“First the Bad News . . .” A Sermon for Proper 28, Year A

You all know those jokes that begin ‘I’ve got good news and bad news . . .” Well, in this sermon I’m going to flip it around and talk about the bad news first, because there is lots of bad news in the appointed lessons for today. There is talk of a dreadful “Day of the Lord.” There are dire warnings of impending disaster.

The Old Testament prophets like Zephaniah often warned of a Divine reckoning. God would come upon our troubled and broken world in judgment and rectify all that was wrong, bringing justice and righteousness. In the New Testament this Divine reckoning was often understood as the return in glory of Jesus. That is what Paul is talking about in today’s reading from 1 Thessalonians.

So here we are a couple of millennia later and our world is still troubled and broken, but our expectation of an imminent Divine reckoning has waned. As a preacher these warning texts present a challenge. They usually come at the very end of the church year, like today, or at the beginning in Advent. You know these texts. They warn: “Be alert, be prepared, watch and wait. Something’s coming and we don’t know when!”

Without the urgent expectation of a reckoning it is hard to know what to do with them, but sometimes, new contexts bring to life to these old texts, after all, a sermon is a conversation between text and context.

For example, for many years the warnings of Jeremiah about the destruction of Jerusalem seemed irrelevant to me, but then in 2001 they appeared in the lectionary for several weeks after 9/11 and suddenly his words about the burning city and the falling tower and the weeping widows were eerily relevant. I could see people in the pews were totally engaged with the ancient words.

When I started out in ministry I tended to avoid such difficult texts, the so-called “hard parts” of scripture. After all, I reasoned, many peoples lives are hard enough without being too troubled in church. Reinhold Niebuhr once called this pastoral tendency to spare people bad news “tempering the wind to protect the shorn sheep.”

But I came in time to realize that people don’t need protecting. People know that life is often difficult and has its own share of hard parts. And if sometimes the scriptures seem full of bad news we also live in a world that daily delivers us all sorts of bad news.

“Gospel” literally means “good news.” But in my own life I know that I have often only been able to hear God’s Good News in the midst of bad news. The Good News that God is real and loves us with an unsurpassed love may not seem very important when all our other news is good; when we have a decent paycheck, a roof over our heads and our health is good.

But in times of trouble the truth of the Gospel can break through to us and give comfort and hope in even the worst of times.

When I was ordained I went to rural Maine to serve two little churches in two little towns you have never heard of. I was just 26 years old and I stayed for four years, and they were some of the happiest and most interesting years of my life. Those two congregations taught me how to be a pastor.

One thing I noticed about the people there is that they put their best face forward when they came to church. Ask them how they were doing they would say: “I’m fine!” But I knew from my pastoral conversations with them during the week that things were not always fine with them, but you would never know it from the Sunday hour. This one had an addicted child, this one had an abusive spouse, this one hadn’t told anybody he had late-stage cancer, this one had lost her job. One family had a toddler drown during a family picnic at a lake. It took me quite awhile to hear about that news, even though several active members of the church we from that family. But that news never made it to church out loud.

There was a persistent suppression and denial of any bad news, as if bad news would somehow be an offense to God. After I had been there awhile I tried to institute congregational intercessory prayer by having a time of silence to let people offer their joys and concerns, as you do here.

Take a guess about how popular that feature was? There was a lot of silence. I invited them to pray either out loud or in the silence of their hearts, and the silence of their hearts was where it stayed.

They kept their cards close to their vests. They might ask me to pray for them privately, but praying in worship was a bridge too far.

We do better now in our time. I understand and respect the need for privacy during a time of vulnerability, but this suppression and denial of anything bad is a spiritual problem.

Because one of the reasons we come to church is precisely because of the bad news about our world and our lives. We come before the Holy God to acknowledge the bad news that our world is troubled and broken, and we too are troubled and broken, and can not fix it ourselves.

The older liturgies spelled this out quite starkly. I grew up in the Episcopal Church and learned by heart at an early age that “We have erred and strayed from Thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have done those things we ought not to have done, and we have left undone those things we ought to have done.”

And just in case somebody missed the point the general prayer of confession went on to confess that we were “miserable offenders” who had “offended against God’s holy laws,” and finally that there was “no health in us.” No health in us! Not any? Not that maybe we had fallen a bit short, not that we were a bit threadbare and shopworn, but no health in us? Nope! Zilch!

Now when that 1929 prayer book was revised in 1979 (you gotta love the 70’s) all that really humble groveling Elizabethan language was removed, and I admit it may have been too severe and given God a bad rap.

But it sure got the point across that we come to worship needy and there are things about us and our world that we need to admit and acknowledge, or more correctly, confess and offer contrition and repentance to use the old words.

Some days I can barely stand to watch the news because it is so bad. And we don’t even get very much of the awful world news unless you go to the BBC. Today I want to hold up just two bad news stories from around our world.

The first is in Myanmar, which was formerly called Burma. The Rohingya minority there are a stateless people. There were an estimated 1 million Rohingya living in Myanmar last year. On Oct 20 of this year the UN reported that an estimated 603,000 refugees from had been driven from their homes and crossed the border into Bangladesh since August 25. This number increased to 624000 by November 2. Described by the United Nations in 2013 as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world, the Rohingya population are denied citizenship under the 1982 Myanmar nationality law. They are being ethnically cleansed right now. Their villages have been bulldozed, they have been beaten and killed. Many of the dead have been children. This is horrific bad news. It is very hard to bear it.

The second story from around our world is about Yemen. Last week, “The heads of three United Nations relief agencies called on a nine-nation military coalition led by Saudi Arabia to end a tightened blockade it imposed on Yemen after Houthi rebels fired a ballistic missile into Riyadh, the Saudi capital, last weekend. ‘Closure of much of the country’s air, sea and land ports is making an already catastrophic situation far worse,’ a joint statement issued by the United Nations Children’s Fund, World Food Program, and World Health Organization, said. ‘The space and access we need to deliver humanitarian assistance is being choked off, threatening the lives of millions of vulnerable children and families.’ The U.N. officials said that more than twenty million people, including more than eleven million children, are in need of urgent humanitarian assistance; at least 14.8 million lack basic medical care, and a cholera outbreak has infected more than nine hundred thousand.” (from The New Yorker) President Trump has supported and encouraged the Saudis in this blockade.

This is heartbreaking news, and we feel powerless to do anything about it. What to do? One thing we can do is donate money to help. There is a Website called Charity Navigator that rates the efficiency of charities. You can give humanitarian aid to both these crisis through a variety of agencies such A UNICEF, Oxfam and CARE. Financial giving is one small thing we can do in response to the world’s bad news, but that can’t fix it. And these are just two examples of bad news.

What to do? If we come to church holding such bad news in our hearts and heads we can and must bring it before God. If we don’t literally have blood on our hands our human family certainly does and that is bad news. So even before we take into account whatever personal bad news that we carry, or bad news in our families, in our congregation, in our local communities, we are connected to vast webs of bad news around the world. And we can and must bring that to God in humility and contrition. So I think it is such a spiritually important thing that we can share our joys and concerns in public worship; that we not suppress or deny the news that breaks our hearts.

And the thing is we really need to do it together. Sure, we can pray to God by ourselves in our homes, but in addition to the personal vertical connection with God we need the horizontal connection to each other as a community of faith, as the body of Christ.

And one of the reasons this is so important is for encouragement. The word encouragement has “courage” embedded in it, which comes from the word “heart.” To encourage is “to give heart.” To discourage is “to lose heart.” We mustn’t lose heart in the face of the bad news and so we need each other’s encouragement.

In the reading for today Paul tells the church: “Encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.” Sharing one’s news, both good and bad, is part of that process of mutual encouragement.

I want to tell you a personal story of a time when I received encouragement in one of the worst times in my life. In 2004 all our news was bad. Because of my brain injury I had to leave my position as pastor of First Church in Pittsfield after having served there for 22 years. We had lived in church-provided housing for thirty years. We had to leave our parsonage and find a new home. We had no equity and it was the height of the booming real estate market.

The church said we could continue to live in the parsonage until they sold it, which ended up giving us nearly a year to look for a home. The rental market in the Berkshires at that time was tight because of the high cost of summer seasonal rentals. We looked and looked, and found nothing suitable we could afford. Then in the summer of 2005 the church treasurer called and said they had a buyer for the parsonage, and we had a month to vacate.

We had all our friends looking. We considered moving to another part of the country, but I was very ill and had a team of good local doctors, and Martha had many years of seniority with Berkshire Health Systems. We prayed about it and we wept about it, and one day the phone rang and it was our friend Bob Henderson. Bob said to me, “I know you are looking for a place to live. We own an apartment we will let you have, so you don’t have to worry about that any more” Bob recently died and his funeral was on Friday. That act of generosity and encouragement meant so much to us during a difficult time.

It is often only in a time full of bad news that we can finally recognize our need for God, that what needs fixing in us is beyond our own mortal capacities and can only be done from God’s side, that God can do for us what we can’t do for ourselves.

The Good News is that God has done this and continues to do this. The Good News is that God is love and not just any love, but unconditional holy love for us all. And we are promised as his beloved sons and daughters that nothing will be able to separate us from God’s love, not life nor death or any other of the bad news that comes our way.

God knows our broken and troubled world firsthand through Jesus, who shared our common lot. God knows “the evil that men do.” God knows that we are “foolish and slow of heart to believe.” And still, and still, God never gives up on us, and never gives up on our world with all its bad news.

God wants better for us and for our world. Not the false security of guns and bombs, but the real security of peace and reconciliation, of friendship and community And since God hasn’t given up on the world he has made, he doesn’t want us to give up on it either.

Our task is to encourage each other to do whatever we can to make God’s world a better, more just and peaceful world. To never lose heart by the world’s bad news, but to discern God’s heart and try to align our own hearts with it.

So I may have some bad news and I may have some good news, but the good news comes last, because God always has the final word. Amen.

(I preached this sermon on November 19, 2017 at the First Congregational Church of Stockbridge, Massachusetts.)

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“Looking for Light in the Shadow of Death” A Sermon on Matthew 4:12-23

shadow

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light, and those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”

The “Shadow of Death.” That doesn’t sound very good, does it?

I asked Rabbi Josh Breindel of Temple Anshe Amunim in Pittsfield about the phrase and he said it is quite literally “shadow of death” in Hebrew. He said it is a colloquial saying and means something like “mortal peril.” We are all acquainted with that image from the 23rd Psalm: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for Thou art with me.”

Two of the traditional themes for the Epiphany season are “light shining in the darkness” and the “calling to Christian discipleship,” and I hope to combine them today. Continue reading

“From Here to There and Back Again” The Journey from Text to Sermon

On the other hand

“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,

   and do not return there until they have watered the earth,

making it bring forth and sprout,

   giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,

so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;

   it shall not return to me empty,

but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,

   and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”  (Isaiah 55:10-11)

The title for today’s gathering was announced as “Getting from There to Here.” As I reflected on it I wondered if perhaps “getting from here to there” might be more apt. “Here” being the text in front of you, to “there, ” the sermon. That works.

But as I thought more about it I saw the wisdom of  “from there to here.” From “there,” “the strange new world of the Bible,” to “here,” the world we live in. And I thought of some of the various locutions we have used over the years to capture this movement from text to sermon, such as “from text to context” or “from Word to world.”

Then I considered the many ways I have approached the writing and preaching of sermons, and I realized this movement from text to sermon was more dialectical and less linear than any of these ways of speaking about it.

As I thought about it, the more I liked the sub-title of The Hobbit, which as you may know is “There and back again.” So perhaps “here to there and back again” is more like it.

From here to there and back again describes a journey that is not just a straight line, but rather more like a journey without a  map or even a predetermined end. And I like this way of thinking, because it captures how I have experienced sermon preparation in my four decades as a preacher.

I start with a Biblical text, and then I live with that text throughout the week on my journey, revisiting it and wrestling with it and worrying it until I begin to hear something of the voice of God in it, and by then the contours of the journey begin to show themselves, as do even the purpose of the journey and it’s destination.

The process seems to take on a life of its own, which is another way of saying that the Word of God is alive. I like today’s Isaiah text where God uses the agricultural metaphor of rain and snow watering the earth and making it produce to describe the way his Word works, “It shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”

And I want to say a bit about what I mean when I say “the Word of God,” which can mean one thing or another, even sometimes one thing and another, or even three things depending on the context.

One way of thinking about this that has helped me comes from Karl Barth. He wrote about the threefold understanding of the Word of God.  First, there are the written words of the Bible, then there are the spoken words of the preacher, and finally, and most importantly, there is the living Word, Jesus Christ.

This living Word is mediated through both the written words and the spoken words. The prayer I began my sermon with today is based on this idea: “Through the written word, and the spoken word, may we behold the living Word, even Jesus Christ our Lord.”

And that is not to say every text needs to be understood Christologically (although it can be), as in the text we have from Isaiah today. But to say there is a living Word is to say that whenever we hear the Word of God as direct address to us, it is the same Word of the same God, who came to us and for us and became the Word made flesh.

So when I talk about the Word of God in sermon preparation, it may be a reference to the text itself, the words, or to the proclamation in the form of a sermon, the Word preached, or to both, but the goal of the journey is, through the finite human words of the text, and the finite human words of the preacher, to transcend this finitude to hear the living Word of God. And I believe this is the primary task and challenge of preachers, and of the church, for that matter.

Let me say a little bit more about the words of the text and the words of the preacher as the Word of God. I think of them by analogy to the doctrine of the two natures of Christ. Jesus is truly human and truly divine, not half and half or some other percentage.

And in much the same way (although not identically) the words of our Scriptures, the Old Testament and the New Testament, are truly human and truly divine. Human in every way, written (and edited) by human beings, and truly divine through the agency of the Holy Spirit of God who inspired the writers to write them, the same Holy Spirit the church invokes when we read them.

And the same thing can be said about the words of the preacher. A sermon is not written in some special spiritual words, but in the same human words that we use in everyday speech. Since everyone in this room is a preacher I don’t have to belabor the point that we are all human, even all-too human. Yet the Holy Spirit that inspired the writers of Scripture is the same Holy Spirit that inspires the preacher, and the same Holy Spirit that the church invokes and invites as it prepares to hear the Living Word of God from the frail words of scripture and the frail words of the preacher.

This is admittedly a high view of preaching, and some might say it claims too much for the preacher. I would say quite the opposite. It is the views of preaching that put emphasis on the personality and performance of the preacher that claim too much for the preacher.

The claim that the preacher is to be a minister of the Word of God is much like the church’s understanding of the celebrant at the eucharist. The principal was established early in the church during the Donatist controversy. The Donatists were heretics, so the question arose whether the baptisms they performed were valid. And the church agreed that “the efficacy of the sacrament does not depend on the sanctity of the celebrant.” So the preacher may be more or less gifted with the homiletical arts, but it is not those gifts that are decisive. What is decisive for the preacher is that he or she has been set apart to deliver the church’s proclamation, so that the church may hear in it the living Word of God. It is not about the preacher. It is about the church hearing the Word of God.

This is a (nearly) sacramental view of preaching, that the preacher should say what the sacrament shows. And in both cases neither the preacher nor the celebrant has control over the Holy Spirit of God, as if we somehow could control God. No, Christ is not truly present in the sacrament nor truly alive in the preached Word because we invoke his name, but rather because he himself commanded us to do these things and promised to be present with us when we did.

So with this high view before us, and a text in front of us, how do we get from there to here or from here to there and back again?

The first thing I want to say about approaching a text is the expectation that God will speak through it. Which is to say that the high view I propose operates out of trust. I think it was Richard Hayes who wrote about a “hermeneutic of trust.” For decades we have been talking and hearing about “a hermeneutic of suspicion,” and that has had its place as an corrective to the Scriptures being misused as instruments of oppression and injustice, “texts of terror,” as my teacher Phyllis Trible so eloquently called them. But there has been a heavy price to pay for the widespread “hermeneutic of suspicion” that has so pervaded the academy for decades, in that many preachers now reflexively distrust the texts.

And I think it is sometimes necessary and appropriate to distrust a text, but it shouldn’t be where we start. Sometimes distrusting a text along the way will lead you to the Word of God.

So the text is in front of us. Perhaps it is an assigned text from the lectionary. I like that, because I can be a lazy sinner who is inclined to make my favorite texts do tricks for me, but that is just me.

Perhaps the Bible is open on our desk, perhaps it is on our computer screen or smartphone, but there it is. First things first: read the text.

Read it in expectation that God’s Word can be heard in it, but don’t rush to decide what it means or even what it has to say. Texts need time. They need to be listened to. I have always described my sermon preparation as inhabiting a text. Living in it.

Another good way to think about it is to “stand under” the text so as to understand it. And the preacher stands under the text along with the rest of the church.

I am really talking about hermeneutics now more than the homiletical side of things. So you all know the various ways to worry a text into view. Read it in the original languages if you have them. Read it in several translations. Look up any key words or phrases in a Bible Dictionary. Take a stroll through some commentaries. Find out its genre and its original context. In other words do your homework. I once preached a sermon that involved Herod, and added “you remember him from the Christmas story.” My dear friend Luther Pierce, a retired UCC minister, shook my hand at the door and said, “Good sermon, Rick, but you conflated Herod the Great with Herod Antipas. Different Herod.” Oops!

So once you’ve done your due diligence and you have the text in your grasp, reflect on the context. Those of you who were preaching in the weeks after 9/11 may recall that the Common Lectionary texts were from Jeremiah and Lamentations, texts we had all avoided in the past because they are horrible cries of despair for the destruction of Jerusalem. All of a sudden after 9/11 texts about the city of devastation and the burning tower became eerily contemporary.

Which is to say contexts change. The immediate context of any preacher is the life of the congregation, and when I talk of inhabiting a text, I am referring to going about one’s pastoral duties with the text in mind. From here to there and back again.

Then there are the larger contexts of the communities in which we live and the country and world we are a part of. Sometimes contexts demand our attention.

We rarely get the kind of compelling clarity about the relationship between text and context that we got after 9/11, but keeping the text in mind as we think about the multiple contexts will often show us the way to go, the particular context that needs to be addressed by the Word of God.

The dialectic of the journey of text to context and context to text means straddling two worlds with the hope we can find in them the same story.

I had the privilege of preaching my daughter’s ordination sermon back in June, and afterwards Mary Luti said, “I like the way you went back and forth from the story in the scriptures to your story now.” And her comment made me realize that I preach that way because to me it is the same story.

I immediately thought of Hans Frei’s The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative, a wonderful and important book. Frei’s thesis is that prior to the Enlightenment Christians inhabited the Biblical Story. They understood it as their story. They were part of it. The Enlightenment changed that as we held the story at arm’s length like any other observable phenomenon.

The task of the preacher is to repair the breach; to make the Christian Story our story again. I am reminded of Bruno Bettelheim’s book, The Uses of Enchantment, where he argues for the re-enchantment of the world for children through fairy tales.

Letting the words of scripture and the words of the preacher be the Word of God for God’s people requires a similar kind of re-enchantment. It means the church realizing that the Story isn’t just back there, but is still going on and we are characters in it.

Let’s look quickly at our Isaiah text for today to see how this might be done. The text is from Isaiah of the Exile and the context is a people who have no reason to be hopeful, since they have lost the three pillars of their identity, their temple, their land and their nation.

The promises made to their ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob seem null and void. Their prospects seem dim, their possibilities few.

Into this context God speaks through the prophet. “My ways are not your ways, my thoughts are not your thoughts.” “You know that rain and snow we sometimes get in the desert? That is what my word is like. It will not come up empty. It will make happen that which I promised.”

And that is what the Word of God sounds like.

And when we hear this story, can it speak to us, where our prospects seem dim and our possibilities few? Can it speak to a declining church too often eager to call it a day? Can it speak to a nation full of grave injustices and inequalities? Can it speak to a world of death and terror?

When Isaiah speaks the Word of God to the exiles he lets them see what can’t be seen, and makes them believe what they can only know by trust in the one who speaks to them. The Word makes them part of the story again, the story that began at the beginning when God said “light” and there was light, the story that saw their ancestors freed from bondage, the story that seemed to come to an end, but now God says to them, “No, it’s not ending. Not at all. I will lead you through the desert of your journey into my own future.” And what will it be like? It will be like this:

“You shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.”

And let the people say: Amen.

I preached this sermon at the New England Pastor’s Meeting of Confessing Christ, West Boylston, Massachusetts, on September 26, 2013.

“Hearing God’s Word from Unexpected Places”

Celtic cross

 But the Lord said to me: Do not say ‘I am only a boy; for you shall go to all whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you.’  Jeremiah I.7

It is good to be back with you. I so enjoyed being here on Epiphany Sunday for Pastor Mike’s installation. It was cold then. It is not cold today. I have a small confession to make. Mike e-mailed me “We don’t wear robes in the summer.” And I e-mailed him back, “Can I wear one. I’m kind of a robe guy.” So I brought a robe and a stole up here to Dover, but then I realized I was preaching about opening oneself to new experiences and insights, so I’ve decided not to wear one. You know, to walk the walk as well as to talk the talk. I am also wearing a blue shirt for the first time in forty years, because I’m kind of a white shirt guy, too. So I’m really being daring today.

Will you pray with me:

Gracious God, through the written word, and through the spoken word, may we behold the Living Word, even your Son our Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen

I was just twenty-six years old when I graduated from seminary and became the pastor of the Congregational Churches of West Newfield and Limerick, Maine, just over the border and up the road about an hour from here. That was nearly forty years ago.

I grew a beard to look older and wiser than my years, but I’m pretty sure it didn’t fool anyone. I’ve learned a thing or two about the ways of the world and the church and myself, but when it comes to the ways of God I still stand in awe before the mystery of it all as much as I did back then.

But I will tell you one thing I have learned. You have to be open to hearing the voice of God from unlikely people and in unexpected situations. This is a humbling truth, and there is a kind of Socratic inversion about it. Remember how Socrates said of himself: “I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.”

Likewise, the people who think they always know what God is saying tend to be the ones least open to hearing from God, and are therefore the least knowledgeable.

Because if we decide in advance where and when and through whom God will speak, we severely limit our capacity to hear from God.

There are many reasons we close our minds and hearts to those through whom God speaks.

Perhaps we think someone is too young to speak for God. In our Old Testament reading today, Jeremiah tells God just that, that he is too young to be a prophet. God rebukes him, saying: “Do not say ‘I am only a boy; for you shall go to all whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you.’” Jeremiah I.7

I remember when I was young being frustrated that older people often found it hard to see me as someone with something to say because of my age. Now that I am not so young, I have to resist the impulse to dismiss the insights and wisdom of the young, and to tell the truth, I find myself more and more learning from those who are younger, which is an ever-expanding group.

My twenty-nine year old daughter, Rebecca, was just ordained to the ministry in June. I have heard her preach several times now, and, if I do say so myself, she is pretty good. But sometimes when I am listening to her, my mind is saying, “How can this be? Is this my daughter? I remember the day she was born as if it were yesterday.”

And you have a daughter of this church being ordained soon, Emily Goodnow, a schoolmate of my daughter’s from Yale Divinity School. And perhaps some of you who watched her grow up in this congregation wonder, “How can this be? I remember when she was just a girl in Sunday school.”

Recall when Jesus went to his home synagogue to preach his hearers said, “Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.” (Mark 6:3)

His youth and their familiarity with him kept them from hearing him.

What else keeps us from hearing God speak to us? It wasn’t so very long ago that the conventional wisdom in the church was that preaching the Word of God was a man’s vocation. There are still Christians that believe that.

When I was growing up there were no women ministers in my church or in my experience. When I was at Andover Newton one of my teachers, Emily Hewitt, was one of the first 11 women ordained in the Episcopal Church. It caused quite a stir at the time.

As I was preparing this sermon I wondered what she was doing. So I Googled her, and I discovered that she later went to Harvard Law School, became a lawyer, and is now the Chief Judge of the United States Court of Federal Claims. Why would the church want to deprive itself of the talent of someone like her?

But for a long time we did keep women from using their gifts and talents. It was a widely accepted convention.

For example, and I am really dating myself now, but when I started my ministry in Maine, there were only male deacons, who served communion. The women, called deaconesses, set up the communion and cleaned up after. That was the way it had always been and it was accepted. But we went through a change. We saw the basic unjustness of this arrangement, and we changed it.

And so we changed our ideas about who could preach the Word of God, and now women ministers, and very talented ones like Rebecca and Emily, are a commonplace in our churches.

When John Robinson, the pastor of the Pilgrims in Leyden, addressed them before they shipped off to the New World, he preached a sermon to them. And in that sermon he said, “God hath yet more light and truth to break forth from his Holy Word.”

This openness to new light and truth is very biblical. Our God was always doing the unexpected. Even the people God chose to speak on his behalf or to carry out his plans were seldom what one would expect.

Think about some of them with me: Jacob was a liar, a cheat, and general scoundrel. He tricked his father, stole his brother’s birthright, and had to leave town in the dark of night. Yet he became the Father of a Nation and was given the name Israel.

Moses, God’s spokesman, said, “Not me, Lord, I’m not a good speaker. God said, “I’ll send your brother Aaron with you. He can do the talking.”

The prophet Jeremiah, who we heard about today, said, “I’m just a boy.”

And Mary, the mother of our savior, was a humble unmarried teenage mom.

These instruments of God go against our human expectations, but God uses all sorts and conditions of men and women to speak and act on his behalf.

And so we have had to expand the circle of those who preach, bringing in women within the lifetimes of many of us in this room.

And we are continuing to expand the circle. For example, in the church where I worship our pastor is gay. And he is married. And he and his husband just last week adopted a baby boy.

And that is new to me. And because of that it have been a bit of a challenge for me to get my mind around, because even a decade ago a gay, married pastor with a child was not part of my experience, or the experience of many for that matter.

Last year, during our interim period, I was praying for God to send us a faithful pastor and preacher. And God did, because this pastor is a rock-solid Christian, born and raised in the church, and I never hear a sermon of his without hearing something of the voice of God in it.

The world around us changes. The contexts in which we preach and hear changes. I am reminded of the story about Will Campbell, the white civil rights leader who marched with Martin Luther King. He was a Southern Baptist, and he was asked if he believed in infant baptism. “Believe in it? I’ve even seen one!”

So once again we have had to expand our thinking about who we think we might hear God’s Word from. We have had to expand the circle.

Because God calls a variety of men and women to speak on his behalf, and they come in a variety of shapes and sizes, races, tongues, and sexual orientations. And the truth is we need to hear from them all.

Because the Word of God doesn’t just drop from the sky. The Christian faith is a mediated faith, coming to us through the words of others. We have the words of the Bible, and the Word of God can be discerned in them, but they themselves are not the Word of God. No, to hear the Word of God we need human interpreters, which is one of the tasks of the church.

One way of thinking about this that has helped me was put forth by the great Swiss theologian, Karl Barth. He wrote about the threefold understanding of the Word of God.  First, there are the written words of the Bible, then there are the spoken words of the preacher, and finally, and most importantly, there is the living Word, Jesus Christ.

This living Word is mediated through both the written words and the spoken words. The prayer I began my sermon with is based on this idea: “Through the written word, and the spoken word, may we behold the living Word, even Jesus Christ our Lord.”

So we need people in the church to mediate the Word of God to us, to make it real for us. And this happens in community and in relationships with real people living real lives, with real talents and struggles. We need all kinds of people, so that you can even hear a sermon from someone like me with a brain injury.

Those of you who were here for Mike Bennett’s installation in January will remember that I preached a sermon called “Ministry is not a Commodity and Ministers are not Appliances.” And in that sermon I said this: “Mike embodies what the great preacher Gardner Taylor was after when he advised preachers “to look beyond the peripheral signs of preaching greatness to the real source of pastoral insight–the common bond with one’s hearers provided by suffering.” And I would expand Taylor’s words to include not only suffering, but all manner of shared life-experience, the kind that happens in community, the kind that happens day to day in the church.

And I said this to you: “If you let him, Mike will share your lives, will rejoice when you rejoice and weep when you weep, and will become your pastor.”

And by all indications it seems that, nearly a year into your relationship together, you are finding that to be true.

But the very best preacher in the world does not make the Word of God alive by himself or herself. For that you also need good hearers, ones open to hearing things that they may not have heard before, that may challenge them, prod them, even make them unhappy or angry.

But by being open to the unexpected, hearers may well hear things that please and delight them, things that make them wiser and stronger and more faithful. And may open them to larger truths, to new wonders, and, above all, to the amazing grace and the vast love of God for us in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

I preached this sermon on August 25, 2013 at the First Parish Church, Congregational (UCC) in Dover, New Hampshire.

An Ordination Sermon: The Secret Sauce of Ministry. A Recipe in Two Parts

Laying on of hands

The Secret Sauce of Ministry
A Recipe in Two Parts

Hebrews 12:1-2
Philippians 2:1-11

As some of you know I like to cook. This time of year, when the weather gets fine, I fire up my grill and do some grilling and barbecuing. And I love to sit on my back porch near the grill with a cold beverage and read cookbooks, of which I have many, or as Martha would say, “too many.”

Many of these grilling and barbecuing books contain recipes for a “secret sauce.” I have been noticing lately that the term “secret sauce” has migrated from its culinary context and is now being employed as a metaphor for that special something that makes things work properly.

For example, I recently heard a journalist talking about “the secret sauce” that would create “a grand bargain” to overcome the Congressional budget impasse. Good luck with that.

So I started to wonder, “ What’s the secret sauce of ministry?”  If I had to come up with a simple recipe for what makes ministry faithful and effective what would it be?

So here’s my recipe, which comes in two parts, which I hope you will take away with you today for your own ministry, whether lay or ordained.

1. The first part of the secret sauce is this: You can’t do it alone. Rebecca couldn’t have come to this day alone, and she can’t do her ministry alone. No one does it alone.

How does one come to know God? And to love God? And to want to serve God?

When I look out at this congregation I see so many here today who have helped to shape and influence Rebecca. I am reminded of the scripture from Hebrews we just heard that says we are “surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.” The image is from the ancient stadium where the races were held, and the cloud of witnesses are the spectators who cheer the racers on.

This great crowd includes both the living and the dead, “the church militant” and “the church triumphant.”

So among the crowd present in the congregation today are many members of Rebecca’s family, let’s call them “the crowd of the proud.”

In addition to Martha and myself, are Rebecca’s brother Andrew and his wife, Jessica. Rebecca’s maternal grandparents, Art and Marianne Talis, are here. As are several assorted aunties, an uncle, and a cousin.

These family members represent a great line going back through generations of Talises and Beers, Floyds and Laffoons, and, let me tell you, there is a lot of church in these families.

We represent a great ecumenical melting pot, from the Greek Orthodox faith of Rebecca’s grandfather’s forbears, to the German Protestantism of her grandmother.

My mother’s father, Bill Laffoon, a descendant of French Huguenots, was a deacon at his Congregational Church in Wichita, Kansas. His schooling ended with the 6th grade, but saw to it that his two daughters went to college during the height of the Depression.

Granddaddy read his Bible every day, and his speech was sprinkled with scripture verses.

So when I was growing up my mother also had a scripture for every occasion, I thought she was so wise, she’d say, “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” And, “Do not cast your pearls before swine.” When I went to seminary I discovered that they weren’t original with my mother, but came from Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount.

Years later, Rebecca had the same experience at Yale when she learned where all my wise sayings came from.

On the other side of the family, I think today also of Martha’s grandmother, Marta Beer, which in our family is a family name and not a beverage. My Martha is named after her. She raised three daughters by herself in wartime Germany, and was another great churchwoman.  How proud she would be.

This rich ecclesiastical family DNA has helped to shape and form Rebecca into a minister. They are all part of this congregation today, a part of the cloud of witnesses.

But there’s more. For as grand as Rebecca’s family legacy of ministry is, and as important as family support and nurture is, family alone cannot make a minister.

And so I look around this room and I see many people from Rebecca’s past, a number of the good people of the First Church of Christ in Pittsfield, where Rebecca was baptized and confirmed. I see some of her Sunday School teachers, youth group leaders, mentors and supporters, who have made the trip down here today from the Berkshires.

And when I look around today I also see many other friends, Pittsfield neighbors, UCC and ecumenical colleagues, and folks from the Berkshire Association, who have been part of Rebecca’s life.

I see some of her Wellesley College roommates up in the balcony. I see Yale classmates and New Haven friends, and, of course, all of you from Green’s Farms Church, members and staff, who have so warmly embraced Rebecca in your community, and are now such an important part of this most recent chapter in her life.

There are others, too, I must mention, who are neither related to Rebecca nor have ever met her, who she knows from the books she loves and the scriptures she studies. Those many other witness, men and women of the church:  prophets, apostles, martyrs, evangelists, theologians, reformers, writers and thinkers down through the ages. They are part of this great crowd, too. They were all witnesses to God, and to God’s vast love for us in Jesus Christ.

So all of you here, and all the unseen but present, make up the great cloud of witnesses, who cheer us all on as we go about our several ministries, and especially cheer Rebecca on today. I thank God, for you and for them.

So to take nothing away from Rebecca, who as you know, is a remarkable young woman and certainly gets much of the credit for us being here today, she hasn’t done it alone. Because this ministry business is a team sport, and I have just described to you just how really big the team is.

Nobody gets to ministry alone, and nobody does ministry alone, because you can’t do it alone.

So that’s the first part of the recipe for the secret sauce of ministry.

2. The second part of the recipe for the secret sauce of ministry is this: It’s not about you. To do ministry in the name of Jesus Christ you have to get out of your own way.

What does this mean? Recall how Jesus was always confusing the disciples by saying things like “the one who would gain his life must lose it.” And “The one who exalts herself will be humbled, but the one who humbles herself will be exalted.”

And the disciples never quite understood what he was trying to teach them until after Easter. Their hopes had been dashed on Good Friday as they fled from him and his cross. But after Easter all those things he said made sense. He was showing them a way, a way of selflessness, of servant-hood, a way to be a person for others.

And recall also how our brother Paul kept writing to churches that were fighting, and saying in one form or another, “It’s not about you!”

To the Corinthians he wrote, “What we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake (2 Cor. 4,5). And a couple of lines later in that same letter he wrote them, “We have this treasure in earthen vessels to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us.” (2 Cor. 4:7).

What was he trying to tell them about ministry? That “it’s not about you.” To be a minister you have to get out of your own way. And the reason that you have to get out of your own way is first to make space for God to work in and through you. And you have to get out of your own way, secondly, to make space for the other, the ones you minister to.

I was with Mary Luti at a meeting the week before last and I told her how excited I was that she would be laying holy hands on Rebecca and doing the prayer of ordination today. I said to Mary, “It is so fitting because it was under your ministry that Rebecca started discerning her call.”

And Mary demurred and said, “I really didn’t do that much.” And I thought she was just being humble. But as I started pondering the recipe for the secret sauce of ministry, I realized she was quite right.

And you know why she was right? Because it wasn’t Mary who called Rebecca into the ministry. Mary was just doing her job, which is how ministry works. Rebecca was a questioning young woman in a pew in Cambridge, and Mary was doing her job, which was to share the God she knows and loves. And Rebecca was in the right time and the right place with the right person, and God’s Holy Spirit works like that, in what seems mundane, but can at the same time be quite marvelous.

Our society cultivates a cult of personality, a cult of celebrity, but ministry is not about that. There are celebrity ministers, but the good ones, the faithful ones, know it is not about them.

The word minister actually means one who represents another. The Europeans use it this way in describing their government officials: the minister for finance, or the foreign minister. These are the ones who represent the government in their particular area of expertise

Likewise, a Christian minister is one who represents Jesus Christ. And representing Jesus Christ means taking the form of a servant. Jesus once told his disciples, “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave; even as the Son of man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mt 20:25-28.)

Not to be ministered to, but to minister. Not to be served but to serve.

This is counter-cultural in our self-obsessed society. To tell people to get out of their own way for God and for others is not a particularly popular philosophy today. When I peruse the magazines at the super-market checkout there are titles such as Self, Us, People (meaning famous self-absorbed people) but I don’t see Servant or Ministry magazine.

There was a fascinating interview with director Sofia Coppola in last Sunday’s New York Times about her new movie, The Bling Ring. The movie is based on a true story about five teenagers from the San Fernando Valley in California, who were so obsessed with the culture of personality and the trappings of celebrity that they started breaking into celebrity’s homes and stealing stuff.

They would often just walk in through an unlocked front door, or climb in an open window. They robbed people like Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton.

In the course of a nine-month spree they looted more than 3 million dollars worth of jewelry and designer clothes. I found the story shocking, but part of it got me chuckling to myself. Apparently they broke into Paris Hilton’s home six times before she even noticed. “She had so much stuff that it took awhile for her to realize someone had broken in.”

Have you seen the bumper sticker that says, “The one who dies with the most stuff wins?” A better, truer one would say, “The one who dies with the most stuff dies.”

Sofia Coppola said she chose this subject for her movie because she has two small daughters, and she fears for them growing up in this glittery world of celebrity culture, a culture that sends the message that it really is all about you and your stuff. She describes hearing some of her daughter’s 6 year-old friends talking about what they wanted to be when they grew up, and a couple of them said, “I want to be famous.” She asks, “Where does that come from?” I don’t think we knew about that when we were six years old.”

And that is a challenge for ministry these days. I am particularly thinking of parents and youth ministers. How do we raise our children in a society that tells them it really is all about us?

When we were driving through the countryside in France we would sometimes see vast fields of sunflowers as far as the eye could see. The sunflowers would be facing East toward the rising sun in the morning, and as the sun moved through the sky the sunflowers would turn toward it, so that at dusk they would have turned completely toward the West. In fact the French world for sunflower is tournesol, which literally means “turn to the sun.”

Sunflowers do this because they are heliotropic; they need the sun to live. By analogy, we are theotropic, we need God to live, and we are made to bend our love toward God and others. But we too often bend our love toward ourselves, and that is where we get in trouble, for instead of living for God and others we try to love ourselves and control things as if we were God.

And that is what is so beautiful about our second reading today from Philippians; it turns the equation entirely upside down. God in Christ bends toward us, and shows us what love looks like.

The late British theologian Colin Gunton said,

 Sin is for the creature to think and act as if it were the creator. But here in Philippians 2 Jesus is godlike precisely in going the other way.

Here Jesus empties himself even of his divinity to become a servant, “a man for others” as Dietrich Bonheoffer described him.

And it is this humility, this self-emptying, this relinquishing of privilege, that Paul wants the church in Philippi to emulate. He writes them to “let the same mind be among you that was in Christ Jesus.”

The church in Philippi was having one of those squabbles that have been known to happen in congregations, even in our own time. Paul admonishes them to get out of their own way, and have the very same mindset as Jesus, the mindset that led him to empty himself, and in humility take the form of a servant, the mindset that ultimately led to his death on the cross.

But it’s not so easy to have the same mindset as Jesus. Remember those WWJD bracelets, that stood for “what would Jesus do?” Some people criticized those WWJD bracelets for being overly simplistic. Because asking, “What would Jesus do? doesn’t really solve the problem. It usually isn’t that hard to know what Jesus would do. People talk about the hard passages in the Bible, and there are some, but the parts that really challenge and convict me aren’t the parts I don’t understand, but the parts I do. “Love your enemies.” “Feed the hungry.” “Welcome the stranger.”  “Share your possessions.” “Turn the other cheek.” “Take up your cross and follow me.” Just to name a few.

So the hard part, after you figure out what Jesus would do, is doing it.

To “practice what we preach,” to “walk the walk as well as talk the talk” is where we pretty consistently fail, and why we need grace and forgiveness to keep trying. And the good news is that is exactly what we get from our God, grace and forgiveness.

In the cross of Jesus Christ, God does for us what we cannot do for ourselves, and saves us from ourselves, among other things, such as sin and death.

All ministers, you and me, lay or ordained, even Rebecca, fail at being consistently Christ-like. But the wisest ministers know that our ministry is at its most faithful when we realize that it is not about us, when we get out of our own way, as Jesus did, to be a servant, as he was a servant, to serve as he served, to love as he loved, and to be a person for others.

And here’s the beautiful thing: if you follow this recipe you don’t really lose yourself at all, you will actually find yourself. Only the empty can be filled with the new life God wants for us. Jesus said, “I came that you might have life, and have it in abundance.” (John 10:10)

Because this self- emptying doesn’t mean we lose our personalities or our personal identities. On the contrary, when our love bends toward God and others, as those sunflowers bend toward the sun, when we lose ourselves in service, when we live for others, we are most ourselves, our own true best selves as God intended us to be.

Just as Jesus’ exalted lordship is ultimately revealed in his humble servant-hood.

Let us listen to it again:

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,

did not regard equality with God

as something to be exploited,

but emptied himself,

taking the form of a servant

being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form,

he humbled himself

and became obedient to the point of death—

even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him

and gave him the name

that is above every name,

so that at the name of Jesus

every knee should bend,

in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

and every tongue should confess

that Jesus Christ is Lord,

to the glory of God the Father.”

And let the people say: Amen.

I preached this sermon at the Ordination of my daughter, Rebecca Megan Floyd, on June 9, 2013, at the Green’s Farms Congregational Church, UCC, in Westport, Connecticut.

“Anticipation”: A Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent (Year C)

Sandy“There will be signs in the sun, the moon and the stars, and on the earth distress among the nations confused by the roaring of the sea and waves.  People will faint from fear and foreboding for what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and glory.” (Luke 21:25-36)

In this passage the world is being shaken loose. It occurs to me that the upheavals described in apocalyptic texts like this one are very much like the language of creation only in reverse. In the first chapter of Genesis God calls things into being one after the other and pronounces them good. The sun and moon, the earth and waters, and all the living things are summoned into life by God’s creative Word. A world takes shape.

But in our Gospel today that world is shaken to its foundations. The secure, predictable world we have come to know and rely upon is threatened and can no longer be relied upon.  The primordial chaos that the original creation turned back, now threatens to break loose upon the world. Then at the very climax of the distress the Son of Man appears in power and glory.

Those early Christians who heard these words in the New Testament period no doubt heard them as reassuring words. Words that expressed the faith that although the world around them was up for grabs and insecure Christ was still in charge and coming soon.

Isaac Watts expresses the mood of this passage in this hymn:

“Deep are his counsels, and unknown,
But grace and truth support his throne;
Through gloomy clouds his ways surround,
Justice is their eternal ground.

In robes of judgement, lo! he comes,
Shakes the wide earth and cleaves the tombs;
Before him burns devouring fire;
the mountains melt, the seas retire.”

Although we may not share the world view of first century Christians let me suggest that their description of a world where everything is being shaken loose can speak to our own sense of insecurity in a world whose foundations are shaken.

How many of us have felt the secure world we knew was being shaken to its foundations?  Our life is a perpetual series of change. We move, we gain or lose a job, we marry,  have a child, someone we love gets sick or dies, a relationship ends, things change.  In truth we live among flux and change all the time. It is not always cataclysmic change, but change nevertheless.

Last spring I was coming back from my Princeton program and I stopped in Bergen County, New Jersey to visit the little town I grew up in. The small old  church looked very much the same as when I left over forty years ago, but much else had changed. The house I grew up with was torn down shortly after I left, but there were also new roads and developments, and as I drove around I got disoriented sometimes by the changes. The town that exists in my own mind and the town that exists now bear some resemblance, but are not quite the same town, just as I am not the eighteen year old who left that town so many years ago.

There was an obituary this week for someone who worked at The Busy Bee, a Pittsfield restaurant that I have heard about, but was long gone even when I got here in 1982, displaced by the misguided urban renewal of the nineteen sixties, the same plan that took away the much missed train station on Depot Street. Folksinger Dave Mallet sings a song that laments these losses:

“I  miss Main Street, where everyone knew you by name,
I miss Main Street, O how this little town change.
It’s all part of progress, changing the old, for the new.
I miss Main Street, What in the world is this world coming to?”

The point is that the security of the familiar is an illusion of time, and in time we eventually all come to know the feeling of a world that no longer feels secure.

Advent invites us to consider what there is of abiding security in the face of the shaking of the foundations. What can be counted on in a world where everything is shaken loose? Listen to the witness of Psalm 46:

“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the seas;
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult.”

We need such a word of hope and reassurance. It is too easy sometimes for us  to become fearful and insecure in the face of the world’s changes. Things will change, of that we can be sure, although the changes are often as unpredictable as the results of the recent election.

There was a good slogan on the sign board at Zion’s Lutheran Church this past week. It said:  “Election results: God Reigns!” That is just right. isn’t it?

Advent reminds us that God comes to us not only at the end of time, but also from time to time, in gentle visitations that we may miss for our preoccupation with making a secure world apart from him.

The Advent word is not just a word of reassurance, but also a word of judgement, a word of challenge and an invitation to change. There are things about all of us that need shaking to the foundations, and surely things in our society that could well be shaken loose to make the world a more just and Godly place.

Our attempts to find security can be idols. There are idols of race and clan and class that tempt us to find security there. There can be a fearful clinging to a secure past which is not open to the new thing that God is doing in our midst.

A world where the solidities we have counted on are shaken loose offers us the opportunity for new life, new hope, and new faith in the God who comes to meet us even as the foundations are shaking.

The language of Advent is the language of anticipation for God’s new future. It is not a future we can make for ourselves. It may be something we can not readily see or even imagine. Through thick and thin, through trying times and good times,  faith waits and watches, alert for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

(I preached this sermon on December 3, 2000 at the First Church of Christ in Pittsfield, Massachusetts)

“Rejoice! Rejoice!” A Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent

There is something beautiful and mysterious about Advent, but there is, at the same time, something unsettling, darkly anxious, almost threatening about it. The Advent mood is hard to put into words. It is often captured better by its hymns, which are often dark and brooding, sung in a minor key.

The scripture lessons for Advent set the tone with their continued prophetic calls for repentance, the dire warnings to “wait and watch,” the urgency of preparation for what is coming. We hear about those who are unprepared for God, tenants who are surprised by the sudden appearance of their long-absent landlord, sleepy bridesmaids waiting with their empty oil-lamps for the bridegroom to come.

In short, it’s an expectant season, a season of being primed and pumped, and there is a nervous edge to the waiting. Lauren Winner, in her charming book Girl Meets God says of Advent, “The waiting is meant to be a little anxious. I picture Jane Austen heroines. They never are quite sure that their intended will come.”

But the Advent mood undergoes a dramatic change today, on this Third Sunday of Advent. The lessons lose their menace and begin to dance a bit. Suddenly, the warnings turn into promises. We hear of deserts blossoming, the seas exulting, and the trees of the field clapping their hands, so that if there were one word to capture the new mood it would have to be joy!

Traditionally this Third Sunday of Advent is called Gaudete Sunday, from the Latin for joy, and it is a day for rejoicing.

But perhaps some of you don’t feel like rejoicing. Perhaps your own mood is more like the rest of Advent, darker, more anxious, somewhat unsettled, for any number of reasons, not least of which might be the state of the world.

The news of the world is always a distressed word, a word full of sadness and anger, a word tinged with fear and heavy with regret. Perhaps that is why the darker mood of the Advent season speaks to us at times more authentically than its more joyous mood. Because the news of the world in which we live is so often itself such a dark unsettled word.

Whether we recognize it or not we come to church to hear a counter-Word. We come burdened by our occupations and pre-occupations, weighed down by both the demands of daily living and the larger societal and global worries that clamor for our attention. We often think we have things pretty much figured out, but there are nagging areas of uncertainty about our fate and future.

We come perhaps unsure how reliable even the words we hear in church might be. The New Yorker last week had a cartoon in which a man is shaking hands with a minister at the door of a church.  “Good sermon, Reverend,” he says, “but that God stuff is pretty far-fetched.”

Yes, it is. To the ears of the world the Good News often sounds like too-good-to be-true news. And a weekly hour’s religious interlude away from the world’s worries may not be enough to get us ready for rejoicing.

Nevertheless, on this Third Sunday in Advent we are admonished to rejoice. And in its wisdom the church has placed this rejoicing season in the midst of the heavier Advent mood, has placed today’s major key joyfulness amid the plaintive longing of the rest of the season, whose words are not words of hope and promise so much as words of warning, dire words that leave us judged.

And you can see the transition in today’s Old Testament lesson, which starts out in the usual Advent minor key in the first chapters.

But then listen to these words from Chapter three:
“Sing aloud, O daughter Zion;

“Shout, O Israel!
“Rejoice and exult with all your heart,

O daughter Jerusalem!

The Lord has taken away the judgments against you . . .

“The Lord your God is in your midst,

“He will rejoice over you with gladness

“He will renew you in his love;

“He will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival.”

So how does the story get from Chapter 1 to Chapter 3, from judgment to mercy; from wrath to tender forgiveness; from fear to rejoicing, from death to life?

The answer is that the God who comes to be our judge is the same God who comes to be our Savior. This is what holds the waiting and rejoicing moods of Advent together.

God has taken the sentence that we deserve and has taken it upon himself. In Christ our judgment has been removed and the enemy has been turned away at the gates. We can rejoice as prisoners who have received a stay of execution. The Good News is like a governor’s pardon that arrives by the last post.

Such a reprieve is cause for rejoicing. Those who would have been given over to death by the word of the law are now brought to life by the life-giving word of the Gospel. God turns our death into life, our shame into praise. No wonder St. Paul commands us to rejoice!

But the rejoicing is not just on our part. We are not the only ones rejoicing this Advent. God rejoices along with those whose sentence he has overturned. Even God sings,

Because God is a lover and invites us to love him in return. The Christian story is above all a love story. It is not about something called religion, but it is all about the love God has for us. God wants us for himself. He wants us as lovers. This is the God who heals and saves, the God who gives meaning and hope to the downcast and new life to the dead. This is God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ and our Father, the God worth waiting for, and working for, and praying to and rejoicing with.

This is the God that our ancestors have worshipped in this building since 1853 and in two previous meetinghouses on this site going back to 1764. This is the God we pray will bring many to himself in this place in the years to come, so that in this place 150 years from now people, will hear the Good News of his love.

And so we rejoice and sing.

The Reverend Dr. Richard L. Floyd.
A sermon given at First Church of Christ in Pittsfield, Massachusetts on
December 14, 2003.