Better Angels - Higher Ground
February 27, 2022
Rev. Patricia Wagner
Scripture: Luke 9:28-36
28Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. 29And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. 30Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. 31They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 32Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. 33Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” —not knowing what he said. 34While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. 35Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” 36When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and, in those days, told no one any of the things they had seen.
They didn’t recognize him, the disciples couldn’t comprehend what they were seeing Jesus was different, more than what they’d thought. This man of the people, this healer, teacher, prophet Messiah, who had just been talking to them was now conversing with the faith’s founder, Abraham, and prophet, Elijah and shining with holy light. They realized in that instant, who he was, that he was the Lord, the bearer of the likeness of God through whom the love of God was manifest. Have you had a revelation such as this? When something you hear or see, has you say, yes, Jesus is the Messiah, His is the one in whom God’s love is manifest. Perhaps on Christmas Eve when you raise your candle or on the most ordinary of Sundays, like this we hear “This is my beloved son, listen to him” and something within us says, “I will” Yes, I will listen, I will follow. I will be the disciple, I’m invited to be, and we’d like to stay in that yes. That assurance, that peace within ourselves that sense of holiness in our own being.
So would the disciples, but Jesus leads them back down the mountain. Into the unsettled and unsettling world full of ego and conflict where the differences among us, so unimportant on top of that mountain become profoundly so. But they must follow him there, for he would have them bear the gift of revelation within themselves. And then open their eyes to the holiness that is around them and within them. Even in this blessed and warring world, even in one another.
I’ve been working on a thousand-piece Puzzle – it’s of this painting Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh. When I saw the original I stood so close as to see the places where the paint was raised off the page. And the guard asked me to step back. But not before I sensed the humanity behind these strokes. I’m currently working on a thousand-piece puzzle version and can get as close as I like. Each piece has by my count at least a dozen strokes of various colors of paint, layer upon layer, so many shades of blue and also yellow, browns and reds, and black and white.
I begin to see the human behind them. Multilayered, complex, the strokes of his life’s experience, full of darkness and light. This person, this preacher’s son, a man of faith who struggled so, and yet carried a revelation of the divine. And a sense of it around him, and so brought forth these revelations. Of its presence of the holly in a field of sunflowers. On a starry night over the village where he lived. In the face of the people with whom he lived.
How shall we see holiness? In weary and warring world might each person, in their breathtaking complexity have something to reveal to us. I’ve been reading a book about Abraham Lincoln and Fredrick Douglas, an enslaved man who had freed himself, gone north, and was working for the rights of black soldiers in the Union Army. In 1863, one could stand in line outside the White House and wait for an audience with the President. And when he was invited in to meet Mr. Lincoln they were, to one another, a revelation. Lincoln was moved by Douglas’ dignity, eloquence, intelligence, and forcefulness of conviction. Douglas was impressed by Lincolns honesty and modesty and readiness to call himself out, and to listen to a man of different station as his equal.
The layers of their life experience vastly different, one knew the stroke of a master’s whip, the other studied law by candlelight, yet there was true meeting, there. They spoke their truths without hesitation or worry of offense, Lincoln would thereafter ask for Douglas’ advice, Douglas thereafter, claimed this white man was truly his President. Two years before, in his first inaugural address Lincoln had called forth from the nation, the better angels of our nature, to engage one another out of our more noble selves. To see one another, perhaps, as God sees us. Right here, right now, in the thick of it, to be who the revelation of divine love; invites us to be, to carry the revelation from that higher ground, into the word.
It is still the call, how shall we rise up to become our better angels? Less weighed down by prejudice toward one another more able to see, as the disciples saw, the holiness before us? This week we ask, what might be a better way than war. I have been impressed by what I have learned about a project called the Braver Angels and learned that Sandy Freer has been studying this herself. I’ve invited Sandy to share what she’s been learning. This is God’s beloved daughter, let’s listen.
What Does The Lord Require?
Human Relations Sunday
February 20, 2022
Rev. Patricia Wagner
Scripture: Micah 6:638
6 “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old? 7 Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” 8 He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? They will know we are Christians by our love, by our love.
A few months ago, right before the service, I saw a man with a child in the hallway I nodded and smiled and went on my way to get ready. Not realizing that I was walking past an Afghan pharmacist, a former translator for American forces, who just months before, in those last harrowing days of the American occupation, had been found and beaten by the Taliban. And after years of seeking asylum here, was at the airport with his wife, Nahima and their son. And it was Matt, for whom he had translated, moved heaven and earth to get them out, Matt, who is Jeff Corcoran’s best friend, and so Fawad and Nahima had become Jeff and Ridhima’s friend, and were here that morning for the Christian baptism of their wondrous daughter, Reya.
That Nahima and Fawad are Muslim mattered not. For Islam teaches that Jesus is a prophet of Islam. That while the Prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him is the seal of the prophets. Islam Instructs its followers to revere Jesus as the Messiah, to honor his mother, Mary, and to understand that we, Christians, Jews, Muslims, are all people of the Book. And so we are brothers and sisters.
From the Qur’an
Surely those who believe, and those who are Jews, and the Christians, and the Sabians—whoever believes in God and the Last Day and does good, they shall have their reward from their Lord. And there will be no fear for them, nor shall they grieve" (Surah 2:62 and 5:69)
". . . and nearest among them in love to the believers
will you find those who say, 'We are Christians,' because amongst these are those devoted to learning and those who have renounced the world, and they are not arrogant" (Surah 5:82).
"O you who believe! Be helpers of God—as Jesus the son of Mary said to the Disciples, 'Who will be my helpers in (the work of) God?' Said the disciples, 'We are God's helpers!' " (Surah 61:14).
Christians are nearest, says the Qur’an in love. For they are devoted to learning of God reject the world’s evil are humble are helpers. It resonates with our passage from Micah today. The prophet is speaking to the people who had become caught up in the outer aspects of religion. The sacrifices of coin and animals that would make God happy. And they had forgotten what God most wants.
It was some days after the baptism when I learned of Fawad and Nahima’s story and felt anguish that I had only nodded and passed by. It reminded me of Jesus’ parable of the priest who passed by the man lying beside the road because he was too busy with other things to see and show compassion. We all do this, for our minds and lives and even hearts are full, we walk by, we turn our head, or we don’t even notice situations and persons. Particularly when we feel there is nothing we can do. We do this with persons, we do this with countries. Of course, none of us are God. We cannot notice or take in everything and everyone. But that moment, and these passages from the Qur’an and Micah remind us of what we may be missing.
The prophet Micah says:
But He has told you, O mortal, what is good; says Micah, and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
Do you hear the echoes of how Christians, and Jews are to be?
So, for today, Human Relations Day, how shall we live into the expectations of the Qu’ran and our scriptures, and of Jesus, peace be upon him. How shall we not pass by, be a people of justice, and kindness, and humility and helpfulness. Today, on Human Relations Sunday, we are here to not pass by, but to stop and listen, listen carefully, to one whose first language is not ours, to this husband, father, pharmacist, a person of heroism and compassion, a man of deep faith. And courage given by God. Let us listen, in kindness and humility and discern in our hearts and together how shall we do justice, how shall we be helpers.
We will l begin our listening with a prayer put to words of the great Finnish national anthem. A song that is poignant today as Europe is on the brink of war. And as we consider the peoples of Afghanistan, our brothers, and sisters, so far from our sight: This is my song, O God of all the nations.
February 13, 2022
Rev. Charles Hill
The Reconstruction of Love
A few weeks ago, I called the office of one of our senators. I urged him to support the Voting Rights Bill before him and his coworkers. I told him it was important that everyone have an opportunity to cast their vote without intimidation. He sent me a very nice letter thanking me for my interest and went on to tell me that he could not vote for the bill because the bill would infringe upon States’ Rights.
I was not surprised by his answer. I did respond with a balanced letter, thanking him for his response, and then said, “Let me tell you a story.”
In April of 1952 I happened to be on a Trailways bus traveling from Water Valley,
Mississippi to Nashville, TN. I had boarded the bus before dark, but
being a timid boy in those days I did not look beyond the first seat two.
I am sure I took the second one. To take the front seat would have not
been “proper.”—The bus rolled on through the late evening, dark came,
and at some god-forsaken place out in the middle of nowhere, the
driver announced a ten-minute pause. There was a rest room and ham-
burger place. I am not sure how I was in and out of the burger place
quickly, but I was. It was then that I observed the driver talking with
two young men; very well dressed young black men. The driver was
saying to them, “The man said if you will go round to the back door
he will sell you a sandwich.” These young men had been in the back of
the bus all the time. (State Law), they were denied food at the front door, if not by state law, then state practice. It was during the Korean War.
Both young men were impeccably dressed, in uniforms of the US Air Force. Jesus said, “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.”
I. This is Black History Month. Black History is not something we like to look at closely, I think. It can be disturbing, if one is sensitive. It would be great we would find a way to pursue a better understanding of this part of our past. I think it would help us all. It could be that you have already done this. Did you know that slaves had no rights what-so-ever? That a master could beat a salve if he so wished? That a slave had no access to the courts? They had no say over their children? Children or spouse could be sold at any time to anyone, and the slave had no say at all? Did you know that children were born into the status of the mother? And that many masters were the father to many mixed-race slaves?
That was true for Thomas Jefferson. I live beside a woman who traces her heritage back to Sally Hemmings.
Did you know that in the early 1860s slaves in the south produced more than five million bales of cotton, valued at more than a billion dollars, and received not a cent for their labors? Did you know the Methodist Church split over slavery? For out fore-parents in Methodism slavery was stronger in the Church than God?
II Did you know that following the Civil War, Blacks were free and Black men had the vote. That there was a Southern Homestead Act that gave land away free, but most of it went to whites? That recent estimates are, that about 46 million people, mostly white, from which they can trace the beginnings of their wealth? That this was where the black folk lost again one opportunity for equity in wealth?
Did you know that about a dozen black men were elected to the House of Representatives and one to the Senate? Did you know that in 1877, after one of our boys, Rutherford B. Hayes, made a deal with the devil, was elected to the highest office in the land, pulled all troops out of the south and granted them States’ Rights? And, that soon all kinds of obstacles were thrown up to keep blacks from voting? And those restrictions continued until the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965? And that our Supreme Court pretty much cancelled out that law in 2013. And that all kinds of challenges to voters are being enacted across the land today?---That is just a few of the high lights of the challenge before us.
There was destruction of the Black; then Reconstruction that gave some freedom; then after President Hayes, deconstruction; and in 1965 Reconstruction; and in 2013 once again deconstruction. And, that a lot of Christians do not really care enough to say, “It is time for some genuine Christian, Christ-Centered Reconstruction in the land.” If it happens it has to begin with us.
III. What would that kind of Reconstruction look like? First it would be important to delve honestly and openly into the history of the slavery practice in the States from 1619 to 1865. I didn’t learn anything, really, about it in grade school, high school and college. And not a lot about it in seminary. We need to know, and to know, we will have to dig it out for ourselves. It might be a part of our white salvation.
Secondly, as we study we will need to keep the Golden Rule in mine. I am sure we all know what that rule states: “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” That is the text I have chosen to lift up from the morning scripture. As we look at how power treats people, or how insecurity affects us, we need to keep asking: Is this the way I would want to be treated?
Now I can almost hear someone asking, “Is he talking down to us.” And I would say, no, I am talking to myself, but if you overhear something that touches you, just embrace it. For I can be a prejudiced sinner like other white folk.—For when we, in West Ohio, merged with the Lexington Conference in 1968, an all-black conference, I was not feeling gracious. I saw “them” taking positions in the conference leadership that I wanted for myself, and I was not happy.
(Reminds me of an introduction of a Black Student pastor—Tell the story)
It was a small membership church in rural Union County. It had been struggling for a lot of years. And, now, the gracious local pastor who had served them for years was retiring. So, I contacted the seminary and was told there was a student, a woman, a black woman, available. I called the matriarch of the congregation and told her about the available student pastor. She said a woman pastor would be just fine. Then I told her the woman was a black person. Jean responded, “That won’t be a problem at all.” So, we agreed on the day and time I would bring her for the introduction. The day arrived and a group gathered at the church and the student was introduced. We learned she was also musically gifted. So, when we were about to leave, Jean said, “If she is a pianist, let’s gather around the piano and sing a few hymns and then have a prayer before we leave.” As the group moved toward the piano, I kind of hung back to allow the pastor parish group and pastor to go toward the piano. One older man also hung back. He came close to me and said, “Do we have to take her?” I told Mr. G. that the group had already approved her. He then said, “We ran those people out of this community forty years ago.” I don’t think I responded to him. But, after the prayer, I was somewhat alone with Jean and said, “Mr. G. is not happy.” Her response was, “I know, but he is going to get happy.” I once told Jean I wished every church has a major leader like her. Change comes very slowly and painfully for some folks.
And when women came, I was not so crazy about that. I told Pastor Patty recently, that when I saw Shirley Cadle leading a worship procession down the aisle in Hoover Auditorium during Annual Conference, I was not happy. But Shirley was an excellent pastor and leader. Gifted. God knew what God was doing when she was called.—When I was a superintendent, some church leaders would say, “Don’t send a woman here.” And I would tell them, if an ordained woman is sent by the bishop, I will introduce her. “ I then would say, “We have some excellent women pastors.” And that was fact.
Sometimes it is easy to forget Paul’s’ words to the Corinthians: “Make love your aim.” And about his words to the Galatian Church:
“There is neither Jew or Greek, there is neither slave nor free,
there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ
And we could add: “There is neither black nor white,
rich or poor, brown, red or yellow, straight or gay, we are all one
in Christ Jesus. We are equal before the Almighty.
Years ago, I knew a woman who said over and over: “I am not perfect, God isn’t through with me yet, I am still under construction.” Truth is, we are all under construction, but some of it has to be Reconstruction. We first of all need to unlearn some stuff that has helped to form our thinking and control our behavior. My dear mother was a good woman. But she had an unbalanced attitude toward people of color. She was from WV, that had originally been VA. Many times I heard her say, “I believe Black people (she didn’t say Black) are just fine so long as they stay in their place.” Is that how some of us feel? When we merged with the Black Methodists back in “68” a story came out of a southern church. A white woman who met for her first time, over lunch, with several women, a mixed-race group, said: “I became sick to my stomach when I sat at table with black women. I had to leave for a while.” When she was telling the story, God and she had overcome her fear of people who were different.---Spiritual Reconstruction had done its work. It is hard work. I don’t know whether mother ever fully made it or not. Last time she stated her thoughts on Black people, I said to her, “Mother, where is their place? They are God’s children same as you and me.” What all have we learned that we need to ask God to help us unlearn? That’s the beginning.
The next step toward Spiritual Reconstruction requires us to take inventory. to look deeply at our core information. Is it Christ Like? Does it reflect the Love of Jesus? --- Maybe we could spend some time this week in spiritual reflection? We could ask ourselves:
Where am I not following the rule of Christian Love?
What behavior in my life needs changed?
How can I help God do that?
If you need help in Spiritual Reconstruction. In reality, if we
are growing in Christ we need a bit of Reconstruction daily.
Come Holy Spirit; come and open my spiritual eyes.
Show me who I am, really. Warts and all.
Is there some part of my thinking, speaking, or acting that needs to be changed?
Reconstructed with a larger portion of Christian love?
Lord, Help me to see my needs, then grant me the resolve to begin the journey
toward a love that will bring greater life to me, the Church, and ultimately,
the whole world.
Help me, O Lord, to discover my better angels; my better angels, that I may
think in love and act always in a loving spirit. Amen.
February 6, 2022
Rev. Patricia Wagner
You are Calling Me? Lord, Have Mercy!
Scripture: Luke 5: 1-11
Luke 5: 1-11
Once while Jesus1 was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, 2 he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. 3 He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. 4 When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” 5 Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” 6 When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. 7 So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. 8 But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” 9 For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; 10 and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” 11 When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.
Its morning, Jesus has just he healed a man in Capernaum, and he has spoken with such authority that Luke says the people are amazed, and they’ve followed him down to the sea of Galilee. And as the fisherman are standing on the shore, cleaning their nets. After a long, discouraging night, and Jesus steps into one of their boats and asks to be taken out a short ways. So, to teach all those along the beach.
The boat is Simon’s, who will be renamed Cephas, Peter, the Rock. We do not hear Jesus teaching to the crowd, That’s not the focus of this story, it’s this, that once done he says to Simon and the others, ‘Take the boat out farther to fish’ And they say, “Nope, we already tried, “ ‘Try again, he says, but cast your nets on the other side’. And once they haul up all those fish, so that they begin to sink, Simon is the one who is immediately aware that he is in the presence of the divine and just as aware of how unworthy he is.
And I don’t think his life is any less worthy than mine or yours. Nor social ranking, we know that means nothing to God. Imagine Jesus climbs into the boat of my life and says, ‘I need you to help people hear me’. And then says, ‘Lets go out deeper’. How unworthy I would feel to be in the presence of such holiness. But and here is the revelation, perhaps the real miracle. The Lord needs Simon. He needs those who are lowly, and those who are highborn. He invites all of them, all of us. For there is work to do. To lend him our boats, these vessels, our lives.
There are people to fish for. That’s a metaphor exactly right for fishermen, but it rings of entrapment. And don’t fish die once you catch them? But the direct translation in Greek is ese zogron: You will take men/humans alive. You will save them. When I was in Vietnam with my daughter to explore her heritage, meet her birth family we spent time with church folk there. Including a young woman, who among English speakers called herself Beth, the first and only Christian in her family. Beth was teaching bible school for children as she prepared for seminary. At a restaurant in Saigon, Beth shared about her family. Her brother and father’s estrangement. Her brothers suicide. And her struggle to forgive her father. And to help him see how he needed to change. She looked at the tables around us filled with young people, young families and her eyes filled with tears. “These people they don’t realize that there is more to life than money. They are so thirsty for it, but they don’t even know it”. She was a fisherwoman. She wanted to bring people out alive. It is hard work, and she found the place to begin.
Now its not been an easy time for the mainline churches, not in Vietnam, nor in the U.S. For a while, David Brooks, the centrist columnist for the New York Times wrote an extraordinary article about the evangelical churches and how young people, including those in seminary are leaving in numbers.
“Even those in seminary are moving away from church as we normally conceive it. They want to get away from all the bitterness of their elders. ‘Modernity has peaked,’ Said one leader.” And Brooks agrees: The age of the autonomous individual, the age of the narcissistic self, the age of consumerism and moral drift
has left us with bitterness and division, a surging mental health crisis and people just being nasty to one another.
What are churches offering? 12 Historic Black Colleges were attacked on February 1. As a warming at the beginning of African American History Month. And what do we hear from churches? 900,000 persons have died in this country from COVID, and churches, from Evangelical to mainline have split over masks! Millions are looking for something else, says Brooks, They want to build communities that are smaller, intimate, authentic, which can often fit in a living room. They see faith as inseparably linked to community service with the poor and marginalized. Some they want system of belief that is communal, that gives life transcendent meaning. Go out into the deep and try another side, says Jesus and bring the people out alive.
But we protest, we are inadequate, we say. Lend me your boat, lend me your life, Jesus says and I will lend you my authority. Lend me your life, Jesus says
and I will give you a life one that fills your nets. And we realize that somehow this life, this vessel was already his. That it was God’s to begin with. But what have we but the grace that calls us to Christ’s service? The grace that allowed Simon and all the rest, to set down their nets, and follow. Let the grace that moves us be the authority may the Christ you feel inadequate. Good, so do I, but Jesus, who walked the lakeshore who healed the sick who forgave those who hurt him, who loved his enemies, who died at human hands and was raised by God’s power and love, calls us anyway. Says that we are good enough to be vessels. To be couriers, to be fishers of people.
Who says, lend me your life, follow me. I will close with these words of Albert Schweitzer. A physician and theologian and musician: “He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside. He came to those men who knew him not. He speaks to us the same word: "Follow thou me!" And sets us to the tasks which he has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, he will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in his fellowship, and as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience who He is.”
January 30, 2022
A Safe Place
Rev. Patricia Wagner
Luke 4: 21-30
Luke 4: 21-30
Jesus has just read aloud from the scroll in the synagogue and announced his mission to bring mercy and justice and healing and to proclaim the year of the Lord.
21 Then he said to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 22
All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” 23 He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’”
24And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. 25But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; 26yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath (Zare-a-fath) in Sidon. 27 There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” 28 29 When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. 30 But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.
I went to the movies this week. It was the first time in two years that I felt safe to go.
It was wonderful. There were reclining seats. All 4 of us in the theatre were masked.
This song, “Somewhere”was particularly moving. For it speaks of a longing for a place
Where there is forgiveness, and peace And openness. A safe place. It is such a deep human need. One that has been hard to fulfill. These past two years physically, emotionally, politically, even spiritually. For the places we had thought we might be safe, haven’t been.
We sense that in our scriptures today:
Jesus has just read from Isaiah. Announced that he is here to fulfill the scriptures. To bring sight to the blind. To set at liberty those who are oppressed. To proclaim the year acceptable to God. His hometown folks were so impressed Isn’t that Joseph’s boy, they say admiringly. That one of them would become such a prophet is such a mitzvah! Such a blessing!
A Jewish professor of mine used to say. We Jews are secretly proud of Jesus. He was a good Jewish boy who made the big time! So, the folks in Jesus’ home town Seem to be pretty proud of him, but then he decides to speak the truth. That he knew, having been raised there would be hardest for his townsfolk to hear:
He prefaces it by saying, 'Prophets are not welcome in their hometown, ' Then tells of the stories of the prophets and outsiders. Of the poor Gentile widow in Sidon who was so faithful that at Elijah’s request gave him her last bit of food. And of Naaman, the commander in the Syrian army who humbled himself and received healing through Elijah’s successor, Elisha.
Jesus was telling them that they aren’t the only favored ones. That told them that God doesn’t only love, heal, save Israelites or people who believe as they do. Indeed, there are no outsiders. The sides you’ve drawn are your own creation. And they felt betrayed. Decide to throw him off a cliff, because he wasn’t who they thought he was. They thought he was theirs; he was everyone’s. They thought God was theirs; God is everyone’s.
There’s a series called Somebody, Somewhere. Sam has come back to her hometown. She is funny, cynical, grieving her sister, her family life is a minefield, her boss at work doesn’t understand her. She is on the outside looking in and doesn’t fit in anywhere or with anyone. And she’s gotten comfortable with that, sort of.
Then a man named Joel befriends her invites her to “Choir Practice”. No, she says, I’m not a church person. It’s more “church adjacent” he says, The Presbyterian Church lets him have space for a gathering – for songs and truthful storytelling. And when Sam gets there she sees a mix of people from town. Queer folk like Joel, are leading, but there are people from work, from her own family, people she realizes also need a safe place to be themselves.
Why meet in a church? says one of the queer folks to Joel, it’s freaking me out. And Joel, a lot of people tell me that, he says, but for all the other times I have felt excluded this is still where I feel the most comfort. Joel asks Sam asked to sing with him, and you know how vulnerable it feels to sing especially in front of those who know you.
But she stands up in front of the cross and he sings to her about not giving up. And she sings about the river that keeps flowing. That river of hope, her deep authentic self, keeps flowing.
A member of this community named Jeanette, has been pondering this things deeply. And she wrote to me this week:
The only way I know to risk is to be my authentic self which I have hidden, like that light kept under the bushel basket, to keep it burning. My authentic self is full of pot holes, ditches, skid marks, and persistence. It’s full of wonder and excitement and love and disappointment. It’s full of advocating and being brave for others but not so much for myself. It’s full of doubts about myself, hiding and coming out.
This community has chosen as a core value to be a Safe Place to Question, Seek,
Grow and Demonstrate Who we are in Christ. Creating a safe space for people to be and become our authentic selves me included, and you. To ask our questions, to seek, to demonstrate Christ’s work in us. All of us, like our friend, full of pot holes, ditches, skid marks, and persistence. Full of wonder and excitement and love and disappointment, full of bravery and fear.
Of course the gospel isn’t safe, Lord, no! We might not get pushed off a cliff. But, my gosh, what Jesus asks of us: Love our enemy, forgive not seven times but seventy times seven and live understanding that the first are last And the last are first.
The boundaries between us are of our own making, Jesus says, God, the spirit of the universe has loved everything into being. Including those who have hurt us or others,
as much as God loves us. His hometown folks thought that makes us less beloved. With a smaller place in God’s heart but that shows us how Jesus words are about us. We who need to not only our neighbor and our enemy but ourselves and forgive ourselves as God forgive us for not being who we think we ought to be by now.
That sort of forgiveness, that sort of love. That sort of space where the boundaries between us. And within us are down is what we long for, what the world longs for.
In the new version of West Side Story, the people of this city, and Tony and Maria, the Romeo and Juliet of the story, are caught up in the retributive violence of their times and ours. No one is safe. The shop owner who has known all these young people, from both sides of the racial and cultural divide. She has been told that Maria has been killed and she sits at a table and sings Somewhere. It is a lament, for all that love that gets lost among us and between It is a song of longing for a place where all belong.
It is a song of hope, that we’ll find a new way of living, we’ll find a way of forgiving. Somewhere.
May it be so. Amen.
Rev.Patricia Wagner, Maple Grove UMC
January 23, 2022
Ode to Joy
Patricia Wagner, Paster
Nehemiah 8: 1-2, 8 - 10
Nehemiah 8: 1-2, 8-10
All the people gathered together into the square before the Water Gate. They told the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the Lord had given to Israel. 2Accordingly, the priest Ezra brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding.
And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. 10Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
Joyful, joyful, we adore Thee,
God of glory, Lord of love;
Hearts unfold like flow’rs before Thee,
Op’ning to the sun above.
Melt the clouds of sin and sadness;
Drive the dark of doubt away;
Giver of immortal gladness,
Fill us with the light of day!
We love this song –
music by Beethoven, called “Ode to Joy” and words by Henry Van Dyke, It’s a balm to the soul to sing it: Lately, I’ve been discouraged by sin and the sadness it brings. By the way we bicker with each other that we are a world without a rudder, we cannot find a path. A set of laws, guidelines to govern ourselves.
Even as a nation that will keep us in harmony and mercy and compassion. That is equitable and just.
Nehemiah was wondering this too, about Jerusalem he was only the cupbearer to the king. But he saw the walls of the temple falling down. The people falling apart and was called to restore it. To restore the people’s understanding of who they are. So he goes to Jerusalem Ezra the priest and Nehemiah; share the rules of life which God shared with Moses. Now with the people of the Jerusalem, they read them aloud and men and women gather. And they understand it, understand what it means that it is for them, each of them. All of them, these guidelines, these rules for living well are not easy. And so they weep, how shall they live this way? They have lived without a rudder for so long! But Nehemiah says to them, “This day is holy to the Lord. Do not weep.” He encourages them to trust themselves and God’s precepts
As we find in Psalm 19:
The guidelines of God are perfect and refresh our souls
The guidance of God is trustworthy and make wise the simple
The ways of God are right, bringing joy to the heart,
The ways of God are radiant, giving light to the eyes.
The wonders of God are forever
And the teachings of the Lord are our foundation
The people had a way, a path to walk, a way that required them to give of themselves. To deny other ways, eat what you have, share with those who have none. For this will give God joy and the joy of the Lord is your strength. He knew that they had a way, a path to walk. A way that required them us to deny themselves other ways. But that was then, this is now. I wonder, are we too far gone? Is the world, are the people even of this land truly interested in a rudder, in guidelines, laws for living?
There is a writer in Ireland, named Paul Kingsworth who grew up without the guidelines of a faith. Any faith. When he was a boy he was drawn to churches
but scribbled silly threats in the church guest books, mocking the simpletons who believed. He sought out causes, including the care of the earth and peoples. But there was something missing. He realized that the reason that
human beings will trod on any land, pollute every water, cut down every tree harm anyone in the way. Because there is no holy anchor, no right path, that guides them, to save the earth and themselves and others. Something calling him not only to the cathedrals but to a path. A well-worn road that he would have to walk with others. Called Christian, paths that lead him away from some things and toward that which would anchor him in the eternal, in love, love of the divine, love of neighbor, and his deepest truest self.
Our friend, Dayquan is now 3 and a half years in jail still awaiting trial. Locked 23 hours a day in a 6 foot by 9-foot cell. I visited him this week, each time I ask him what he is learning. And within the confines of that place, he is learning a lot, he says. Like the beauty of nature. He has a window that looks out into the cement structure of the next building, only a sliver of sky can be seen.
And this week, within that small space of sky, that limited view, framed by cement walls for the first time in more than 3 years, he saw a bird. “They are so beautiful,” he said. He is learning about love, he says. He loves his family, cherishes them as he never did before. But he cares too for his neighbor. The man who is in the next cell, with whom he talks day and night. He has learned to like his guards. They are good people, he says. He has a Bible, and he prays all the time, and he says, “God is here with me, teaching me patience.
Patience, love of neighbor, and family and self. Surely that makes the Lord glad and that joy of the Lord has become Dayquan’s strength.
On Friday, Cathy Davis brought Cindy – a long-time unhoused person - to our Warming Station in Room 8. And the Warming Station team was there to receive her with love and food and to sing happy birthday and to share a cake. And to share a warm jacket and a little help to keep her indoors over the weekend. And joy filled she who received and those who offered.
And, Nehemiah would say, surely God’s own spirit and all in that circle felt strengthened by that joy. “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” Caring for one another as ourselves. Enjoying the glimpse of sky. The bit of earth and all it provides. Walking the way that has been shown us. Living according to the precepts of love, mercy, justice. Compassion, servanthood, this brings joy to the Lord and that is our strength.
Thou art giving and forgiving,
Ever blessing, ever blest,
Wellspring of the joy of living,
Ocean depth of happy rest!
Thou our Father, Christ our Brother,
All who live in love are Thine;
Teach us how to love each other,
Lift us to the joy divine.
January 16, 2022
The Home You Grew Up In
Xema Whitley, Director of Next Generation Ministries
The home you grew up in. Can you picture it? Take a tour with your mind. What room do you go to first? The bedroom where you may have studied, or whispered to a sibling in the dark? A porch or step where you watched stars or sunsets? A kitchen where you were sent to wash the dishes when it wasn’t fair and it wasn’t your turn? A table where meals were eaten, laughter was shared and ideas debated? The house you immediately pictured may not have been where you were born. The house you GREW UP in may be quite different from where you were born.
We all GROW UP in different ways both in the physical homes we occupy and the emotional ones. We certainly grow up differently spiritually as well. I was told by the pediatrician when my two daughters were young that “every child develops differently at their own pace.” We all GROW UP at a different pace too. Some of us had to take on big responsibilities at young ages. Some of us continue to shake our heads when we realize we are STILL growing up in certain ways…still fighting the same old battles and still wondering “will I ever outgrow this?”
Some people never seem to GROW UP and take responsibility for their choices and how their actions impact others. It’s hard to GROW UP and go out into the world, learn lessons, encounter temptations, and then return HOME.
Jesus did that in the Scripture from Luke today. The story starts out describing that he returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit. Do you remember where he was returning from? From his journey in the desert for 40 days where he had to make HARD choices to GROW UP. To resist temptation and take responsibility for his choices…he set boundaries with evil and said …NO, I am not serving You or following your ways. I will not even entertain your ideas. I choose the thoughts of God over YOU, Evil in this world. And then he returned home. Something MUST have been noticeably different because “news of him spread through the whole countryside”. And he was “in the power of the Spirit …when he taught in the synagogues, and EVERYONE PRAISED HIM.” THAT IS A GOOD DAY!
You’ve got the power of the Spirit oozing all out of you to the point that Luke – who was known to be a doctor – notices it… and writes in down in his book about you….AND when you teach among the scholars and leaders in your community – not just a few think “hey – that kid’s okay”. BUT EVERYONE PRAISES YOU. Wow. That’s a hard level of success to maintain!
About that time, I’ll bet many of his hometown friends thought. “That Jesus is a ROCK STAR – he can’t do anything wrong…this guys on a roll…”. UNTIL, Jesus goes into the synagogue and asks for the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. He unrolls the words to him that were already over 700 years old and says them… “The Spirit of the Lord is on me.” (I can hear the townspeople in my imagination saying…yes – the whole hometown has noticed THAT). Because he has anointed me. (Yes – that make sense, give glory to God who gives you this anointing – a very good Jewish boy thing to say…) He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind (Yes – yes – we know the lovely words of Isaiah)..to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing (And the townspeople give one of the classic head tilts of Scripture – the kind that happens when someone goes – huh? Did I just hear you correctly? YOU are the one to fulfill this 700+ year old prophecy? I mean we like you and all Jesus, but - Huh? You’re just a hometown boy with big dreams that just finished a great wilderness adventure??
And Jesus goes on to say some more things that greatly upset the balance of power for the people in his hometown – to the point that in verse 29 it says “they got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill…in order to THROW HIM DOWN THE CLIFF.” I ask you – are these the same place where EVERYONE was PRAISING Him just a day or two before? Human beings are confusing, are they not? I’m so glad God loves us.
So this brings me to another story of a young boy and his hometown. This young man grew up at 501 Auburn Avenue in Atlanta, Georgia. He lived in a large, lovely house with his sister and brother, mother, father, and beloved Grandmother. Let me give you a quick tour of his home:
Here’s the front porch which wraps around to a side porch. From this porch, the family could see small one-story houses to the left for those with lower incomes. To the right, were bigger two-story homes for more middle-income people. His home was large enough to house guests whenever his family knew someone needed a place to stay.
When you enter the house, there is a banister that our young friend liked to slide down. In fact, one day he didn’t notice his grandmother was at the bottom and he knocked her out cold. Believing she was dead; he ran upstairs and threw himself out a window. Both survived and their strong love for each other endured.
There’s a beautiful sitting room with a piano that was played often although our young friend didn’t like to practice, but we will go directly to the dining room.
Here, before anyone could eat, each child had to recite a Bible verse. Our young friend was pretty smart, because he found the shortest verse in the Bible he could find to recite: John 11:35, “Jesus wept.” He used that one often!
Back here is the kitchen where he hated doing dishes, but he loved eating ice cream.
Upstairs is his bedroom he shared with his brother and down there on the floor you’ll notice games. One of his favorite board games was Monopoly. His sister slept downstairs, and she remembers that her brother sometimes popped the heads off HER dolls to use them as baseballs!!
Have you figured out who our friend is yet? Here’s another clue: The whole family would walk down the street to go to church where this boy’s father and grandfather were preachers.
It’s called Ebenezer Baptist and here’s a picture. And even though he got a “C” once in public speaking class, ML (as his family called him) ended up becoming one of the most famous preachers in the world…and much like it says in Isaiah, this boy became a man that preached good news to the poor, worked to set captives free and release the oppressed.
I have come to deeply admire this man named Martin Luther King Jr. and have walked in his footsteps in the neighborhood called “Sweet Auburn.” For ten years, I led trips with Church of the Messiah’s Confirmation class through Atlanta as part of our Christian Heritage Trip.
We would spend an afternoon touring the National Historic Site that is the preserved neighborhood that includes ML’s childhood home, the local fire station, the historic Ebenezer Baptist church and the modern building that houses the current Ebenezer Baptist congregation.
His sister Christine still attends there and can be seen in a center front pew often wearing a stylish hat. You can hear the fantastic gospel choir warm up if you get there 30 minutes early as they advise groups to do to make sure you can get seats together. The survey at the end of our Confirmation Heritage Trip often revealed that worshiping at Ebenezer Baptist was one of the highlights for the Middle School participants.
So why do I love showing young people the home Martin Luther King Jr. grew up in? One detail I remember the Tour Guides telling us while standing on the front porch of MLK JR’s house was that Martin grew up with various levels of income in his neighborhood. Yes, the neighborhood was segregated as all African Americans, but within that neighborhood were various levels of income, ability and education - all living close by, in harmony and within the visual landscape each time Martin left his home. I can’t help but believe that influenced and informed his desire to serve, respect and bring justice to all people. And every time I led a tour through the neighborhood, I trusted the youth that walked the paths ML walked could see themselves in his shoes - his playful side, his humanity, his courage, and his desire to improve the world around him.
How is God using the story of the home you grew up in? No home or parent is perfect and there is always pain to deal with in our pasts. But part of my personal theology is that God can redeem anything and anyone and when you sink into the deep but simple fact that GOD IS WITH US…through it all…fear lessens and courage bubbles up to help us GROW UP.
God was with Martin as he played and grew in the hot Atlanta sunshine. God was with Martin as he called out the realities of injustice and oppression. God was with Martin when his life was cut short on the balcony of his Memphis hotel.
God was with Jesus as he learned and loved with Mary and Joseph in their humble home in Galilee. God strengthened the human moral courage of Jesus as he learned to fight great temptation. God was right there as Jesus cried out Abba Father on the cross where Redemption was crafted out of flesh.
And…God was with you as you walked the hallways of your childhood. God is with us as we GROW UP and realize we can all be trapped by our own limitations as well as those imposed on us. We can all relate to feeling oppressed and needing to be free. All of us can be a part of driving out darkness with light. All of us can add more love to the world so the hate dissipates. We don’t do any of this alone. God is with us. Even though we may be years from the Home We Grew Up In, the best of that home’s influence is something we carry with us.
…. whatever is good from that home…. Whatever is true. Whatever is lovely...we carry that with us…and as we have been broken and redeemed…so too can others find that same hope of healing in us…and together we can walk without fear to be that light of freedom, justice and healing.
January 9, 2022
Baptized: Becoming and Belonging
Cathy Davis, Assistant Minister, Maple Grove UMC
Luke 3:15-17, 21, 22
And Jesus grew in wisdom, age and grace. That’s from Luke chapter 2.
That’s our transition from last week, when Jesus was a baby in a manger being visited by the wisemen, to today’s scriptures, that Steve read from Luke chapter 3, when Jesus, as an adult, joins the crowd to be baptized.
John the Baptist is drawing large crowds and a preaching a message of change – a change of mind, a change of heart, a change of living. He was giving very practical and direct ways to get in good and right and Godly relationship with God and each other.
Jesus may seem to us, an unlikely one to ‘need’ this message. Yet he got in line with the crowd, starting his ministry off, identifying with any other ordinary human being. Standing alongside the soldier and the tax collector, listening to the message and waiting to be baptized. Participating in a passage from an old, tired way of living - to new life, reborn in the Spirit.
The sacrament of baptism, as sacraments are: rituals or acts that create sacred space, drawing us into a holy encounter with the Divine. Today’s story takes us to that moment, that holy encounter between Jesus and the Divine when Jesus rises from the water, and God speaks, saying “You are my Son, I love you and I am pleased with you.”
In that moment, core and universally asked questions about identity are answered: who am I? and whose am I? Jesus is named and claimed as a child of God and loved by God. And the rest of Jesus’ ministry is built on that revelation - Jesus knowing his true identity, and his divine relationship with God, his Father. A powerful relationship of love, dependency, intimacy and trust, which became the foundation for his gospel message.
What makes this baptism story relevant for us today, is first, it reveals big truths, eternal truths. We may feel confused about political, social, or medical truths today, but as Christians, hopefully, we are able to agree on these sacred truths: we are children of God, we are brothers and sisters of Christ, and in Christ, and God loves us. For this truth to sink in, we have to take time, to quiet down, and listen beyond the voices of our culture, perhaps even beyond the voices of family and church – to the voice of God affirming us as beloved people. And once we know this truth for ourselves, we know it’s true of others as well.
And second, I believe Bible stories are transferable. We inherit them in our spirit. Many of us aren’t able to literally remember our baptism, perhaps we haven’t been baptized ---- yet, in worship, as we did in our Call to Worship, we say “remember your baptism and be thankful.” Through our shared sacred stories, we can remember Jesus’ baptism, and how he stood in for us. He got in line, for us and with us, so that we can hear God say, 2000 years later, “you are my son/daughter/child, I claim you as my own and I love you.” Baptism represents the grace, given to Jesus…passed on to us. Through it, God lets us know, that we are God’s beloved children, who have been given the Holy Spirit, in order to live new lives in Christ. Once we get that message and know our true identity, now… we’re ready to follow Christ, to find our mission, live our purpose and share this good news.
So, on days when we feel lost, far from God, overcome with fear, weighed down by life, burdened with guilt, weak in faith: remember your baptism, which is shorthand for: Know who you really are, know whose you are.
Remembering this story can renew our awareness of the inner strength we have in the face of difficulties, remind of the reality of our own spirituality and call us into life-giving service. We can remember the promise of forgiveness, the burning away of the chaff – freedom from those old beliefs that hold us back. And rising fresh from the waters, loved by God.
I’ve heard it said that if we could hear and see the angels around us, we’d know one goes before each of us saying “Make way, Child of God coming through.”
Perhaps Jesus heard and saw those angels.
But for most of us, the waters of baptism, do not magically transfer these Divine realities to us.
When I was a little girl, growing up in a Southern Baptist church, and I found myself going forward to be saved and baptized, during the hymn Just as I Am in an altar call, in my youth, I actually did expect something magical from my baptism. It was a bit disappointing, there was no miraculous difference. Life looked and felt the same after baptism. The same fears and doubts were still there.
Decades later, after growing in wisdom, age, and grace, I’ve come to understand that though baptism itself may be a one-time event, it is really only the beginning of becoming baptized. I heard Sue Phillips, of the Sacred Design Lab at Harvard Divinity School, talk about our spiritual transformation, our becoming, as more of a slow burn throughout our lives rather than one time event of storming heaven and stealing fire. William Wallace, A New Zealand Methodist Minister writes that “We are not liberated solely by the experience of divinity but by the reflective action which should follow.” He advises us to “Let the gift flow, let the fire burn, let the awareness become.”
We are becoming part of that unfolding narrative of God's grace.
John Wesley said that “baptism is part of a lifelong process of salvation.”
So it seems, it will take us all our lives to realize the gift we were given at our baptism.
Our baptism publicly marks the beginning of this sacred process – whether it’s initiated as an adult or when parents baptize their little ones. Regardless, over and over, we must return to the waters to experience it and realize the gift of it.
As Luke told us in chapter two “Jesus grew in wisdom, age and grace.”
For Jesus, the next step, his reflective action, which followed his baptism, was 40 days of prayer and fasting in the wilderness.
We can choose by our action or inaction to let the good work God has begun in us to go dormant, and have no greater effect, or enable us to grow in wisdom and grace.
Years ago, I read a story in a Chicken Soup for Mother’s Soul book, I’ve been unable find again, so I tell it from my memory. There were two mothers who had become good friends, each had 6 children and each one had a son with Down Syndrome. One of the mother’s agonized over her son’s condition, she prayed constantly for him to be healed of it. She was a devote Catholic, and she had made a decision to take him to the Lourdes River in France, to place him in the healing waters, hoping for a miracle, so that he could be cured of Down syndrome. So, she began saving money for the trip. Her friend, who tells the story, said there was a jar on the kitchen counter that collected the extra money to go towards this pilgrimage. Finally, one day she had saved enough. With excitement and expectation, she and her son left for France.
After their return, her friend observed that her son appeared unchanged, however, his mother was noticeably different. She no longer seemed troubled and burdened. Her spirit had changed, she seemed light, easy and joyful. So, one day the friend asked her what happened on the trip to the Lourdes River. The mother said, that when they got there, she realized she loved her son, exactly as he was, and she no longer needed, nor wanted God to change him.
Many of us wait all our lives to hear that we are loved, as we are, not once we change. And of course, the reality is, we all need to change, we all need to heal, we all need to grow in wisdom and grace. However, changing is not a prerequisite for God’s love. Any more than that mother, needed her son to change to love him.
Baptism isn’t even a prerequisite for God’s love. However, remembering this story of Jesus’ baptism, invites us, to return to this sacrament, step in the water, take holy action, encounter God. So that we can hear and see and touch, and be reminded that we are children of God, loved by God, forgiven by God, saved by God. Christian author Father Richard Rohr says that “God doesn’t love us because we have changed, God loves us so we can change.”
When we remember our baptism…we must also remember, we don’t do it alone. It is tempting to have our private salvation however, as Christian, we belong to a community of Christians. Reverend Taylor Burton-Edwards reminds us in his book Water and the Spirit: A United Methodist Understanding of Baptism that in the United Methodist church, at our baptisms, the congregation takes a vow “to surround us with a community of love and forgiveness, and pray for us, that we may be a disciple of Jesus Christ who walks in the way that leads to life." Burton-Edwards goes on to say that "Baptism is not an act that imparts something just to you, it is an act that brings you into a spiritual relationship with the whole body of Christ. In which you are becoming one with them and they are becoming one with you."
John the Baptist apparently knew the reconciling, redemptive power of the water. That it held grace and cleansing for our soul as much as our body. Life can become so burdened with our shame, our mistakes, our should of and could ofs ---- that is not freedom in Christ, it’s not the liberation that God desires for us. If we are chained to our past, we cannot walk as children of God, as disciples of Jesus Christ, who walk in the ways that leads to life.
So come to the waters of baptism, again, or for the first time, just as you are. Receive the gift of grace, the blessings of knowing who you are and whose you are. Receive the grace of continual forgiveness, surrender to the ongoing transformation. Remember your relationship with God – that you are utterly dependent and wholly loved. Remember the church, to which you belong, that has taken vows to surround you with love and forgiveness and pray for you. And surround others with that same spirit of love, forgiveness and prayer.
I love the cyclical nature of our tradition. This chance once again, right here, at the beginning of the year, to remember our baptism. To be renewed. To begin again. To be reminded and remind one another of this sacrament, this holy act, these sacred moments, which continue to draw us into an encounter with the Divine, into union with God and one another. Let’s remember our baptism and be truly thankful!
Sunday, January 2, 2022
Maple Grove UMC
Rev. Patricia Wagner
Matthew 2: 1- 12
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, magi from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”
3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.
5They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 6‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”
7Then Herod secretly called for the magi and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”
9When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.
11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
Its been cloudy most of this last week
we haven't been able to see the stars
in the night sky.
It made me think about the Magi
Surely on their journey of many months,
they would have had nights when the
star they followed disappeared.
They would have had to stay encouraged
by the stories they'd saved up
of other holy awakenings
They did not turn back though,
the light of that star showed them
something older than the known world
Something beyond this world,
and yet part of it.
Once they had seen the light
they had to follow it.
For all the other lights were lesser ones
Then once they had seen the child
they would bow down for no other.
I read a first person account this week
of a man who was raised without a faith tradition
considered those who did to be
He started on his own quest,
exploring one practice after another,
until it was evident that the only way
that fed his mind and soothed his soul,
that sought him
was the path where he met the Christ
Especially in season full of clouds
when the stars in our sky grow faint,
It may be easier to live our lives by lesser lights
to have faith in more practical and provable truths.
But like the Magi, like this fellow,
once we have seen the star,
once we know this one called Jesus,
we find that we cannot cease to look for him,
that light in him that reveals
what came before and is beyond
and yet here with and within us.
We find evidence of God in our holy texts,
but epiphanies come, too,
in encounters with other human beings
especially those who, like Jesus,
live without the securities to which we are accustomed.
Doug Davis has a story of an Epiphany to tell you.
- Patricia Wagner
Daniel in the Lion's Den - Monterey, CA
Maple Grove UMC
Years ago, this happened . . .
It was a grey, breezy weekday afternoon in Monterey. I was walking swiftly on the boardwalk toward the hotel when I spotted him. He was in his late-20s to early 30s, powerfully built, with a youthful, light complexion. I guessed he was around 6 ft tall and 220 lbs. He wore ragged light blue jeans, a gray sweatshirt, and a faded army-green colored beanie over his shaven head. He held a cardboard sign, with a crisply written Homeless Vet in black Sharpie marker, neatly centered and legible from a distance. Besides the thin veneer of road residue, he projected a clean figure. He opened the discussion, "God Bless you, brother." "The same to you. What's your name?" "Daniel, he says."
Something in me sensed that I needed to document this conversation. I asked Daniel if I could record him. I'd never done this before. He agreed, "that's cool, that's cool." He served in the Iraq War as an MP, with two tours in 2003 and 2005. The second tour was especially rough, when he worked at the Lion’s Den Patrol Base. "Daniel in the Lion's Den." He grinned, not elaborating further. On his return stateside after the war, he was entangled in trouble. He had bad PTSD. Nightmares. He got into drugs. He went AWOL from the military and was discharged.
Later, he got into a physical fight with his dad and left his home in Utah. Later still, he assaulted a cop and was sent to jail for 9 months. When he got out, he had nowhere to go. He headed for San Francisco and started panhandling for drugs--eventually developing a crystal meth habit that grew to $100/day. And then, extraordinary things began happening to him. One day he was in Panhandle Park in San Francisco, sitting on a bench. He carried a pocket Bible with him to read and as he put it, “try and figure things out.”
He was reading the Psalms and said he could relate to everything David was saying, especially those about his enemies coming at him.
Hearing this, I became intensely interested. I asked Daniel if he knew about Psalm 140, the Psalm read to St. Francis upon his death. Daniel had heard of it and recited a portion of it to me from memory. Psalm 140 begins like this 1:2 “Rescue me, O' Lord, from evil men protect me from men of violence who devise evil plans in their hearts and stir up war every day.” “And in verse 6 O' Lord, I say to you, You are my God. Hear, O Lord, my cry for mercy.” He continues the story. . .While on the park bench reading, Daniel skipped to Ephesians 6. There, he became entranced by the words 'shield of faith' in verse 16. "I wasn't high at that time," he said. Contemplating 'shield of faith,' he put down the book, looked up, and saw a man, neatly dressed in a black three-piece suit, complete with top hat and cane. This man looked straight at him, and Daniel felt what he described as "pure evil, a demonic presence." In terror, he bolted out of the park and went by the ocean to calm down.
Later that evening, outside of Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, he began looking for food. While doing so, he was approached by a church group who asked him if they could pray for him. He told them 'yes,' and they formed a circle around him. "There were seven of them," he remembers. At the same time, another group approached him from the outside of the prayer circle. They began shouting and cursing at him. They were strangers and were saying things to him that were very personal. "They could not have known these things unless they knew me," recalled Daniel, "things like 'even though you're a veteran it doesn't matter and other crazy things. . .' I was flipping out, bro."
One of the seven, the pastor, asked Daniel if he could take him home. He took him up on it and hopped into his truck. "I just wanted a way out." The pastor asked him to wait in the truck while he went back out for a minute to give direction to the group. While sitting in the truck, he saw the man in the black suit and top hat again. This time the man approached him, growling at him like he was going to kill him. Daniel recalls, "The only thing I could think to do at the time was to tuck my head between my knees and scream JESUS!" The man stopped approaching him further, watching him from a playground nearby.
The pastor climbed back in the truck, and they drove off. At this point, he said, "my life changed." The breakthrough came when they got to the pastor's house. He recalled: "I remember a ball of something leaving my body. I remember weeping continuously for 3 hours. I recounted all the bad things I had done in my life, how wretched I was and how sorry I was for everything. "It was then I saw my need for a savior. I saw my need for Jesus Christ."
I was spellbound, frozen taken over by his words, and the vivid memory of a time not so long before, when a ‘ball of something’ left my body, out of the top of my head, soon after I had angrily challenged God to product a lightning bulb and take me the f--- out of here. And then, the wretched feeling, the weeping and gnashing of teeth . . .Was I in a dream?
He recounts more details of his journey, citing numerous scriptures along the way, demonstrating how his life was playing out in their words. Over time, he joined a mission group and earned himself a place to stay. "But for the last 3 weeks, Daniel continued, all I heard God say was 'Go to Monterey, Go to Monterey.' Now I don't have any money, bro, and I told God, 'OK if I go, you're going to have to provide for me.' But of course, he already knows." He related it back to Peter. "You’ve got to step out of the boat sometimes. Quit focusing on the storms and focus on Jesus. People I was with at the time, said 'This isn't smart. You'll go back to being homeless."
Daniel spoke of how the apostles were often homeless until they were killed. He was good with this. "Paul was always content. He was content when homeless. He was content when in jail." And yes, the Son of Man had no place even to rest his head . . .With no money, relying on his shield of faith, Daniel set out for Monterey. First, there was a train ticket left at the counter with 3 hours left on it. This got him to the bus station. There he met a woman at the Bus Depot that couldn't help him but, she had a sister that loved to help those in need. She funded the $190 bus ticket. He made it to Monterey earlier that day.
I asked if he still had anger issues. "Yes," he said, "but it's getting better." He called it his Giant that he has to battle and that "Everyone has their Giant." "The old ways still come out of me. I've found you have to let Jesus be Lord of your life, not just your savior." Daniel asked what it was that God was asking me to do. I told him I wasn't sure. Maybe it was what I was doing at that moment. Talking to him and recording his story. And then he said, "You gotta let me give you something before you go. It is about finding your identity in Christ." He pulls out a green-covered journal. "You can have the whole book." At first, I refused the offer, but Daniel insisted. "God has provided for me so much; it's ridiculous. I have other books. I am being led to give this to you."
The book has Bible passages written out and passages in his words written underneath and highlighted red to symbolize "the blood of Christ." Like this (hold up the notebook.)
A sample . . .Romans 8:1 - There is, therefore, no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. Daniel - "No condemnation awaits me." Colossians 2:10 - and you are complete in Him, who is the head of all principality and power. “I am complete in Christ.” I dropped into the dreamlike feeling again. “Am I really hearing this?” Only weeks before, I received instruction from an unusual source to verify words that I had written with scripture. This was the mirror opposite of Daniel’s method. And I hadn't completed this work yet.
We talked some more, but soon it was time to part. Before parting, we prayed together, our hands placed on each other's shoulders (like this). I prayed for God to work through him to dissolve his anger, telling him that I was sure it would happen because it had already happened. God is not bound by our illusions of time. In return, Daniel gives me the most meaningful personal prayer I have ever received from anyone. Not because of the words. Rather, it was pure feeling, an energetic movement is the best I could describe it. It was literally power-ful and left me with a lightness or floating sensation that persisted for some time.
A few days later . . .I am back home in my own bed and bolted awake out of a tragic and vivid nightmare, high-definition color and senses intact. It was the worst of a string of such dream, always ending at precisely 3 a.m. I had already become fearful of sleep. But this time I awoke to 3 orbs of light darting across my vision, vanishing soon after. Terrified, with waves of cold chills rolling over me, I jump out of bed, run to the living room. Seeking words of solace, I grab the Bible and open it. Unmarked and unleafed, with hundreds of options to choose from, the Bible chooses page 489, the page starting with Psalm 140.
And I read it . . .Hear, O Lord, my cry for mercy. And I think of David, battling his Giants . . .And I think of Daniel, battling his Lions. . .Clutching his shield of faith . . .And I see him smiling, contented. . . And I think of St. Francis and our 'Brother Sun', soon to rise again in the east . . . And I know I the night will end. And the Light will overcome. .
My Observations/Lessons Learned: #1 - This started with a church group going into the field to pray for a homeless drug addict who was himself open and receptive to prayers. Both the transmitter and receiver were in tune here to deliver God’s power and He delivered it. #2 - I passed maybe a dozen homeless people that day without a second glance. The smile drew me in to Daniel. This reminds me I need to smile more. As one great spiritual teacher once said, “Become a smile millionaire.”
Like most, I still battle with anger on occasion. I am fully aware it is our own bad medicine, but it is not always so easy to let go of it. My experience tells me that it takes conscious, sustained effort to purge anger at the level of thought before it manifests into words or negative actions. And the deeper the cut, the longer it takes. Even when you think you’ve purged angry thoughts, they seem to want to drift back into the mind. To transform anger into love is a trick I haven’t learned yet. My memory of Daniel gives me the courage. If he can do it, maybe I can do it too.
In closing, I wonder if I could pray for you and you could pray for me, and we could all pray for each other to let go of any anger or resentment we might be holding as we kick off 2022.
Dear Heavenly Father, Divine Mother, Source of our Being, God
We pray for Your healing power to root out our seeds of anger, and quench them in the Holy fire, and to forgive those for whom we are holding our feelings of resentment. O’ Lord we thank You for doing this for us. In Jesus name we pray, Amen!
December 19, 2021
Maple Grove UMC
Rev. Patricia Wagner
Micah 5: 2-5
2But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days. 3Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in labor has brought forth; then the rest of his kindred shall return to the people of Israel. 4And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth; 5and he shall be the one of peace.
Luke 1: 46-55
39In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” 46And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 54He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” 56And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.
It was Christmas Eve and a friend and I decided we wanted to spend Christmas with some friends a few hundred miles away. We got as far as we could by bus, then as it was getting late we had to press on so we hitched a ride in the cab of a slightly intoxicated truck driver, whom we sobered up by sharing all the food we had. We had no way of letting our friends know we were coming. So, once we arrived, we stood outside their home and sang Away in a Manger, and they came to the door laughing in disbelief and let us in, fed us and made a pallet, a bed on the floor.
I had a regular spot on that floor over the years. It was in the corner, behind the sofa, I knew that while I didn't have a permanent residence there would be a vacancy, they would always find room. Like Mary found room at her cousin Elizabeth’s for three months, scripture says. It is a fundamental need, to know we have a place to rest, a fundamental gift, to offer it.
Its why we have our warming station, only a few have come so far, but one who came last week is in the hospital and being evicted this week and another who came this week is living out of his car. Our family shelter in town is asking children with young children to stay away to stay away because COVID outbreaks.
But I think of all who need to be warmed, cheered, supported, fed. Particularly hospital staff and health care workers and pharmacists running vaccination clinics at our drug stores; who are on that endless highway running on empty, looking for a time to rest.
We hear the prophet Micah describe the situation in Israel: the nation is in distress, but Micah says, in Bethlehem, the least of all places, will be woman who will bring forth a child who will be a ruler like no other like a good shepherd, the people will live secure, he says. Secure - it meant so much, it means so much; always has. We all seek it, for a lot of us, it means making sure we have stored up provisions, that we will not want. In the movie, Its A Wonderful Life when, money from the Savings & Loan goes missing and ruination is imminent George Bailey is about to jump off a bridge because he thinks his family will be better off with his life insurance money than with his failed life. Then a messenger from God tells him that his life matters to God; shows him that his work matters, even if it doesn't pay enough that the security, he wants is the one he already has: love. Its a great theme of Christmas: Scrooge learns it the Grinch learns it. And we learn it: Once, in a great urban park in Manila where I was walking in the evening, I came upon a poor man and a very small child, sleeping sitting up on a sort of pedestal in the park. I was horrified, they looked almost like statues. It was night, the child should be asleep. I looked closer; they were sleeping. Their arms wrapped around one another. And the child had a look of such peace she was wretchedly poor, hungry, but one knew by looking at her that she was home. And that home was the heart of her father. At the time that Mary visits Elizabeth, Elizabeth's husband, Zechariah is still unable to speak he's been this way since he heard the news of her pregnancy. Joseph doesn't know what to do about this child. But Elizabeth joyously welcomes Mary to her home, encourages her, calls her blessed, and Mary, poor and lowly speaks the truth that's been revealed to her. That security does not come in wealth or power: God will bring down the mighty and raise up the lowly. They both knew this to be true for the empty places within them their barren places, were now filled with the promise that they are part of something great beyond themselves part of God's great story.
We are all on that Advent Road to Christmas. It can seem dark at times, and we wonder if there is going to be respite, a place of rest and recovery a place where the vacancy the empty place within us will be filled. And Mary's song and Micah's words and the carols we sing and the story we will tell and the lights we will light will confirm in our hearts. That there is a shepherd, that our hearts may dwell secure. That the vacant places will be filled that there is enough compassion in this universe enough mercy, enough forgiveness enough love for us and that our hearts, even bone tired ones, even barren ones, even uncertain ones can become a home for the holy for God's own life to live and grow. May it be so, Amen.