uniqueness. Share your love. Imagine the impossible and bear that dream in this world! This is your life! Show up! You are the gift! Fear not! Sing joy to this world!

Amen

Prayers of the People

Come Lord Jesus, Come Lord Jesus, Come and be born in our hearts.

God of life, on this night, the world is reborn with the birth of your son, Jesus. We thank you for the gift of your child, who came to show us your way.

Come Lord Jesus, Come Lord Jesus, Come and be born in our hearts.

God, you are the guardian of the poor. Many children tonight are being born in places no better than that stable in Bethlehem. We pray for them.

Come Lord Jesus, Come Lord Jesus, Come and be born in our hearts.

God of peace we remember tonight the people of Bethlehem held captive to fear and hatred, unable to celebrate Christmas in the birthplace of Christ. We remember our Muslim fellow citizens who are being detained with no just cause by our government captivated by fear. We pray for our country and our leaders that we may give birth to peace.

Come Lord Jesus, Come Lord Jesus, Come and be born in our hearts.

God of comfort, we thank you that we have a warm place to gather, and friends and family to care for us. We pray for all who are sick, or lonely, in trouble or afraid, that they may be healed and consoled.

Come Lord Jesus, Come Lord Jesus, Come and be born in our hearts.

God among us, in the birth of Jesus, you show us your love. We pray for ourselves and for each other. Help us to fear not. Help us to bear you in this world.

Come Lord Jesus, Come Lord Jesus, Come and be born in our hearts.

Claiming the light

Tonight we remember and celebrate the gift of Divine Love who leapt from the Holy Womb into the heart of humanity. This loving presence calls us home to our hearts, to hope, compassion and courage. This Love infleshed came as a light bearing truth, offering guidance, radiating compassion.

As we welcome this light we will begin in darkness — where all of us began as a seed buried in the rich soil of a womb. Some forms of darkness can be good and nurturing but if we stay in that darkness we will rot in our own fear. The Christ came to stand up to this destructive darkness and to light our path with goodness.

Let us pause now for where there is darkness in our world and in us. Are we about to give birth to light or do we find ourselves tonight stuck in hopelessness? Where do we pray for Christ’s light and love to shine this night?

Let us sit for a few minutes without light to ponder our darkness.

Lighting of the Candles

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness on them light has shined.

May the light of these candles we carry be a reminder of the divine radiance within us. As we hold these candles let us give birth to hope and peace, love and joy!

Fear not!

Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of God has risen upon you!

Let us now gather in a circle; share our light and sing “Silent night Holy night.”

One Small Baby


Sermon – December 25, 2005
One Small Baby
Rev. Joyce Sluss

Scripture:
Imagine with me for a while. I’d like to share a story with you.

There once was a house in a town very much like this one. It was not an ordinary house, but an awful looking house that was weathered grey from many years of neglect. It’s wooden front steps were broken and treacherous to step on. The front porch was sagging badly. There were no broken windows however every one was shut off from the world by overgrown bushes and blinds that were pulled tight to the bottom. And the blinds themselves were yellowed with age.

This was a house that nobody wanted to live near. This house was the butt of many town jokes. This house received many letters from the city asking that it be cleaned up and repaired. This house was so old and decrepit looking that it caused fear in little children who would rather cross the street than walk directly in front of it. Children declared that it was haunted and some dared the youngest to walk up onto it’s porch even though they would never do any such thing them self.

In short, this house was the saddest, ugliest house in the entire town. Most adults did not know if it was occupied or not and they didn’t care to investigate. The postman thought that someone might live there because in the course of his work he did reluctantly go up on the porch and what he left there always disappeared. And so it went for years. People were both afraid and curious about the house but no contact was ever made.

Well, in fact an older man did live in the house all alone. If anyone had asked him, he would have said he liked it that way. But nobody ever asked. It was a mystery how he got along all by himself, but he seemed to. Or at least nobody ever knew anything different.

But then something happened. Late one cold, winter night as he sat by his stove, the man thought he heard a sound on his back porch. As he didn’t want any company he sat very still hoping that the sound would go away. But it persisted. He couldn’t recognize the sound but after some careful thought, he decided it sounded like the soft meowing of a cat. He determined that if he did nothing the cat would soon give up and go away. But the sound did not go away. Instead, it got louder and more insistent. Finally, after a good long wait, the man went to the window and opening the shade just a crack; he peered out into the night. He saw absolutely nothing, but he didn’t really expect to see anything because a cat would be too low for his view. Still the sound persisted and he began to persuade himself that it really was not the sound of a cat after all. But then what was that sound? It began to get on his nerves. He was not used to having his peace disturbed in this way.

Finally after what seemed like a great deal of time he could stand it no longer. With some anger he went to the door and opened it. At first he saw nothing because he didn’t turn on an outside light. But as his eyes adjusted to the darkness he noticed that the sound was coming from a dark shape on the porch steps. Tentatively he stepped out. He saw a cardboard box on his steps. The sound was coming from the box. He looked all around. He even called out, “Is anyone there?” Another try, slightly louder: “Is anyone out there?” When there was no reply he approached the cardboard box. He had to lean down to peer inside. Then he walked down a few steps to get a better view. Inside the box was a baby. It was mostly covered by some newspapers, but there was no denying the fact that it was a real, live baby.

Well this was ridiculous! This sort of thing just doesn’t happen, especially to a solitary man like himself. No! He spun around thinking that the mother or someone must be nearby– maybe hiding in the bushes. This time he called out with more conviction but the response was still silence. Nobody was there, except himself… and the baby.

It was a very cold night so there seemed nothing to do except pick up the cardboard box and carry it into his kitchen. He set it on the table near his stove and began to pace the floor. What on earth was he to do? He had no phone to call anyone and besides, who would he call? He finally decided that, as a capable man, he could cope with this unexpected situation for one night. Tomorrow he would decide what to do.

Well, that irritating noise had not stopped and in fact, was growing louder. That had to stop, no matter what! He moved aside some of the newspapers and found that the baby was wrapped in an old flannel shirt. With a great deal of hesitation he reached inside the box and gently lifted the baby. He did not hold it close at first, but at arms length, unsure of exactly how this sort of thing was done. But he soon drew the baby closer and found it to be very cold. He held tighter trying to give it some of his own warmth. The baby quieted somewhat but not enough so the man had to keep thinking. Without putting the baby down he managed to fill his teakettle and get it on the stove to heat. He hoped that a dip in warm water might take off some of the baby’s chill. Again, with just one hand, he got out an old dishpan and filled it with water—some hot and some cold. Nobody could call him a fool for putting a baby in scalding hot water! On the table he carefully unwrapped the tiny baby. Humph! It was a boy. Imagine that. And upon being released from its bindings the baby boy performed in the way that only boys can do and soaked the old man’s shirt before he could quickly cover the offending parts. With an unaccustomed chuckle the man lifted the baby and gently lowered him into the warm water. Oops! He forgot to roll up his sleeves! Well, never mind. It’s too late now.

The bath did sooth the baby and he warmed up, but soon began to cry again. Not being a complete fool, the man decided the baby must be hungry. What to do? After wrapping the baby in one of his own old flannel shirts, one-handed again, he poured some milk into a pan and began to warm it. Fondly he remembered his own mother warming milk for him in much the same way when he was young and could not sleep because of a bad dream. Without any bottle or nipple he tried to use a spoon to feed the milk to the child. That resulted with more milk wasted down the baby’s front than into his mouth. So he found a clean washcloth and after dipping a corner into the milk the baby soon began to suck. Later the baby grew tired and fell asleep in his arms. Well, this was much better. As long as the baby was quiet he was rather sweet to look at. The man thought to himself, this would be all right for one night. In the morning he would take the baby somewhere.

Well, the night was not altogether tranquil. The baby woke several times and seemed to be both wet and hungry. The man repeated his efforts and soon found that he had run out of clean shirts. But he found what he needed and did what he could and he managed. As one day turned into another he vowed he would do something about this “situation” but he never seemed to get around to it.

Weeks and even months passed. The baby grew and soon began to creep around on the floor. Cleaning had never been a high priority for the man so he feared what the baby might find on the floor and then put into his mouth. So the man got busy and picked up all the clutter and cleaned all the floors. His house suddenly took on a new shine and he found that he liked the new effect. But any day now, he would have to figure out what to do with the baby.

The months turned into a year. The baby was now a small boy and needed a place out in the sun to play. But the man looked out at his yard with some dismay. It was terribly overgrown with weeds. There might be rats from the sewer hiding in those weeds and they might nibble on the little boy’s toes. So he went to work and cleared away the weeds. He trimmed the bushes and cut the grass. He noticed that a forgotten rose bush was blooming up close to the house. Hmmm, he thought, that is rather pleasant. The boy can now play in the yard. But I really must decide what to do with him. Soon neighbors began to notice balls and a few toys scattered around the old house.

A few more years passed. The man began to think that maybe the boy should begin to learn his letters and numbers. So in early fall he enrolled the boy in school. Every morning the man and the boy walked to the school together. Every afternoon they walked home together. The neighbors took notice of the man and the young boy walking together hand-in-hand. The man liked hearing the boy tell him about all that he did in school. He enjoyed those pleasant walks in the mornings and afternoons. But he knew, any day now, he must decide what to do with the boy.

And so the years passed. The house was no longer the eyesore of the neighborhood because together the man and the boy painted it. Together they cared for the yard and even planted a vegetable garden. They took walks around the neighborhood and sometimes other children would join them. Even the neighbors enjoyed conversations with the man and looked for opportunities to greet him. Now, the man hardly ever thought about what he would someday do about the boy. With a warm feeling in his heart he discovered that he loved the boy and wanted him to remain with him always.

Actually the whole town noticed what a tremendous change had come over the man and his house. The people learned that he was not to be feared, but was someone who had a great deal of wisdom and compassion. Some even asked if the man would join some civic organizations and he was pleased to be asked and accepted. Through those activities he learned of the needs of so many poor people in the town and became their advocate. Because of his tireless efforts life became better for all in that town.

Thus the years passed. The man grew very old and one night died peacefully in his sleep. The whole town turned out to celebrate his life. The boy, who was now a young man, told about his being left on the steps as a baby and how the man had cared for him. Many were amazed that this civic-minded champion was once a lonely and feared man who hide in his derelict house. “What made him change?” they all asked. The only possible response was “one small baby.”

Yes, isn’t it amazing what a difference one small baby can make?

One small baby changed the world and still changes us today.