January 12, 2020 – Sermon

Baptism of the Lord January 12, 2020 Psalm 29, Isaiah 42:1-9, Romans 6:3-5, Matthew 3:1-17 ************************************************************* Bear with me for a moment as I retell an old story of pastors at a get-together, sharing fellowship and stories… One pastor asks if anyone can share any advice about how to get rid of mice – which have infested that pastor’s church building… Another pastor says “We used to have that problem… But I figured it out, finally. I put out a big plate of cheese in the middle of the fellowship hall. When the mice gathered to feast – I baptized them before they could get away…. We haven’t seen a single mouse… since.” It’s a funny story in a sad way for pastors… who are often more familiar than we wish with people asking for what I call drive-by baptism – meaning no preparation, no follow up, no expectation of the one to be baptized ever coming back to church…At least not till the one baptized wants to be married… or needs to be buried… Which is the main reason why, for many years, I have required families asking for a baptism to attend church at least three or four times, and counsel with me once about the meaning of baptism. Which screens out about 90% of initial requests… John the Baptist was a lot tougher than I am. When Pharisees and Sadducees came for baptism and John detected less than full commitment to the radical make-over repentance he was preaching… He doesn’t invite folks to come for counseling first, and come, attend church a few times, and see if this might work for you… He says “who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit befitting repentance… and get ready for the fire next time…” And even with his extreme tough love preaching message, John the Baptist drew large crowds… People were coming out from Jerusalem city and all around Judea in big numbers, confessing their sins and lining up to be water-washed in the River Jordan… As the Spirit stirred up faith in the community… Stirring primal memories going all the way back to… When the earth was formless and empty, and darkness was over the surface of the deep… and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters… Now the Spirit of the Lord is hovering over the waters of River Jordan… Drawing people to the riverside… Human spirits yearning to be reunited with the Spirit of the Lord. Let us continue to pray for great awakenings everywhere… As we revisit the baptism of Jesus our Lord… And inquire of God into it’s significance… (As…) *** Over the years I’ve occasionally had people ask if they could have a child baptized at home, in their living room, or in a backyard swimming pool… in something resembling a private ceremony. Whenever people have asked for something like this I’ve tried to patiently explain – that would be almost the opposite of what baptism is about… Not quite the opposite, because if there’s a real emergency, any believer can perform an emergency baptism on the spot. You don’t have to be a pastor or priest to perform an emergency baptism… (I learned this, actually, many years ago watching, I’m pretty sure – an episode...

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Sermon – January 5, 2020

Epiphany Sunday January 5, 2020 Psalm 72, Isaiah 60:1-6, Ephesians 3:1-12, Matthew 2:1-12 *************************************************************** In these dark, difficult, dangerous times…I’ve been trying to keep focused on God… And this week it’s been especially helpful for me… To recall the words of the poet, Ann Weems – who has written: Into this silent night as we make our weary way we know not where, just when the night becomes its darkest and we cannot see our path, just then is when the angels rush in, their hands full of stars. *** Jesus is born in Bethlehem, during the dark night of the time of King Herod… And traveling by night following a star… “Magi came from the East, asking ‘where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?’ For we saw his star at it’s rising and have come to worship him.” Who are these Magi, and how did they know to follow that star…? We don’t know…. How did they know the star signified the birth of one born to be King of the Jews? We don’t know… Who were these guys we call Magi? We really don’t know… Through the years we’ve made a lot of guesses – some better than others. And good guesses is the best we’ve got… It’s very unlikely they were kings. If they were, surely the gospel writer would have mentioned this – it would be more than a detail. The idea of the Magi being kings comes from our readings from Isaiah 60 and Psalm 72 – traditional readings for Epiphany every year – that speak of kings bringing tribute and gifts to a king of Israel. The Magi may well have been wise men in their home territory, but they certainly aren’t acting wisely in Jerusalem. Asking about a newborn king of the Jews was sure to quickly draw the attention of King Herod – who was notoriously paranoid about potential rivals. Infamous for killing one of his wives and three of his sons on suspicion of disloyalty. Our best guess is the Magi were astrologers of the Zoroastrian religion, from Persia – modern-day Iran. Though probably not kings, they may well have been part of the royal court of Persia, acting as ambassadors for royalty – since they bring gold and other expensive gifts. And Zoroastrians are thought to be among the earliest practitioners of astrology – which, in those days was early astronomy. I picture the Magi with eyes well accustomed to the night sky – very familiar with the patterns of planets and stars… Able to notice anything new. These are probably our best guesses… All plausible, but… we only know for sure the little that scripture tells us… So when we ask, for example – How many Magi were there? We’ll sing We Three Kings today, and it’s still a good hymn with much wisdom in it … But we have no idea how many Magi there actually were. The church in the West eventually decided on three, based on the number of gifts recorded, while the Eastern Orthodox church guessed a dozen. We really don’t know how many. Scripture doesn’t say… And– So much of the story is veiled in mystery… Perhaps to help us focus on what’s essential… And among all that...

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Sermon – December 29, 2019

Christmas 2 December 29, 2019 Psalm 147, Isaiah 63:7-9, Matthew 2:13-15, Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:10-18 ********************************************************** Our reading today from Matthew is a reminder… These twelve days of Christmas are not always merry for everyone… This year (and every third year), our lectionary bible reading schedule leaps chronologically over the arrival of the Magi (where I expect we’ll be next week on Epiphany Sunday…) into the story of Jesus and his family fleeing King Herod after the Magi’s visit. Traveling in haste down to Egypt, narrowly escaping murder by Herod, who hears of the birth of a rival king from the Magi… We’re skipping over the most awful part of this story, where Herod orders the massacre of all the male babies of Bethlehem. Partly because it’s horrible. Partly because I don’t think we need to be overly reminded – the kings and rulers of the world are often dangerous to infants and other living creatures… And partly because I’m trying to do as the prophet Isaiah says – and focus on the gracious and praiseworthy deeds of the Lord – as told especially today in the letter to the Hebrews. A letter written for difficult and dangerous times much like ours. A letter full of deep hope and enduring grace. We hear in the first four verses of Hebrews – which are traditionally read on Christmas Day – that Jesus is the exact imprint and likeness of God. (In other words – ) When we see Jesus – we see what God looks like… in human flesh. And now the huge implications of Christ born in human flesh are sketched quickly in our last reading today. Here, in just a few verses, we have a concise outline of New Testament mega-themes to be developed throughout this letter. Here, as bible scholar Craig Koester notes, Jesus is described four ways – first as the pioneer of our salvation – second, as our brother who is not ashamed to call us his brothers and sisters – third, as the one who frees us from slavery to death and fear of death – and fourthly as a high priest, whose sacrifice of atonement is powerful and effective for our salvation… Four over-lapping views of Christ, whose sacrificial life, death, and resurrection equips him to thoroughly identify with all our human trials, temptations and sufferings. I will say here up-front… I’ve struggled at times over the years with Hebrews – which is one of the most eloquently written books in the Bible – and one of the more difficult to understand in certain places… In particular, I’ve struggled with Hebrews saying Jesus was made perfect through suffering – partly because I don’t like suffering – and don’t like hearing that suffering makes anyone perfect. (Just because it’s true doesn’t mean I like it…) Partly also because I have had a hard time accepting the thought of Jesus as ever less-than-perfect. Though with the help of several good commentaries (FF Bruce, Hugh Montefiore, William Barclay and others) I think I’m finally getting it – that the author of Hebrews isn’t saying Jesus was ever less-than-perfect as the divine Son of God – or ever less-than-morally-perfect as the human Son of Man. What Hebrews is saying (and which commentaries say is clearer in the original...

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Sermon- December 22, 2019

Advent 4 December 22, 2019 Psalm 85, Micah 5:2-5a, Isaiah 52:7-10, Luke 2:1-20 *********************************************************** In one of our family photo albums there’s a couple pages of pictures from a roll of ancient pre-digital photographs, from days of old, back when film had to be developed – and depending on exposure-to-direct-light and depending on our camera’s exposure-settings, sometimes you’d get double exposures. We have a whole roll of film full of double-and-even-triple-exposed pictures – over-and-under-exposed at the same time and overlaid over one another – pictures blending together, multiple images showing through at-once. I think it’s a parable. Here we are with our youth group, in a barn at the Heifer Project’s Living Nativity display in central Massachusetts with live animals – and there, in the same picture, underneath, in the background – our church (at the time) Bethany United Methodist in Roslindale-Boston, doing our annual Christmas pageant – and – here’s Reah teaching kindergarten students in her classroom at Parkside Christian Academy – here’s all these multiple images, all merged into one another, in a series of pictures – all-as-if-all-happening-at-once-at-the-same-time. Here’s we three kings (I was one of them that year), home-made tin-foil crowns on our heads, parading as young shepherds watch their flocks by night, and a very young Mary and Joseph admire their infant child in a manger. And parents sip coffee after church together… All these beautiful images… remind us of so many things at once… in spite of the rather strange mix of over-and-under-exposure at the same time… And this is a parable… of how I often feel… as I reflect on the birth of Jesus as told in the gospels – and the Christmas story we experience here and now, live – like split-screen Living Nativity. It’s hard for me to sort-out all the images and all the feelings that come to mind in this season… Yet – how awesome the story still is – when we take, make or find time… to look closely at all the story… Including details that may seem a bit out of focus… Details of the story like Emperor Augustus sending forth the decree that all people must be registered through an imperial census for tax assessment. A detail Luke’s gospel mentions no less than four times – to make it clear – God’s people are not in full charge of their destiny. A reminder the Empire wields power over all Rome’s conquered peoples. (Much like today – the empires of money, power, violence and selfishness wield their dark power… over so many subject peoples.) Another detail we notice but which may at times seem under-developed… Is Joseph, fiancee of Mary, descended from the royal line of King David who ruled in Israel a thousand years earlier – returning now to the home village of King David…to a rather un-royal-welcome… After a four-to-five-day-80-plus-miles-long-journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, here’s Mary and Joseph, bone-tired, trying to find a place to lay weary heads. No cars, trains, buses (of course) in those days – and the gospel never mentions a donkey to ride. (It’s only artistic imagination that has us envisioning Mary riding a donkey.) We’re familiar with Mary and Joseph arriving only to find all local inns and rooming houses famously full. Best we can do, sorry folks, is out...

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Advent 3 December 15, 2019 – Sermon

Advent 3 December 15, 2019 Ps 113, Isaiah 35, Matthew 1:18-25, Luke 1:39-56 **************************************************************** Long after the United Kingdom of Israel under David and Solomon a thousand years earlier – long after Israel the Northern Kingdom and Judah the Southern Kingdom were divided by civil war and foreign conquests – long after the fall of Jerusalem and the burning of the temple and exile in Babylon – then six long centuries of colonization by Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome – long after many, many years of waiting for a Messiah-King like David of old to restore Israel to its former glory… In a humble hill country home… God’s revolution begins to be revealed… *** Having said yes to the angel Gabriel’s promise of a son to be born to her by the Holy Spirit, Mary has journeyed in haste to the home of Zechariah where his wife Elizabeth, her relative, greets her. We’re not told the details of their kinship. Maybe it’s aunt Beth and niece Mary; perhaps it’s second cousins twice removed Liz and Mary. But here’s where we begin to see the outline of God’s heavenly revolution… From below… No bombs bursting in air, no parades of conquering armies. All is quiet, as Zechariah, man of the house, is having a sabbatical of silence. Yet the house is pulsing with heavenly energies, as Mary enters and greets Elizabeth – and it’s as if live wires have been crossed – as Elizabeth’s baby leaps for joy in her womb as he hears Mary’s voice. And Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, cries, “Blessed are you among women. Blessed is the fruit of your womb… Blessed is she who believed there would be fulfillment of what was spoken by the Lord!” A not-very subtle reference to her husband Zechariah – who, when the angel Gabriel appeared to him in the Jerusalem temple (two weeks ago our time) – forgot to trust God’s promises – flubbed his lines – and was struck speechless by the angel. But Elizabeth believed enough for both of them – and the one who was thought to be barren is now in her sixth month of pregnancy. Then the same angel Gabriel appeared to young Mary – engaged, not yet married – in the far North Country province of Galilee. And Mary said “Let it be with me, according to your word.” And Mary, pregnant now by the Holy Spirit, arrives for a visit with Elizabeth. St Luke offers no explanation of how young Mary made the seventy-miles-long and at least three day journey from Nazareth to the hill country near Jerusalem. But somehow Mary and Elizabeth are together now. Zechariah’s somewhere in the house, but unable to speak. We don’t see or hear any words from Mary’s fiancee Joseph, or know where he is. We don’t know if Mary’s visit comes before or after Joseph’s dream in which the angel persuades him to change his mind about breaking up with Mary. Perhaps he’s traveled with Mary, then gone back to work. But our focus isn’t on who’s not here – but on who is here – as baby John the Baptist leaps for joy in his mother’s womb, and the Holy Spirit sings through Mary. And I imagine baby Jesus in her womb singing...

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November 17, 2019 – Sermon

November 17, 2019 Psalm 72, Isaiah 11:1-10, Matthew 1:1-3a, 5-6, 16-17; Luke 1:26-38 **************************************************************** At a certain time in our Methodist church wedding liturgy, the pastor invites all the congregation to join in blessing the marriage – saying: “The marriage of Mary (for example) and Joseph (for example) – unites their families and creates a new one. They ask your blessing…” We know Mary and Joseph are not yet married in today’s gospel readings…But we also know – in Advent we await the birth of Jesus – even though we know – Christ has in fact been born – and has lived among us – and been crucified – and is risen from the dead – and we await, now, his return. (We don’t have to be trained scientists or theologians to know – even if we can’t explain it all – the mysteries of time and space are closely related…And…) Perhaps there’s a rough analogy if we think of time zones – with all the different zones operating at the same time, yet each with it’s own unique time. (When it’s noontime here it’s midnight in the Philippines.) But I’m thinking now mostly of the different cultural ways of telling time in our readings today. As – Matthew’s gospel begins with a 42-generation genealogy of the Messiah – divided symmetrically into three equal segments of 14 generations. (Seven being the Jewish number of completion – doubled, perhaps, to add emphasis.) Fourteen generations from Abraham, the first Jew, to David, best king and prototype, it was thought, of the Messiah King. Fourteen generations then from David to exile in Babylon, the apocalyptic time when Jerusalem was conquered and the temple torn down. Fourteen generations finally from the Babylonian exile to the Messiah. A very selective genealogy, as was normal in antiquity. Not every generation or ancestor is listed. (Jacob had twelve sons. David had dozens of sons.) The point isn’t telling every detail – or even making every detail be historically correct. Genealogies were intended, like a coat of arms, to remind us of key points in our family history. So Matthew’s opening genealogy traces the lineage of the Messiah through a select group of ancestors who would resonate with virtually everyone in Israel in those days. We were talking about genealogies in our bible study group last Thursday. Starting with Matthew’s genealogy – looking also at the genealogy that takes up all the first nine chapters of First Chronicles… Skimming quickly genealogies in Genesis. Noticing – even just saying the names aloud… reminds us of so much biblical history… Reminds us also – people of old who didn’t have tv, computers and cell phones were either a lot more patient than we are….Or enjoyed hearing names of their spiritual ancestors more than we do. Or both. I once read Matthew’s whole genealogy aloud in church. A member of our Grand Isle Vermont church told me afterward how much she enjoyed hearing the whole 42 generations recited aloud. Well – she had been Town Clerk for many years – perhaps hearing all the names reminded her of cross-checking the town check-list of eligible voters. But she was an exception to the general rule. Most people, even those who claim to read the whole bible, skip over the genealogies… Yet...

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