By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Psalm 139
In 1775, John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement introduced a covenant service as an important part of spiritual life of the people called Methodists. (Now, because it’s not a very common term, let me pause for just a moment to explain what a covenant is. A covenant is a formal agreement between two people or two groups. It is similar to a contract; except that the conditions of a covenant are grounded in the establishment of relationship.) Wesley’s covenant service came to be observed annually on the Sunday nearest to January 1. It was a time when the Methodists would come together for self-examination, reflection, dedication and a renewed commitment to offer themselves up entirely to God. Through repentance, confession and humility, it affirmed one’s willingness to submit one’s life fully to Christ.
A few months back, someone asked me why I continue in my commitment to the United Methodist Church. I do not agree with its official stances on some issues about which I am passionate. Likewise, while its system of governance is wonderful in theory, like our current American democracy, it often plays out in ways that are frustrating and discouraging. So, why do I persist, my friend wanted to know and it was a good question.
After a few moments’ reflection, I responded that John Wesley was the reason why I am still a Methodist. First, Wesley is often categorized as a mystic. A mystic is defined as someone who is deeply aware of God’s presence and personally encounters God. As you have heard me say over and over, Christianity is not a belief system; it is a relational system. It does us minimal good to know things about God; we must encounter and experience the God who knows us intimately, as Psalm 139 and so many other scriptures affirm. In other words, if one wishes to enter into relationship with God, it will require more than coyness or flirtation; it requires honest and truthful encounter; a willingness to “go deep” in this relationship.
Secondly, through that time Wesley spent in communion with God, in awareness of God’s presence and the Spirit’s leading, Wesley brought remarkable change to the world around him. Friends, our God chose to be embodied in the infant Jesus. Our God cares passionately for this world God created. Wesley, during his lifetime, worked vigilantly to address issues of suffering and injustice. He addressed social concerns such as debtors’ prison, slavery, lack of affordable health care for the poor, unsafe working conditions, unfair labor practices, predatory lending, lack of quality public education, and on and on I could go.
So, I am a Methodist because I desire and seek to live out the legacy of Wesley: a lifestyle whereby thoughtful, purposeful time spent “tuning in” to God’s presence will shape how I live in the world: how I think and feel; what I choose to say and do; how I spend my time, how I spend my money. That is what it means to be Methodist.
And that is a pretty intense commitment because we do not live in a culture that encourages intimacy and honesty and wholeness. We live in a culture of public persona; a culture in which what we say and what we do are often incongruous. While many in our culture are happy to embrace practices like yoga for flexibility and physical health, even within the church, we are often discouraged from raw and vulnerable encounter… with one another and even with the Almighty. In the commentary series, Feasting on the Word, preacher Dave Bland writes of Psalm 139, “As Americans, we revere our privacy… We guard the information about ourselves we share with others. We take great care in revealing who we really are, sometimes even to our closest friends and family members. At the same time we possess a deep desire for another to truly know and understand us… contrary to all our efforts to protect ourselves, God invades our privacy and knows us better than we know ourselves.”[i] In fact, we sense our own contemporary ambivalence even in the words of the ancient Psalmist as he queries: “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?” Both high and low – in the heavens and the depths of the earth – God is still present. In summary, the Psalmist confesses, “I come to the end – I am still with you.” It’s an unusual Hebrew word there, sometimes translated, “I awaken; I am still with you.” Either way, this is Santa Claus gospel: “He sees you when you’re sleeping; he knows when you’re awake…”
All throughout scripture, for better or worse, God intimately knows God’s people. In John’s gospel, in particular, the way in which Jesus knows the unknowable confirms his divinity. At the moment they encounter one another, Jesus renames Simon to be Peter who will, in time, live into his God-given identity. When Jesus meets Nathanael, he announces him as an Israelite in whom there is no deceitfulness. In other words, Nathanael doesn’t pull any punches; he calls it like he sees it and isn’t afraid to speak up. You see, just one day prior, Nathanael had made a wisecrack about Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth. Let me read it to you:
Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, "We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth." Nathanael said to him, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" Philip said to him, "Come and see." When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, "Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!" Nathanael asked him, "Where did you get to know me?" Jesus answered, "I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you." Nathanael replied, "Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!"[ii] (John 1:44-49)
Jesus, who is one with God the Father, knows us intimately and calls us into relationship with himself. Christ wants us to know him as deeply as God knows us. Jesus proclaims in John’s gospel that, through encountering him, his disciples can intimately know and experience God. He says, “If you know me, you will know my Father also.”[iii] Jesus didn’t come just to die on a cross for us. He came to reveal God to us; to deepen our encounter with God. Friends: God isn’t trying to hide from us. God is in the business of real, authentic, intimate relationship.
And, like any relationship, it requires tending and cultivating if it is to grow and flourish and deepen. And that is what this morning’s covenant renewal service is really all about. We need to take seriously encountering God by setting aside time to be in God’s presence through prayer, through study and meditation on scripture, through quiet listening, and a host of other spiritual practices that Christians have engaged in down through the centuries to heighten our awareness of God’s presence; to live fully awake to the presence of God. If you want to know more about any of those spiritual practices, see me after worship or email me this week: email@example.com
Sometimes Christians seem to think that such quiet time (this “sitting still in God’s presence”) is nothing more than navel gazing. But it’s not. Parker Palmer in his book Let Your Life Speak – a book I highly recommend – stresses that so many of us try to live our lives being someone other than who God created us to be. We succumb to all the voices around us in our culture, especially in our families of origin, which tell us what we ought to be. But it is God who uniquely created us and we are fearfully and wonderfully made. It is God who has uniquely created and gifted us. But, unless we spend time with God, we will not know who we are or who we were created to be. Palmer speaks of the damage we do not only to ourselves but to those around us when we try to be who we are not. Our cultural prevalence of burnout, Palmer contends, goes well beyond our reluctance to rest; it is also about our trying to do and be that which we were not created and called to do and be. So we experience discouragement and frustration; we sometimes lose hope and despair; and the gifts God has bestowed upon us are hidden under a bushel and wither and the kingdom of God suffers.
Friends, I encourage you this day: renew covenant with God and determine to establish a rhythm in this New Year that will allow you to personally encounter God and to be more deeply aware of God’s presence. Again, if you need any guidance in that, just contact me. But establish that sacred time with the God who knows you intimately, the one who wove you in secret in the depths of the earth, the one who has uniquely created and gifted you. For in knowing God, your life will speak – through word and deed; your life will proclaim the grace and mercy and justice of God. It is God’s Spirit that will set your life’s course for how best to do his work and serve his people and live into the person he created you to be.
[i] Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary; Year B, Vol. 1; Westminster John Knox Press; 2008; P. 249
[ii] John 1:44-49, NRSV
[iii] John 14:7, NRSV
By Pastor Tracey Leslie
(From the sermon series This Holiday Season: Unwrap Your Gift)
Scripture: Luke 1:39-45
Let’s just admit it right up front: this is a weird day in the church. Technically, it is the final Sunday of Advent – those four Sundays leading up to Christmas; a season to spiritually prepare for the arrival of Christmas. So this morning, technically, it’s still Advent. But this evening (when the sun sets at 5:25), it will be Christmas Eve – a completely different season on the Church’s calendar. It’s a bit of worship whiplash. Add the whole awkwardness that – although I know not everyone here this morning will be able to come back tonight at 6:00 – I hope at least many of you do and, for those who do, I’m sure you wouldn’t appreciate hearing the same service and sermon twice in the same day. So, don’t worry. This evening will be different.
Now, this morning’s gospel is the story of what happens when Mary, the mother of Jesus, goes to visit her elderly relative Elizabeth who is pregnant with John the Baptist. Only Luke tells us this story. Not only is Jesus miraculously conceived; but the conception of John is also miraculous. Elizabeth and her husband, Zechariah, were never able to have children and now Elizabeth is too old to get pregnant. I mean, I don’t want to go into the birds and the bees here in the sanctuary but, we all know how it works, right?
Just imagine the remarkable joy when these two women, relatives, come face to face as first-time mothers-to-be. According to Luke, Mary would have been in her first trimester while Elizabeth is in her last. There would have stood Elizabeth, wrinkles and gray hair, no doubt as big as a house coming face to face with this sweet teenage girl whose little baby bump probably wasn’t even visible yet under those loose-fitting robes of antiquity. In a culture where elders were well-respected it shouldn’t surprise us that Elizabeth is the first to speak. But it is about more than seniority for Elizabeth is divinely inspired; “jump-started,” we might say, by the child in her own womb. John the Baptist launches his prophetic career before he’s even cleared the birth canal. And his mother’s words to Mary are a pronouncement of blessing; a trilogy of blessing really.
First, Elizabeth affirms that Mary is blessed because of her chosen role or “job position” for the Almighty; second, she is blessed because of the presence of this divine child within her womb; and she is blessed, finally, because she has believed in the Word of God. Last Sunday in worship I told the story of the angel Gabriel appearing to Mary to announce Jesus’ birth. When the angel tells Mary that she will be impregnated by the Holy Spirit, Mary replies with her famous words: “Let it be with me according to your Word.” Mary believes – she places trust – in the Word of God. So she is thrice blessed.
But what does it really mean to be “blessed.” It’s a pretty over-used word in our culture. When people sneeze, we say “God bless you.” Sometimes when we ask Christians how they’re doing, they respond “I’m blessed.” Sometimes they elaborate, “Too blessed to be stressed” which seems a bit of an indictment upon those of us who are worry-warts by nature not nurture. So what does it really mean to be blessed?
Well, technically speaking, blessings can solicit, distribute, or celebrate the favor or grace of God. Furthermore, when we celebrate God’s favor or grace, it is a form of worship. Put in pretty mundane terms, it’s kind of like we’re thanking God and congratulating the person simultaneously. What I mean by that is that – to name someone as blessed – means that we name or identify how we see God’s grace working in their life; how it has been made real in their life. Blessing – at least the Greek word used here – is closely connected to the Greek word for praise. So blessing involves praising God because God is good and the source of every good gift. Blessing, my friends, is something we do out loud to identify and name the presence of God’s grace or favor in one another’s lives. Even before the birth of Jesus, Elizabeth is able to discern that this child in Mary’s belly will be the bearer of God’s grace or favor and so she names it, she celebrate it aloud, as a blessing.
Just before our service concludes this morning, I will recite Luke’s version of the birth of Jesus; a story we’ve all no doubt heard… if not in church at least on the Charlie Brown Christmas special. There is that line where the angel speaks to the shepherds and proclaims: “Glory to God in the highest heaven and on earth peace among those whom he favors (or graces).” That’s the line I want you to focus on. That’s the line I want you to remember. Glorifying and praising God is inseparably linked with the ways that God favors or blesses his creation. And blessing can be a way of glorifying God by identifying the ways that God’s grace or divine favor is operating in someone’s life. That’s what Elizabeth does. She understands that they are about to experience the saving grace of God through the child in Mary’s womb and she understands the critical role that Mary plays in “birthing” God’s grace or favor. Mary will deliver God’s grace as a baby and, I’m guessing, there were still days when Mary found that pretty astonishing and mind-boggling. So Elizabeth affirms what is taking place in Mary’s life; she names it and celebrates it. “You’re blessed, Mary, because God is doing something so gracious and favorable for all of us in and through you.”
Blessing is the way we name and identify God’s grace and that’s a very important thing because sometimes we struggle to see the evidence of God’s grace on our own. When we’re going through a difficult time, we may have trouble seeing God’s blessings in our own lives. Sometimes all we can see is what’s “not working;” all we can see is what’s going wrong. We develop tunnel vision. So we need others to help us. We need others to say, “Blessed are you!” and to name for us how they see God’s grace operating in our lives. What a gift that can be to someone who’s struggling; who’s feeling lost or has lost hope.
Even more than that, we can be the ones to pray or evoke God’s blessing over someone’s life. Blessings are performative speech; they make things happen. They hold power; they change reality. We all know and have experienced the power of words over our lives. The words children receive from their parents shape their identity and they impact them for the rest of their lives. Sometimes the words that couples speak to one another in the heat of an argument can create wounds that are deep and hard to heal. In scripture, the opposite of blessings are curses… not like swear words, but speaking in ways that seek God’s punishment of someone. Friends: words have power and we need to use them well. You can call forth God’s blessing over the life of someone else.
In Luke’s story of Christmas, the shepherds receive word from the angels about Jesus. It is good news of great joy for everyone; it is the news of how Jesus brings peace and reveals God’s favor or grace. When the shepherds get to the manger, they tell others what the angel said to them. They share those powerful words. And those words become a blessing to Mary; she holds them in her heart; she treasures and ponders over them. And shepherds, my friends, had no authority in the ancient world; they were disrespected and marginalized. So you don’t need to be someone especially religious or with theological training; anyone can speak God’s blessing over the life of someone else. We live in a world right now so full of angry, hateful words. Words hold power; words shape reality. Of all the gifts we give this Christmas – all the stuff under our trees – let’s not forget the gift of the spoken word. Give someone you love a blessing this Christmas. Because it’s up to use: we can choose to call forth and to name and celebrate the grace of God in the life of someone else. We can choose blessing.
by Pastor Tracey Leslie
(From the sermon series This Holiday Season: Unwrap Your Gift)
Scripture: Isaiah 11:1-9
If one were to read this morning’s words from Isaiah outside their context… Well, this might sound like some pretty bad parenting. I mean, who would ever let their child play with wild animals, especially venomous snakes, right? Because we all know, we live in a violent world fraught with danger. But the words of Isaiah are, of course, prophecy; words that paint the picture of what life in this world would look like if God had God’s way. This is what we endorse every time we pray, “Thy kingdom come; thy will be done”… though – if we look around at our world today – it might seem more like a Pollyannish fantasy than sound, biblical theology.
Presbyterian pastor Kimberly Clayton Richter writes of her experience giving a children’s sermon on this Isaiah scripture. She’d brought in a statue of a lion lying down with a lamb on his outstretched paws. When she asked the children what they thought of it, one little boy – clearly a budding theologian – replied, “Well, in the Bible it says they will rest together. But in real life, the lion would eat him!” Richter comments, “The vision is glorious. Real life is something else.”[i]
This year at Trinity, our Advent focus is upon gifts. Now, we generally think of gifts as an object, position, talent or attribute of great value or in high demand. But this morning’s “gift” hardly fits those parameters because this morning we’re going to discuss the gift of vulnerability. I don’t imagine the demand for that gift could come anywhere close to rivaling a, well a Fingerling for sale on Amazon.
This passage from the prophet Isaiah begins with a focus on a Davidic king. David was Israel’s favorite king; a man after God’s own heart. God had promised David that he would never cease to have an heir on the throne. But that didn’t last because David’s progeny became more obsessed with power than the righteousness of God. Eventually surrounding kingdoms destroyed the nation; but Israel never stopped pining for a king like David. You see, Israel thought of their kings as “sons of God,” specially anointed by God’s Spirit to carry out God’s will on earth. This morning’s passage from Isaiah makes clear what that would look like: a peaceable kingdom, one characterized by justice and righteousness for all of creation. As Christians, we interpret Jesus as a descendent of David; as God’s Son who came to carry out God’s purposes, to make manifest God’s kingdom. The gospels of Mark and Matthew are in agreement that Jesus’ first public words were: “Repent, for the kingdom has come near.”[ii]
But one of the things that make Isaiah’s words so remarkable is that little comment that “a child shall lead them.” Not a strong, strapping man with a crown on his head and a scepter in his hand; but a little child. Now today, we adore children. But that wasn’t the case in the ancient world where children had little value aside from their potential to grow up to be adults who would contribute to the honor of their family and function as a sort of ancient “social security” for mom and dad in their old age. Children, in bible culture, were in a very vulnerable and precarious position. To envision them as leading anything would have seemed ludicrous… which is likely Isaiah’s point because that is what happens in God’s kingdom; everything gets turned upside down. Today it seems such a romantic notion that God came to earth as a baby swaddled and nestled in a manger; but it was, quite frankly, a crazy notion. What could have been more risky? Children had no rights; infant mortality rates were enormous; Mary and Joseph were nothing more than peasants. The Son of God didn’t just choose to put on human flesh; he chose the route of maximum vulnerability.
Friends, if we want to keep Christ in Christmas, we’d better get ready to celebrate differently by putting far less focus on that stuff we get at Walmart or Amazon and by humbling ourselves, treating strangers like family, defending the weakest and the most vulnerable among us, and laying aside our own rights and power and privilege (and all that stuff)… ‘cause that’s what Jesus did. That’s what God did. If we offer our worship and our lives to that baby in the manger, we’d better be prepared to live in his kingdom on his terms because it’s pretty clear that tiny, vulnerable baby in a manger grew to be a man who preferred the poor over the rich, the weak over the strong, and the despised over the popular, and the vulnerable over the powerful.
The kingdom of our God isn’t led by an army; it’s led by a little child and if we want to live in that kingdom, we’d best be prepared to think, behave, speak and engage with others in the church and the world in ways that reveal wisdom and understanding, reverence and righteousness, gentleness, justice and peace… for everyone; not just people we like or people like us.
I continue with my prior quote from preacher and pastor Kimberly Clayton Richter, “In Christ, God has come to close the gap between the kingdoms of this world and the kingdom of heaven. God is intent on a world where the streets are safe in Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, where a life in Darfur or [Damascus] is honored every bit as much as a life in New York City. The announcement of [God’s coming] means that those of us who use power unjustly or waste resources carelessly are going to be judged… We’ll either have to change our ways or find some other kingdom to live in, because we can’t live like that in the kingdom of heaven.”[iii]
Friends, today we see camera footage of little children: nameless refugees, crying at the borders or in the squalor of refugee camps. Imagine what it might be like to be already poor and marginalized in a nation ruled by an oppressive dictator and to have your first-born child’s life threatened by the government; a government whose paranoia has already led to the slaughter of so many innocent people and now is a threat to your own toddler. And so you grab what little you have and you flee in a moment for no other reason than to save the life of your child. And you arrive in a different place that is not your place, not your home, and not your people; with no extended family to support you and no government assistance to sustain you. And that is the precarious, fragile beginning of your little child’s life. Can you imagine that? Well, God did because that little child, my friends, is Jesus and you can read that story in Matthew, chapter 2.
O holy child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray;
cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today.[iv]
[i] From The Advent Texts: Glorious Visions, Dogged Discipleship by Kimberly Clayton Richter in the Journal for Preachers; Advent 2004.
[ii] See Matthew 4:17; Mark 1:15.
[iii] The Advent Texts, ibid.
[iv] O Little Town of Bethlehem; text by Phillips Brooks, see #230 in the United Methodist Hymnal.
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