From The Pastor At St. Paul's UCC, Freeburg, IL

Sunday’s Sermons

This Sunday December 16: Advent 3

We’re continuing our Advent series on the songs in Luke 1; this coming Sunday we’re looking at the song of Zechariah:

67 And his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied, saying, 68  “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people 69 and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David, 70  as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, 71  that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us; 72  to show the mercy promised to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, 73  the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us 74 that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear, 75  in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. 76 And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, 77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins, 78 because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high 79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” {Luke 1:67-79 (ESV)}

The entire passage is only two sentences in Greek, which makes it tricky to translate. But it clearly divides into two major sections:

  • verses 67-75 are about God and what He’s done; there is an implicit reference to Jesus (v. 69 “a horn of salvation”)
  • verses 76-79 are about John and what he’s going to do; there’s also an implicit reference to Jesus here also (v.78 “the sunrise shall visit us from on high”)

There’s a lot that can and should be said about Zechariah’s song, but this Sunday I’m going to focus more in Zechariah himself. He’s the instrument which God is playing here (v. 67) but this is no porcelain virgin girl being played. Zechariah is an old guy. He’s been around a long time. I suspect when it comes to Temple politics he’s just about seen it all. He’s also childless, so he’s at the end of his family tree line. An old guy, who gets chosen to be God’s instrument. And that changes him. It gives him a future where there was none, hope where there was none, and a reason to sing about it.

So let’s hear it for the old guy gospel!

See you Sunday.



This Sunday December 9: Advent 2

We’re continuing our brief mini-series on the “songs” of Luke 1. Last week we looked at the “unsong” of Zechariah; this coming Sunday we focus on the Magnificat, Mary’s song:

“My soul magnifies the Lord,47  and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49 for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50 And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51  He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; 52  he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; 53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. 54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55  as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”

Luke 1:46-55 (ESV)

Notice how Mary starts and sings a little about “me”, then sings a lot about “he”. Almost the entire song is about God: who He is (vv. 49-50) and what He does (vv. 51-55). There’s much here to see, but for Sunday I want to focus on just a few things:

  • Mary considers herself blessed, and she is blessed – but it’s with a blessing that doesn’t look like one in the eyes of the world. In our day being pregnant before marriage is no big deal. But in her day it was a giant deal. Women, much less girls, didn’t count for much. They didn’t have a career path, or education to point to for their value. What a 14-year old girl did have was her virginity. It was a badge of honor so to speak. That, in the eyes of the world, is going to be taken from her – and that is going to put Mary at risk. There’s the risk of losing social standing, the risk of being cut off from family relationships and other social blessings. And there’s the real risk that Joseph may exercise his right to have her stoned to death. Some blessing! But as I look over the entire Bible, it seems to me that God’s blessing does not come without risk.
  • Nevertheless Mary considers herself blessed, so much so she sings about it. How so in the face of the risks she’s taking by saying “yes” to God? Because what she’s received she sees as so far more valuable than social standing that to her, she’s losing nothing.
  • Look at the character of God Mary sings about – vv. 49-50. God is mighty, holy, and merciful. I’m going to say more about that on Sunday, but consider this: those three attributes must come together if we’re ever going to be saved. God is holy enough that we need saving; mighty enough to actually save us, merciful enough to want to do it.
  • The actions of God – notice all the reversals: rich to poor, low to exalted, full to empty, empty to full. Where are you in your life? Got it made? It’s all goooood? Careful – God’s gonna knock you down. Or are you sick of yourself, aware of not only your need but the desperation of your need? Good news, then: He’s gonna pick you up, lift you up, fill you up.
  • Finally, what’s Mary singing about? The gospel – the good news that comes from outside of us, for us; that reveals that we are far more needy than we ever thought, far more loved than we ever imagined.

Sing it Mary!

This Sunday Dec. 2: Advent 1

When we first starting planning Advent, I thought about a series on the Psalms – there are several particular Psalms assigned to Advent and I thought it might be good for us to explore them. In discussing it with my worship team, however, it seemed to them exceedingly strange not to have the gospel readings on Sundays. After further discussion, we came up with the idea of looking at the songs in Luke 1 – Zecharaiah’s and Mary’s – and pair those readings up with an appropriate Psalm.

So this Sunday’s reading is Luke 1:5-23 which will be paired with Psalm 42:

5  In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. 6 And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. 7 But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years. 8 Now while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, 9 according to the custom of the priesthood, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. 10 And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense. 11 And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. 12 And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. 13 But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. 14 And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15 for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. 16 And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, 17 and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.” 18 And Zechariah said to the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” 19 And the angel answered him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. 20 And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.” 21 And the people were waiting for Zechariah, and they were wondering at his delay in the temple. 22 And when he came out, he was unable to speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the temple. And he kept making signs to them and remained mute. 23 And when his time of service was ended, he went to his home.

You’ll see several parallels and contrasts between this passage, and that of Gabriel’s visit to Mary (verses 26-38) – one is old, one young; both are afraid; both ask a question of Gabriel; one sings and the other struck dumb. You can spend profitable time meditating on these passages, but for Sunday I’m going to focus on Zechariah’s silence.

Interesting first because this series of three sermons will be focussing on songs, music. But here it begins in silence. The major insight for me has been seeing that Zechariah’s silencing is not punishment – think of Jerry Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi: “No song for you!” Instead it’s the answer to Zechariah’s question.

Zechariah’s question is “How shall I know this?” It’s similar but different from Mary’s question, “How will this be?” They’re both “how” questions, but Z seems to want to know more than just the mechanics of how it will happen. I think he wants some verification, a sign, a clincher. Seen that way, Gabriel’s response to Z’s question makes more sense. If I may paraphrase: You wanna know how you’ll know this? I’m freaking Gabriel! I’m an angel that makes you wet your pants when I show up! I spend my time standing in the presence of God Almighty and here I am giving you this promise and you ask how you’ll KNOW this?? Here’s how – if my angelic mightiness isn’t enough for you, then you’ll be quiet, silent, and you’ll watch God work.

It’s a rebuke but a graceful rebuke. Because Gabriel didn’t say “Can I speak with your supervisor? If you can’t believe this I’m just gonna find another priest with stronger faith than you”; he didn’t tell Z to forget it. The promise has been given, and it will be kept. And Z, despite his weak faith, will still come to know it for himself. But the way he’ll come to that knowledge is not thru big signs or concise argumentation, but thru silence.

There are lots of ways to go with this, sermonically speaking. But I’m going to link it to Psalm 42 as a psalm of longing; seeing silence as helpful in clarifying our longings and our truest longing, which is for God not stuff. It will be easy, too, to think of Z’s silence as something we feel – a void, an inarticulateness, an inability to control the things around us.

For me the biggest challenge for Sunday is timing. It’s a big service (Advent candles, communion, choral anthem, responsive Psalm reading, etc.) and I’m under the gun to keep at least the 8:00 service to 60 minutes. In my guts I think that’s silly. But I’m taking it as a challenge to write a 10-minute sermon (“sermonettes for Christianette’s!”) that will be theologically meaty and hearer accessible. Brief and to the point. I’ll need a little Z-grace for my mouth I think! 🙂

Christ The King

This Sunday is Christ The King Sunday, the last Sunday of the church year. It’s put there, at the end of the Christian calendar, as a way of saying in all the months and seasons of our lives, Christ’s Kingship, his Lordship, is the capper, the finale, the end toward which we all go.

The Scripture reading for this Sunday is from the gospel of John, chapter 18, verses 33-37:

So Pilate entered his headquarters again and called Jesus and said to him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” 34 Jesus answered, “Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?” 35 Pilate answered, “Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered you over to me. What have you done?” 36 Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” 37 Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world— to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.”

So, what kind of king is Christ? His kingdom is not of this world – what does that mean? That all the rewards are elsewhere? That it functions differently from the kingdoms of this world? There’s a lot of fruitful thinking that can be done with those questions, but here’s the one I asked my Confirmation Class last Sunday – if you were king for a day, what would you do? We had much honest conversation about that – these kids are refreshingly, almost frighteningly honest!

So what would you do if you were king for a day? What did Jesus do as King for eternity?

Anne Lamotte

Anne LamottLast Sunday I made a reference to the conversion experience of Anne Lamotte, and a couple of folks have asked me about her. I’ve not read anything of her writings – apparently she’s fairly well known in some liberal/progressive circles and a best-selling author. For more info about her, including video interviews, go here.

I don’t know enough about her to recommend her, or her life. But I did read about her conversion experience and thought it powerful, especially for mainliners and those of us trying so hard to be good – running on the hamster wheel of righteousness, you might say. Because her experience is so different from that of me and my church people, I think the parallels are all the more powerful.

Here is her uncensored account:

“I didn’t go to the flea market the week of my abortion. I stayed home, and smoked dope and got drunk, and tried to write a little, and went for slow walks along the salt marsh with Pammy. On the seventh night, though, very drunk and just about to take a sleeping pill, I discovered that I was bleeding heavily. It did not stop over the next hour. I was going through a pad every fifteen minutes, and I thought I should call a doctor or Pammy, but I was so disgusted that I had gotten so drunk one week after an abortion that I just couldn’t wake someone up and ask for help. I kept on changing Kotex, and I got sober very quickly. Several hours later, the blood stopped flowing, and I got in bed, shaky and sad and too wild to have another drink or take a sleeping pill. I had a cigarette and turned off the light. After a while, as I lay there, I became aware of someone with me, hunkered down in the corner, and I just assumed it was my father, whose presence I had felt over the years when I was frightened and alone. The feeling was so strong that I actually turned on the light for a moment to make sure no one was there–of course, there wasn’t. But after a while, in the dark again, I knew beyond any doubt that it was Jesus. I felt him as surely as I feel my dog lying nearby as I write this.

“And I was appalled. I thought about my life and my brilliant hilarious progressive friends, I thought about what everyone would think of me if I became a Christian, and it seemed an utterly impossible thing that simply could not be allowed to happen. I turned to the wall and said out loud, ‘I would rather die.’

“I felt him just sitting there on his haunches in the corner of my sleeping loft, watching me with patience and love, and I squinched my eyes shut, but that didn’t help because that’s not what I was seeing him with.

“Finally I fell asleep, and in the morning, he was gone.

“This experience spooked me badly, but I thought it was just an apparition, born of fear and self-loathing and booze and loss of blood. But then everywhere I went, I had the feeling that a little cat was following me, wanting me to reach down and pick it up, wanting me to open the door and let it in.  But I knew what would happen: you let a cat in one time, give it a little milk, and then it says forever. So I tried to keep one step ahead of it, slamming my houseboat door when I entered or left.

“And one week later, when I went back to church, I was so hungover that I couldn’t stand up for the songs, and this time I stayed for the sermon, which I just thought was so ridiculous, like someone trying to convince me of the extraterrestrials, but the last song was so deep and raw and pure that I could not escape . It was as if the people were singing in between the notes, weeping and joyful at the same time, and I felt like their voices or something was rocking me in its bosom, holding me like a scared kid, and I opened up to that feeling–and it washed over me.

“I began to cry and left before the benediction, and I raced home and felt the little cat running along at my heels, and I walked down the dock past dozens of potted flowers, under a sky as blue as one of God’s own dreams, and I opened the door to my houseboat, and I stood there a minute, and then I hung my head and said, “Fuck it: I quit.” I took a long deep breath and said out loud, “All right. You can come in.”

So this is the beautiful moment of my conversion.”

Later, she writes, “I do not at all understand the mystery of grace–only that it meets us where we are but does not leave us where it found us.”

This Coming Sunday – Psalm 127

This Sunday we’re going back to our “default setting” of using the Psalms as preaching texts. We’ll stay with the Psalms for two Sundays, then on November 25 we celebrate Christ The King Sunday, then believe it or not, December 2 begins Advent! So here’s the text for this Sunday, with a couple of my thoughts working there way into being a sermon:

1 Unless the Lord builds the house,those who build it labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain. 2 It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep. 3 Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward. 4 Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the children of one’s youth. 5 Blessed is the man who fills his quiver with them! He shall not be put to shame when he speaks with his enemies in the gate.

Sorry about the paragraph formatting of this Psalm – I haven’t figured out yet how to do that on WordPress. In any case here are my thoughts:

  • Scholars and students have long noted that the Psalm seems to have two sections – verses 1-2 (building and watching) and 3-5 (children). These two are not as separate as it may seem at first. The whole Psalm is about building and preserving: first the society, second the family.
  • “Unless the Lord builds the house…” I think this is why we ask God to bless our projects – so they’ll succeed. But the Psalm doesn’t say that the Lord will bless your project. It says there are only two kinds of projects: the Lord’s, and vanity. Seems to me that instead of asking God to bless our projects we need to ask ourselves if we’re onto His project.
  • where I think our culture easily connects with the Psalm is in verse 2 – getting up early, staying up late, “eating the bread of anxious toil”. It’s incredible how busy we’ve become. Seems like everyone is multi-tasking. And while there may be people who do that well (I personally doubt it) there are plenty of us who feel that we’re multi-tasking so much, have so many balls in the air, that we’re doing NOTHING well. Not a whole lotta satisfaction in that – unlike the farmer who works hard all day (maybe doing just one thing) and falls into bed for a well deserved sleep. This is the connection I want to use this Sunday. I think many if not most of us are feeling the law these days (eating the bread of anxious toil). Instead of telling people they have to do one more thing (make more quiet time, read more Bible, pray more, etc. etc.) how about a little gospel (he gives to his beloved sleep). Note: He gives, not they earn.
  • Just to link to the above, Charles Spurgeon wrote quite a sermon on Psalm 127:2 – eloquent as usual. And striking in that he spends most of his time on the phrase “he gives to his beloved sleep”. To read his sermon, go here.

This Sunday: Totenfest

This coming Sunday, November 4, we’re celebrating Totenfest. Unless you have a German and/or Lutheran background this may be an unfamiliar event on the liturgical calendar. Here’s a brief description from St. John’s UCC in San Francisco:

Totenfest is a German word that means “Feast of the Dead” or “Festival for the Dead.” It was established in 1816 by Prussian Emperor Fredrick WilliamIII as a day to remember that nation’s soldiers who had died in the recently concluded Prussian War. Obviously it became an important observance in the Evangelical Church in Prussia (established by the same emperor in 1817) as a day to remember not only the war dead, but also church members who had died in the previous year.  It was observed on the last Sunday of the church year, right before Advent began. This was also the time of clearing garden sand fields of the summer’s growth in preparation for winter. To this day,Totenfest in parts of Germany is the day families visit the graves of loved onesto clean off the summer flowers and cover the graves with evergreen boughs for the winter..

As in past years we’ll be remembering those who have died since our last Totenfest. Sherry Walter has graciously provided Christmas ornaments for families of the deceased. The Scripture reading will be from the gospel of John, the familiar passage wherein Jesus comes to comfort Mary and Martha, and to raise their brother Lazarus from the dead:

Now when Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet, saying to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled. 34 And he said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35  Jesus wept. 36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?” 38 Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay against it. 39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.” 40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” 41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. 42  I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me.” 43 When he had said these things, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.” 44  The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”  John 11:32-44 (ESV)
Now there’s lots to consider in this passage, and I want to post more here after I’ve had a little more time to ponder. But here’s something I noticed that’s worth meditating on: in verse 34 He asks where they have laid the dead Lazarus. Why? Did he not know? He knew days beforehand that Lazarus was going to die, knew that He was going to raise him from death – but he didn’t know where Lazarus was laid? Does God need us to fill in the details of His omniscience? Or….is there something therapeutic, something good for us, about showing Jesus our dead, our wounds?