January 17, 2016 – The Battle Is the Lord’s

The story of David and Goliath is a classic underdog story.  The wider culture might be confused about whose birthday it is we celebrate on December 25, Jesus’ or Santa Claus’, but the story of David and Goliath is still recognized in this culture.  It’s a story of right beating might.  But it’s more than that – it’s also a sound reminder that we do not fight by our own might, but by the might and grace of God.  The battle is not ours, not David’s, not really.  David triumphs because the battle is the Lord’s.

You may remember that Saul, the first king of Israel, led successful battles against great odds with the Philistines, one of the kingdoms Israel fought the most.  But Saul, due to his disobedience in following God’s direction, knows that the kingdom is being taken from him.  Samuel told him that much, at their final confrontation.  The kingdom is being torn from Saul’s grasp and given to another, someone more worthy, a man after God’s own heart; however, Saul did not step aside – he did not relinquish his throne.   Shortly after Samuel gave Saul this bad news, up come the Philistines, stoked and ready for battle, and with something, or someone new, a giant of a man named Goliath.  He was an intimidating human specimen, at least 6’9” according to the shortest estimate, and strong, loaded with the latest and greatest of technology for those times: armor that encased virtually his entire body, and huge, heavy weapons.  Goliath challenged the army, challenged Saul, to single combat. v.8 – Goliath:  “Why have you come out to draw up for battle? Am I not a Philistine, and are you not servants of Saul? Choose a man for yourselves, and let him come down to me.”  are you not servants  of Saul?  Goliath himself calls to mind Saul’s previous exploits.  But no one, including Saul, is inclined to respond.   Samuel’s words of warning may have stripped away Saul’s mojo – what we know for certain is this: v. 11 – When Saul and all Israel heard these words of the Philistine, they were dismayed and greatly afraid.

This standoff dragged out for forty days.  At the end of that time, a man from Bethlehem, Jesse by name, sent his youngest son to the battlefield, there in the Valley of Elah, to bring supplies to three of his oldest sons and to their commander, and to bring back news.  David made arrangements for the sheep he tended to be cared for by someone else, and away he went.  When he got there he started to talk with the men in his brothers’ company.  Starting with verse 23 – As he [David] talked with them, the champion, the Philistine of Gath, Goliath by name, came up out of the ranks of the Philistines, and spoke the same words as before. And David heard him. All the Israelites, when they saw the man, fled from him and were very much afraid. The Israelites said, “Have you seen this man who has come up? Surely he has come up to defy Israel. The king will greatly enrich the man who kills him, and will give him his daughter and make his family free in Israel.” David said to the men who stood by him, “What shall be done for the man who kills this Philistine, and takes away the reproach from Israel? For who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?” (emphasis added)  David is the first to respond to Goliath’s remarks by linking his mockery of the army to his mockery of the Lord God.  In this, David responds like the judges of Israel in times past, even like Saul had responded to previous attacks on the people of God.  Remember Saul’s reaction in 1 Samuel 10: 27, when Nahash, the Ammonite king, after gouging out the right eye of every man living in the territories of the Gadites and the Reubenites, threatened to gouge out the right eye of the male inhabitants of Jabesh?  And the battles against the Philistines described in chapters 13 and 14 starting with 13:15?  He and his son Jonathan had led those battles successfully, even after Samuel told him in 13: 13-15 that God was giving the kingdom to another Israelite.  Yet here, when Saul, who is, remember, literally head and shoulders taller than anyone in Israel, is faced with someone even taller and bigger than he is, Saul forgets who the source of his strength and power really is – the Lord God of Israel, the same Lord God who Goliath has been mocking for the last forty days.  Saul might have been thinking about that mockery – perhaps others in Saul’s army had also been thinking about that mockery – but David is the first one to NAME it, and respond.

Perhaps Saul finally recognized the mockery for what is was; at any rate, starting with 17 v. 31,  When the words that David spoke were heard, they repeated them before Saul; and he sent for him. David said to Saul, “Let no one’s heart fail because of him; your servant will go and fight with this Philistine.” Saul said to David, “You are not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him; for you are just a boy, and he has been a warrior from his youth.” But David said to Saul, “Your servant used to keep sheep for his father; and whenever a lion or a bear came, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after it and struck it down, rescuing the lamb from its mouth; and if it turned against me, I would catch it by the jaw, strike it down, and kill it. Your servant has killed both lions and bears; and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of them, since he has defied the armies of the living God.” David said, “The LORD, who saved me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, will save me from the hand of this Philistine.” So Saul said to David, “Go, and may the LORD be with you!”

Finally, finally Saul responds as the king of Israel should respond, by invoking the name of the Living God.  But even as he blesses David on his, way, Saul also tries to use the weapons of the world, by outfitting David with HIS latest and greatest technology, his own armor.  But in v. 38, David said to Saul, “I cannot walk with these; for I am not used to them.” So David removed them....Then he took his staff in his hand, and chose five smooth stones from the wadi, and put them in his shepherd’s bag, in the pouch; his sling was in his hand, and he drew near to the Philistine.  David relies on the weapons that have served him in the past, the weapons he has learned to trust, because they have protected him in the past.  But we also know that David goes out in the strength of the Lord – remember what he has said to Saul.  Let me read it again:  “The LORD, who saved me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, will save me from the hand of this Philistine.”  The LORD, who saved me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, will save me from the hand of this Philistine.

         David goes out to confront Goliath, who mocks him and threatens to feed his body to the scavaging animals who are always present at battles.  Starting again, at v. 45:

David said to the Philistine, “You come to me with sword and spear and javelin; but I come to you in the name of the LORD of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This very day the LORD will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you down and cut off your head; and I will give the dead bodies of the Philistine army this very day to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the earth, so that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, and that all this assembly may know that the Lord does not save by sword and spear; for the battle is the LORD’s and He will give you into our hand.”   (emphasis added)  That is what happened.  Verse 50 on:  So David prevailed over the Philistine with a sling and a stone, striking down the Philistine and killing him; there was no sword in David’s hand. Then David ran and stood over the Philistine; he grasped his sword, drew it out of its sheath, and killed him; then he cut off his head with it.  And now, all the earth does know, even now, because of this story of that battle between David and Goliath, that there is a God in Israel, and that all this assembly may know that the Lord does not save by sword and spear; for the battle is the LORD’s.

         We are, of course, involved in a battle of our own, in the here and now.  Our battle is both more subtle and more complex than David’s.  Our battle is against the prevailing culture, which does not teach their children well.  Our battle is not primarily one of superior technology – because if that was all  it was, we would win, hands-down.  No, our battle is, as Paul described it in Ephesians 6: 10-17: 10Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of His power. 11Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. 12For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. 13Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. 14Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. 15As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. 16With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.  We fight this present darkness not with technology, but with the love of God.  It is grounded in God’s truth, which is communicated to us through holy scripture.  Our righteousness comes not from our own greatness, but from the salvation we have through Jesus.  It is Jesus’ righteousness that is our breastplate, not ours.  We are to act on Jesus’ instructions to love the Lord our God with all of our hearts and minds and souls and strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.  Remember in Luke how Jesus defined neighbors?  With the story of the good Samaritan.  The gospel of peace begins with this understanding – that all of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God – we are saved by grace alone, because of God’s mercy.  The shield of faith is believing the good news of salvation – to believe in our hearts and confess that Jesus is Lord.  The sword of the Spirit, as Paul tells us, IS the word of God.  It starts with the Word, and it ends with the Word – the Alpha, and the Omega.  Since God is love it starts with love, love of God, and love of one another.  Not love of preserving our lives, but being willing to lay down our ideas, our thoughts, our love of whatever has become an idol in our lives, of laying down all of that to follow God.  When we do that, we allow the battle to be God’s battle, not ours.  We follow God’s leading – and if God is for us, then who can be against us?  Nothing in all of creation can separate us from the love of God, which we have through and in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Easy to say, hard to do.  But when we trust in the Lord, when we are prepared to follow God’s easy to say, hard to do directions, the battle IS the Lord’s.  David relied on the armor of God.  May we do the same, trusting not in our technology, nor led by our fear, but being wise as serpents and gentle as doves, trust in the Lord, doing His will, until Jesus comes again in glory.  And even so, come soon, Lord Jesus.  Amen.    

January 10, 2016: Who Are We Following?

Remember that maxim offered by the sage of New Jersey, Yogi Berra? “It’s like deja vu all over again.”  As we move into this story about who to follow, we see history repeating itself all over again.  The Book of Judges is about deja vu all over again.  The people get into trouble because they stop following God and start following the ways of the wider culture.  They cry out to God.  God sends a wise leader, a judge, who is God’s representative here on earth.  The judge follows God, peace happens for the span of that judge’s life; then the people fall away and the cycle repeats.  Even here, even with Samuel, that pattern repeats.  Listen to the introductory verses from today’s reading:  When Samuel became old, he made his sons judges over Israel.... Yet his sons did not follow in his ways, but turned aside after gain; they took bribes and perverted justice.  There is so much irony here, since that is exactly what had happened with Eli and his sons.  Samuel had been the prophet of the Lord for most of his life. He was reliable, true, and honest.  The problem was succession: Samuel’s sons, just like Eli’s sons, just like the sons of the judges before them, were not so reliable, true nor honest.  So the people, who are looking for some longer-term security, clamor for a king:  “You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.”  What Samuel did that Eli didn’t was this: Samuel leaned into his relationship with God, and took this problem, this felt affront, to God:  Samuel prayed to the LORD, and the LORD said to Samuel, “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me from being king over them. Just as they have done to Me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, forsaking Me and serving other gods, so also they are doing to you. Now then, listen to their voice; only—you shall solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.”  Samuel did just that – he laid out in great detail all the ways a king would limit their freedom: drafting their sons into forced service, drafting their daughters into forced domestic service, and taking the best of everything.  The people were familiar with this tradeoff, since they saw that tradeoff lived out in the pagan culture around them.  Perhaps they considered it reasonable – they could rely on the dynasty, faulty logic to be sure since they had experience with the short dynasties of the judges, Eli and Samuel.  But there was apparent stability.  At least they didn’t have to worry about interpreting what God was calling them to do.   But the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; they said, “No! but we are determined to have a king over us, so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.”   It is therefore incumbent for those kings, those leaders, to pay close attention to what God is calling and not calling, us to do. 

The call to leadership matters.  Especially in the church, we must be mindful of what God calls us to do, and to not do.  We can choose to hide.  We can choose to act out of our own wisdom following God’s direction, following God’s guidance to the best of our ability, paying attention to our tasks and respecting the roles of others. We can choose to act without following God’s direction, but we have to be ready for the consequences.  We see Saul’s make all three choices.

First Saul pretty muchly decided to hide, or keeping the knowledge of his call to himself.  Saul was out looking for his father’s missing donkeys and when he encounters Samuel.  Samuel was on the watch of Saul, because God has told Samuel he will encounter a particular young man who Samuel is to anoint as king.  Chapters 9 and 10 tell this story – about Saul’s astonishment, about Samuel’s reassurances, about Samuel’s anointing of Saul, and about Samuel’s instructions to Saul: “Now when these signs meet you, do whatever you see fit to do, for God is with you. And you shall go down to Gilgal ahead of me; then I will come down to you to present burnt offerings and offer sacrifices of well-being. Seven days you shall wait, until I come to you and show you what you shall do.”  The reassurances all come about, including Saul being possessed by the Spirit of God, yet when Saul encounters his uncle when he is just about home, he says nothing.  In Chapter 10 Saul is publicly anointed by Samuel after being publicly chosen by lot, but he has gone to hide among the donkeys.  Nevertheless, Saul, who is “head and shoulders” above all the rest of the people, is anointed.

Saul, remember, has been encouraged by Samuel to do whatever you see fit to do, for God is with you. The Ammonites have threatened one of the Israeli city-states, and Saul is again filled with the spirit of God.  This time he acts to lead the people against the Ammonites – and delivers the people of Jabesh-Gilead.  Saul has also been admonished by Samuel to wait:  And you shall go down to Gilgal ahead of me; then I will come down to you to present burnt offerings and offer sacrifices of well-being. Seven days you shall wait, until I come to you and show you what you shall do.”   But Saul doesn’t wait, not for the full time.  Instead, as kings sometimes do, Saul usurps Samuel’s role, and offers the sacrifices before Samuel gets there – in spite of the way God has been leading Saul, through Samuel.  God has been faithful, and so has Samuel, but when the chips are down, instead of waiting and trusting in the Lord, instead of at least asking God what he should do, Saul acts out of fear.  The choice to violate those clear directions, acting out of fear, comes with horrendous consequences.  Saul’s lack of trust in God, lack of trust in his relationship with God, lack of growth in his relationship with God, lead directly to the withdrawal of God’s blessings.  The people follow Saul anyway, and the country eventually falls into civil war.

Leadership matters.  And when it comes to leading God’s people, godly leadership matters – Godly leadership is crucial.  We can choose to hide from the call to leadership.  We can choose to respond, and act out of our own wisdom.  Or we can choose to act by following God’s guidance to the best of our ability, paying attention to our tasks and respecting the roles we have.  That is why the ordination and installation of the consistory is so important to the life of this congregation, to the life of any congregation.  This is exactly how the leadership of the congregation is supposed to function.  It is grounded in prayer.  The congregation is asked to pray about this.  The nominating committee prays about this.  Those called pray about this.  The congregation votes, at our annual meeting, again, after much prayer.  We rely on our guidance from God, by looking at what people say, and what they do.  We weigh the similarities and the differences between what people say and do, remembering that all of us do that which we do not truly want to do sometimes, and all of us don’t do that which we really do want to do, sometimes.  After all, we are fallible human beings having our call confirmed by fallible human beings.  But when we persevere, when we can choose to act by following God’s guidance to the best of our spite of our fears and concerns, paying attention to our tasks and respecting the roles of others, God blesses that work.

Pray for the consistory, pray for the leadership of this congregation.  Pray for courage.  Pray for Godly wisdom.  Pray for the courage to act on God’s call, trusting one another to fulfill our tasks as we respect the roles of everyone here.  Above all, it is crucial for us to continue to build our relationship with God.  Continue to read and study scripture.  Continue to pray.  Continue to listen, so we follow in God’s ways, doing that which is pleasing in God’s sight, until Jesus returns in glory.  And even so, come soon, Lord Jesus!  Amen.

January 3, 2016: Being Called by Name

Many of you know my legal first name is Catherin.  Mostly I was called “Cathy” growing up.  My Aunt Linnea often still calls me “Catrina.”  When I answer the phone and hear, “Good afternoon, Catrina Anna,” I know it’s my Aunt Linnea, or perhaps my Uncle Don.  If I hear, “Hi, PC,” I figure it’s one of the kids on my bus, or someone from church.  If someone calls looking for Catherin Ann, I know something serious is going on.  When someone calls our name, we react.  Even if we don’t recognize the voice, we respond.  That name recognition response is strong, and in us all.

Samuel didn’t know who was calling him, that night in the worship complex at Shiloh. He was not yet an adult; he still ministered under Eli.  He went to Eli after each call.  He didn’t give up, or worry about looking silly. It took Eli three times to understand who WAS calling Samuel – the Lord.  Samuel didn’t know God at that point, although he was being taught to serve Him, there at that sanctuary at Shiloh.  Eli wasn’t prepared to hear from God either – perhaps because the conduct of the priesthood overall was so inappropriate.  Eli’s two corrupt sons, Hophni and Phinehas, were priests of the Lord God in that sanctuary, but they acted with contempt toward God, and their call.  They violated rules and behavior standards for priests.  They treated their father with contempt when he admonished them for their evil behavior.  God was still mindful of those who came seeking God – it was because of Hannah’s fervent request made directly to God that Samuel came to be in the first place.  But those entrusted with leading God’s people at Shiloh – well, they were not really expecting much to happen, not even Eli.

Eli DID figure out God was calling – and encouraged Samuel to respond.  Eli coached Samuel:  “if He calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, LORD, for Your servant is listening.’”  Eli told Samuel to call God by name – that LORD is the English way to indicate that the Hebrew personal name for God, YHWH, is being used.  Samuel was cautious – he did respond, but he did not address God by name, “Speak, for Your servant is listening.”   Then God lowered the boom:  I am about to punish Eli’s house forever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them.   What a message to give to your mentor, your boss.  No wonder Samuel stayed put for the rest of the night.  No wonder he didn’t want to tell Eli.  No kidding.  Nothing from the Lord God for a long time – and this is the first message Samuel gets?  It was no secret that Hophni and Phinehas were behaving very badly.  But it is one thing to be aware of scandalous behavior; it is another to have to pass along the news that God is preparing to punish Eli’s descendants forever.  Eli knew there would be consequences to his sons’ behavior because God had told him that punishment was coming, but Samuel probably didn’t know that.  Still, when Eli warned Samuel to speak the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, Samuel did.  And (probably much to Samuel’s relief), Eli accepted the news without protest.   

It was that trial by fire that showed the Israelites that Samuel was trustworthy, that he WAS speaking the words God was giving him to say.  It started with being called by name, and it grew because of the relationship God had with Samuel, and the trustworthy way that Samuel acted.  Samuel learned the voice of God, and Samuel learned how to pass along the information God was giving him to the people of God.  

It is important to remember – Samuel’s relationship with God did not start with service to God.  Remember how the chapter starts:  Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the LORD under Eli.   Samuel was learning about God, ministering to God – he did not yet KNOW God.  Even Eli, his mentor and teacher, did not have great expectations for hearing from God.  The third time of calling is what truly paid for all – and Samuel needed Eli’s help to recognize that Voice.  Samuel’s relationship with God started when Eli recognized the call for what it was – a call from the One to Whom Samuel had been promised since before conception.  Samuel needed guidance to be able to know Who was calling, and how to respond.

What can we learn from this?  How can this teach us about our relationship with God, and with the encouragement and mentoring we can offer to those in our lives?

Ministering to the Lord does not equal knowing God or being in relationship with God.  Work is good, and can certainly be joyful.  But because we are working FOR someone does not mean we KNOW someone.  We may know a lot about our co-workers – Samuel surely knew his.  We learn a lot about one another when we work alongside one another – when we un-decorate the sanctuary, help with the art auction or with Family Promise, or when we sing or ring in the choirs.  But that doesn’t automatically mean we know the One to whom the sanctuary, fundraising, or music are in service to.

Having solid co-workers helps a LOT.  Do they know the voice of God?  Are they trustworthy?  Are they serving God in ways that are pleasing to God?  Are they truthful? Fair? Honest? Kind? Who are they aiming to please in a pinch, themselves, or God?  Are they expecting to hear from God themselves? How are they keeping their pump primed to be able to hear God’s voice?  Are they reading scripture? Participating in some sort of bible study or discussion group?  How is their prayer life?

When others point out that God is speaking, how do we react? Are we reaching for scripture or bible studies or prayer partners ourselves?  How do we see God working in our lives? 

Sharing our faith stories is crucial to the development of those around us.  Who knows our faith stories? Do we know how to share our “God winks”, the big and the small?  Are we listening for opportunities to share our stories with others, who may be curious, hurt, afraid, confused, looking for something the culture just can’t offer?

Telling the truth, sharing our stories, in ways that are consistent, clear, and coherent helps build faith and trust in others.  Through our words and actions we have can bear witness to God’s truth as reliable witnesses to God’s grace and glory.  Samuel told the truth even when he was afraid.  Can we say the same?

Samuel was called by name.  So are we.  As part of the folks called by God, we need to respond and know God better.  We need to share our story with others.  We need to share our faith with others.  The culture does not support this.  When too many American children think December 25 marks Santa Claus’ birthday, when they know more about an elf on a shelf than the One who came for us and for our salvation, for their salvation, we have our task cut out for us.  There is nothing more important for us to do than to be witnesses to Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension – and for us to do that, we need to be in relationship with Him – not because we have been ministering, but because we are called by name.  We are the sheep of His flock, lambs of His redeeming.  May we rejoice in that, and may we share this good news with all who will listen, until Jesus comes again in glory.  And even so come soon, Lord Jesus.  Amen.

December 27: Making the Family Connection Clear – Hymn Sing

At the Christmas Eve service it was easy to see family connections.  In part it is the body language of those who come in familial groups – the way they lean in to one another, the position of their bodies relative to one another and to the folks around them.  Sometimes it’s the shape of their faces, or the color of their hair or the sounds of their voices.  Sometimes it’s in the way they move, or the pitch and timbre of their voices.  But so often, that family connection IS clear.  

Children are the best at making those family connections, in seeing how people are similar to one another.  They also project without fear – especially when they are young, they often see family groups as being similar to their own.  Songwriters know this.  In 1951, as the Korean War ran hot and cold, after 18 months of battle, Wihla Hutson wrote this song, which Alfred Burt set to music.  There is an interesting history to their collaboration that I am not going to get into now; suffice it to say that the carols they wrote were not widely known; I first heard this song when James Taylor recorded it on his A Christmas Album in 2006:

Some Children See Him

Some children see Him lily white/The baby Jesus born this night.
Some children see Him lily white/With tresses soft and fair.
Some children see Him bronzed and brown/The Lord of heav'n to earth come down.
Some children see Him bronzed and brown/With dark and heavy hair.

Some children see Him almond-eyed/This Savior whom we kneel beside.
Some children see Him almond-eyed/With skin of yellow hue.
Some children see Him dark as they/Sweet Mary's Son to whom we pray.
Some children see him dark as they/And, ah! they love Him, too!

The children in each different place/Will see the baby Jesus’ face
Like theirs, but bright with heavenly grace/And filled with holy light.
O lay aside each earthly things/And with thy heart as offering,
Come worship now the infant King/'Tis love that's born tonight!

The family resemblance thing comes full circle, of course, with Jesus.  God has granted us abundant grace, amazing grace, astounding grace – and when we look to Jesus, we get an idea of just what Love, what God, who Is Love, looks like.  From His fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made Him known.

It is up to us, too, to make Him known.  In what we do, every day, we have the opportunity to offer grace, and truth, and mercy, to those we come into contact with: at work, at the grocery store, at school, on the bus or train, while driving, at the mall, here at church, and yes, in our homes.  Some of you know this pun on vitamins: the most important vitamin Christians can offer the world is: B1 – to BE ONE.  The more we look like the One who loves us best, the more we can effectively share this Good News.  

Because this IS a service strong with music today, it seems appropriate to describe what Christians look like by quoting a song written by Gary Chapman back in 1979 that was recorded by Amy Grant on her second album, Father's Eyes.

I may not be every mother's dream for her little girl
And my face may not grace the mind of everyone in the world
But that's all right as long as I can have one wish I pray
When people look inside my life, I want to hear them say

[Chorus:]

She's got her Father's eyes, her Father’s
Eyes that find the good in things
When good is not around/Eyes that find the source of help
When help just can't be found

Eyes full of compassion, seeing every pain
Knowin' what you're going through, and feeling it the same
Just like my Father's eyes/My Father's eyes
My Father's eyes/Just like my Father's eyes

And on that day when we will pay for all the deeds we have done
Good and bad they'll all be had to see by everyone
And when you're called to stand and tell just what you saw in me
More than anything I know, I want your words to be

[Chorus]

May our family resemblance be clear – may our eyes, and our mouths, our actions and our hearts, all resemble those of our Father, and those of our Brother Jesus.  May we continue to do that which is pleasing in His sight until Jesus comes again.  And even so, come soon, Lord Jesus.  Amen

December 24 – Teaching Our Children Well – Christmas Eve 7 PM

We have been talking about family trees, especially Jesus’ family tree, as it is told in the Gospel of Matthew.  Jesus’ geneaology references some special folks in those lists.  Thinking about Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Boaz, and Bathsheeba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite, we can imagine how these stories were also used to teach the children of the Chosen People well, over the years.  These stories are about people who are determined, people who listen to God, people who do the right thing because of love, people who learn how to live with the consequences of the choices they make.  By teaching about these things, the Chosen People were also teaching their children about God: God’s love, forgiveness, and justice.  Chosen People in Jesus’ time looked back, and also looked forward, to the day God would restore the kingdom, and send the Messiah, the Chosen One for the Chosen People, to free and restore them.  They knew some of the traits of this Messiah – He would be born in Bethlehem.  His mother would be a young virgin.  He would serve as a shepherd, gathering, guiding and protecting the Chosen People.  He would love God with all of His heart and mind and soul and strength.  He would do what God called Him to do:  to love mercy and do justice and walk humbly with God.  That is why at least some people did recognize Jesus as the Messiah – because He was and is what those stories taught, those stories the Chosen People taught their children so well.

Here, today, what do we teach our children?  In some non-Christian cultures, some people think December 25 is Santa Claus’ birthday, believe it or not.  Many American children know more about elves on shelves, Santa Claus and reindeer pulling that sleigh than about the birth of the Messiah, the Son of God.  The culture is more than happy to gently shut Jesus out of the picture – after all, it’s hard to make money from the kind of Messiah that Jesus was and is – not a guy who went along to get along, someone who made lists and checked them a lot to determine who was “good” and who deserved coal in their stockings.  Jesus was and is Someone who challenged those in power when they forgot their responsibility to teach the people to love God, to follow God, to look to God for guidance.  Jesus challenged people then, and still challenges us today, to focus on God’s will for us first, last and always.  If we stay focused on God’s grace, God’s love will fill us so that we too can point the way to our Lord and Redeemer.  After all, Santa didn’t die for our sins, and for our salvation.  That was Jesus.

Christians have made some attempts to refocus back onto the Season.  Carol Gauer brought in this statue, which shows Santa Claus kneeling at the manger, next to the newborn Messiah.  When children ask about Santa Claus, this is a great way to point them back to the REAL reason for the season – not Santa Claus’ birth, but Jesus’ birth.   We may not be able to banish the greed and materialism that has tainted Christmas, but we can at least teach our children that there is more to Christmas than new electronics, clothes, action figures, and getting lots of stuff.  Christmas is a time to look back toward all of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.  It is even more a time to look forward to Jesus’ return.  The One who loves us best is not dressed in a red suit.  He does not necessarily have a long white beard.  He does not need a membership at a health club to keep his 2016 resolutions.  The One who loves us best was made flesh for us and for our salvation.  He became a human being, born in a strange time in a strange land, to a peculiar, chosen people.  He knew disappointment, hurt, betrayal, yes, and also love and great joy.

We are here tonight to teach our children well.  Sunday School and other Christian Ed programs will start up again early in the new year.  Let this be a time to begin again.  Take your children, nieces, nephews, and grandbabies to Sunday School.  Read them stories from their children’s bibles.  If they don’t have one, put your name and address onto the back of one of the prayer cards, leave it on the pew or in the offering plate, and we will send you a children’s bible.  If Sunday morning is not a good time for Christian ed, reach out to your pastor, if you’re not local, and let her know when a good time is – trust me, she will want to know!  It is up to us to continue to teach our children well, not just tonight but always, telling these stories of love and faith, and helping our children develop a relationship with the One who loves them even better than we do – it is up to us to help our children develop a relationship with the Living God, so they can, in turn, teach THEIR children well.

Merry Christmas!  Let us give thanks to God for the reason for the season – for Jesus Christ.  May we continue to teach our children this old old story about Jesus until He returns again in glory.  And even so, come soon, Lord Jesus!  Amen.

December 13: Our Righteous Branch – Advent Three

On September 6, I preached on Philemon, and being brothers and sisters in the flesh as well as the spirit.  As part of that sermon, I told you that in the summer of 2014, my cousin Danny, one of my Aunt Mary’s children, had found our Grandma Vogl’s death certificate, and rather than throwing it out, he decided to give it to me.  I didn’t examine it until I got back to NJ, and was horrified to find that my Aunt Mary, who had filled out most of the paperwork, had left one section blank: the spot listing the names of the parents of the person who had died – my grandmother, Anna Dott Vogl.  Her father, Frank Dott, was indeed named, but the space for my great-grandmother’s name was blank.  I was shocked.  But 2014 was a busy time, so I filed that blank spot away in my head until my trip back this past July.  I saw my cousins, some of Aunt Mary and Uncle Cliff’s kids, and I asked about that.  My cousins told me that my great-grandmother, and possibly my great-grandfather as well, was a full-blooded American Indian.  I didn’t understand why that would prevent my Aunt Mary from writing down her grandmother’s name – and to be honest, I still don’t.  But I made it my business to try to learn a bit more about her – to at least learn her name – and with Ralph Pantozzi’s help, I did learn more about her.  Her name was Adiella Bolger Dott Beaulieu.  She was born in 1857, in Canada.  I am not sure when she married my great-grandfather, Francis Dott, but in 1876, when she was 19, she gave birth to their first son, Francis J. Dott, in Nova Scotia, Canada.   Both of my great-grandparents are identified as being Canadian French.  The word Canada comes from an Iroquois word that means settlement or village.  That’s the Canadian part.  The French part comes from the French trappers.  These trappers married into the Mi’kmaq tribe, living in Nova Scotia.  These Canadian French folks came to be known as Acadians; some Acadians remained in Nova Scotia, until lack of economic opportunities led to folks like my great-grandparents moving to America in search of a better life, the same reason most people immigrate to America today.

Some time between 1876 and 1887, she and my great-grandfather moved to Jerden Falls, New York, a village that no longer exists.  My grandmother, Anna, was born there, in either1889 or 1890, depending on what records you use. Shortly thereafter, a diphtheria epidemic swept through the area, killing a number of people, including my great-grandfather and at least one of Frank and Adiella’s other children.  Some time between 1890 and 1898, Adiella moved with at least her daughter Anna to a small town on the southern shore of Lake Superior, Munising, MI.  There she met and married Clarence Beaulieu, owner of the local funeral home, and in August 1898 they had her final child, also named Clarence.  Parts of this got complicated – Francis the son, the one born in Nova Scotia, died in 1923, and is buried in Munising, but he did not die there.  The same name and the dates were confusing because we couldn’t find Frank the father.  Ralph found Adiella’s first husband by using findagrave.com, which turned up a memorial placed in 2012 that told the story of the diphtheria epidemic – there had been so many deaths in such a short time that there were no death certificates; people were wrapped in blankets and buried in unmarked graves.

         If we ran into such issues going back only four generations, imagine how tricky it gets for 14 generations, which is what Matthew did, in this last section of the genealogy, which covers the time from the deportation to Babylon and the return.  We can read Ezra/Nehemiah and see the first few names in the genealogies listed there used here, but we soon run out of scriptural records that are available to us today.  There are no outsiders included in the text, no Rahab or Ruth, no embarrassing stories with references to folks like Tamar and Bathsheba.  These folks are more anonymous to us.  That does not make this genealogy, and this family tree, any less righteous.  These stories may be much more like our own, since most of us are also somewhat anonymous.

         Anonymous does not mean unimportant.  God knows us all.  God knew us before we were formed in our mother’s wombs, according to Psalm 139.  Jesus told us, in Matthew 10:30 and Luke 12: 7 that even the hairs of our heads are all counted. God knows when we share a meal with a homeless family, as some did this past week as we hosted Family Promise.  God knows when we act to clothe the cold and naked, as some did as they shopped for Christmas presents for families listed on the Angel Tree downstairs.  God knows when we welcome outsiders in, as some did as they helped with Family Night this past Friday.  God knows when we act as the very presence of Jesus, offering hospitality to our guests, when we welcome in outsiders who use the building to help one another with recovery issues for those struggling with addictions, when we join our voices together to make a joyful noise in worship, when we invite others into our fellowship, and when we act in the wider world to share God’s message of faith, hope and especially love to all those who pine in darkness.

         Being somewhat anonymous can be a good thing.  We can serve, we can dream, we can celebrate our lives in God, without having people peering at us, waiting for us to make mistakes that can be splashed all over the Internet.  God uses willing people to do His will even now.  So when we wonder about what we are supposed to do this week, consider the opportunities I just listed.  Consider the opportunities God presents to us every day, at work, at school, in the grocery store or the mall or a restaurant, to witness to the love of God by being the love of God.  The simple acts of kindness, of support, of encouragement, the cards and phone calls, the grace and mercy we offer, have an impact way beyond what we might be able to see.  We are to scatter those seeds of faith, hope, and love, and trust God to do whatever God chooses to do.  That’s what righteous branches of God’s family tree do – and that is what we are called to be – righteous branches.

         May we watch for ways to live into that righteousness that God calls us all to – not so the church can grow numerically, but so the love of God can continue to shine forth in and from this place, for decades and centuries to come – or until Jesus returns again, whichever happens first.  And truly, come soon, Lord Jesus!  Amen

© Readington Reformed Church  2015