Songs of Hope

Luke 1:46-55

46 And Mary said: “My soul glorifies the Lord 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, 49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me—holy is his name. 50 His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. 51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. 52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. 53 He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. 54 He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful 55 to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors.”

One of the most challenging things about preaching during Advent is that you’ve heard these stories before. Maybe even many times before. I could preach from Jeremiah 5:14 and give that passage a new interpretation for you, enlighten you with a few phrases from the Hebrew language, and send you on your way to bake Christmas cookies. But what do you say about the early chapters of Luke’s gospel that hasn’t already been said? Even Linus from “A Charlie Brown Christmas” has a significant part of this scripture memorized, and he isn’t even real. Worse yet, I’m going to be preaching from these chapters today and next Sunday. How am I going to say something new next week?

Every year we sing these song. Every year we read these verses. We do this year after year after year, so what’s left to be said that hasn’t already been said?

Nothing, and that’s okay. Because no matter how many times I sing these songs, I’m moved. It doesn’t matter if it is “Oh Come, Oh Come, Emmanuel,” sung in a minor key, or “The Virgin Mary had a Baby Boy,” performed in the style of Reggae with steel drums. I’m still moved. The story of Christmas is a story of hope, a story of restoration, and a story of reconciliation. That doesn’t get old! And as long as there is sin and suffering in this world, I need the story of Christmas because I still need Jesus.

What I want to do this morning is to remember the situation that Mary found herself in, her life and her experiences. Because if Mary was able to find hope in her situation, maybe we can too.

So what do we know about Mary? If her son was the Prince of Peace who grew to be the King of kings, then she must have been born into royalty herself. I’m guessing she must have been a young woman, probably in her mid 20’s, married to the king, and doing well for herself. Servants. Riches. Power. Or maybe just the opposite. Let’s start with her age.

In the first century, it was common for a young woman to get engaged significantly younger than we are used to today. Many people guess that Mary was between 12 and 14 as the customary age for a Jewish girl to be betrothed in the first century was the age of 12. And if you think about it, this makes good sense because the parents could send their daughters away right as were entering that difficult time known as the teenage years.

Many of us today get a bit queasy at the thought of getting married at such an age. I was 23 and Sonya was 22 when we got married, and many tell us that we were young. That’s a full decade older than Mary. Obviously, a lot has changed, and there were cultural and biological reasons why people were married so young back in those days. But the reason I like to emphasize how young Mary was when she received news that she was going to give birth to Jesus is because Mary shows a remarkable amount of maturity for a 12-14-year-old! I’m probably three times as old as Mary was here, and I’m not that mature.

If we look at the way the story unfolds in Luke’s gospel, we find the angel Gabriel showing up unannounced and telling Mary that she has found favor with God and will give birth to Jesus. This very mature young woman then asks a very mature question in verse 34, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”

A very good question. So Gabriel explains to her that God will give her this child, and it will be God’s own son. And if that isn’t confusing enough, on the other end of the age spectrum is Mary’s older, barren relative, Elizabeth. And she has a special baby growing in her womb, too.

As all this is going down, Mary asks the very practical question, “How can this be?” And the next thing that she says is found in verse 38, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

Mary goes from “How can it be?” to “Let it be.” And yes, this is where the Beetles got their song title from.

Mary isn’t exactly your average 12-year-old. As I’ve said before, I think that Catholics sometimes make too much of Mary. But I also think that we Protestants often don’t take her seriously enough. Mary is a pillar of faith.

Great, now remind me, who was Mary married to at this point? Nobody. She was betrothed to Joseph; some translations say that she was promised or pledged to be married to Joseph. But they were not locked in the bonds of holy matrimony in the way we might think of it today.

Recall that it was the Hebrew tradition of the time for a couple to be betrothed for about a year or more before they actually got married. And the betrothal ceremony was a binding covenant. Some livestock was probably exchanged, some vows were made, and then the man and woman lived apart while he built them a house. And important for our story is the practice of the man and woman never being left alone with one another until the man had completed their living quarters. Wink, wink; nudge, nudge. If you get my drift.

So Joseph and Mary have not been together, yet Mary is pregnant. Joseph knows it isn’t his child, and he probably also knows that Deuteronomy 22 lays out the punishment for someone who has relationships with a person who is betrothed to another. Mary should have been taken out in the street and stoned.

We know that Joseph made the decision to dismiss her rather than put her to death. Thankfully, the angel visited him as well.

But at least Jesus’s family had money and power. If you have money and power, you can get away with stuff like this, even during inflexible times like the first century.

Wait a second. In the second chapter of Luke’s gospel we find the story of the presentation of Jesus in the Temple. 40 days have passed since his birth and it is now required by law for both the dedication of the child and for Mary to perform the postpartum rituals of purity. In Leviticus 12:6 we find the requirements: “When the days of her purification for a son or daughter are over, she is to bring to the priest at the entrance to the tent of meeting a year-old lamb for a burnt offering and a young pigeon or a dove for a sin offering.” This is not a sin offering for the child, but for the mother, who has not been permitted into the Temple/Tabernacle since giving birth. She has been ceremonially unclean.

The lamb offering is to restore her ceremonial cleanliness; the pigeon or dove is for a sin offering to atone for her sins. She needs one of each. Now look at Leviticus 12:8: “But if she cannot afford a lamb, she is to bring two doves or two young pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering. In this way the priest will make atonement for her, and she will be clean.” Pigeons are cheap. You can catch them yourself if you have to. Lambs come at a price.

Now if we turn to Luke 2:24 we read, “And they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the Law of the Lord, a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.” If they had the money to pay for a lamb offering, they would have. Mary and Joseph most likely catch their offering in order to comply with the Law.

Just to recap, Mary is a young, unmarried, poor woman who is now forced to deal with the consequences of an unexpected pregnancy. She’s going to be rejected by her friends, maybe disowned by her family. And her response is…Oops! Oh, No!

Not even close. Mary says, “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me—holy is his name.”

Mary sings. And her song isn’t entirely original. It seems to borrow a bit from Hannah’s Song, found in 1 Samuel 2, when Hannah finds out that she will give birth to the prophet Samuel. Mary seems to borrow a bit from Isaiah 61, which Jesus reads as his first public sermon. What we find in Mary’s song can best be described as hopeful resistance.

A poor, pregnant, unmarried girl living in Roman-occupied, 1st-century Palestine chooses to sing a song of praise, a song of thanksgiving, a song of hope. She totally could have gone the other way with that one and nobody would have blamed her.

I think of the African American spirituals sung by slaves as they worked on the plantations. Songs with biblical themes, adapted for their current situations. “Wade in the water, wade in the water, children. Wade in the water. God’s a gonna trouble the water.” A reference to the Israelites crossing the Jordan River to escape their pursuers and the healing waters of John 5. “Swing low, sweet chariot. Coming for to carry me home.” A reference to the prophet Elijah being taken away by a chariot from heaven.

In one of the bleakest times of American history, these slaves sang songs of hope, songs of resistance. Times are tough, but God is here.

I wondered what songs of resistance and songs of hope we sing today. Of course we can sing Bob Dylan, “The times, they are a changing.” Or “Get up, Stand up!” by Bob Marley. I thought of songs by NWA reacting to police brutality, which we won’t quote in church. I also thought of “Fight the Power,” by Public Enemy. But really, who can take Flavor Flav seriously with that clock around his neck?

After I had written this sermon I thought of another song of resistance, this one by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. The song is simply called “The Message.” The chorus from “The Message” is in a kid’s movie about penguins, and my kids saw the movie about a year-and-a-half ago, right around Hadley’s fourth birthday. A few days later I took her in for her four-year-old doctor’s checkup, and she really didn’t want to be there. She was twenty-five pounds of stubbornness. When the doctor came in she asked me to set Hadley on the edge of the bed and the word “edge” must have reminded her of the song from the penguin movie, because she starts to sing it. And the doctor didn’t know what was going on, all she saw was a little girl who didn’t want to be there singing, “Don’t push me ‘cause I’m close to the edge. I’m trying not to lose my head.”

Proud moment for this daddy.

But in all honesty, I’m not sure that’s what we are going for here. “Fight the Power” and strongly-worded songs about law enforcement will get people motivated and prepared for action. But it also causes a lot of reaction. Sometimes riots break out and people are hurt. Music can be powerful, for sure. There’s no question about it, Mary calls for the “rich to be sent away empty,” and for the hungry to be filled, and for the humble to be lifted up. But Mary’s song isn’t about rallying the troops. Mary’s magnificat isn’t a militant song. It’s about resistance through hope.

What are our songs of resistance and our songs of hope in the church? Well, we have entire hymnals of them.

At every funeral I’ve ever been to there has been singing. Some funerals are extremely sad, especially when people die tragically or too soon. But without fail, someone’s going to sing “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a retch like me.” A song of hope for the future, a song of resistance to dark place people can go in such times.

Eastertime is one of my favorite seasons to sing the songs of hope and resistance in the church. “Low in the grave He lay, Jesus, my Savior, Waiting the coming day, Jesus, my Lord! Up from the grave He arose, With a mighty triumph o’er His foes, He arose a Victor from the dark domain, And He lives forever, with His saints to reign.”

Just yesterday I gathered with Christians and even non-Christians of all kinds at Gypsy Hill Park for the annual caroling in the park event. Voices from people of every race, color, and even different religions gathered together and sang, “Joy to the world, the Lord is come! Let earth receive her King!”

That is a song of resistance and a song of hope. Joy in a time of darkness and sadness. The King has come. Not Herod, not Caesar, not even Elvis. Jesus, the King of kings, Lord of lords has come.

Mary doesn’t sing her magnificat because she knows life is going to be easy. Mary sings her magnificat because she knows who God is. Mary’s song is a song of resistance. Resisting the temptation to be afraid, resisting the pressures of the community around her, resisting the rich and the powerful. We sing songs of resistance and songs of hope because we know who our God is. And that God will see us through whatever we are facing.

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Glaciers, Rivers, and Bulldozers

Isaiah 40:1–11

1Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. 2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.

3 A voice of one calling: “In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4 Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. 5 And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all people will see it together. For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

6 A voice says, “Cry out.” And I said, “What shall I cry?” “All people are like grass, and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field. 7 The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the Lord blows on them. Surely the people are grass. 8 The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God endures forever.”

9 You who bring good news to Zion, go up on a high mountain. You who bring good news to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with a shout, lift it up, do not be afraid; say to the towns of Judah, “Here is your God!” 10 See, the Sovereign Lord comes with power, and he rules with a mighty arm. See, his reward is with him, and his recompense accompanies him. 11 He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.

I grew up in the rolling hills of northeastern Ohio. Not too flat, not too hilly. But just right. The hills are such an important part of our landscape that many businesses and organizations use the word “hill” in their names. Just down the road from my parents’ home is Pleasant Hill Baptist Church. I was baptized at Crown Hill Mennonite Church. And we affectionately referred to my friend William, who lived on a sizable hill as a Hillbilly.

But one doesn’t have to go far in Ohio to notice a change in topography. If you go to the northwest part of the state, things are extremely flat. If you go just to the next county south of where I grew up, those hills double in size and continue to grow right up to the Appalachian Mountains in West Virginia.

My mother explained to me many years ago why there was such a sudden change in the land as we drove south to celebrate Thanksgiving. She said that long ago there had been a glacier that moved south and east down through Ohio, making it about as far as our neck of the woods. And this is why the farmland in our area was so productive. The glacier had brought with it minerals and nutrients from the northern territories and when it stopped and melted, it left these things in our fields. And because of its sheer size, weight, and force, a glacier is able to level off hills and valleys.

All of this came back to me this week as I read our scripture from Isaiah 40. Verses 3b-4 say, “In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain.”

So I looked it up, and my mother was correct. I even found some interesting maps from a journal, published sixty years ago, showing the line where the glacier stopped.

If you know much about glaciers, you probably know that they are slow. In 2012 a glacier in Greenland set a new world record when it was observed moving 10.5 miles…in a year. The average glacier moves about one adult human step per day. That’s slow. Three-toed sloths make fun of glaciers for being slow.

So I was under the impression that parts of Ohio were pretty flat until I married a young woman from Nebraska. Oh, I’d heard stories about the farmland in the Midwest before. I’ve heard about how farmers would start plowing their field in the morning, reach the end of the field at noon, stop for lunch, turn around, and drive back. I never believed that story, but all at once it seemed plausible.

So I looked this week at why the region known as The Great Plains is so very flat. Apparently, there was a time when this region was all under what is called the Western Interior Seaway. A shallow river flowed from Canada down through the Gulf of Mexico. It is really strange to think about because in the middle of Nebraska, they find shark skeletons. And to this day, there is one of the largest underground sources of water in the world lying below the Great Plains in the Ogallala Aquafer.

When comparing a river to a glacier, it is clear that a river doesn’t have the brute force of a glacier. But it moves a lot faster. And we have probably all seen how a river can erode a creek bank or carve out a canyon.

If speed is what you are after…I’d probably not choose either of these two methods.

No, if I was trying to level something, I’d probably start with dynamite and bulldozers. A good bulldozer would speed the process up significantly. I think of the paths that have been carved through the mountains with bulldozers and dynamite, tunnels through the middle of mountains, roads that make the high places lower and the low places higher.

In order from slowest to fastest, that would be glaciers, rivers, and bulldozers. Unfortunately, we don’t always get to choose.

Let’s look at the verses that I mentioned a few minutes ago. From Isaiah 40:3-4: “A voice of one calling: “In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain.”

Recall that the Israelites have completed their time in exile and that they have been granted permission by Cyrus, the Persian king, to return to Jerusalem. God is speaking words of comfort to them; their iniquities have been pardoned. Then there is a voice. And you may notice that different translation begin the quote from that voice at different places. Is the voice calling from the wilderness, or is the voice saying to prepare the way for the Lord in the wilderness? The original Hebrew didn’t have capital letters, let alone punctuation, so it is hard to tell. But I lean toward the first option. The voice is coming from the wilderness.

This voice says to make the high places lower and the low places higher. Level off the rough places and make them into a plain. That’s right, my friends. The goal here is to make the world into Nebraska. No, we are just making a path here. The goal seems to carve out a road like I-64 crossing Afton Mountain. Rather than going all the way up and all the way down, we are to prepare a path that makes the journey as easy as possible.

But notice that we are not the ones making the journey. We are to prepare the way of the Lord. The imagery of Isaiah 40 isn’t one of making the paths straight for the people to return from exile and back to Jerusalem. The imagery is for the people to make the paths straight because God is coming to them.

How consistent is this with the teachings of Jesus? God is like a shepherd who leaves the 99 behind and searches for the one lost sheep. God is like a woman with 10 coins who loses one and turns the house upside down to find it. God is the one who is going to make the journey to the lost Israelites in exile, so they better do whatever they can to make the journey easier.

Though the text doesn’t state it explicitly, it would seem that God didn’t leave the people. No, the people left God.

I love the imagery over verses 10-11, “See, the Sovereign Lord comes with power, and he rules with a mighty arm…He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.”

Here is the big, powerful, sovereign Lord. He rules with his mighty arm, which could snap you in half (in my best professional wrestler voice), holding his people in his arms, close to his heart.

This is the reunion we want. This is why we prepare the way for the Lord.

Jumping ahead to the New Testament, it is pretty clear that the gospel writers connect the events described in Isaiah with the birth of Jesus. But we also know that there was one who came before Jesus, one who paved the way. We know him as John.

Look at what Mark does in chapter 1, verses 1-4:

The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah the Son of God, as it is written in Isaiah the prophet: I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way—a voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’ And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

Mark is actually quoting from several sources here, with a focus on Isaiah 40. This is the good news, the Gospel, about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God. Very political language here about the identity of Jesus. But the focus here is on the messenger of the Lord. The messenger is angelos in Greek; this is an angel from God. In the Bible we find both immortal and mortal angels. Gabriel and Michael, those are non-human angels. John is the son of a priest and his elderly wife. But he has a message from God, and therefore is an angelos, he is an angel.

The word order is a little different in Mark: it is clear that the voice is calling from the wilderness, instructing someone to prepare the way for the Lord. The voice is coming from the wilderness, not from the temple. You would expect some kind of religious pronouncement to come from the center of the religion. It should come from the Vatican, from Jerusalem, from Mecca, or from Harrisonburg. No, the voice doesn’t come from the established center of power, it comes from outside. It comes from the margins. From some homeless guy living in a tent out in the woods.

John is said to have worn cloak made of camel hair and a belt of leather. Why is this significant? First of all, that wasn’t the style of the time. Camel hair was itchy and wool was not only more comfortable, but readily available. But in 2 Kings we find a story about a prophet who was called by God to bring the people of Israel back to the Lord. This prophet makes a pronouncement against the king, and the king starts to ask about this prophet’s identity and asks his servants to describe the man. Chapter 1, verse 8: “They replied, ‘He had a garment of hair and had a leather belt around his waist.’ The king said, ‘That was Elijah the Tishbite.’”

Just for your information, “a garment of hair” can also be translated as “He is hairy and had a leather belt…” I could be a prophet, just saying.

John’s choice of clothing is intended to connect him with the great prophets of the Old Testament. In Luke’s gospel, the angel Gabriel says that John will go before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah. And later Jesus will say that off all men born of a woman, none were greater than John.

John’s job was a bit different from Elijah’s, though. John worked for VDOT. He was in the road construction business. It was John’s job to prepare a road for the Lord.

Recall that Isaiah said to make the path easier for God to come to the people. In Jesus, we believe that God did come to the people. And what Jesus said wasn’t always easy for the people to hear. Nobody wants to be told to sell their things and give the money to the poor. Nobody wants to hear that they need to forgive and love their enemies. Nobody wants to give up comfort and prestige to serve the least of these.

That’s why we need people out there, paving the way. We need people making the high places lower, the low places higher.

So if I am reading these scriptures correctly, and I know that there are other passages that indicate a different story, God is searching for us, pursuing us. God is coming to find us, and there is only one thing that can keep him from actually getting ahold of us.

Us.

We are the only thing keeping God away from us. The almighty creator of heaven and earth can set the world in motion and create the sun, moon, and stars. But God can’t force us to love him back.

All of these hills and valleys, rough and rugged terrains are self-imposed. And we are called to make the way smooth so God can come into our lives. And that is easier said than done. Many people have been hurt by the church and by Christians who were believed to be on the side of God. Some people have no need for God because they have all that they need, and they got it all on their own. If you have money, health, and good relationships, why would you need God? To the person who has it all, I would simply repeat the words of Solomon and say that it is all meaningless without God.

Like John before us, we are called to be way-pavers. Sometimes we can remove obstacles quickly, like a bulldozer, plowing through the mountains. It can be as easy as making an apology or offering to help. Other times we need to flood someone or something with love, like a river, slowing eroding and carving out a plain. And still other times things move as slow as a glacier, inch by inch, making the high places lower and the low places higher.

Fast or slow, that’s not always up to us. Regardless, we are called to make the high places lower and the low places higher.

God wants to meet us in exile. God came to this world in Jesus. Now the question comes down to are we going to be an obstacle to grace, or will be make the way smooth?

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Let it be

Isaiah 64New International Version (NIV)

1 Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you! 2 As when fire sets twigs ablaze and causes water to boil, come down to make your name known to your enemies and cause the nations to quake before you! 3 For when you did awesome things that we did not expect, you came down, and the mountains trembled before you. 4 Since ancient times no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for him. 5 You come to the help of those who gladly do right, who remember your ways. But when we continued to sin against them, you were angry. How then can we be saved?

6 All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away. 7 No one calls on your name or strives to lay hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us and have given us over to our sins.

8 Yet you, Lord, are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand. 9 Do not be angry beyond measure, Lord; do not remember our sins forever. Oh, look on us, we pray, for we are all your people.

My wife and I have been members of the local YMCA for about nine years, pretty much since we moved from Harrisonburg to Staunton. Every time you go in, they scan a card with a barcode on it to identify you as you. They gave us two options for a membership card: we could either get a full-sized wallet card, or one of those little keychain cards. I didn’t want to bring my wallet in every time I came to the Y, so I opted for the keychain card.

I despise these things.

I have 57 different keychain cards, give or take. I have one for each of the three local grocery stores, one for the two local drug stores, one for a hardware store, and three for the YMCA. These things bother me so much. I have been in stores where they ask me, “Do you want to join our VIP shopper club? You’ll save money every time you shop with us.” That’s appealing to me. I like to save money. Then they go on, “We just need you to sign this and we will give you a little card for your keychain.”

Nooooo! I’d rather pay that extra $.15 than carry another keychain thingy!

Anyway, after nine years of shoving my keys into my pockets and dropping them on the kitchen counter, my keychain card for the YMCA had become damaged to the point where the scanner could no longer scan it. So the front-desk attendant kept my keys this week and replaced my worn-out card with a new one. She removed the old card, updated my information, and then put the new card on my keyring.

There’s just one problem. She put it on backwards.

All my other keychain cards have the barcode on the same side. The new one is directed the wrong way. Now I realize that if this is the biggest problem I face this week that I am doing pretty well. But it does bother me, and I know that I’m not the only one who is bothered by things like this. If you’re going to do something, you might as well do it right!

This experience made me think of an episode of the television show “The Big Bang Theory.” If you aren’t familiar with the show, it is about a bunch of scientists who are socially awkward trying to make their way through dating, work, and life in general. The episode that came to mind involves Dr. Sheldon Cooper, a theoretical physicist, and his girlfriend, Amy, a neuroscientist.

Amy is trying to help Sheldon get over his need to experience a sense of closure in all situation. She has used her skills as a neuroscientist to devise a program to help Sheldon let things go. She starts by saying, “Sheldon, closure isn’t always an op…”

She acts distraction until Sheldon breaks in and yells, “shun. Closure isn’t always an option.”

Amy engages Sheldon in a game of Tic-Tac-Toe on a white board, only to erase the board moments before Sheldon wins. They spend time setting up dominos, and then pick them up without first knocking them down. They sing the Star Spangled Banner together, and Amy stops with “and the home of the.” And my favorite, Amy hands Sheldon a jack-in-the-box. He turns the crank as the familiar tune, “Around and around the mulberry bush, the monkey chased the weasel” plays. And Amy takes it away just before it pops.

I find this humorous because I get it. For sure, Sheldon Cooper is a bit over the top, but I too like to see things through until their end. I like closure. And as my keychain cards remind me, I like order, too. I also would bet that to some extent, you do as well.

Today is the first Sunday of Advent, a time of anticipation as we await the birth of our King. Advent is meant to be a time of hope, a hope that builds a little bit each week.

But we also begin Advent knowing that not everything lines up the way we would like it to. And we know this story. We know that in four weeks we will be celebrating the deliverer, the mighty one, counselor, the Prince of Peace, almighty God! We know that this is reason to celebrate!

But like Sheldon Cooper, we don’t get our closure. At least we haven’t yet. We are still waiting.

Our text for this morning comes from the book of Isaiah. Isaiah is often broken into two or three parts. The two sections are pretty clear: pre-exile and post exile.

Chapters 1-39 present a lot of warnings. This is what is going to happen. God will allow x because you did y. Then in chapter 40 there is a major change, and we will look at that next week. Chapter 40 is where we get some of the best material from Handle’s Messiah. Comfort ye my people. Speak softly to Jerusalem…Tell her that her iniquities have been pardoned.

Chapters 56-66 seem to be a bit different. They aren’t filled with warnings like 1-39, nor are they filled with hope like 40-55. 56-66 is more of a collection of wise sayings, oracles of the prophet. So the book of Isaiah is divided by time, but also by genre.

Chapter 64 is one of those oracles, which begins with a request, a plea, really: “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you!”

Split the heavens in two and come here, our God! Isaiah goes on to say that God has done this sort of thing before. God, you’ve done awesome things that we did not expect. You’ve shaken a few mountains in your days. Now we want you to do it again.

So what’s going on here? My understanding is that the Israelites have been released from their exile, permitted to go home, only to find that their homes and their lives are a shadow of what they had been. This doesn’t line up. We need closure to that whole exile experience. But this just isn’t what was expected.

Some scholars even go so far as to say that the enemies spoken of in verse 2 are not enemies from outside, but enemies from within their own people group. These families have been separated for a couple generations, and now they’ve been brought back together, and they don’t necessarily see eye-to-eye on how they should be worshipping, how they should be rebuilding, and how the people should be governed.

The enemy, it seems, is “us.”

Surely the Israelites are calling out to God, asking, Where are you? And where is this comfort? I can still hear the songs from Isaiah 40, is this all we can expect?

And in the midst of this disappointment and family division, the prophet prays, “Oh, look on us, we pray, for we are all your people” (V. 9b, emphasis mine).

I think we have all seen the ways that stress can cause division, even among the closest of families. I’d share a few personal stories, but that would just cause more stress in my family and divide us further. But I think that it is important to point out, especially during these stressful holidays, that in the middle of darkness, in the middle of all the stress, we need to hold on to hope.

The Israelites prayed for God to split the heavens and come to this earth. And as Christians, we believe that he did just that. In the form of Jesus, God broke into this world to save us from our sin, and to reconcile us to one another. And yes, I do think the teachings of Jesus include showing us how to get along with our family, no matter what they have done or said to us.

We can be right with God, right with one another, and right with all of creation. That’s what Jesus promises, that’s what Christmas symbolizes, and that’s what I hope for.

Regardless of who you are and what you experience, you surely hope for a better tomorrow. And though Christmas can be depressing to some, we are surrounded by symbols of hope.

For instance, there is a lot of debate about Christmas trees, holiday trees, or whatever you want to call them today. (I’ve never actually heard anyone call them holiday trees.) The practice of bringing evergreens into a home does not originate with Christianity. Rather, it is a pagan ritual surrounding the celebration of the winter solstice that we adopted. And I’m kind of glad we did. Though we live in sunny Virginia, remember that there are places where the ground is often covered with snow and very little sun shines all winter long. It’s called Ohio. Evergreens are a sign of hope in the middle of the coldest part of the winter. When everything else is brown and dead, we can see life in the evergreen. We find resilience and perseverance in the evergreen. We find reason to hope.

How about the poinsettia? Poinsettias are native to Mexico and are sometimes called “the star plant” because of the shape of their leaves. The star shape draws our memories back to The Star of Bethlehem, but the reason that they are so common around Christmas is because these plants “bloom” in the cold months. Granted, here in Virginia we make sure that they are at their peak in mid-December, but if left in their native habitat, they bloom in late November and early December. Just as everything else is dying, the poinsettia is bursting forth with color.

There is a beautiful story from 16th-century Mexico about the origins of the poinsettia. A girl named Pepita was stressed that she did not have any gifts to share for the birthday of Jesus. Pepita was visited by an angel who encouraged her to gather weeds and lay them at the altar. So Pepita gathered what she could find, brought them to the altar of the church, and the weeds began to bloom in beautiful shades of red. (We always have poinsettias at church during Advent, and I never see them carried in. I’m just saying.)

Let’s do one more. We all know about mistletoe. If you meet someone under the mistletoe, you are required by law to kiss that person. Many people trace this practice back to a Norse tradition—think Vikings. According to tradition, the Norse god Loki killed a rival god, Balder, by shooting him with an arrow cut from a mistletoe tree. As a symbol of this unnecessary tragedy, the Vikings would hang mistletoe sprigs throughout the city. And when two people met under the mistletoe, friend or foe, they were obligated to drop their weapons and embrace. Out of this practice grew the tradition of showing affection for someone when you meet them under the mistletoe.

My friends, I understand why some people get depressed this time of year, and I’m not going to promise you that everything is going to be perfect or straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting. But together we can pray for God to split the heavens and come down. Maybe I don’t have it as bad as you, and maybe you don’t have it as bad as the next guy, but we all know what it is like to sense that things aren’t lining up. We know what it is like to need closure.

So this Advent I want to encourage you to look for symbols of hope all around you. The evergreen tree showing life in the dead of winter; the poinsettia bloom, breaking forth with color from an otherwise ordinary weed; and the mistletoe, a symbol of love and affection, even among sworn enemies. And as we navigate these territories, may we be there to help one another through the difficult times.

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A King and a Shepherd

Ezekiel 34:11-16; 20-24

11 “‘For this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I myself will search for my sheep and look after them. 12 As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness. 13 I will bring them out from the nations and gather them from the countries, and I will bring them into their own land. I will pasture them on the mountains of Israel, in the ravines and in all the settlements in the land. 14 I will tend them in a good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel will be their grazing land. There they will lie down in good grazing land, and there they will feed in a rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. 15 I myself will tend my sheep and have them lie down, declares the Sovereign Lord. 16 I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. I will shepherd the flock with justice.

20 “‘Therefore this is what the Sovereign Lord says to them: See, I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. 21 Because you shove with flank and shoulder, butting all the weak sheep with your horns until you have driven them away, 22 I will save my flock, and they will no longer be plundered. I will judge between one sheep and another. 23 I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them; he will tend them and be their shepherd. 24 I the Lord will be their God, and my servant David will be prince among them. I the Lord have spoken.

Happy last week of the year to you all! Next Sunday we will turn the page on the calendar and begin a new year.

Those of you who are paying attention are probably wondering if I forgot or you missed the month of December. How long was that post-turkey, tryptophan-induced nap? True, there is one more month of 2017, but today marks the last Sunday of the lectionary calendar. Today is the last Sunday of “Year A,” which means next week we will start “Year B.” I never said that they were creative names, and as you can probably guess, the next year is “Year C.”

You see, the lectionary calendar does something different and a little weird, but I like it. The lectionary year always begins on the first Sunday of Advent, which is December 3 this year. The church isn’t unique in celebrating a different beginning and ending of the year. Many businesses, particularly seasonal ones, often use “fiscal years” for their bookkeeping. Perhaps the best example of this is the school system, which begins its year at the end of the summer and ends in the spring.

A school year makes good sense to me, but why does the lectionary cycle start with Advent? Because we are about to enter into the season surrounding the single-largest event in human history. We start the year with Advent, a celebration of the one born king of the Jews, and we end the year today with what is commonly known as “Christ the King Sunday.”

Christ the King Sunday finds its roots in the early 1900’s in Mexico. During this time a form of Communism known as Marxism was sweeping through this nation and the Marxist leaders were moving quickly into positions of power. If you know your political systems, you may recall that Marxism encourages atheism. It was Marx who said that religion is the opium of the people or the opioid of the masses. It makes you feel good and kind of numb to your surroundings.

In the 1920’s, the Mexican government declared that all citizens must declare their ultimate allegiance to the Mexican government. But the Christians in Mexico pushed back, marching in the streets, proclaiming, “Cristo Rey!”

Christ is King.

This led to persecution of the church by the governing authorities, but the church remained faithful. And in 1925, Christ the King Sunday became the newest official holiday on the church calendar. Christ the King Sunday is a day to remember those who have been faithful in the face of government-sanctioned persecution, and those who have been forgotten or neglected by the rulers of a nation.

Our scripture from Ezekiel this morning brings with it some familiar language and familiar metaphors. Specifically, we read about shepherds and their sheep. One of the challenges with familiar metaphors is that we can read over them quickly and assume we know what is going on only to miss the point. The different authors of the Bible use metaphors differently, and sometimes they mix their metaphors a bit. So it is important to start with a little context.

The Prophet Ezekiel begins his work with a warning to the people of Israel: their land has been taken from them and all that they had worked so hard to build and develop would be ruined. Their homes would be lived in by strangers, their fields would be worked by new owners, and their temple would be stripped of its precious jewels and metals. The people were in exile, and Ezekiel does not mince words: life was going to be hard. And it would go from bad to worse.

In chapter 33 we are told that Ezekiel’s prophesy comes true. Verse 21, “In the twelfth year of our exile, in the tenth month, on the fifth day of the month, someone who had escaped from Jerusalem came to me and said, ‘The city has fallen.’” Then, as we enter chapter 34, our chapter for today, we find Ezekiel blaming a particular group for the exile and destruction of their city. Let’s pick up in the second half of verse 2 through verse 4:

‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally.’

Who is Ezekiel blaming? The shepherds. Hopefully we realize that this is a metaphor, though Ezekiel never explains who these shepherds are. And this is where things can get a little confusing. The New Testament often uses the metaphor of shepherd for the religious leaders who care for a group of Christians. In fact, the Latin word for Shepherd is simply the word “pastor,” from which we get the English word…pastor! My job is to shepherd the people.

But Ezekiel is using the metaphor a bit differently. He is criticizing the political leaders of Israel. The Bible notes several bad kings that led Israel in the years leading up to the exile, names which I will not try to pronounce. We read that these leaders did not know God, did not fear God, and did not care for God’s people. And in the text leading up to our scripture for this morning, Ezekiel speaks about how these leaders, these shepherds, have abused their power at the expense of their people. The shepherds got fat and clothed their selves with the wool of the sheep, while the sheep suffered. And then notice how Ezekiel talks about the exile in the last line of the passage I quoted above: the people in exile are represented as sheep who have wandered off and gone astray. Keep that in mind as we work through this.

So we pick up where our scripture begins this morning with God taking over the role of shepherd. “For this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I myself will search for my sheep and look after them.”

Then in verse 16, “I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. I will shepherd the flock with justice.”

God, the good shepherd, will seek out the lost, heal the hurting, feed the hungry, and strike down the powerful. God will be their king, and a good king at that. When I read this, I am drawn to all sorts of New Testament passages. And these passages seem all the more blasphemous now that I look at the New Testament passages alongside this passage from Ezekiel. In John 10:11, Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd.”

Matthew 9:35-36,

“Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”

In Luke 15 Jesus tells the story about lost things that are found. He tells a parable about a lost coin, about a lost son, and a lost sheep. The good shepherd leaves the 99 behind to go find the one who has wandered off.

And of course there is the passage from today’s lectionary gospel reading, Matthew 25, the separating of the sheep and the goats. In this passage, the king acts as a shepherd, separating those who have cared for those in need from those who have neglected them. The sheep, those who care for the needy, go into eternal reward. The goats, those who neglected the ones in need, are met with eternal punishment.

Here’s what I can glean from all of these sheep/shepherd/goats metaphors. One: those in positions of power and authority, rulers of nations, have the responsibility to care for what Jesus calls “The least of these.” And two: so do we.

When we look at the prophetic tradition, we see prophets like Ezekiel, Isaiah, and Elijah critiquing the leaders of their times. Who can forget the Prophet Nathan telling King David a parable about a man and his sheep, David’s outrage over the injustice, and Nathan turning around saying, “You are the man!”?

There is a biblical precedent for critiquing our political leaders. Now I’m not talking about those divisive little sayings about our presidents like those who add an “N” to the beginning of President Obama’s name, making it “Nobama.” Nor am I speaking of those who won’t say the current president’s name and instead call him “Number 45,” as if he were Voldemort or something like that. This isn’t any better. I’m not encouraging these divisive practices, but I think we as Christians can and should be speaking out about how quickly President Obama ramped up the drone warfare program and we should be raising questions about President Trump’s abusive practices towards women. And though it seems messy, I’m kind of glad that people are asking questions about allegations made about Bill Clinton 20 years ago. This isn’t about criticizing the other side. It isn’t a Republican or Democrat thing. This is about holding leaders accountable. That’s exactly what the Christians in Mexico were doing in the early 20th century when they spoke out against the Marxists’ attempts to snuff out Christianity. And that’s why we commemorate Christ the King Sunday.

But here’s the part that we often don’t like. We like to critique the leaders of our nation. That comes easily and naturally. But as we connect Ezekiel 34 with Matthew 25, we also see that we are responsible for caring for the least of these as well.

Matthew 25:35-36, “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”

There’s nothing in there about voting for a pro-life or anti-war president. There’s nothing in there about foreign relations or the presidential-ity of a leader. Yes, we are to hold leaders accountable, but we too are held accountable. I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat. I’m very thankful that people tend to help more and give more around the holidays. I am thankful that you have to schedule months in advance to serve a meal at the Valley Mission around Thanksgiving and Christmas. My hope is that we can continue to be generous, helping those who can’t help themselves, throughout the year.

I want to come back to what I said about Karl Marx earlier. It was Marx who said that religion is the opium of the people or the opioid of the masses. It makes you feel good and kind of numb to your surroundings.

My friends, if your religion makes you numb to your surroundings, it isn’t the religion of Jesus. Religion shouldn’t make you numb to your community, it should make you passionate about your community.

I can get a little jealous of my Methodist friends here in Staunton from time to time. There are a lot of Methodist churches in town, something like 2 million, I think. There are a few, and I’m glad to call some of the pastors my friends. I’m a little jealous because these pastors work together on projects and seem to have such a great working relationship. The Staunton pastors just completed a sermon series where a lot of the churches looked at the same scripture and same topic every week. The pastors preached their own unique sermons, but they were all on the theme of what it means to be “For Staunton.” You may have even seen the bumper sticker #forstaunton. Together through this series, these churches completed a series of youth missions trips, they worked on a Habitat for Humanity house, they hosted a community trunk or treat, they served food at the Valley Mission. And consider this your formal invitation to attend their Wednesday Advent Bible Study, 11 am, each Wednesday of Advent at the Habitat store.

This Christ the King Sunday, I want to challenge us all to be for Staunton. Be for our community, be for our nation, and be for our species, and for the world that God so loved that he sent his one and only son. May we work together as faithful servants of our Lord, Savior, and King Jesus Christ.

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The Secret to Happiness

1 Thessalonians 5:12-24

12 Now we ask you, brothers and sisters, to acknowledge those who work hard among you, who care for you in the Lord and who admonish you. 13 Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work. Live in peace with each other. 14 And we urge you, brothers and sisters, warn those who are idle and disruptive, encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone. 15 Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else.

16 Rejoice always, 17 pray continually, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

19 Do not quench the Spirit. 20 Do not treat prophecies with contempt 21 but test them all; hold on to what is good, 22 reject every kind of evil.

23 May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24 The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it.

What if I told you that I know the secret to happiness? Even better, I am willing to give you that secret…so let’s pass the collection plates one more time. No, give, I’m willing to give you that secret absolutely free. And no, I’m not passing on the knowledge of Jimmy Soul, who dropped a bit of wisdom on the world when he sang, “If you want to be happy for the rest of your life, never make a pretty woman your wife. So from my personal point of view, get an ugly girl to marry you.”

Let’s be honest, after singing a song like that, who is going to marry Jimmy Soul? Are you just marrying me because you think I’m ugly?

No, I’ve got the secret! I’ve got scientific evidence where hypotheses have been tested in double-blind trials. And time after time these trials have shown that there is one thing, one quality, that almost without fail leads to a happier life. This quality isn’t necessarily something that comes naturally, but it can be cultivated and it can become a habit. The quality that I’m speaking of, this secret to happiness, is actually something quite simple. It is gratitude. It turns out that the happiest people in the world aren’t necessarily the ones with the most possessions, the prettiest or ugliest spouses, the fastest cars, or the most-powerful jobs. The happiest people in the world are those who are thankful for what they have.

What I want to do this morning is to spend some time looking at what our scriptures say about being thankful, then looking at the science behind it, and we will wrap things up with some practical application (which I admit, I don’t always make things practical!). I’ll also add that I am borrowing a lot from a sermon by Greg Boyd of Woodland Hills Church, which you can watch/listen to here: https://whchurch.org/sermon/the-secret/

I want to start by looking at a few verses, all from the writings of “Paul,” because Paul mentions thankfulness a lot. We often turn to Paul for teachings on other behavioral and ethical questions, so let’s assume that he has something to say about thankfulness. (I’ll ask several from the church to read these passages).

1 Corinthians 1:4: “I always thank my God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus.”

1 Thessalonians 1:2-3: “We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.”

2 Thessalonians 1:3: “We must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing…”

Colossians 3:15: “And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful…”

Look at what Paul is doing. I always that God. We always thank God. We must always thank God. And in the last one, Paul connects the peace of Christ to this concept of thankfulness. Do you want to live in peace? Then start by being thankful! And notice that this is not simply a suggestion, nor is Paul blessing the people who already are thankful, those who naturally have a predisposition toward being thankful. Bless those people who just always remember to say “Please” and “Thank you!” No, this is in the imperative. This is a commandment. Don’t lie, don’t cheat, don’t worship idols, and be thankful!

Now from our passage for today, 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18: “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”

Come on, Paul. Really? Rejoice always? Pray continually? Give thanks in all circumstances? This makes me wonder if Paul is really living in the same world as the rest of us. In my world, people get cancer. In my world, there is war. In my world, there is famine and poverty. But remember, Paul didn’t have it all that easy, either. He must have been facing some sort of criticism for his cushy lifestyle at one point, because in 1 Corinthians, he lays out some of what he has experienced: 1 Corinthians 11:23b-27:

I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one (The maximum allowed by Hebrew Law was 40. See Deut. 25:3). Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.

This is the guy telling us to be thankful in all circumstances.

But notice that there is a big difference between being thankful in all circumstances and being thankful for all circumstances. You don’t have to be thankful for cancer, childhood obesity, poverty, or being shipwrecked. And just an aside, if you see Paul on a boat, it might be wise to get off. He doesn’t have a good track record in matters maritime. Don’t be thankful for these things, but be thankful in these things.

Let’s bring it down a bit and get a lot less serious. This week Sonya opened the drawer where we keep all of our specialty cooking devices in our kitchen—the whisk, the potato peeler, the rubber spatula—to find the tell-tale sign of an unwanted houseguest. Little black dots sat in the bottom of the drawer, leading to an investigation and thorough cleaning of other drawers and cabinets. We have lived in our old house for nine-and-one-half years and never had a mouse. I think I was even recently bragging about that to someone. Well, no more. I made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for the kids’ lunch and kept a little extra peanut butter back to use as bate on our mouse trap.

Thursday morning I wake up to more black dots under the kitchen sink, and one dead mouse caught in my trap. And I assumed that there were more hiding somewhere.

This is not how I wanted to spend my Thursday morning. I like to sip my freshly-brewed coffee as I catch up on the day’s news. But here I was, sweeping up mouse poop. And to make matters worse, I had a dentist appointment later that day to pull a tooth. So my day wasn’t looking like it was going to be improving any time soon!

This is where I find my life to be challenging. I start thinking about my sermon on Monday, live with the text for the week, and then really start writing on Thursday. So at this time I had been living with the idea of thankfulness, listening to sermons on thankfulness, and studying thankfulness. I knew the whole “in all things give thanks” thingy. I didn’t want to give thanks as I swept up mouse poop and get ready for a molar extraction.

But I did it anyway.

They say you have to practice what you preach, so I started thinking about why the mice were in my house. It is really simple, and as you probably know, mice tend to come in during the winter months because they are looking for two things: warmth and food. And it sounds like such a cliché, but I realized that I needed to be thankful for my warm house and the food that is in it.

I went to the dentist later on, and I had to go to a specialist to pull my tooth. He is a personal friend of mine and we have a good relationship outside of the dentist office—or maybe I should say we had a good relationship J. No, we are friends in real life. And that’s part of the problem. When I first went to him for a consultation on my tooth extraction he said that it did need to come out, but, in his words, “There was no hurry.” When I went to see him on Thursday I could see in my file that it was exactly one year and one month ago since he told me there was no hurry. Now there was a bit of a hurry.

When he walked into the room he said, “Kevin, it’s been awhile.”

I replied, “Yeah, I know. Getting me to come back has been kind of like…pulling teeth.”  He was kind enough to laugh.

It was not a pleasant experience, but we got through it. And when the bleeding (and the crying) had stopped, he said to me, “Thanks, we will bill your insurance.”

I’m not thankful that I had to have a tooth pulled. But I am thankful for a friend who could help me out and even giggle at my bad jokes. And I am thankful that my wife has a state job that provides good benefits.

In all things, we give thanks, even when we can’t give thanks for all things.

So that’s the biblical side of things, but what about the science? The Bible repeatedly tells us to be thankful, and science tells us that there is a benefit to it. You will be happier.

A 2013 Harris Poll, which is a public opinion polling organization, found that one out of three people in America consider themselves to be more happy than unhappy. One out of three isn’t bad…if you are talking about batting averages. But one out of three happy people means that two out of three are not happy.

How can this be? I bought a Pepsi the other day, and the commercial told me that it would make me happy. I’ve got a smart phone and a smart tv. The advertising industry exists to make you think that your life is just missing this one thing and if you just buy it, your life will be complete. If not complete, at least you will be happy.

And these things do make us happy…for a bit. But then the newer iPhone comes out and the next model is released or our neighbor gets a bigger one. Science shows that what really makes people happy is gratitude. Without exception, happier people tend to be more thankful for what they have. Let’s walk through three scientific tests that have been conducted and published in peer-reviewed journals.

Dr. Robert Emmonds conducted a 10-week experiment where he divided 411 people into three random groups. The first group was instructed to write down everything throughout the day that they were thankful for. They carried a journal with them, and when they felt thankful, they wrote it down. That’s it. The second group was to write down everything that irritated them. The third group was to write down anything that changed their mood, either positive or negative.

At the end of the 10 weeks, the third group showed no change, which was kind of expected. The big difference was seen when comparing the first two groups. The group that wrote down what they were thankful for consistently ranked their happiness higher on a scale. But there were more side effects. They were more optimistic and reported experiencing less stress. They didn’t get sick as much. And without being instructed to do so, this group exercised more. They were physically active, which has more positive side effects. The thankful group became more social and they expressed more sympathy toward others.

Second study: Dr. Martin Seligman conducted a study where he asked participants to recall someone from their life, regardless of how long ago it was, who had a positive impact on them. They were to then write that person a personal thank-you note and hand deliver it to them. These people took letters to former teachers, friends, and employers, gave them their thank-you cards, and expressed their gratitude. Seligman found that those who wrote the thank-you notes experienced a sense of happiness over a month after the event. There was a residual happiness associated with this act of gratitude.

Third study: 65 people with a severe neuro-muscular disease were divided into two groups for a three-week trial. The first group was to write down any and all of their observations about their own health, well-being, and attitude, and their care givers were asked to write down what they were observing in their clients. The second group was to write down what they were thankful for while their care givers also simply recorded what they were observing in their clients.

As you can probably predict by now, the group that recorded the things that they were thankful for felt better at the end of the three weeks, while the other group did not experience a change. The group that recorded their gratitude didn’t get miraculously better, but they did experience less irritation and less anxiety. They even observed that they were sleeping better. What sets this study apart from the others is that the care takers also observed this upswing in the gratitude group; in other words, other people noticed the improvement. And the care givers themselves experienced an improved sense of happiness and well-being. The point is, gratitude and happiness are contagious!

You can’t argue with this stuff, it’s science!

So what can we do to make this practical? I mean, come on, we all know that we are supposed to show appreciation and say thank you. And yes, the science behind it is really quite convincing. But who is really going to do this?

I am, and I hope you will, too.

They say that it takes three weeks to make a new practice into a habit. So I’m issuing a challenge to everyone to join me and record the things for which you are thankful. Do whatever you feel most comfortable with: carry a notebook, write it on your smartphone, type it on your computer. Just record it. And if that is too much, at least, at the very least, be mindful of the things that you are thankful for throughout the day. If you can’t write it down, speak it out loud. And by the middle of December, we should be a lot happier!

Here’s the take-home point: we are commanded to be thankful. The Bible tells us over and over again to give thanks, and science has shown that a side effect of being thankful is happiness. The odd thing is that the pursuit of happiness for happiness’s sake often leaves us disappointed. However, the pursuit of thankfulness may be the secret that we have been looking for.

The God who made us loves us and wants us to be happy. That same God has spoken to us throughout his scriptures and told us to give thanks. My prayer for us all this Thanksgiving season is that we can become happier people, happier because we are thankful for what we have been given.

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What are you waiting for?

Matthew 25:1-13

“At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish and five were wise. 3 The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. 4 The wise ones, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. 5 The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep.

6 “At midnight the cry rang out: ‘Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’

7 “Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. 8 The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.’

9 “‘No,’ they replied, ‘there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.’

10 “But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut.

11 “Later the others also came. ‘Lord, Lord,’ they said, ‘open the door for us!’

12 “But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.’

13 “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.

I recently heard a story from former pastor Francis Chan about his grandmother. Francis said that his grandmother was one of those dear women with a heart of gold, a real saint in the church. She was one of those women who was there any time the doors of the church were unlocked. If someone was in the hospital, she baked the casserole. If there was quilting group, Gram-gram’s fingers had helped to stich it. But outside of church, Gram-gram didn’t have much of a social life. And since Chan’s grandfather had passed away, Gram-gram wasn’t getting out much at all. So Chan made plans to take his wife, children, and Gram-gram out to a play at the local community theater. I don’t recall what play they went to see, but it was a common play, and while it wasn’t a “Christian” play, it wasn’t an offensive or heathenistic play. I’m thinking “Oklahoma!” or something along those lines.

The night of the big show comes and the Chan family dresses up and heads to the community theater. It seems to be going pretty well, the whole crowd seems into it, laughing, singing along. At intermission Chan turns to his Gram-gram and asks how she likes the play.

Gram-gram turns to Francis and says, “Oh, I shouldn’t be here.”

Not sure if he heard her correctly, he asks, “What’s that?” and Gram-gram repeats herself, “Oh, I shouldn’t be here.”

It’s a Friday night at 7:00, what else do you have going on? What, are you missing Wheel of Fortune? So Chan asks, “What do you mean, Gram-gram?”

She says, “What if Jesus comes back and I’m here. I should be somewhere praying or helping someone.” (This is as best as I can recall the story. I may miss a few details, but you get the point.)

There is nothing wrong with going to see Oklahoma! at the local community theater. But in Gram-gram’s mind, there was more that she should be doing, more that she could be doing. So Francis Chan said that he told his Gram-gram that he would join her and pray through the second half of the play.

I tell this story for two reasons: 1. I think I can do more. I don’t know when, how, or if I’ll ever see Jesus come back, and I’m not sure that’s what our passage is all about. But I can do more. And 2. We cannot allow these questions to dominate our life, because this life was meant to be lived, not just the next one. And let’s be honest, Gram-gram was a bit of a downer and probably spoiled the play for both her and her grandson. J

Let’s look at this passage for a bit because there is a lot going on here and we need to sort through it all to make some sense of it. The first thing that I want to note is that there are ten young women in this story. We are told that these young women go out to meet the bridegroom, and that five of them were foolish and five of them were wise. We need to break this down a bit more.

It was common practice in Hebrew rhetoric to draw strong boundaries between two groups to make a point. These groups are binary; you are either one or another. One common binary was between the foolish and the wise. Think of the Proverbs, such as 10:1, “A wise son makes a glad father, but a foolish son is the grief of his mother.” 12:15, “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but he who heeds counsel is wise.” And my favorite, Proverbs 10:21, “A good person’s words will benefit many people, but you can kill yourself with stupidity.”

Jesus, being a Hebrew, carries this tradition into the New Testament era. We can think of examples such as the wise and foolish builders. The foolish man built his house upon the sand while the wise man built his house upon the rock.

All of this reminds me of the Highlights for Children magazine and the comic strip Goofus and Gallant. Goofus and Gallant is a comic strip, which I believe is still running in Highlights, with two scenes depicting the lives of the two characters. There is no ethical pronouncement made about the actions of the characters, but we can pretty well guess what the artist is suggesting. Usually we find a picture with captions like, “Goofus doesn’t make his bed,” and an accompanying picture that says, “Gallant always makes his bed.”

So in our parable, we have five Goofuses and five Gallants.

That’s the easy part. But there is still a lot of confusion on my side, in large part because I am separated by a couple thousand years and a couple thousand miles from Jesus’s culture. First of all, the language used to describe these women isn’t helpful. Is their sexual history really necessary to understand the parable, because we are told that they are virgins. Other translations call them bridesmaids, which just makes me think of Melissa McCarthy movies. The word simply means an unmarried woman who is of the age when she could be married. The word in Greek is the same word that is used to describe Mary the mother of Jesus, Parthenos (like the Parthenon, the temple built for Athena, the maiden goddess). It is simply a reference to their age and stage in life. These ten women are at the age and stage of life that they could be getting married.

Now here is where I have misunderstood this passage for my entire life. These women are not looking to get married to the same man. All my life I have assumed that these were ten young women looking to get married to the same groom and enter into a polygamous marriage. But they aren’t looking to get married to the man, they are simply there to celebrate the marriage between the man and a woman, who is presumably a friend of theirs. I believe that this is why some translations call them bridesmaids.

So these ten women are contemporaries of the bride. They are there to celebrate the wedding of their friend!

I’m one that would not survive in some cultures. I need to know when to be somewhere, and I value punctuality. If we receive a wedding invitation that says the wedding will begin at 1:00, I’ll be there at 12:30. But in Jesus’s day, and in much of the world today, weddings started whenever all the necessary people got there and the celebration could go on for days, and one could only attend if they were invited (drawing from William Barclay’s commentary). Because, you know, there’s only so much cake to go around.

The betrothal ceremony was often followed by a long period of time where the groom went to prepare a home for his new family. Often this involved building an addition onto mom and dad’s home. When the home was ready, the groom led a great processional through the city, where the groom was met by the townspeople, who stopped him and congratulated him. They gave gifts, blessings, food, advice, etc. And as you can imagine, this took a long time. You never knew when the groom was going to show up, and you aren’t going to start a party without the guest of honor!

So the bridesmaids would wait in the street to usher the groom into the wedding celebration. And according to Barclay, it was not lawful to be in the streets of Palestine after dark without a lighted lamp, which I assume is to help prevent crime. So the bridesmaids have their oil lamps, and they wait. And they wait some more. And they fall asleep. Finally, at midnight, they hear a commotion in the street. The groom is coming and this party is going to get started!

Five of the bridesmaids had extra oil to replenish their low-burning lamps. The other five didn’t think this one through. If their lamps went out, they couldn’t be in the street. But if they left, they might miss this by-invitation-only party.

With that background let’s look at the actual text a bit and try to figure out what is going on here. Verses 7-9, “Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.’ “‘No,’ they replied, ‘there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.’”

Guess what happens when they go to buy more oil? The groom shows up, the party begins, and the door is locked to keep uninvited people out.

But here is the interesting part of this story. Remember, this isn’t just Jesus telling some random story, it is a parable. There is a point to the story, and some of the elements in the story represent something else altogether. So this is where things really start to get confusing because when the foolish women ask the wise women to share their oil, the wise women say no.

This does not sound like Jesus to me. Jesus was always talking about sharing. John the Baptist prepared the way for Jesus by saying that if you have two coats you should give one to someone who has none. Jesus made a little boy share his lunch of loaves and fishes. Jesus praised a widow who shared her last mite. How did that Golden Rule go again? What’s with this parable, Jesus?

This is where we get into trouble because people start to guess at what these things stand for. What do the lamps and the oil represent? Some have said that the oil shows us that there are some things that cannot be transferred from one person to the next, so the oil must represent things like our good deeds, our prayers, and our piety. Someone else them comes along and says, It sounds like you are saying that it is our good deeds, prayers, and piety that get us into the party. That sounds a lot like works righteousness.

I’ve even heard a rather anti-Semitic sermon that attempted to demonstrate who the wise and foolish virgins were, saying that the Jews were the foolish virgins, missing their opportunity to recognize Jesus as the Messiah. I think that person was missing something, too. To all those who are trying to figure out what the oil or the lamps or the virgins stand for, I’d just like to say that you are missing the point.

Recall that a parable is different than an allegory. In an allegory everything represents something. Plato’s character, Socrates, used a lot of allegory. But in a parable, the point is the point, and a lot of the rest of the story is just setting up the main plot. The oil and the lamps and the number of virgins, all of these things could represent something, but if they do, Jesus did a really poor job of explaining it to us! We can guess and hypothesize all day long, but the point of the parable is found in verse 13: “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.”

Keep watch, because you don’t know when to expect the bridegroom. And you don’t want to miss this party.

Let me say a word about redaction criticism. Redaction criticism is the practice of looking at scripture and asking the question, “Why did the author put this story there?” Or, “Why did they phrase that in this way rather than that way?”

I believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God, but it is also clear that different authors tell the story of Jesus differently. Even Matthew, Mark, and Luke, what we call “The Synoptic Gospels” because of their similarities differ. Some include some stories, others leave them out. Luke tells Jesus’s birth narrative in the most detail, Mark starts with Jesus as a grown man.

To understand why one author, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, chose to include or leave out the story, we often look at who their audience was and when they wrote their book of the Bible. Mark is believed to have been written around 70 AD, about the time when the first followers of Jesus were passing away, to preserve these stories. This is also when the Temple was destroyed in Jerusaelm.

Matthew was probably written about 10-20 years later, and it was written to a Gentile audience. And in the chapter preceding our text for this morning, we find Jesus talking about the destruction of the temple. He nailed that one. Then Jesus says in 30b-31, “And they will see ‘the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven’ with power and great glory. And he will send out his angles with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.”

Then in verse 44, “Therefore you must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

That’s all in Mark 13 as well. But do you know what is not in Mark? The parable of the Ten Virgins. Why does Matthew include this parable and Mark doesn’t? Because in Matthew, they are still waiting. Matthew is writing during times of persecution, and people are wondering when things will be made right. Matthew says, keep some oil on hand. It’s going to be a long night. But the party is worth it.

And here we are, 2,000 years later. We are reading the same texts, asking the same questions, praying for things to be set right. I turn on the news, and I hear stories that break my heart, and I pray, Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus! Fix this!

My friends, God is always with us. He has promised to never leave us nor forsake us. But sometimes he really feels distant. Just like a 1st century groom had to leave his betrothed, Jesus left his followers. And at times the anticipation is crazy. And at times our oil and our flames just burns low. But that’s when we need faith. Faith is how we respond to the invitation to this great party, even when it seems like it is too far away, or too far out of our reach.

What Francis Chan’s Gram-gram seemed to forget was that this party starts now. When the bridegroom does show up, we aren’t supposed to be ready to start the party, he is supposed to be able to join in the party that has been happening in his absence. So we need oil. And we need forgiveness. And we need love. And we need grace. And we need celebration. And we need to kill the fattened calf. The kingdom of God is like a wedding banquet, and Jesus tells us the kingdom of God is among us.

Yes, we can be doing more. We can be living into this party right now. What are you waiting for?

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The Real Me

Matthew 23:1-13

1Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: 2 “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. 3 So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. 4 They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.

5 “Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; 6 they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; 7 they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others.

8 “But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. 9 And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah. 11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.

13 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.

The weather has turned a bit cooler (and then warmer, and cooler again), so that means a change in clothes. I recently dusted off my old sweatpants and dug my slippers out from under the bed because it can get pretty chilly at night.

One morning I was making lunches for the children while I was still wearing my sweatpants and slippers, and I realized that our compost bucket was very full and needed to be emptied—mostly because it was getting pretty stanky. So I put on my jacket, slipped on some shoes, and ran the kitchen scraps out to the compost pile. When I came in, I took off my coat, slipped into a more comfortable thermal shirt, and changed from my outdoor shoes back into my slippers. And in that moment, I simply blurted out, “Won’t you be my neighbor?”

My kids just looked at me like I was a fool.

But you know who I unintentionally was pretending to be. I was Fred Rogers, from Mr. Rogers’s neighborhood. At the beginning of every episode, Mr. Rogers would come in the front door singing, “It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood, a beautiful day for a neighbor…” When he entered the t.v. house, he would take off his coat, hang it in the closet, and put on a cardigan sweater. He would also take off his hard-soled dress shoes and put on some tennis shoes. The idea was that he was coming home from work and ready to interact with the children out there in t.v. land. And he always put his shoes away and hung up his coat so as to set a good example for the boys and girls who were watching.

This practice actually began when Rogers was first getting into television. He would dress nicely for the children’s show that he hosted, going to work in a shirt and tie, dress pants, and dress shoes. But he soon found out that his dress shoes were too hard and squeaky for his show because he was constantly moving back and forth out of site as a puppeteer. So he would be on one side of the set acting as King Friday and then have to quickly move over to the other side of the set to play the part of Daniel the Tiger. And as he would go from side to side, you would hear “thump, squeak; thump, squeak; thump, squeak.”

Wanting to look like a professional, Rogers decided he would wear his dress shoes to work, and then change into sneakers just before the cameras went live. And this also allowed him to enter into character, with a change of shoes he went from Fred Rogers, mild-mannered PBS employee to Mr. Rogers, a man with an odd number of make-believe friends.

Fred Rogers was the very definition of a hypocrite.

Now that I have your attention, we can begin.

Today we are going to be talking about hypocrites, and please note that I am back to preaching from the lectionary, so I didn’t choose this scripture or write this sermon with anyone in particular in mind. What I want to look at today is What is a hypocrite? Who is a hypocrite? and How can we become the realest version of ourselves?

So just what is a hypocrite? Jesus throws this term around quite readily in Matthew 23, using it six times in this chapter alone. The Greek word is ὑποκριτής, hupocrites, and it is a compound word made of the word hypo and krino. Hypo is the Greek word for under, and it is the opposite of hyper. Hyperactive means that someone is overactive. Hypoglycemic means that someone has low blood sugar. Krino means to judge or make a pronouncement. Put it all together and we find that a hupocrites is one who judges or makes a pronouncement from below or behind something.

Hupocrites is the Greek word used for an actor, which is why I can call Mr. Rogers a hypocrite and only feel mildly guilty for it. If you think of actors from years ago, they are often depicted as wearing a mask, which conceals their actual identity and allows them to enter into a different character. As that character, they make pronouncements. So in the most literal sense, an actor is a hypocrite and a hypocrite is an actor. They are pretending to be someone that they really aren’t.

My second question is Who is a hypocrite? I mentioned that Jesus uses this word six times in Matthew 23. He must have been living in Hollywood, or maybe he was hanging out locally at the Shakespeare center. He was clearly surrounded by hypocrites. In the verses immediately following our text this morning, Jesus repeatedly says, “Woe to you, you hypocrites!”

Let’s look at the actual quote from verse 13, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!” The Torah instructors and the Pharisees did not moonlight in the theater; Jesus is using this word metaphorically, and he is using it as we generally understand the word. Jesus is calling these religious leaders “actors.” You stand there, behind your masks, and you make pronouncements upon these people. But you yourselves are far from what you pretend to be.

Let’s back up to verse 3. Jesus says to the people about the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees: “So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.”

First let’s notice that Jesus says that the people should do what they are saying. The teachers of the Law and the Pharisees aren’t trying to mislead the people into doing bad things. The problem isn’t that these leaders are telling the people to abuse their relationships and ignore the poor all while worshipping other gods. No, Jesus says to do what they say. Just don’t do what they do, because they don’t practice what they preach.

Here’s how I understand Jesus’s criticism. It’s okay to ask difficult things of people, Jesus did it all the time. Remember, that whole love your neighbor thing is no walk in the park, and loving your enemy is potentially even more difficult! Don’t get angry? Don’t lust? Jesus asked some very difficult things of us, so the problem isn’t that. The problem is asking or demanding that people do something that is challenging, and then not doing it yourself. Perhaps even worse is demanding these challenging tasks on the part of the people, not doing it yourself, but pretending like you are doing it.

That’s where the whole mask thing comes into play. This is why Jesus accuses them of being actors, of being hypocrites. The teachers of the Law and the Pharisees are demanding strict ethical behavior from the people, but then they fail to act that way themselves, and yet they pretend to have it all together. They are simply acting.

Let’s jump ahead to verses 5-7: “Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others.”

Here are a few external manifestation of the Hebrew faith, put on display for all to see. Remember that the phylactery is a box that contains little scrolls of scripture in it which is strapped to the forehead or arm of a practicing Jew. This practice comes from Deuteronomy 6, a part of scripture called “The Shema,” which includes instructions to tie the commandments of God to your arm and your forehead.

Jewish men were to also wear a prayer shawl (tallit) over their heads when they pray. The tallit is to have tassels (tzitzit) that hang down so that the praying person can see them, and remember all the commandments of the Lord (Numbers 15:37-40).

Look at me, with my big phylacteries and long tassels. I’m a child of God!

No, these hypocrites didn’t cover their faces with masks, but they did cover themselves by other means and pretended to be someone and something that they really weren’t.

Jesus emphasizes the religious leaders in this passage, but let’s be honest, we can all fall into this practice. It is probably easier for those of us who are clergy because we stand up every week and tell you what we believe is right and wrong, and that is available in writing and via audio recording. So if I ever say something and get caught doing the opposite, you can go back and show me exactly what I said and when I said it. James 3:1 reminds us that not many of us should be teachers because we will be judged more strictly. More strictly by God or by others? The scripture doesn’t say, but my guess is “yes.”

Many clergy people have been accused of being hypocrites, and rightly so. There are way too many clergy who preach about giving to the poor, and then fly off in the private helicopters; too many clergy getting caught in inappropriate relationships after preaching monogamy.

These are the public figures who get caught, the teachers and the preachers. Yet there are many actors out there, and we are probably all guilty of putting on a mask every now and then, pretending to be someone we are not. This brings me to my third question: how can we be the realest version of ourselves? I’ve got three sub points.

I think that no matter what your occupation, we need to continue to proclaim the perfect example of Jesus Christ, but also admit that we fail. 1. We proclaim the perfection of Christ, not ourselves. That’s not a license to fail, but just me being honest that I do fail. I’m not perfect, and I’m not going to get into the details of my failings here and now; if you really want to know about my failings, just ask my family. They well aware of my imperfections! But just like everyone else, I want people to think well of me. I want people to like me. I want people to respect me. I maybe even want people to be a little bit jealous of me. So in all cases, I try to put my best self out there.

There is the person who we want to be, and there is the person that we want other people to think that we are. Just look at social media and you will see people trying to put an image out there by posting the most glamorous pictures, witty articles, and beautiful projects. And it is okay to try to do better. In fact, I would say that God wants us to try to do better. God isn’t expecting perfection from us. But God also doesn’t need us to pretend to be someone that we aren’t.

That’s one reason I really enjoy the movement to just be honest and genuine online. Check out the pinterest fails sometime at https://www.boredpanda.com/funny-pinterest-fails/. We don’t need to pretend to be someone we aren’t, and we can even have a good time celebrating our humanity.

I think a large part of life is just trying to figure out who you are, and being the best version of that person you can be. 2. Be the best version of you that you can be, where you are, when you are there.

My overseer, Beryl, told me that when he first started at his last church he was a 37-year-old with a wife and two young children at home. He was serving in a large congregation and there was a lot of demand on him for his time and energy. He was leading a team of pastors, teaching Sunday School, preaching regularly, and attending ballet practice, soccer games, and story time at the library. I know some people can keep their work and home lives separate. When that 5 o’clock whistle blows, you drop whatever you are doing and go home for the night, not giving another thought to your work until 8 the next morning. Some people can do that better than others, and some jobs lend themselves to that better than others.

But sometimes it is hard to differentiate between work and home lives. When a part of your job is to care for other people, you don’t just stop caring at 5 pm. So one thing that Beryl did was that he wore a tie to work every day, not just on Sundays. Then when he got home, he took his tie off. While that tie was around his neck, he was on the job, answering emails, returning phone calls, planning worship, and visiting the sick. When that tie came off, he was a father and a husband.

So, is my overseer a hypocrite? Careful, now! No, he isn’t a hypocrite. He isn’t pretending to not be a pastor in one situation and a father in another. He really is a pastor and a parent at all times. What he is doing is he is living into each role different amounts a different times. And by differentiating his roles, he was able to be better at both, rather than just getting skating along in either role.

My friends, I’m going to tell you something that we tell our children and that your parents probably told you, and that you have probably heard your entire life. Just be who you are. Be yourself. You are fearfully and wonderfully made. You don’t need to put on a mask and be an actor to get people to like you or respect you. And if there are people who do require that of you, they aren’t worth the energy. 3. If people don’t like the person God created you to be, love them, but don’t worry about impressing them.

Whether you are at work, home, or even in the church, be who you are, warts, failings and all. Sure, try to improve and try to do better. But don’t try to be someone that you aren’t, and don’t make other people feel bad if they can’t live up to the expectations that you can’t live up to yourself.

I think that might be what Fred Rogers meant all those years ago when he said, “Would you be mine? Could you be mine? Won’t you be my neighbor?”

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