Good Group Think

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, January 8, 2017
Taken from 
Isaiah 42: 1-9

Jesus Washing the Apostles Feet

This sermon title today, “Good Groupthink”, is an oxymoron; it is self-contradictory.  It’s like saying, “healthy disease”, or “bitter sugar”.

“Groupthink” entered the academic lexicon back in 1972.  A research psychologist named Irving Janis published his book entitled, Victims of Groupthink.  Janis studied significant military campaigns of the 20th century that went terribly wrong for the United States.

Janis’s question was this: how could key military and political leaders with all their experience and resources make such poor strategic judgements?  Their decisions cost our nation in huge losses of life and material resources.Groupthink was the term he used to describe the problem.

Janis described a range of behaviors that make up groupthink.  Leaders ceased to value individual creativity among their advisors.  Unquestioning affirmation of the leader’s preferences was expected before the start of any discussion.  Differences of opinion were suppressed.  Protecting the group from outside critique became paramount.

Members of the group dismissed out-of-hand any information which contradicted their assumptions, no matter how reliable the information might be.  Loyalty to the group’s plans was valued above all else, even if the original strategy proved unrealistic.

Other researchers found  groupthink to present in any organization, whether governmental, military, civic, religious.  In religion organizations, the most extreme examples would be cults.  Less extreme examples might be churches with highly autocratic pastors or self-perpetuating boards or councils.  Churches built around the personality of a founding pastor might realize only in hindsight after the pastor has retired or died just how much they’ve operated on these dynamics of groupthink.  The church has no good decision-making practices to help their congregation continue to thrive.

So, how do we as followers of Christ, in this organization called University Baptist Church, how do we find our cohesive identity as a church without falling into the trap of groupthink?

We, as with any church, would seem especially vulnerable to the downfall of groupthink.  The Scripture teaches that we are to function as “the body of Christ”.  We are to have the unity of a single body; we are to highly value cohesiveness above, because as the Bible cautions us, the body is more than a mere collection of parts; we are members in service of the whole, each member functioning for the overall health and purpose of the body, the church. (e.g., 1 Corinthians 12:12-31)

Well, the answer seems simple enough.  The Bible tells us that we are the body of Christ, with Christ himself as the head” (Colossians 1:18).  Just listen to what the Head says and all will be fine.  Simple, right?  Let’s just listen to what Jesus says to do and go do that.

I just love to hear coaches in their pre-game interviews.  “Coach, tell us, what’s your strategy going into tonight’s game?”  “Well,” says coach, “we’ve got to be consistent in moving the ball down the field; we’ve got to overcome their defense; we’ve got to work our strengths; we’ve got to play smart; ultimately, we’ve got to get that ball across the line more than the other team.”

In other words, the best strategy for winning is to win.  Why didn’t we think of that?  The best strategy for listening to Jesus to listen to Jesus.  Brilliant strategy.  How do we do that?

Our Scriptures today suggest an approach so we can avoid the trap of religious groupthink.  If we can avoid religious groupthink and instead think well together as a group, or what I’m calling ‘good group think’, then we can act better as the body of Christ.

Here’s my suggestion.  We have a better shot at thinking well together about ourselves as the body of Christ, in this time, in this town, if we observe how Jesus himself understood his own life on this earth in the place and the time which our Scriptures describe about Jesus.  Such as our two Scripture readings this morning.

It’s a happy coincidence in how our Scripture readings happen to lay out in our worship bulletin.  It was God working through Alba; I didn’t have anything to do with it.

First, we have our Gospel reading where Matthew describes Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist. What do the final verses describe?  Jesus comes up from under the water, the Spirit of God visibly descends upon Jesus, a voice is heard from heaven: “This is my Son, whom I love—with him I am well pleased.”

Then immediately, we read from the prophet Isaiah where God speaks, “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him….”

Those two readings fit, like hand in glove, don’t they?

1) Matthew: “this is my Son”; Isaiah:  “here is my servant.”
2) Matthew:  “my Son, whom I love”; Isaiah:  “my servant, whom I uphold.”
3) Matthew:  “with him I am well pleased”; Isaiah:  “my chosen one in whom I delight”;
4) Matthew:  “the Spirit of God descended and alighted upon him”; Isaiah:  “I will put my Spirit upon him.”

What’s going on here?

John and those who would become Jesus’ followers witness these unique experiences that happen at his baptism.  They watch the contours of Jesus’ ministry unfold.  And then it dawns on them:  they’re watching a set of prophecies of Isaiah now being lived out before them.

Some 700 years before Jesus, Isaiah prophesied about someone called the Servant of God.  Our reading this morning is the first of the four prophecies commonly called the Servant Songs of Isaiah.  They’re recorded in chapters 42 through 53 of the Book of Isaiah.  (42:1-9; 49:1-6; 50:4-11; 52:13-53:12).

Now, the curious thing about these four Servant Songs is this:  while Isaiah never names the Servant, one gets the distinct impression that at times Isaiah is speaking of specific individual and at times he is describing the entire nation of Israel.  So, which is it, Isaiah?  Are you talking about one person, the singular Servant of God, or are you speaking of the entire nation of God’s chosen people as though they were a single Servant of God?  It’s both, of course.

Think of an hourglass:  wide at the top, containing all the sand, then narrowing done to a tiny opening through which all the sand must pass, as the sand then enters the lower part of the hourglass that opens up and broadens in perfect symmetry to the top part of the hourglass.  That’s what Isaiah’s Servant prophecies are like.

Isaiah’s prophecies of this one, the Servant of God, describe God’s vision for the nation Israel.  The whole enterprise of God’s covenant with Abraham was to bless all the families of humanity through this single family of Abraham. (Genesis 12:1-3)

The context in which Isaiah describes God in this first Servant Song is as God, Creator of all.  He describes God in verse 5,

“Thus says God, the Lord,
who created the heavens and stretched them out,
who spread forth the earth and what comes from it,
who gives breath to the people upon it and [life] to those
who walk in it”

God the Creator is concerned for all of humanity.

Israel’s priests were to teach God’s people of their sacred calling to  the nations.  Israel’s kings were to lead God’s people in fulfilling their sacred calling to the nations.  When priests and kings failed, God sent prophets to challenge these leaders and to challenge God’s people, calling them to repent and to renew their covenant with God.

Despite God’s repeated efforts over centuries upon centuries, Israel refused their calling.  Instead, Israel behaved as the nations to whom they were sent:  Israel’s kings sought only to sustain the perks and privileges of being in charge; Israel’s priests maintained their positions of power often in a ruthless competition among the families of priests; the people themselves turned their faith into mere formalities that blessed the self-enrichment of the powerful and rationalized the oppression of the powerless.

Israel, over and over, devolved into a nation of groupthinkers, refusing the critique of the prophets.  They refused this sacred title:  the Servant of God.

What should it have meant for Israel to be this chosen servant whom God upholds and in whom God delights?  It should have meant that above all else, they would uphold and delight in God’s justice in their own lives and in their communities and in their nation. Three times in the opening verses of this first Servant Song, Isaiah proclaims God’s justice:

Verse 1, God says, “my servant…he will bring forth justice to the nations.”  Verse 3, my servant, never adding to the injuries of the wounded, never dismissing the worthiness of the weak, “[my servant] will faithfully bring forth justice.”  Verse 4, “[my servant] will not fail nor be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth.”

“The distant lands wait”, proclaims Isaiah at the end of verse 4.  For what do they wait?  “The distant lands wait” for God’s Servant people to bring God’s justice to them.  And, they waited, and they waited, and they waited across the centuries.  That was Isaiah’s message:  the nations waited, but Israel failed to deliver.

In verse 5, Isaiah depicts God, the Creator of the heavens and the earth, scanning the horizon, taking in all that God has made.  Isaiah describes this God of justice watching over all the peoples on the earth, to whom God has given breath and life.  As God looks outward over all this good work of God’s creative power, God turns to speak to God’s Servant, Israel.

God says in verses 6 and 7:  “I have called you…I have called you.

“I have taken you by the hand and preserved you; I have given you as a promise to all these other people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes of the those who don’t yet see me, to bring out of the prisons of human misery those who sit entrapped by the dark shrouds of human oppression.”

“I have called you,” says God to this Servant people, “I have called you.”

All of that promise gone wanting.  All of God’s “covenant to the nations”, as Isaiah calls it, a covenant that God’s justice shall be done for all people, left unfulfilled.  Because the Servant people of God would not serve.

They would not let God’s thoughts become their thoughts, they would not let God’s Spirit enliven their spirit.  Not valuing God’s justice in their own lives nor in their nation’s life, they had no viable witness of God’s justice to offer among the nations.

Until that day on the shores of the Jordan River some 700 years later.  People stood awaiting their turn for John the Baptist to baptize them, this baptism of repentance as John preached it.   They watched as one of their own, a young man name Jesus come down from Galilee, as he took his turn to enter the Jordan.  They watched the carpenter from Nazareth offer himself into John’s hands.

Then, something most unexpected happened, as Jesus came up out of the water.  A movement, as when a dove alights upon a branch.  A sound, as though rumbling down from heaven.   A blessing and a pronouncement:  the Servant has come, God’s Chosen One, in whom God delights, as Isaiah had foretold.

The sands of that broad hourglass that had belonged to God’s people, the children of Abraham, now spilling down into this one narrow bit of humanity, this man from Nazareth.

Followers gathered around Jesus in his life on this earth; believers later received his Good News preached by the Apostles and began living among themselves as Jesus himself lived and taught.  As those men and women did that, God’s hourglass began its broadening out again, growing and growing to become once again, not a single Servant, but a Servant people serving with a singular purpose.

That’s who we are.  Or, at least, that’s whom God has called us to be as the body of Christ.

How do we escape the traps of religious groupthink?  We’re no smarter nor better than those kings and priests and people to whom Isaiah prophesied.

If we are forever trying to insulate ourselves from the Servant call of God that would intrude upon our plans, we fall into groupthink.  When we reject whatever God might say that differs from our own narrow assumptions and goals, we lapse into groupthink.   As often as we persist always in postponing going with God the Creator, to look abroad on this good earth and to see all the people whom God has placed here, we persist in groupthink.

We ourselves who are called to be bearers of light hide from the light of God’s justice.  We hang in the shadows that imprison us.   We will not turn loose of our idols and all that enthralls our senses.

We stop up our ears and refuse to hear God’s Servant-commission:

“I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness.
I have taken you by the hand and preserved you.
I have given you as my promise to the people, a light to the nations.

This becomes groupthink in action instead of acting as the Body of Christ.

The nations wait.  The Lord God still calls for a Servant people to serve God by living out God’s justice.  How will you and I personally, a believer and a recipient of Christ’s Gospel, answer?  How will we, University Baptist Church, answer?

The prophet Isaiah had to give account of himself before God.  As Isaiah tells us earlier in chapter 6, verse 8, there came a moment when Isaiah knew he stood before God needing to give answer.  Isaiah answered, “Here am I, Lord!  Send me.”

Will we shy away from God’s call, or will we glory in the marvel of that call?  Will we answer God, as Isaiah did, answer as Jesus did, answer as so many other saints before us have done?  Will we answer, “Here am I, Lord!  Send me.”

 

 

1 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Groupthink

Extract of Eternal

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, December 25, 2016
Taken from 
Matthew 1: 18-25

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Rich food and the Christmas Season, as Forrest Gump would say, go together like peas and carrots.  Especially rich Christmas desserts.  Extracts and essences of cinnamon, peppermint, vanilla figure prominently in recipes this time of year.  Chocolate chips, nuts, bits of fruit get tossed into the mixes of cookies and cakes in abundance.

The chips, nuts and fruit sit there in the cookie or cake or pie; you can see them and, really, you look for them.  Those extracts and essences, though, they’re a bit trickier…those are some powerful flavors that permeate the recipe.  You can’t see the extracts and essences the way you do those chips and bits, but one bite and you know they’re there.  A dash of peppermint turns a basic dough one way, and a drip of hazelnut will turn that same basic dough a totally different way.

Extract of Eternal is like that.  A smidge, a mere drop, of Extract of Eternal, will seriously alter  a person’s life.  This Essence of the Divine will turn a person’s life in a very definite direction once its mixed into the human recipe.

Not by some clever incantation nor by wishful dreaming does this Extract of Eternal get folded into a man or a woman’s experience.  God makes the overture, as a master chef blending together the right moments, the timely word, the mix of people, the stirring movement of the Holy Spirit.  Received by the welcoming embrace of that woman’s faith, that man’s faith, God creates a Christmas delight in their lives.

Just ask the young peasant woman, Mary, or ask this older tradesman, Joseph.  Ask them what happens when God offers you a taste of Extract of Eternal.  Well, you can end up with something cooking in the oven!

This “being with child” for Mary easily could have ended with the men of her village stoning her to death. (Deuteronomy 22:23-24) At the very least, Mary will be publicly shamed and her chances of marriage reduced to zero.  As young as she was, Mary was still old enough to appreciate the consequences of her faithful reply to God’s messenger, as Luke records her saying, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”  (Luke 1:38)

Joseph, for his part, had good reason to put as much distance between himself and Mary as he could.  Our traditional translations have Matthew describing Joseph in verse 19 as “being a just man”.  That phrase meant so much more than Joseph simply being a congenial sort of person.

The modern translation in our worship bulletin comes much closer to what Matthew was saying about Joseph:  “Joseph her husband was faithful to the law”.  Joseph was conscientious about keeping the Law of Moses, even to point of being zealous.1

His fianceé’s apparent infidelity to their betrothal contract cast a dark shadow of suspicion over Joseph’s own personal honor.  To use our modern equivalent, Joseph had every reason to throw Mary under the bus to save his own reputation of being “a just man”.

The angel’s assurance to Joseph brought an equal challenge to Joseph’s faith, as did the angel’s invitation to Mary.  The challenge was the apparent conflict between the plain reading of the Law of Moses required of him and what the angel was attributing to the will of God.

The law of Moses clearly stated that Mary and whatever man committed this infidelity with Mary, they were to be stoned to death.  Whether the religious authorities could identify the guilty man, they certainly could identify Mary’s guilt, ever so more evident as the months went by.

In this very crux of God’s law and Joseph’s life colliding, says the angel, it was God calling on Joseph to set aside that law.  If this was so, then God clearly was doing something so new, so unexpected, so transformative in Mary, the Law of Moses no longer applied to her.  Could Joseph, a man intensely dedicated to God’s Scripture, really dare to believe what he was hearing?

Joseph would not be the first devout man of that day for whom Jesus would challenge his conventional reading of God’s Word.  Joseph’s faith must undergo as dramatic a transformation altering his life, as Mary’s own faith had accepted this dramatic transformation now altering her body.

This moment when God challenged Joseph’s faith was a moment full of redemptive possibility intertwined with the challenge God had offered 700 years earlier to the king of Judah.  King Ahaz and all of Jerusalem’s citizens were terrified over what was happening around their little nation and their capital.

Two kings had allied their armies to unseat King Ahaz and to take over Judah.  Whether by violent assault or patient siege, their generals would overthrow Jerusalem, kill King Ahaz, and Ahaz’s family, and put a puppet king on Judah’s throne.

Ahaz had decided to send his diplomats to military powerhouse of Assyria.  Ahaz would pledge his fidelity to the king of Assyria if only Assyrians troops would come defeat the forces now allied against Judah.

In this critical moment in the lives of God’s people, God sends the prophet Isaiah to King Ahaz.  God calls on Ahaz through Isaiah, “’Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be as deep as Sheol or high as heaven’” (Isaiah 7:10-11).  “Whatever it takes to convince you, Ahaz,” God offers, “just ask, and I’ll do it for you.”

This was truly a unique offer God was making to Ahaz.  The Law of Moses forbid putting God to the test by demanding signs from God.  Yet, here stands God’s messenger, Isaiah, there before Ahaz, just like that much later angelic messenger to Joseph, calling on Ahaz to defy the conventional faith of the day.

But, Ahaz chose instead to use that conventional teaching as an excuse to avoid this great leap of faith God now was placing before him.  “’I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test.’” Ahaz replies in verse 12.

Isaiah rebukes Ahaz.  Isaiah tells Ahaz, “God will give you a sign anyway.”  For God’s faithful ones, this sign that Isaiah is about to pronounce will be a sign of God’s presence with them, even in the midst of times of terror and hardship.  But, for the faithless like King Ahaz, that very same sign will become a sign of God’s judgement and reproach.

“Hear then, O house of David!” says Isaiah, “…the Lord himself will give you a sign.  Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall call him Immanuel [which means, God is with us]’” (Isaiah 7:13-14, NRSV)

Scholars can only speculate who this young woman was in Isaiah’s day.  Apparently, it was a woman whom both Isaiah and Ahaz knew about.  There’s good reason to identify her as Isaiah’s own wife, whose other two sons were also given as God’s prophetic signs to Judah.

Isaiah goes on to say that before this child, Immanuel, gets old enough to choose between right and wrong, Assyrian forces will not only destroy these two kings terrorizing Judah, but they will also overrun Judah.

The Assyrian king will enforce cruel burdens on Judah’s citizens, all because King Ahaz, had chosen wrongly.  The king had failed to reach down within himself, to find the far richer, more complex faith that God required of him.

But, for those whose faith in God would persevere, for those whose vision for God’s work among them would grow, those whose faith would lead them to choose what is right, God will be with them to rescue them.,

So, it turns out that the angel’s message to Joseph is not so new, afterall.  This dream contains truth anchored in the records of God’s dealing with God’s people.  That truth is this:  the Extract of Eternal, the Essence of the Divine, is Immanuel, God is with us.

The angel’s message to Joseph in this dream is, “this isn’t just about you, Joseph.  This isn’t just about Mary.  This is very much about God as God has spoken in the past.”

“Your betrothed’s pregnancy has everything to do “to fulfill what the Lord…[spoke]…by the prophet:  ‘Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel-el’.” (verse 22-23).

To our ways of thinking, “Emmanuel”, is such a beautiful word of Christmas bliss and enchantment.  “Emmanuel”:  a word we take up over and over as though we might over time domesticate it as a comforting companion to soothe us.  The angels must not know whether to laugh or to cry over our superficial grasp of the meaning of this word, “Emmanuel”.

The messengers of Heaven know this Emmanuel is a potent blending of Divine and Mortal.  God’s own Divine Self, welcoming us into God’s presence even in this world fraught with terror and hardship.  This Extract of Eternal, here in human frame, among the conspiring and warring powers of the earth’s nations.

This Essence of Emmanuel, here within our too-often settled and tamed religious aspirations, seeking to break us open as a plow churns up fallow fields for planting.  This single Christmas Word, “Emmanuel”, challenging us to know the will of God not as static words preserved in ancient texts.

Instead, we are to know God as the Dynamic Word, ever moving, drilling down, deepening the wells of our faith, calling us beyond ourselves, calling us ever-moving with the unfolding work of God on this earth.

This “Emmanuel” kind of faith announced to Joseph and about to be birthed in his bride, that is a faith worth pursuing.  That is a faith worth risking our reputations.  That is a faith worth daring the reproaches of others who don’t know this Extract of Eternal flavoring their lives.  That was the faith of the bold prophet Isaiah and the innocent virgin Mary and the older tradesman Joseph.  That is to be our faith, the faith of Emmanuel, God with us.

To go back to our Christmas cooking, once you decide to put that extract of vanilla or hazelnut or peppermint or whatever into your basic cookie dough, there’s no going back.  You have chosen a very specific kind of cookie you’re baking.  You can still toss in whatever bits of this and that you want, but it’s the extract that pretty much defines the cookie.

Once Mary accepted the Extract of Eternal into her being, the direction for her life was pretty well set for her.  There was no going back for Mary.

When Joseph awoke and got up from his bed that morning, his faith had been transformed.  It was no longer the conventional faith which was his when he had laid down that previous night.  Joseph got up, ready to go in whatever direction God was about to spin his life.

We pray this simple children’s bedtime prayer,

Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep,
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.

Don’t know what prayer Joseph prayed before he went to sleep that prior night, but this child’s prayer is what he got by the time he woke up the next day

He has committed his soul to Lord’s safekeeping.  In a real way, Joseph has died to the life he’d come to expect for himself, for Mary, for whatever children they might share.  The Lord, Immanuel, raised up Joseph’s life into a new path, a path not in God’s presence in Heaven above, but in God’s presence on this earth below.

“Emmanuel”…may that word take up our lives on this earth below, as well.

 


1 A.T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, Vol. 1 (Nashville:  Broadman Press, 1930) p. 8.

 

 

Holy NonSense

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, December 24, 2016
Taken from Luke 2: 1-19

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Ladies and gentlemen, skinny and stout,
I’ll tell you a tale I know nothing about.
Admission is free, so pay at the door.
Come pull up a chair and sit on the floor.

One bright day, in the middle of the night,
two dead boys got up to fight.
Back to back they faced each other;
drew their swords and shot each other!

A deaf policeman heard the noise.
He came and shot the two dead boys.
If you doubt my tale is true,
ask the blind man—he saw it, too!

Perhaps you delighted in that poem when you were a child, as I did.   I still enjoy reciting it.

We call it a “nonsense” poem.   Yet on the surface, it’s a very sensible poem.   The grammar is correct.  The syntax is correct.  It has a nice rhyme scheme to it.   There’s nothing wrong with any of the words; they’re all perfectly sensible, common words.

The problem comes though when you put all those words “back to back and facing each other” in the same sentence.   Everything’s correct but nothing is right; from our own experience, we know, this tale just makes no sense.

We know, don’t we:  there is no world in which a bright day shines in the middle of the night, nor is there a world in which “two dead boys” suddenly get up from the grave nor where a deaf policeman hears and a blind man sees. Those things make no sense, and we dare not pretend so.

In the world to which Luke wrote, his tale of this first night we call “Christmas Eve” may have sounded rather nonsensical as well, somewhat like our poem.   Now, that may seem a fairly strange thing for me to say.

Christmas has a very definite order to it.   You have Halloween and then Thanksgiving, and then, as soon as you’ve cleared out the Thanksgiving leftovers, it is Advent.  You put up your Christmas tree, decorate the house, get down to business making your Christmas list and shopping.   You may even go so far as to actually get your Christmas cards or newsletter out before Christmas.

That’s why we get so upset with the stores…they’re violating our sense of the proper order of things for Christmas.   Good grief!   Pull down the Halloween pumpkins and the costumes off the shelves at the stroke of midnight, October 31, and out comes Christmas stuff on the shelves.   It’s not right, is it?  It violates the sensible and correct way of preparing for Christmas!

You’ve got your little manger scene; a very organized and orderly place   There’s old Joseph looking down lovingly on his young not-quite bride, who’s kneeling by the side of a crib, looking at their newborn infant Jesus.   It’s a little odd, on this point:  I’ve never seen a manger that actually swaddled the little baby Jesus.  Usually he’s laying there with his cute little loin cloth, looking up at Mary.

Working out from the Holy Family, you’ve got to have a shepherd, preferably with a lamb across his shoulders; a sheep or two; a cow, maybe a donkey.  It’s permissible to have a trio of Wise Men off to one side.   An angel on the roof is of course a nice touch.

Some folks have gone to adding a kneeling Santa Claus there in the manger…that’s a bit of stretch, I think.   That’s starting to introduce a bit of nonsense into this otherwise sensible observance.   Keep your history straight–we all know it was years and years before Santa Claus started doing his Christmas Eve work.

Putting aside the kneeling Santa in the manger, everything else springs from the orderly and sensible story as originally told by the Gospel writers, such as Luke.

But, we fail to include all the elements that Luke shows us in his account.   No one, it seems, thinks to include a little plastic Caesar Augustus in or around their manger.  Yet, that is precisely how Luke starts off.   Luke has Caesar Augustus and the little baby Jesus, there, poised “back to back and facing each other”, lined up and prepared for a deadly duel.

Luke begins, In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled.   This was the first enrollment—by the way–when Quirinius was governor of Syria.

We read that and think, “Aha!  Luke is sort of flipping back through his calendar, and researching the precise date on the calendar when Jesus was born.   How very sensible of him.

Well, Luke is trying to inform us of the times into which Jesus was born, but it’s not about a precise date on the calendar; it’s about Caesar Augustus:  in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus and it affected everyone in the world.

Caesar Augustus, himself, in his own person, was the power behind the peace and prosperity to all the world.  It was indeed a good time to be alive in the Empire, at least among those with whom Caesar was well-pleased.

Caesar Augustus’s full, official name was:   “Victorious Commander, Caesar, Son of God, the Most Illustrious One”.   The first Emperor of Roman Empire; in fact, the Savior of the Roman Empire.   It was Caesar Augustus who had finally ended years of bloody civil war.   It was Caesar Augustus who renovated and restored the city of Rome to its urban grandeur.

A common term to describe this period in world history is “pax Romana”, the peace of Rome.   But, first, it was known as “pax Augustus”…the peace which Caesar Augustus brought to the world.

Caesar had accomplished all this peace and order and prosperity through clever political maneuvering, to be sure.   He had most especially brought about that peace and order by waging war against his competitors and by assassination and by asserting his claim to the position and wealth held by others.

To keep it all going, Caesar needed revenue.   He had the authority to command that all the world should be enrolled so he could better tax everyone.  Including, Palestine; that backward yet essential component to his Empire.

Luke does not begin his tale with Caesar Augustus so we can peg these events to a particular day or year on the calendar.   Instead, Luke wants us to appreciate the audacity and the plain nonsense of what he is about to tell us.  For everything Luke proceeds to describe, is foolishness when set in the reality of that time.

The world is Caesar’s; the peace is Caesar’s; there is but one, Most Illustrious and Victorious Son of God, and it is Caesar.  So, go on and tell us, Mr. Luke, about this peasant couple who have their lives disrupted at the whim of Caesar Augustus, who sits high and mighty on his throne off far across the Sea in Rome.

Go on and tell us, Luke, about this couple and their infant son born in stable and laid in a feed trough.  Tell us again, Luke, about that crew of shepherds who came to town late one night, claiming a heavenly vision, that one of their own would become the guarantor of peace and prosperity for all the world.   In form and structure, it is a well-told story.   But, in fact…in meaning…it is nonsense.

Except for this:   it is a true story, still being told and still being understood, even to this day, right up to this very Christmas Eve night.

Ladies and gentlemen, skinny and stout—and all shapes and sizes in-between,

I tell you a tale I know a little something about—though, honestly, weeks can go by when I’m not sure I understand any of it really.   But that’s o.k.; because reality never has depended on me grasping it fully.   Plus, I’ve got you, the community of Christ, who carry one another through the hard and confusing times, till one’s own peace can be reclaimed.

Admission is free, that is true, for the blessings of this tale are pure gift.  Though, honestly, hearing and receiving this tale into one’s life can exact a price.

There is a chair and a place for you and for every one of us.   You may not think that’s possible, but it is.

This is a tale of a bright day that shone in the darkest of night.  A tale of a world where the dead live, though they no longer need fight.  Witnesses to this tale heard good news that pierced their deaf ears; a vision enlightened their once-blind eyes to see past human foolishness, both their own foolishness and the folly of others.

They spoke freely of peace.   Their peace confronted and rejected the wealth of Rome and the brutalities of its leaders.   This peace came through the healing word of its most Illustrious One, the child of Mary and Joseph, this Jesus whose birth we celebrate tonight.    This is the gift of God’s own Self, for all who hear the tale and discover its good, good sense for themselves.

The Wisdom of Finnegan

Preached by Rev. Will Brown, January 1, 2017
Taken from Matthew 2: 13-23 

The Wisdom of Finnegan

Our story today picks up when Christmas is over. The reading from Matthew begins, “When the magi had departed,” and now these new parents are left alone with their baby. Like all new parents, they begin trying to figure out what in the world they are supposed to do. Feeding and potty training and skinned knees and shoes that don’t fit anymore. The pageantry of Christmas is behind them, and now they begin in earnest the slow, steady work of raising baby Jesus. Now their life gets started.

But then—as if parenting weren’t stressful enough—an angel appears in a dream, with the terrifying news that Herod wants to murder their baby. So they flee to Egypt, to a new country, where they know no one. They are refugees there, seeking refuge from Herod’s tyranny and brutality (not unlike refugees today). And there they must start over, all alone.

Eventually, news reaches them that Herod has died, and they can finally go home! Can you imagine their joy at that return? To walk familiar streets, to see beloved faces, to re-introduce their growing boy to his cousins and grandparents and neighbors. Imagine the relief they must have felt: the nightmare of Herod is finally over, and now our life can get back on track. Now we can start fresh—a new beginning.

But then, another dream, another angel, another warning. Herod’s son is now ruling Judea, and they must go. Again they must flee, this time to Galilee, to the small town of Nazareth, to start over there.

“The Wisdom of Finnegan” is the title for today’s sermon. Finnegan is not a character in this story, nor an obscure Old Testament prophet from Ireland. This is not a literary allusion to Finnegan’s Wake, or something similarly profound. No, “Finnegan” is none other than Michael Finnegan, of the children’s song of the same name. “There was an old man named Michael Finnegan, he had whiskers on his chin-egan, they fell out and they grew in again. Poor, Michael Finnegan—begin again.” It goes on and on, but each verse ends with that same line: “Poor, Michael Finnegan—begin again.” And that last bit, “begin again,” is what we’re talking about today. Each verse: begin again. Begin again, and again, and again.

Life is a continuous succession of new beginnings, isn’t it? It was for Mary and Joseph, moving from place to place, and it is for us. Time after time, we find ourselves starting over. We move to a new town, or start a new job, or start over after losing someone we love.

Some new beginnings we choose; others happen to us. Some are exciting, some tragic; some are in between, a mixture of both. Sometimes we gradually change, and other times our lives are turned upside down in an instant. And we begin again.

The Daily Progress ran a story last week—perhaps you saw it—about a teacher who works in the UVA hospital, right across the street at the Battle Building.[i] She helps kids who are sick to stay caught up in their schoolwork while they are missing school for treatments. This article describes how she was in a terrible car accident, hit head-on by a drunk driver. She barely survived, with broken bones in her neck, back, knees, legs, hands. But after multiple surgeries and months of recovery, she got back to the work she loves, teaching kids. But then she also found a new calling, volunteering with Mothers Against Drunk Driving and speaking to groups all over the area. She and her kids have been volunteering at the nursing home where she spent time recovering, doing arts and craft projects with the residents.

It’s an incredible story of perseverance and renewal. She nearly died, and had to work for months to even be able to walk. Starting over… yet, finding in that experience a new beginning, and a new way to serve her community.

Do you have stories like that in your own life? Times when you had to find strength to keep going, and then set about starting over? Some new beginnings happen in ways we never would have chosen, yet there we are. Like that teacher, or like Mary and Joseph forced as refugees to flee from place to place, we too find ourselves in unknown territory, beginning again.

And then there are days like today. New Year’s Day. There’s nothing inherently special about this specific day, except that it falls at the beginning of our calendar. But as the start of the year, it takes on a greater meaning, offering the occasion to step back and stake out a new beginning. Today… is 2017! 2016 is officially behind us, and we are starting fresh in a new year.

There are other days when we can do this, of course: the start of the school year, or fiscal year, or a baptism day, like today will be for Mel. There are also milestones like birthdays, or anniversaries. All of these remind us to examine where we are. (Actually, speaking of milestones, I should mention that today is one of those landmark occasions for a couple in our church. Today is the 75th wedding anniversary for the Norvelles. 75 years—isn’t that amazing! Make sure you give Gus and Velma a call to congratulate them!)

New Year’s Day is a milepost for us, a time to pause and look around at where we are and where we are going. And of course, it is a time for resolutions. Many of us use this occasion to make changes in our lives, to re-calibrate in one way or another. Have you made any resolutions this year?

This is a popular tradition in our society, to resolve to live a little better, and we all know that these usually don’t last but so long. Apparently, though, researchers have found the exact date when these effects wear off: the first Thursday in February[ii]! Looking at social media data, the first Thursday in February is the date when, each year, declining gym attendance rates intersect with increasing fast food consumption rates. By early February, the good habits of exercising and eating well begin to fade away and we’re back out at Burger King instead of ACAC.

Still, there’s something powerful about resolutions and the New Year as an occasion to re-assert control over our lives, to have a fresh start. At its best, this is a time when we take a hard look at ourselves and make intentional choices about who we want to be: to live more the way I want to live, to be more fully who I know that I am, to leave behind what needs to be left, to be freed to live fully.

That’s what the promise of a new year offers, isn’t it? A new chance to move more fully into who we are meant to be…

Oddly enough, we accomplish that, and step into our new beginning, only when we can also look back. Looking back, and stepping forward.

As Mary and Joseph trudged through the desert into a strange, foreign land, surely they must have been carried along by their memory of what had happened before: startling visits from angels, and then God’s promises kept. Their baby was proof of God’s faithfulness. And as they traveled from place to place, surely they drew strength from that: even if we don’t know where we’re going or why, God has been faithful to us before.

The passage we read from Isaiah puts this sentiment into words for us: “I will recount the Lord’s faithful acts; I will sing the Lord’s praises, because of all the Lord did for us.” Surely Mary and Joseph’s memory of God’s faithfulness emboldened them to step out in confidence. Looking back, and stepping forward.

And we must look back. The writer of this Gospel went to great lengths to show how Mary and Joseph’s story was connected to the past. Just in the passage we read today, there were three separate quotations describing how the narrative is a fulfillment of Scripture. Matthew makes clear that to understand this story, you first have to hear the prophets. God is doing something new and incredible with this Christ child, but it can be understood fully only when we are also looking back.

And it’s the same for us. Life sometimes forces us to start over (like the teacher in the car wreck), and sometimes we claim for ourselves a fresh start (like in a new year), but always we bring our past with us. The truest new beginnings begin by looking back, reaching deep into who we know ourselves to be. Looking back, and stepping forward.

Take those New Year’s Resolutions. It’s not just about making a checklist of things you’re supposed to be doing better in life: reading more, exercising, spending less time on Facebook. That’s all fine, but it doesn’t take you very far—probably only until the first Thursday in February. Instead, what would happen if we dug a little deeper, to ask questions like: “Looking back on my life up to this point, when did I feel most alive, and most fulfilled? How can I move deeper into that?” Or, “Where has God been leading me until now? What has God been preparing me for? Where might God want me to be going now?”

Maybe you still end up saying “read more books” or “pray more often,” but it’s because you see how those make you more fully who you are supposed to be. You see the changes that align with who you have been becoming. Sometimes that means consciously letting go of what is past, to free yourself to move forward.

Looking back, and stepping forward.

It’s the same for us as a congregation. In this transitional period of our church’s life, we are doing a lot of soul searching about what kind of new chapter is beginning. But the reality is that we don’t become something we’re not. A new pastor doesn’t change who we are. Yet within our own story, there are new beginnings, turning points, new chapters and new opportunities. The question for us is, what does it look like to imagine a new beginning here, yet one rooted in our past and our identity? What are those best parts of who we are and who we have been? How can we move more fully into that?

Looking back, and stepping forward.

As a church, and in our individual lives, we are always facing opportunities to “begin again”, as Finnegan tells us. But it is when we look back that we discover more clearly who we are and what God has been doing in our lives, and only then are we able to start anew, living more fully into who we have always truly been.

And so, we start this year the way we start each month in our church, by coming to the Lord’s Table, to remember what God has done for us, to remember our identity as God’s beloved children, and in finding ourselves there, to step with confidence into the future to which God is calling us. Let us look back now, together, in remembrance of Christ.

 


[i] http://www.dailyprogress.com/news/local/distinguished-dozen-horrific-wreck-led-teacher-to-greater-joy/article_c6cadbd0-cc80-11e6-b3c4-7fc2fbbecc58.html

[ii] From Episode 4 of “Tell me something I don’t know” podcast, available here: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/tell-me-something-i-dont-know/id1171534532?mt=2&ign-mpt=uo%3D4

Peace Garden

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, December 11, 2016
Taken from James 3:13-18

Bulletin cover 2016-Dec-11

Words are only squiggles and lines on paper or pixels on a screen if we’ve got no life experiences that we associate with those squiggles and lines.  Just open a book written in a foreign language we’ve never studied.  We assume they’re words on the page that mean something, but they could just be gibberish for all we know.

Theological words are especially like this.  Theological words must somehow find root in our life experiences if they’re to grow meaningful for us.  Did you hear what I just did there?  I used a metaphor.  “Root”.  “Grow”.

You and I understand from experience things “rooting” and “growing”.  That’s in contrast to things that are static and lifeless.  A rock, for example.  A slab of concrete.  A chunk of metal.  Definitions written in theological dictionaries:  very static, unmoving, lifeless.

But, if you accept my “rooting and growing” assertion, then you understand that theological words are meant to become dynamic, life-bearing quantities defined in our living rather than static and inert dead weight.

Thankfully, Jesus, and then James after him, used metaphors of garden and field to teach us the meaning of theological words such as “righteousness”.

“And the harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace,” writes James in verse 18 of our reading this morning.  Peacemakers, sowing peace, yield harvests of righteousness.

Whether the ground we work is a farm or a garden or a flower box, the whole point is that we are applying ourselves towards growing something that we fully intend to harvest.  It may be a dozen acres of corn or an eight-foot row of tomato plants or a gallon pot containing a single flower bulb:  we want to see something coming up out of that ground that corresponds to what we planted and that we know will yield the end-product that’s inspires our work.

There is a “wisdom from above”, writes James, “a wisdom from God”, which God offers all God’s children.  Who are God’s children?  Jesus told us in what we call “the Sermon on the Mount”:  “blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be known as the children of God” (Matthew 5:9)  This “wisdom from above” God entrusts to those who make peace, who sow peace:  they are the people who reap the harvest of God’s righteousness.

A harvest of righteousness…what images do those words bring to your mind?  For me, my well-entrenched image is negative.  That word, “righteousness”, wraps around my mind and heart like a straightjacket and weights down my soul as though challenging me to swim with a concrete block around my waist.

“A harvest of righteousness” brings to my mind that famous painting by Grant Wood entitled, “American Gothic”.  You’ve seen it:  the dour-faced farmer standing there holding a pitchfork with his equally dour-faced wife next to him, both looking for all the world like they’d rather be anywhere else than standing next to each other posing for their portrait.

“A harvest of righteousness” brings to my mind Jonathan Edwards, the early American Puritan preacher.  Edwards terrified his parishioners with horrifying images of their eternal souls hanging as if by a spider’s thread, the flames of hell leaping up to grab them, with God holding that single, thin strand as if hoping they’ll give God just any excuse, any excuse at all, to let go of them, so every last miserable and ungrateful soul that they are will drop like spiders cast off into a fire, there to burn forever in the flames they so truly deserve to suffer.

Am I the only one here today that’s got such a messed-up version of righteousness playing in their heads.  Is that righteousness sown in peace by a peacemaker?

My mother grew up on a tobacco farm down in Pittsylvania County, as did my father.  They were high-school sweethearts, though actually Mom was the one in high school; dad got fed up with public education after the tenth grade and dropped out and starting bagging groceries.

Dad managed to save enough money to buy a roadster off a couple of brothers who lived there in the county.  The brothers ran moonshine and the state police had come to recognize their little roadster all too well, so I suppose that’s why they sold it at a price my 17-year old dad could afford.

Dad came by the farmhouse one day to give my mom a ride in his car.  But, her father, my grandfather, had given my mom a bag of seed-corn earlier that morning to plant in a garden patch he’d gotten ready to supply food for the family table.  So, mom took that bag of seed-corn out to the garden, held it by the bottom of the bag, and slung it out, scattering the seed every-which-a-way, tossed the bag, and off she went with my dad.

When mom got back to the farmhouse later, my grandfather was standing on the porch waiting for her.  In his hand, he held that little paper bag she’d balled up and tossed on the ground.  He gave her the bag and told her she could come in the house once she’d pick up every last kernel of seed-corn and planted it the way she should have the first time.

That’s a tricky illustration to use in the context of these verses about sowing to bear a harvest of righteousness.  You would correctly infer that I am using my mom’s petulance and her disregard for my grandfather’s instructions to illustrate how in our own petulance and disregard for God, we fail to grow what God seeks to plant within us.

As with my teenaged mom being enticed by my teenaged dad to go off on a joy ride, we may give only the most superficial appearance of obeying God, while running off to pursue our own desires.  “There!  I’ve done what God’s demanded of me; now I can go do what I really want to do.”

Well, that’s a correct though partial hearing of this illustration.  My mom’s self-serving and self-justifying behavior would not yield the crop of corn my grandfather was hoping to see harvested for their family table.

The Scripture here in James chapter 3, verses 14 through 16, describe in vivid terms just this kind of behavior my mom was portraying that day.  Verses 14 through 16 describe an attitude of appearing to be wise, or clever, but it is a superficial wisdom that cloaked at its heart bitterness and divisiveness and selfish ambition.  Such false wisdom, says verse 15, “is not such as comes down from above [from God].”  If left unaddressed and unchecked, verse 16 goes on to say this kind of so-called wisdom produces “disorder and every vile practice”.

The tricky part of this illustration comes, in where we see God in my little family story.  If we assume that in this story, my grandfather, stands in for God, we will have steered ourselves off in a wrong direction as much as my mother ran off in  her own wrong direction.

My grandfather was a stern man who evoked fear in his children.  He was a man to be gotten around and avoided.  The wisdom my

grandfather exercised over his family worked in the short-run.

Yes, you can meet your daughter out on the porch and banish her from the house until she’s picked up what she has scattered and planted it to your demanding satisfaction.  You will get that crop of corn, but it will be a crop sown in bitterness and the fruit of bitterness lasts long and does not serve well for making a healthy family.

So, make no mistake, my grandfather’s wisdom in this illustration does not stand in for God’s wisdom.  God’s wisdom, says verse 17, “the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits.”

No, the only difference between my grandfather’s wisdom and the wisdom of my teenaged mom on that day long ago, was the difference found in their positions of power relative to one another.  He had the power to force her compliance on threat of being shut out of the house.

The Book of James is for the family of God.  It is for the household of faith gathered together in Christ Jesus.  This message of righteousness sown in peace by peacemakers is not about Christians relating to a secular, unbelieving world torn in conflict and blinded by false wisdom.  This message was for the congregation, for their life together within the family of God.

James was writing to confront them with this question:  what harvest are you cultivating among yourselves?  What fruit will you bear as a church family?

James wrote to these first century Christians the message that God’s people always need:  we must take hold of God’s wisdom for us.  Verse 17 parses out the details of this wisdom from God, but then verse 18 brings it all back together under this rubric of peace:  “the harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who are peacemakers”.

Righteous fruit which is of God is not Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” and it’s not Jonathan Edwards’ fiery sermons.  Mash all that up together, and all the church has gotten for itself is an “American Gothic Horror Story” getting passed off as Gospel.  So much of the American church lives today eating the fruit of that bitter harvest.

Righteous wisdom which is from above is not the stern fathers of the church, the stern mothers of the church, demanding their children go gather up their resources and plant the garden as they, the mothers and fathers, have prepared it to be sown.

Nor is righteous wisdom is not the daughters and sons of the church throwing aside the seed entrusted to them, appearing to follow through as their elders have so carefully prepared and instructed them, while really only seeking what pleases them.

My mother enjoyed a good ear of buttered corn-on-cob just as much as my grandfather did.  In the same way, righteous wisdom knows that the sacred harvest which parent and child alike delight in is a harvest sown in peace because they are themselves, as with their Savior, are makers of peace.

We in this Christmas Season celebrate the coming of the Prince of Peace.  Peacemaking is hard, sacrificial work for everybody concerned.  We remind ourselves of that truth at least once a month here in our fellowship, as we are about to do now.

I invite you to look upon this table prepared before us.  Behold the bread and the cup of our Lord’s Last Supper.  Remember the Body and the Blood of the Prince of Peacemakers.  Behold the Wisdom that is from above, sown in flesh and blood, to yield peace with God on earth among all who claim this wisdom for themselves.

Behold, the meaning of God’s righteousness.

Dancing with The Lord

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, December 4, 2016
Taken from Luke 1:39-55

2016-12-04

My wife, Karen, loves to watch “Dancing With the Stars,” which means, I get to watch it, too.  Or, at least, I get to listen to it sitting there with Karen as I scroll through Facebook.  Even supposing there was any kind of dancing gene inside me, my upbringing thoroughly suppressed it.

My old-school Baptist upbringing said, you do not play cards, you do not go to movies and you most certainly do not dance.  Also, no cussin’, no smoking and no drinking.  Thankfully, the old-school Baptist way did allow for eating, so–we got the church potluck dinner down to a fine art.

By the time I got to my senior high school days, I was ill-prepared for Homecoming and Senior Prom.  By the time I was in college, the Twist was far behind us…it was the age of Saturday Night Fever and disco.  Precision and flair had returned to the dance floor.

In my poor efforts at learning some kind of rudimentary dance moves, I discovered that three things were helpful for dancing.  A sense of rhythm, of course, is pretty important.  A second helpful thing is a modicum of coordination.  Well, I’ve got a reasonable sense of rhythm, and I’m coordinated enough to walk and chew gum at the same time.  But, what I truly lacked was this all-important third thing that is essential to good dancing and even bad dancing.

The third thing you really need to enjoy a good dance is the ability to get out there on the dance floor and just forget yourself.  Just cut loose with a total abandonment of any self-awareness.  In fact, even if you have absolutely no sense of rhythm and absolutely no bodily coordination, if all you possess is this third ability, the ability to forget yourself, you, too, can dance.

This self-forgetfulness that dancing requires momentarily erases all sense of discomfort or fear.  The willingness to be a dancing fool for the sheer delight of it, that is the kind of self-forgetfulness at the heart of every kind of joy, and it is at the heart of religious joy.

There is more dancing going on in our Scripture this morning than first meets the eye*.  Verse 44 describes when Mary comes to visit Elizabeth; her much, much older kinswoman is pregnant.  And when Elizabeth hears Mary calling out to her, what does Elizabeth say about the baby in her womb?  She says, “The babe in my womb leaped for joy.”  Then, in verse 47, what does Mary say about her own spirit?  She says, “My spirit rejoices in my Savior.”

Elizabeth and Mary use the very same word there.  It’s a word that means “to exult…exult.”  Now, that’s a word we don’t generally go around using anymore.  We don’t go around saying how we exult in this and we exult in that.  To exult in something means to be ecstatic about it, to be exceedingly happy.

And ‘exult’ comes down to us from a Latin word meaning ‘to dance; to leap out’.  It means to cut loose and forget yourself and go leaping and dancing with delight and joy.  So, my anti-dancing upbringing, you see, ill-prepared me to exult in anything and certainly to not exult in or around church since, after all, to be godly meant you did not dance.  Isn’t it a shame to knock the capacity to exult right out of ourselves?

Yet, Elizabeth says that baby inside her is just kicking up his heels in a holy dance to celebrate his baby cousin over there inside of Mary.  And, Mary says, her soul inside her is kicking up its heels in a holy dance over what God has now down for her.  Now, as we read here, Mary’s kind of exulting, dancing spirit doesn’t mean she goes off in some kind of gibbering frenzy.  Mary is downright poetic and absolutely brilliant in the way she gathers up from the vast array of Old Testament prophets a few select prophecies.  Then Mary weaves those few prophecies together in this song of praise we generally call the “Magnificat”.

Mary starts off by saying, “My soul magnifies the Lord.”  Think of a magnifying glass that gathers up all the light bouncing off an object, and it concentrates all that light in such a way that it enlarges and makes plain the object of its focus.  Or, think of how a magnifying glass can take the rays of sunlight and focus them in pinpoint precision that can set things afire.

Mary is like that magnifying glass.  Her spirit is so gathered up and focused full of God, her spirit is so penetrated and concentrated with the truth of God, it spills out of her not as a bunch of random, scattered notions, but as this intense and precise and beautiful proclamation.

Mary forgets herself and exults; she dances; she shimmers and shines in the joy of God.  Joy is getting birthed in Mary’s spirit and it wants to get out, now.  The joy of God is a full-bodied experience, just like Mary’s pregnancy is a full-bodied experience.

Mary’s experience of divine joy may suggest a few things to us in how we might experience God’s joy.  First, it strikes me from this Scripture that the joy of God might come when we least expect it.

The prophecies that Mary proclaims, those prophecies had been floating around unfulfilled for hundreds of years.  Why in the world would Mary, this young peasant woman, or Elizabeth, this very elderly woman, think the prophecies would get fulfilled starting with them?  No one would expect God to do such a thing.

Imagine you’ve stumbled into an awards banquet.  You’re sitting in the very back; you’re not even sure how you got invited to this banquet in the first place.  The master of ceremonies is way up front at the head table.  He’s about to announce the winner of that year’s award.  As they are want to do, the MC goes on and on about all the grand accomplishments and wonderful qualities of this person whose name he’s about to call out.  You’re kind of sitting up, looking way over the backs of everybody’s heads, wondering just which one might be this wonderful person.

The master of ceremonies finally finishes his long list of superlatives and begins to say, “And, of course, the person whom I’m describing is none other than….”  Suddenly, people are looking at you and slapping you on the back and congratulating you.  It finally sinks in, the master of ceremonies has called out your name, and you didn’t even think you were suppose to be there in the first place.  How unexpected!  What a surprise!  And, what joy.  The joy of the unexpected good bestowed  on you!

That’s what’s happened to Mary and to Elizabeth.  They just didn’t see it coming, did they?  Their faith had taught them to expect that God would send a prophet who would announce the Messiah’s arrival.  Then, after the prophet got everyone ready, the Messiah himself would arrive.  They fully expected it to happen someday.  But, they never, ever in their wildest dreams, imagined God meant them to be the two women through whom, first, the prophet and, then, the Messiah would be born.

What a weird strategy God has for accomplishing salvation.  Incorporating an elderly woman well past child-bearing age and a young woman, most likely a teenager, for whom an unwed pregnancy could possibly have been a death sentence, incorporating these two as key players in salvation.

Well, it may seem a weird way to go about things to us, but God is God and God works in mysterious and surprising ways.  And, so God continues to be active in this good world.  You and I are part of God’s unfolding drama of saving this beautiful and messy world.  As unexpected as that may be for us, we have to ask the question, “What does God want to get borne out into this world through us, in cooperation with what God is about in this world?”

After Jesus gets born, eventually Mary and Joseph and little Jesus settle down in Nazareth.  Decades go by.  Finally, Jesus leaves home, following God through the Jordan River, following God through the wilderness, following God as Jesus starts calling out his disciples.  And what’s the first thing he hears in response?  It’s, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”  What could God possibly find in Podunk-Nazareth of all places that might help out in God’s good work?

Are you ever tempted to ask that about yourself?  What good can come out of my personal Podunk-Nazareth?  What could God possibly find in my neck of the woods that could make a difference?  Well, a lot of good did come out of Nazareth;  God wants to bring forth a lot of good out of your own Nazareth.  So, don’t let anybody cast doubt on what God might bring forth from you, whether you are quite elderly as Elizabeth was, or quite young as Mary was, or in your prime but apparently not holding the right credentials, as Jesus was.

Why would God do it that way?  Look again to Mary’s example.  Verse 47, “…my spirit rejoices—my spirit dances—in God my Savior, for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden….”  And then, she goes on to say in verse 50, “…his mercy is on those who fear him, from generation to generation.”

Mary sees that God has chosen her for no other reason than God’s own mercy.  No doubt, Mary had always heard that God was merciful, and now, she knows it…God has shown profound mercy on her.

God has mercy on all who reverence God and who seek to honor God through their lives.  God has this kind of mercy for us, today.  God’s mercy is like God’s invitation to come on out to the dance floor and to dance with God.  But, we’re just so self-conscious or so full of our own selves, so full, usually, of our own self-doubts, we just won’t go out there with God.

I regret having been so self-conscious growing up that I could not enjoy getting out on the dance floor with my friends.  A far deeper regret is knowing there are lots of times my own fears or self-preoccupations have kept me from hearing God’s call to come dance in the presence of God.

But, God is merciful.  God has promised, as Philippians 1:6 tells us, “…that the One who began a good work in us will bring it to completion at the advent of Jesus Christ.”  A little further over, Philippians 2:13 assures us, “…for God is at work in us, both to will and to do God’s good pleasure.”

God wants each one of you, and God wants me, to be God’s dance partner.  Sometimes, in the most unexpected ways and in the most unexpected moments, we’ll hear God calling, “Come, dance with me; forget yourself for a few moments and know my joy, exult in me,” says God to us.

In those moments, don’t worry over what others might think of you.  No matter if you suffer from “dance arrhythmia”…don’t even think of yourself.  The only thing that matters is what God thinks of you.  And what God thinks is, you’re just the one who should be out there exulting in God.  That is God’s mercy-filled choice for each of us.  This is our joy.


* Exegetical notes are from Norval Geldenhuys, Commentary on the Gospel of Luke, NICNT (Eerdmans, 1971).

Train Wreck Before the Wedding

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, November 27, 2016
Taken from Matthew 24:36-44

Three Kings following the Star

 We’re now anticipating Christmas, aren’t we?  On this first Sunday of Advent, we start with the Christmas carols, we start with Advent Wreath.  Our minds turn to crèches and stars and shepherds, Mary and Joseph on their way to Bethlehem, and the triumphant and resurrected Lord Jesus reverts to Baby Jesus in the manger.

Yet, the lectionary readings for this season we call Advent so often turn to the apocalyptic.  The Apocalyptic writings of Scripture—at least odd, and if you read them in any detail, they may even seem to us as grotesque.

We think of the Book of Daniel and all its beasts rising up out of the seas.  We may think of the Book of Revelation, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, something called “The End Times”, the Great Dragon and the Beast and the mark of the Beast, and great battles of evil against good, all of which either preachers of a certain ilk or Hollywood have portrayed to us in lurid and frightening dimensions.

So much has Hollywood captured our culture’s apocalyptic imagination that I’m willing to wager a fair amount that if you asked anyone thirty years of age or younger whether the Book of Revelation features zombies, they would likely say, “Yes!”  Maybe you would answer “yes”, too, to the zombie question.

What other part of the Bible features zombies?  The Book of Daniel!  Not really, no. No part of the Bible, apocalyptic or otherwise, mentions the first thing about zombies.

To complicate matters for us, not only do we have to contend with the Book of Daniel and the Book of Revelation in all their bizarreness.  We also must contend with the fact that our Lord himself on occasion would go off on an apocalyptic tear of his own.  Usually, it’s Advent, it’s the Christmas Season; that Jesus’ End Times teachings are recommended for our consideration.

A couple of definitions are in order.  The word ‘advent’ means ‘coming’, ‘arrival’.  So, at Christmas we celebrate the coming of God among us in the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.  That’s certainly cause for Joy and Peace and Hope and Love, the usual themes of the four Advent Sundays.

The word, ‘apocalypse’, means ‘to reveal, to make plain, to uncover what is hidden’.  So, in that sense, I suppose we also might speak of God coming among us in the birth of Jesus as a sort of baby-sized apocalypse, all swaddled up and placed in the manger.

Honestly, though, that would be a stretch, to spin the word ‘apocalypse’ to fit with Christmas.  How can we possibly join that word of bloody warfare and ghastly beasts with such life-giving words as ‘Hope’ and ‘Joy’ and ‘Peace’ and ‘Love’?  Well, we really can’t, unless we realize that we focus on the wrong things in our usual fascination with the fantastical and the gore of much apocalyptic preaching and movies.

That was not what Jesus was calling us to see when Jesus spoke of such things.  What Jesus always, always, called people to see was this:  the kingdom of God has come among you!  Look, Jesus taught, this is what God’s kingdom is about, it’s a community of love, a love that reclaims and redeems and creates.

The image Jesus so often turned to help us understand his words and his life was that of a wedding.  A grand and glorious wedding which God is hosting, to which we all, sinners and fools and cynics, the religious and the anti-religious, invited to find our place at this coming wedding.  Now, “wedding”, that’s a word that does seem to fit with our Advent words of ‘Hope’ and ‘Joy’ and ‘Peace’ and ‘Love’.

Pastors are well-acquainted with weddings.  I’m pretty much a “go along, get along” kind of guy – until it comes to wedding rehearsals.  Then, I become like a little Napoleon at wedding rehearsals.  You know why?  I’ll tell you why.  A wedding rehearsal is nothing but a train wreck waiting to happen.

Of course, I never actually say that to a couple while I’m doing pre-marriage counseling with them.  Part of the process of premarital counseling is to do wedding planning.

“What do you want to happen in your wedding?” I ask the couple.  “Well, our mothers think it should go like this…”, they may answer me.

“That’s nice,” I reply, “but what do you want to happen in your wedding?”  “Well, my best friend from college has this great idea…” perhaps the bride will say.

“That’s nice,” I say, “but what do you want to happen?”  “Well, did you ever see that movie ’Love, Actually’,” they’ll eagerly ask, “where the couple is getting married and they turn to leave and then this brass band stands up from all over the church and starts playing and a choir stands us starts singing that Beatles song, ‘All You Need Is Love’?”

My favorite reply came from the bride who wanted all Elvis music during her wedding.

In my brain, a voice is going, “train wreck…train wreck…train wreck.”  But, I don’t say that.  Instead, we sort through all the options for the wedding party and the music and the various elements of a wedding as a worship service—most couples forget, the church wedding is a worship service.  We write down who does what when and why, which can include why Elvis or the brass band would be better left for the reception.

I drive home, be sure to let the wedding coordinator know…it’s a worship service which means the pastor is in charge.

And, I always assure them, no matter what happens, no matter how many moving parts there are in this wedding that may run off-the-rails, stay calm.  They, the couple, will be there; I, the pastor, will be there; and I will get them married.

On this first Sunday of Advent, the Sunday of “Hope”, I am talking about weddings and the train-wrecks that can come before a wedding because that’s what Jesus talked about.  In chapter 25, verse 1, Jesus goes straight into a wedding parable to talk about how we’re to live.

In our Gospel reading this morning, Jesus describes for us what human life will be like when that moment comes, that final revealing of God’s kingdom.  Jesus reaches all the way back to Genesis chapter 6 to illustrate his apocalyptic preaching.

Jesus says in verse 37, “as were the days of Noah, so will be the [day of] the coming of the Son of man.”  Then, Jesus goes on to describe how it was in the days of Noah by describing your basic domestic setting:  people eating and drinking, falling in love, getting married, their families blessing their marriages.  All of this domestic life going on as though it would always go on uninterrupted.  Until, of course, it does get interrupted.

We speak so often of living in “The End Times”.  As the Bible describes it, it’s really more of an “End Moment”.  No one knows when that’s going to happen.  Jesus says in verse 36, “no one knows…the angels don’t know; I myself don’t know when the End Moment will happen, but God the Father alone knows.”

“But, I’ll tell you what I do know,” Jesus continues.  “It’s gonna look a lot like things have always looked while human beings are in charge of things.”

In other words, what we so often call “the End Times” is just plain old ordinary human times, the time in which we terribly flawed humans keep on trying to rule ourselves with our many kingdoms, and powers, and schemes that we come up with.

Things will get worse from time to time.  Jesus describes one such really bad time that will befall Jerusalem in about another 40 years.  But, overall, life will continue, fluctuating, swinging back and forth, between normal domesticity and occasional human-contrived horrors.

Then, in an instant, it will all be over.  You see, there is no final apocalyptic battle with the outcome uncertain.  What those apocalyptic movies and so much apocalyptic preaching describe more appropriately should be call the pre-apocalypse.

Think of the so-called “End Times” this way:  we don’t live through “The End Times”; we live in “The Meantime”; in “the meantime” before the Advent of the triumphant and resurrected Lord.  And, on occasion “the meantimes” will become just that, a very mean time in which to live.

That’s when you and I and all God’s people will especially need to remember and to ask ourselves, what did Jesus teach and live?  Jesus taught and lived that the kingdom of God was among us.  This is what it means, Jesus taught and showed, to know yourself to be part of the kingdom of God and how you are to live from this moment on as a member of God’s community of love.

Because, Jesus so much wanted us to understand, that’s the reality of life.  The kingdom of God, this community of God’s love that God is inspiring and expanding, is very real.  It exists.  For the present, it is experienced only through faith.  It is seen in the lives of the people who profess that faith.

From time to time, the powers of this world’s rulers attempt to assert themselves as though they are god.  Then, those rulers and those kinds of communities become demonic.  It’s as though they’ve become possessed, caught in an evil nightmare.  Then, living this life of faith and being this community of love becomes very, very hard.  So, especially in those times, we must be wise and vigilant.  Especially, we must guard against our love growing cold and dying.

In describing such especially hard chapters in human history, Jesus warns us in chapter 24, verses 11-13, “And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray.  And because wickedness is multiplied, most people’s love will grow cold.  But those who endure to the end will be saved.”

Because wickedness is multiplied, most people’s love will grow cold.

The New Testament scholar, Eduard Schweizer, comments here, “This can mean love for God or for one’s neighbor; for Matthew the emphasis is on the latter [love for one’s neighbor].  False doctrine is accordingly not erroneous theology, but an attitude that in practice does not display love.”1

In the typical “end times” kind of preaching, there’s so much said about nations warring, and cosmic upheaval, and signs of every sort, but there’s not often mentioned this sign:  people’s compassion for their neighbor will grow cold.  And who is my neighbor, we may ask?  Well, you know how Jesus answered that question.

Jesus warns us, because of wickedness, people’s love will grow cold, but the one who endures to the end will be saved.  Endures how?  We endure by not allowing our compassion to grow cynical and hard.  We endure by continuing to love as Jesus has shown us to love.

When the apocalyptic moment happens, it’s all over.  The curtain of this universe’s veil will be suddenly drawn open, and the parallel reality of God’s rule, of God’s community of love, will be made plain.  The true order of the cosmos will be seen by all, and all that remained at odds with God’s rule will be destroyed in an instant.

The old is out, the new is in, and every knee bows and every tongue confesses, in heaven and on earth and under the earth—to use the Bible cosmology—what?  To whom is every knee bowed and what is every tongue confessing?  That Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.  (Philippians 2:10-11)

And that day, says the Bible, will be like going to a grand wedding.

The Book of The Revelation, from which we did not read today, speaks of that future advent of Christ as a wedding.  It will be like a glorious wedding.

Revelation, chapter 19, verse 7, Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come and his Bride has made herself ready.

Chapter 19, verse 9, And the angel said to me, “Write this:  Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb”.

Revelation, chapter 21, verse 2, And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.

Chapter 21, verse 9, the angel says, ‘Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb’ and then the angel flies John off to see the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God.

So, in the Book of The Revelation, God’s consummation of history, the Advent of Christ, will be like a grand wedding.

You and I are people of faith looking forward to the great wedding; in fact, we are part of the wedding party.  We are in this present age living a kind of rehearsal preparing ourselves for the great wedding of the Lamb and his Bride.  It will no doubt be a grand and glorious happening, this wedding.  But, from time to time the rehearsal will be an absolute train wreck.  We live, at times, through truly mean times.

But, the big wedding day is still coming.  And, we are the wedding party.  We must rehearse for that day.  We must be the ones’ who love does not grow cold.  You know, in this world that takes a lot of practice to keep such love as our Lord showed us, alive and vibrant.

One of the challenges of premarital counseling is to help the couple to imagine their married life:  what will life be like after the wedding?  One of the realities each partner has to recognize is that what they know of marriage is pretty much what was modeled for them in their parents’ marriage.

What did you see your parents do in this situation and that situation?  Which parent do you most identify with?  What roles from your own parents’ marriage do you expect your spouse to take on?  Oh, that’s when premarital counseling gets really interesting!

So, you process those competing, conflicting, priorities with the couple and you help them to re-imagine their married life.  You hope to see the couple reshape those learned behaviors, to turn their received experience of marriage into something productive and fruitful for their own marriage.

That becomes the vision to which we as couple and pastor look ahead to and celebrate on their wedding day, come what may in the planning and rehearsing and the train-wrecking and all else that may go wrong.

We in the church do something like that together.  We realize what experiences we’ve learned growing up in the world must be abandoned, what must be unpacked and rearranged, so we can form the family of faith together.

We show up and keep on showing up, rehearsing this love which Jesus shows us, and Jesus has promised, with that love and with this vision guiding us, the wedding day will come, the marriage will happen.  For the one who endures to the end will be saved.


1Eduard Schweizer, The Good News According to Matthew (Atlanta:  Westminster John Knox Press, 1975) p. 451.

The Partisan

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, November 20, 2016
Taken from 1 Corinthians 1:10-13, 20-24

When I was a boy, my mother made the best rice pudding.  It was second only to her candied yams with toasted marshmallows on top, all floating in butter and brown sugar.  I could eat my weight in Mom’s rice pudding.

One evening, Mom set a whopping big bowl of rice pudding there on the dinner table.  It was like she was laying down a challenge in front of me, to see if I really would try to eat my weight in rice pudding.  I don’t know how many servings I ate, but I ate and I ate and I ate rice pudding until I couldn’t squish in another bite.

I got up from the table, and all was fine for the first fifteen or twenty minutes after dinner.  But, then, I started not feeling so well.  My intestinal distress I suspect may have had something to do with rice swelling; I know it had a lot to do with trying to fit pretty much that whole big bowl of rice pudding inside of me.  Leave it sufficient to say, I had a very long and miserable and messy night ahead of me.

It was many years before I could stomach even the thought of eating rice pudding, never mind putting a spoonful in my mouth.  My body would go into instant revolt, as if to say, “You do that to me again, and I will seriously hurt you!”

By Monday two weeks ago, on November 7, we all had had more than our fill of presidential campaigning.  Much more than any of us really could stomach.  So, on Tuesday, November 8, we cast our votes and went away satisfied.  We thought we had finally pushed away from that table and from all that–whatever it was–we as a nation were feeding ourselves on.  But, we didn’t get away from it all so easily, did we?

No, from what you yourselves my church family tell me, from what my own circle of personal friends and acquaintances tell me, and from what I read and watch across all forms of media, none of us of any political persuasion, have walked away satisfied.

Instead, we have made ourselves miserable as a nation.  We have sickened ourselves as a people in ways we have yet come to realize, so soon after rising and walking away from the table of this campaign season.  Just as I had only started to realize as a boy those many years ago shortly after my rice pudding feast was finished and I had left the dinner table, so now for us there is a national distress among us and there is a personal distress within us which I expect will get worse if it is to get better.

How will it get better, though?  What will be your role, and what will be my role in navigating our way through whatever distress may yet come for our people?  How will you and I help our nation’s predicament end up better than where we find ourselves now?  That is not a partisan question, though our own political partisanship may help us.

My question for us this morning is, what are we going to do together  for the next four years, folks?  And, by “folks”, I don’t mean “my fellow Americans”.  I mean to ask, what are we, University Baptist Church, this Community of God’s Beloved on this corner in Charlottesville, we brothers and sisters of the Lord Jesus, we citizens of the Kingdom of God here on this sweet earth:  what are we going to do in this time of national and personal distress?

Whether we voted for President-elect Trump or we voted for Secretary Clinton or for one of the Third Party candidates or if we simply opted out of voting, we are in for a long, tough slog together.

You who voted for President-elect Trump:  you are so fed up with those protesters and those muck-raking journalists and all those malcontents hogging up the media. They lost the election, but they won’t accept defeat with grace and civility.  They refuse to practice the ideals of citizenship that you who voted for President-elect Trump say you would practice if your candidate had lost and Secretary Clinton had won.

You, my sisters and brothers of the Lord Jesus, what are you going to do in these months ahead and these years ahead?  Those who so deeply agitate you in these first days after the election are not going away.

You who voted for Secretary Clinton:  you are so emotionally distraught, I mean, truly distraught.  You are angry, frightened, your teeth set on edge and your minds stupefied afresh every time you hear that phrase uttered, “President-elect Trump”; it shuts you down or sets you off.

What are you going to do, my sisters and brothers of the Lord Jesus, as you watch Mr. Trump’s administration unfold in the next two months, and what are you going to do for the next four years because every day you will hear reference to “President Trump this” and “President Trump that”?

These are not questions of partisan politics I’m asking us.  I am speaking to you as your Interim Pastor, and I mean to say this is a matter of our souls’ well-being.

A “partisan” is, by the dictionary’s reading and I quote:

“1: a firm adherent to a party, faction, cause, or person; especially: one exhibiting blind, prejudiced, and unreasoning allegiance
2a: a member of a body of detached light troops making forays and harassing an enemy; b: a member of a guerrilla band operating within enemy lines”1

Do any of those statements describe people you know or describe you yourselves here this morning?  Are you one of those “firm adherents” to the person or the party for whom you voted on November 8, even to the point of “exhibiting blind, prejudiced, and unreasoning allegiance”?

Do you, today, feel as though you are “a member of a guerrilla band operating within enemy lines”?

Partisanship doesn’t have to be to this extreme.  Partisanship can mean the way we choose among various options for how to govern and how we choose from among a list of values what to implement.  Those are our priorities and preferences.  In other words, we support and advocate for one part of the whole while still advancing the well-being of the whole as our central ambition.

In this sense of being a partisan, we appreciate that other people choose other options and priorities.  We respect that, even as we hope our candidate and our preferred party can persuade enough of our fellow citizens to choose the part we think will best serve the interests of all.

This is the understanding of partisanship that motivated me as a college student to be active in partisan politics.  I took a significant amount of time off from college to be involved in the legislative process here in Virginia.  I was employed as a campaign worker in a state-wide primary race here in Virginia.

When I finally returned to college and graduated, I was one of five graduates that year from among Virginia’s public and private universities chosen for a one-year government internship under the auspices of Governor John Dalton’s office.  So, in essence, I was a one-year political appointee.

I tell you all of that to communicate as well as I can that I appreciate the role of a healthy partisan political process.  I value those men and women who commit themselves to a set of priorities and commit themselves to candidates who embody those priorities so they can make a real difference for our common good.

But, partisanship has a shadow side of which we must beware.  The shadow side of partisanship promotes divisiveness and it deteriorates and it destroys the health of civic body.  It was this ominous unfolding of partisanship that prompted Paul to write to the Christians in Corinth.

Paul’s letter to the Christians in Corinth is among the earliest of our New Testament books.  It predates the first of our four Gospel accounts by at least a decade.  Already, an attitude of partisanship was insinuating its way into the church there.

Partisanship had become so disruptive and so threatening to their fellowship, that it’s the very first issue which Paul addresses, here in chapter 1:  “There is quarreling among you, sisters and brothers.  What I mean is that each one of you says, ‘I belong to Paul’, or ‘I belong to Apollos’, or ‘I belong to Cephas’, or ‘I belong to Christ’.”

“Each one”, Paul writes, had begun choosing up for himself or herself, which teacher had the true teaching of the Gospel of our Lord Jesus.  There were the partisans for Paul.  There were partisans for the Apostle Peter, or Cephas, as Paul writes, using the Greek version of Peter’s name.  There were partisans for a Christian named Apollos.  Apollos was an eloquent and powerful evangelist there in Corinth.  You can read more about Apollos in Acts chapter 18, verses 24-28.

There were even some who claimed, ‘we are partisans for Christ’.  Well, what’s wrong with that?  What was wrong was the attitude with which they made that claim.  Let me illustrate it this way.  How many of us want to be a “humble Christian”?  How many of us want UBC to be a “humble church”.  Yes, we’d all answer, because we know humility is a significant spiritual virtue.

The problem is, there’s no good way we can stand up among our peers and proclaim, “Well, look at me, I am the humblest of Christians!”  “We are the humblest of congregations!”  To do so would more than suggest that we don’t really understand humility.  That’s what was wrong with how this particular faction was standing up among their peers in Corinth, saying, “We are the partisans for Christ”.  It belied their understanding of what that means.

Paul called on his contemporaries to give account for their behavior against the greater truth of the Gospel.  Not according to their identity as Jews, not according to their identity as Gentiles, not according to their identity culturally or politically or economically or racially or by any other qualifier of who they were when they came to faith in Jesus:  they must now give account for themselves in the light of who they were as followers of the Crucified and Risen One of God.  So must we, post-November 8th.

Paul sums it up for them and for us when he writes in verses 23 and 24:  “but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block [for everyone] but to those who are called…Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”  What about the resurrection?  Why does Paul call them to focus on Christ crucified, when the Good News is Christ resurrected?

Here’s the essential element of our faith that Paul was calling them and us to affirm.  When they, and when we, said Yes to Christ Jesus, that was our sacred vow before God: “by faith, Lord, I choose to be crucified with you, so that I may die to the powers of this world opposed to God and be resurrected into the new life of your way, Lord Jesus.”  In that commitment of faith we chose the way and the values of our Lord Jesus first and always.  We chose that our life-agendas first and always will be the Gospel-agenda of Jesus of Nazareth.

Where the claims of any party or candidate or other secular group may happen to correspond to the Gospel-agenda of Jesus of Nazareth as best as we can understand the Gospel, we can in good conscience add our voices, our resources, and our votes.  But, always we do so with caution.

Always we must be vigilant, examining and reexamining, dicing and slicing and sorting among those partisan claims upon us.  Always we must be on the lookout for what of that partisanship conflicts with the part we have chosen with the Lord Jesus Christ and the Christ-body politic.

We must be astute students of the life and way of the Lord.  Paul writes in these verses that this must be the wisdom for which we strive, “the wisdom of God…[revealed now in]…Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (verses 21, 24).  As we grow in God’s wisdom revealed for us in Jesus, we inevitably will come up against conflicts between God’s wisdom and this world’s wisdom.  Then, we crucify and put to death within ourselves those other allegiances and claims upon us.

When we discover an essential conflict, then we come up against this hard choice:  will we be true to our sacred vow before God?  Will we again affirm the wisdom of God, and our place by the side of our Lord, “Christ crucified”?

By our taking up the cross of Christ in practice, that is how we “preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block…and folly” to the world, “but to those who are called”,  that is, to we who are called to bear witness of Jesus, to we “who are called…Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” in my life, in your life.

This is how we demonstrate that we are partisans of Christ who is Lord over all of us.  This is how we demonstrate that we believe that the Gospel-agenda of Jesus of Nazareth is God’s agenda for all humanity.  This is our call as God’s people on this earth:  we are salt, and we are light; we are the sacred leaven of Jesus, worked in among the nations, among the peoples, among the partisans of this world.

A sickness has taken hold of our nation.  A fearful illness the symptoms of which are truly visceral and violent and which each hour of the so-called news cycle manifests itself.  Never more than now has this nation and our community needed a people among them who are being healed in mind, body, soul, strength, through the love and the life of the Risen Lord Jesus.

In whatever is to come, never more than now, this nation’s turmoil will require that we be a people who practice this power of God and this wisdom of God.

To do that, we will need to discover that power and that wisdom of God operating within ourselves, as individual believers, and as a congregation.  We will need to do the necessary soul-work, assess where we find ourselves with the Lord Jesus, deepen the wells of our own spiritual resources, put up upon faith’s cross what must be relinquished, so we may know more of the resurrection life of Christ being formed within us.

We have spiritual work to do in these days, each of us, and we need one another to see that work through.  This is what it means to be the body of Christ for one another so that we can be the body of Christ for our community and for our Commonwealth and for our nation.  This is our part for the healing of the whole.


1http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/partisan

The Madness of Saint Paul

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, November 13, 2016
Taken from Ephesians 3:14-21 

 Rooted in Love

 

If I called out to you sitting down here on the front pew, “Hey, you, beloved of God.”

If I called out to you sitting throughout the middle section of the sanctuary, “Hey, you, too, beloved of God.”

If I called out to you who are nicely tucked away up under the balcony, “Hey, welcome, beloved of God.”

If I called out to you sitting way up there in the balcony, “Hey, there, you beloved of God.”

And, even if I called out to you who are sitting with your radios sharing with us in worship, “Welcome, you beloved of God.”

You might think of it a little bit of an odd way to start, perhaps, a little bit over the top, but you’d wouldn’t worry about my sanity any more than you normally do.

But, what if I didn’t stop there?  What if I, standing here behind this pulpit, after calling out to you whom we might reasonably expect to hear my voice, what if I began calling out to the pedestrians walking out there on the sidewalks in front of our church building right now, whom we cannot see nor whom we might expect to hear what the preacher inside is saying?  Yet, I call out, “Hello, you much beloved of God!”

What if I began calling out to the folks sitting in their cars stopped at the red lights in the intersection, whom we cannot see nor expect to hear?  “Hi, there, you beloved of God!”

What if I shouted out to the patients in their hospital rooms two blocks over and to their families there by their sides, and I shouted out to the multitude of medical professionals and support staff there in the hospital with them right now.  “All of you!  Greetings, you beloved of the Lord!”

What if even then I didn’t stop.  But I kept on shouting out to students just now waking up in the dorms all the way over on the other side of the University grounds, and on and on and on.  “Wake up, you much beloved children of God!”

Calling out as though I really thought that all these strangers far away could hear me from where I am now standing on this spot behind this pulpit, well, then, you might think it a bit more than just odd.  You might think I had gone way around the bend, and that I’d gone a bit mad, wouldn’t you?  That I would think that people, strangers to us, strangers to our worship, strangers to the Lord Jesus Christ, could possibly hear what the preacher behind this pulpit might preach.

My excitement in calling out to all these others whom we cannot see and whom we are convinced could not possibly hear me, such excitement you would interpret as a frightening emotional agitation that had taken over me.

My apparently heartfelt belief that those others far outside of this fellowship of faith would somehow turn and wonder at the source of the voice they heard, you would call me delusional.

My actions would be so disruptive of what you would expect for your Sunday morning worship experience, so alien to the behavior by which you expect the preachers of this church to conduct themselves, it would offend you and perhaps you would turn angry, determined to banish me from ever standing here again to preach.

You would reach for your phones to dial 911; you might even rush the pulpit to constrain me for my own safety and to preclude any violence you’d fear might happen if my apparent derangement were allowed to go on unchecked.

And under any scenario of expected normal human behavior, you’d be right to do so.  Unless …

Unless this scenario which falls far outside the norm of what we might expect or believe possible had now become possible.  That the preacher is possessed not of madness, but that God had possessed the preacher with an insight and an understanding of a scenario that once was impossible but God has now made possible.

That what God has now made possible God intends not only the preacher to proclaim but God fully intends that all the people of God to believe, each and every woman, man, and child, so that they too will absorb that same insight into this most unexpected scenario God is now playing out among us.  A scenario which God fully intends to play out through us all, no longer passive observers but active participants.

That together, all God’s people will know for a certainty, that what once was unimaginable, they do dare to imagine, because God has done it, God is doing it, and God will have it done in total before God is finished.

What if, as we sat now in this sanctuary, on this morning, if after all that calling out to those folks far beyond these walls, even now, what if those people were making their way up the steps and we began hearing a knock, knock, knocking at our sanctuary doors because they in fact heard a voice speaking to them, speaking to their souls, “Come to my house, come to my table, come, my beloved, for you, too, are part of the family of God.”

What apparent madness I am describing would suddenly disappear, and in its place, a clarified focus would take hold of us, so that together we would affirm this sacred scenario of God, a sacred scenario so sane, and so sensible that no one of us would hesitate to offer our dedication and to offer our support to see that scenario be played out among us.

Beyond our reasonable expectations of what might happen, beyond any sensible plans we might devise that we see achievable in the service of God, beyond all we might dare ask or hope from God, God awaits on you and me.

God waits for us to see what God sees, to believe in what God knows as possible.  God seeks out our partnership to accomplish for God’s glory the salvation of these people I described:  people unclaimed and lost, yet people very much beloved, children of God.

Those people, who walk past us on the sidewalks just outside our doors and who drive by us on this corner:  the unclaimed and lost, yet beloved of God.

People, who travel from across the country and from across the world, to study at this great institution across the street or to find healing in this hospital two blocks from us:  the unclaimed and lost, yet beloved children of God.

People, whose travels take them no further than the bus lines run in this city and county, whose life experiences extend no further than the families into which they were born and raised:  the unclaimed and lost, yet beloved children of God.

“For this reason,” Paul writes, “I, Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles…For this reason I bow my knees before the Father…that according to the riches of God’s glory God may grant you all…to have [the] power to get it!”

 “For this reason I, Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles.”  – that’s us, by the way, we’re the Gentiles on whose behalf Paul now finds himself a prisoner.  Paul is a prisoner because he himself has been judged mad;  Paul, derided as a disrupter of the faith, a voice calling out to those whom his fellow Jews dismissed as impossible to be included, those whom Paul’s contemporaries believed to be beyond hearing and responding to the grace of God.

Paul was a prisoner of the Roman governor, for no other reason than that he finally saw and gave over his life in service to the very thing which he formerly persecuted and sought to wipe out as heresy, as an utter defilement of his faith.

Saul, on his way to Damascus to persecute followers of the Way of Jesus of Nazareth was struck down in the blinding light of the Risen Christ.  Christ then raised him up as Paul, the Apostle of Christ.

Paul becomes the Apostle proclaiming the sacred scenario God had now set in motion in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus.  Paul is sold on the sacred scenario that God had now made possible through the outpouring of God’s own Holy Spirit among all the followers of the Risen Christ beginning on the Day of Pentecost.

On that Pentecost Sunday, people laughed at those 120 followers of Christ anointed of the Holy Spirit.  They didn’t call them mad, they simply dismissed them as a bunch of drunks.  The Apostle Peter protests, “what you call drunken stupor, is in reality the sacred scenario of which the ancient prophet foresaw,

“And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh ….And it shall be that whoever—whoever—shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”  (Acts 2:17-21)

It was that last little bit there, that “whoever”, that one day got the Apostle Paul nearly beat to death out on a street in Jerusalem.  Roman soldiers rushed in to rescue Paul.  Then they put Paul under arrest until they could sort out the mess.

Paul, now a prisoner, all because the Lord Jesus showed Paul that “whoever” meant exactly that: Gentile as well as Jew, homegrown Hebrew as well as far-off pagan, educated or illiterate, women as well as men, those who were enslaved as well as those who enslaved them.

Paul saw clearly what the other original Twelve Apostles were so reluctant to recognize.  As Paul writes in Ephesians, chapter 2, verse 15:  “[Christ] has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity….”

Now, let that sink in for a moment.  You go stand up in front of a group of committed religionists and their leaders and tell them that.  Tell them that the God whom they worship, the God whom they know through these same sacred Scriptures, yes, God is now done with all of that.

Now, through the one man whom they themselves had conspired with the governing authorities to have killed, that man God had resurrected, to become the template and the leader, of a new humanity.  A new humanity whom God is now creating out of all the old and broken and warring families of this existing world.  As Paul writes in verse 14 of our reading this morning:  “the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named”, that Father was now gathering in all God’s children in this household of faith.

It was what I am calling “The Madness of Saint Paul”.  That’s what the Roman Governor, said to Paul.  In Acts, chapter 26, Paul stand before the Jewish King, Agrippa, and the Roman Governor, Festus.  Paul attempts to explain God’s new thing, this sacred scenario Paul says God is now accomplishing through the Risen Christ.

Verses 24 and 25 of Acts chapter 26 record that as Paul tries to explain, the Roman Governor “interrupted Paul’s defense.  ‘You are out of your mind, Paul!’ he shouted.  ‘Your great learning is driving you insane.’

‘I am not insane, most excellent Festus,’ Paul replied.  ‘What I am saying is true and reasonable’.” (NIV)

If only we here at University Baptist Church might be accused of such madness!  If only we were in the position of having to defend ourselves, to protest that we are not driven by insanity, but we are driven by the infinitely sane, the entirely true, the Divine outworking of God’s sacred scenario through us here in Charlottesville.

But, that’s unlikely to happen if the greatest vision we can conjure up for ourselves is just trying to get new church members.  Not a lot of new church members, mind you.  Just enough to hang on, to survive, to keep the building open and the lights on and employees paid.  What a frivolous and, quite frankly, what a boring thing in which to invest ourselves.

But, if we’re here trying to do what the Apostle Paul himself was trying to do, well then, that’s a whole different ball game.  We might just stir up a little trouble.  If we’re here trying to do what Paul was praying these early believers might do, then we too might get told that we’re out of our minds.

We’re here to serve God who is not out to make new church members.  God is out to make a brand-new humanity.  We’re here to hold before our community the glorious template of the Risen Christ.

We’re here today at University Baptist Church praying and hoping right along with the Apostle Paul that God will grant us “the power to get our heads and hearts around the breadth and length and height and depth of Christ’s love, to know that love that surpasses human wisdom.”

Why?  So that we, too, “may be filled with all the fullness of God”, so that God will “work within us [what God alone] is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us.”

Isn’t that work of making a new humanity with God worth your commitment and my commitment?  Not making new church members, but making a new humanity.  Isn’t that worth you and I clearing a space in our week, saving a space in our bank accounts, investing some of our best thinking and imagining, to comprehend and to accomplish with God this great and sacred scenario of remaking humanity in the template of Jesus of Nazareth?

You and I don’t want this church to just survive on this corner.  You and I want this church to be known as God’s place on this corner where any may come and see what God has got going on now in Christ.

This church is about calling out, “Welcome, you beloved of God. Whoever you are today, whatever your life is today, whatever vaulted ambitions may drive you, whatever devastated dreams may defeat you, whatever has hold on your hearts, turn it loose, die and be resurrected a new woman, a new man, a new eternal child of God.”  Wouldn’t you agree, that is so much better than simply trying to get people to become a church member.

I’ll ask us again:

Isn’t the work of making a new humanity with God worth your commitment and my commitment?  Not making new church members, but making a new humanity.  Isn’t that worth you and I clearing a space in our week, saving a space in our bank accounts, investing some of our best thinking and imagining, to comprehend and to accomplish with God this great and sacred scenario of human reclamation and salvation?

If the world doesn’t end on Tuesday…

Preached by Rev. Will Brown, November 6, 2016
Taken from 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17

Stained glass window of the Lord's SupperLord’s Supper’  Ramsey Reformed Church, Titonka, Iowa

We are almost there. After months and months of anticipation, Tuesday is just around the corner, the day after tomorrow. We’ve nearly made it! Tuesday is, as I’m sure you know… Martha’s birthday! Did you know that it’s Martha’s birthday this week? If you see Martha this week, make sure to tell her, “Happy Birthday!”

There’s also some kind of election, I think… But really, what better birthday present could there be, than an end to the 2016 presidential campaign season! Is anyone else ready to have this behind us? This has been such a rough campaign, so full of hatred, distrust, and deception. It has gotten really ugly.

My guess was that when I started to talk about the election, I would see some people squirming in their seats, and I was right! Let me reassure you that I will be endorsing no one today, and this sermon will not morph into a political speech. But this election is happening, and I believe we’ll find that our Scriptural text may have something to say to this climate in which we find ourselves.

This election really is everywhere. Even Facebook is no longer safe. Usually Facebook is a pleasant distraction from the concerns of our lives: pictures of cats and babies, funny little cartoons, and the overly detailed life updates from that one guy you went to school with. But now Facebook has turned into an unending avalanche of self-righteous political rants and polarizing news headline (ugh). Occasionally there’s a glimmer of hope, though, a bright spot in the midst of so much negativity. I particularly liked a church sign that has been going around—maybe you’ve seen it—which says, “Jesus is coming – hopefully before the election.” In other words, maybe the world will just go ahead and end, so we don’t have to deal with this anymore!

Well, today we’re taking a look at 2 Thessalonians chapter 2, part of a short letter written 2000 years ago to a church community very different from ours. And yet… maybe not so different. The thrust of the argument is basically this: don’t worry, this is not the end of the world. Listen to verse 1 and 2 again:

1 Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him, we ask you, brothers and sisters, not to become easily unsettled or alarmed by the teaching allegedly from us—whether by a prophecy or by word of mouth or by letter—asserting that the day of the Lord has already come.

That was the controversy dominating the life of their community. Evidently, someone had been going around preaching that the Day of the Lord had already come, and they missed it! Understandably, they were alarmed, shaken to the core by the possibility that the world was ending, or that maybe the end had already come! Today we are not going to analyze all of the specifics of these claims and try to explain the symbolism, but instead look at the overall message of this text, which says, essentially: hold on, take a deep breath, this is not the end. But apparently it felt like it.

And they weren’t the only ones. Throughout the history of Christianity, over and over again, there have been predictions of the end of the world. Remember Y2K, the year 2000? The year 1000 was a hot spot as well, and the year 1033, the year 1284, quite a few dates in the 1500s (and 1600s… and 1700s), famously the Millerites in 1843 (and again in 1844), and on and on they go. Basically, there are always people claiming the world is ending.

Now is no exception. There’s always someone with a sign on the street corner, and—to turn back to politics—the tone of this presidential campaign has been nothing short of apocalyptic: speeches saying that the other candidate will destroy our country, that this is our last chance; nuclear war, or a constitutional crisis, or the end of democracy. It’s easy to get sucked into the vortex that tells us the stakes have never been higher, and to feel the sense that everything is coming to a head right now, as it never has before. Well, except in 1843 and 1533 and 1284… and when Thessalonians was written.

Why is it that apocalyptic thinking takes such hold of us? What is it about the end of the world that has captivated us for centuries?

There’s certainly an air of excitement to it, I guess, and a sense of importance, getting to be here when it all happens. But I think there’s something else, too. There’s a sense in which this is the easy way out. End of the world; nothing we can do! Right? We’re off the hook!

It seems that at certain times, we get so caught up in what’s happening in our world—whether its political turmoil, or war in the middle east, or something closer to home—that we are unable to see beyond those immediate circumstances. We lose our perspective, and can’t figure out what to do next. The easiest solution is just to throw our hands up and say, this must be it.

But what if this isn’t the end of the world…

In the Broadway musical Hamilton there is a line that has been running through my mind. In one scene, General George Washington is talking to a young Alexander Hamilton, who is eager to get into battle in the Revolutionary War, even to be a martyr for the cause, and Washington says to him: “Dying is easy, young man. Living is harder.”

Living is harder.

Preaching the end of the world is easy. But if we’re still here, then what? How are we to go about the harder work, of living?

This morning I’d like to highlight what I see in these Scriptural texts as three steps for what to do when the world seems like it’s ending.

The first comes in verse 15 of our reading from 2nd Thessalonians. Remember, this was written to a community of people who were shaken and afraid because they thought the Day of the Lord had already come, and they’d missed it. The stakes didn’t get any higher. This letter, calmly and gently, encourages them to stand firm and hold fast.

Stand firm and hold fast: don’t let this knock you over. We’ve already talked about how the current election is presenting itself as if the stakes have never been higher, and it’s easy to get swept up in that. But it’s also true in other parts of our lives: conflict in a relationship, or at work, or even at church can take hold of us and knock us off balance. For students, maybe it’s having to change majors, or withdraw from a class, or not get into the right grad school, or sleeping through an exam (by the way, I definitely did that once: stayed up all night studying, until 6 in the morning, and then fell asleep and slept straight through the final exam). In large ways and small, our lives take us from crisis to crisis, and we can easily get swept up in it. But the way we stand firm, is to “hold fast.” Hold fast to the teachings you’ve received, hold fast to what you know to be true, hold fast to God. Doing that, staying grounded in what really matters, allows us to keep our perspective when we’re gripped by the crisis of the moment—even when the world seems to be ending.

So that’s step one: regain perspective by standing firm and holding fast to the God who is still there.

The second step, then, is to rediscover imagination.

Now I know, when we talk about imagination, we usually think about kids. And, granted, kids can be very imaginative: like the time when Luke, our 3-year-old, was running around the house yelling, brrrrrm. When we asked, “What are you doing?”, he responded matter-of-factly, “I’m a naked cement mixer!”

But imagination is not just for children, and it’s not just make-believe. It’s about seeing. Theological imagination is a way of seeing the world, beyond what’s on the surface—seeing through God’s eyes. Imagination lets us see more than what is; we imagine what could be.

Those doomsday prophets of our world, who see what’s happening and say this must be the end—they can’t imagine any kind of positive future.

But with imagination, we can look beyond the messed-up world as it is now, catching a glimpse of the world as God would have it to be.

It’s kind of funny that when we finally get to the end of this year’s toxic presidential campaign season, we plunge into possibly the only season of the church year that could be worse: stewardship season! For those of you who haven’t been here for this before, our stewardship campaign is the time each year when we think about the financial resources we’ll need for the coming year and commit as individuals to contribute our share to make that possible. It’s when we talk about money. Yikes!

But really it’s more than that. Our stewardship campaign is also about imagination. It’s about beginning to catch the vision that God has for our congregation, about what our future may be.

We are at a transitional time as a congregation. We are between pastors; we have just come through an intense time of conversation and discernment these past few weeks. Compared to the high points some years ago, our Sunday morning attendance is down, our financials are not what they used to be, some of our programs are not working the way they used to, and—like all churches—we are trying to figure out how to minister meaningfully in a culture that is changing rapidly.

We are in many ways at a crossroads, with the looming question: what is the future for this church? Do we have a future?

And then we read Ephesians, the verses that form the theme of our stewardship emphasis this year, and we read about the God “who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine.”

That’s what it’s about. If you aren’t sure about the future of this church, or about the future of the U.S., or about the future of your career or life or whatever else; if you can’t even imagine that future: then we trust in the one who is able to do more than we can imagine. And in this we find hope: hope that there is a future, even when our imagination fails us. Even when the world seems to be ending, there is a future.

And that’s our step 2 for today: imagining together the future that God has in store.

The final step is to begin living into that reality.

A few minutes ago Larry talked about the ways he and Debby give to this church, both financially and through the many, many hours that they serve this congregation and our community through the ministries of this church. Our stewardship emphasis is about how each of us must discern that for ourselves: what future can we imagine that God has in mind for us? And how can we help make that a reality?

If the world doesn’t end, that’s the question that we face.

Surely, after Election Day, our whole society has work to do, if we are to live together peacefully. And it seems to me that as Christians, we should be leading the way in how to show grace and kindness to one another, to live with humility, generosity, and understanding. Regardless of this election, we follow the Christ who has taught us a different way to live. So as we seek to live in and work for the Kingdom of God, on earth as it is in heaven, we have a difficult task before us. But that is the work to which God calls, just as God has called the church in every generation, all the way back to those early Christians we encounter in Thessalonians. So let us receive the same encouragement that this letter provided for them:

16 May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, 17 encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word.

In closing, I do need to offer one final caveat: I do not actually have any unique access to God’s plans about the end of the world, and it is entirely possible that the world will end on Tuesday. If it does… my apologies. Feel free to disregard this entire sermon.

But if it doesn’t, if the world doesn’t end on Tuesday… then we have work to do. So let us stand firm and hold fast to what really matters. Let us imagine together the future that God has in store, and then let us be strengthened and encouraged as God leads us into that future. Amen.

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