Using God’s Name

Sunday Worship at Black Forest Community Church
Black Forest, CO
January 25, 2015
© Rev. Diane Kay Martin

                                                                                              Using God’s Name

Scripture Reading:       Exodus 20:1-6

Then God spoke all these words: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.”

This is our third Sunday in the series on the Ten Commandments. As I did last week, I wrote today’s Call to Worship as a way of revisiting some of the major themes we’ve covered so far.

We revisited the first commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me,” and the second commandment, “You shall not make for yourself an idol [of me],” and then the reading introduced the third commandment, “You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.” This commandment is possibly better known as, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.”

And I know, the first thing that comes to mind when we hear this commandment is cursing. Using “Jesus” or “Jesus Christ” or “God” or “God Almighty” as an exclamation—that’s the person-on-the-street understanding of what this commandment means. And now we see online quite oftenvideos of people—even small children—shouting out profanity, and the adults who are recording it thinking it’s cute. The original version of many pop and most hip-hop songs is filled with profanity and obscenity, and all they have to do to make it legal is to label it “Explicit,” and it’s considered “okay.” It’s every-day; it’s commonplace; it’s not pretty. And if the person-on-the-street has the correct interpretation of this commandment, then each of these people—both child and adult—is doomed to God’s eternal wrath because of their misuse of God’s name.

If that were the correct answer, I could stop preaching right now and we could all go home and not bother ever coming back, because 99 percent of us are guilty of breaking this command. Who here has ever hit your thumb with a hammer and not been able to stop certain unanticipated words from coming out of your mouth? We’re almost all guilty of profanity, so what’s the point of trying anymore? We’ve broken the law, God will not forgive, and we must pay.

Every single commentator I read on this passage focused on the “angry God” approach to the text. God will not forgive this! God will never forgive this! And I came away very discouraged. Very confused. Very sad.

Until I looked at the original Hebrew text. The word naqa is translated here “acquit.” In other versions of the Bible, it’s rendered “hold guiltless.” What does acquit, naqa, mean? Does it mean “forgive”? No, it means “find not guilty.” This verse says God will not “find you not guilty”; God will find you guilty, which is appropriate, because we are guilty! And we know it! We heard that ugly word escape our lips when that hammer came down, when that car pulled out in front of us, when we slipped and fell on the ice. We know we’re guilty of using God’s name in this way.

And so we don’t need acquittal; we don’t need to be found not guilty; we need to be made not guilty. We need forgiveness, and that is God’s specialty. God offers forgiveness all through the Old Testament and the New—through the ritual offerings under the old covenant, and through Jesus under the new covenant. Because God created us, and God knows we’re not perfect.

But is that all there is to God’s name, all there is to taking it in vain?

What’s in a name? As we have learned, in the customs of ancient civilizations, a person’s name represents their whole nature, their whole being, their very ethos, everything they are.

This is why naming a baby is such a significant event in many cultures. When my daughter Stacey was expecting her first baby several years ago, she and I visited a friend of hers who was proud of his Cherokee ancestry. He asked her if she had chosen a name for her unborn son, and when she replied, “Yes. His name is Israel,” he asked her, “But how do you know?” That’s because in Native American (and some other modern) cultures, a child can’t be named until her or his true nature is known. It would be impossible to name a child before birth because then the name couldn’t capture the person’s very ethos— everything they are.

That’s why, when Moses asked God what God’s name is, God said, “I Am.” God’s name is a declaration of being. It is a statement of God’s existence. So one way to misuse God’s name would be to deny God’s name, “I Am,” and say that God does not exist. To simply deny God’s existence would be an affront to this God who longs to be in covenant—in relationship—with us.

Another way to misuse God’s name would be to “take it in vain.” When you say you did something “in vain,” does that mean your efforts had the intended result? No, you tried, but to no avail. You were powerless to succeed.

When we take the name of the Lord in vain—or, in my favorite version of this verse, from Young’s Literal Translation—when we “lift up the name of the Lord as a vain thing”—we are saying that God’s entire nature is “a vain thing”: empty, meaningless, worthless, powerless. We are saying that God is incapable of changing anything in our lives. But God is capable. In fact, God has many more names, sprinkled through the Old Testament, that describe God’s nature. God is Elohim (Creator); El Shaddai (Lord God Almighty); El Olam (God of the Ages); Jehovah Sabaoth (the Lord of Power); Jehovah Tsidkenu (the Lord Our Righteousness); Jehovah Mekoddish (the Lord who Sanctifies); Jehovah-Nissi (the Lord my Banner); Jehovah-Raah (the Lord my Shepherd); Jehovah-Rapha (the Lord who Heals); Jehovah Shammah (the Lord Is There); Jehovah Jireh (the Lord Will Provide); Jehovah-Shalom (the Lord Is Peace).

When we take God’s name (nature) in vain (as to no avail), we are denying all of those names. When we take God’s name in vain, we are saying God can’t mend a broken heart. We are saying God can’t heal a sick body. We are saying God can’t use chemotherapy to eradicate cancer. We are saying God can’t bring a peaceful death. We are saying God can’t help us in our finances. We are saying God can’t cure—or use doctors to treat—mental illness. We are saying God can’t speak to our hearts when we pray privately at home. We are saying God can’t give the abused person the courage to finally leave the abuser. We are saying God is God, but what’s it worth, because God can’t change anything anyway?

But God can, and God does! Albert Einstein said, “Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.” So many times, good things happen that there is no way we could have planned—and the best explanation is that “it’s a God thing.”

Here’s an example: Nathan and I hiked down Pikes Peak a few years ago. Eight miles from the bottom, my hips started aching something fierce—burning, like bone on bone—I wanted to stop, needed to stop, but there was no way to get down but keep walking. (I had had Guillain-Barre Syndrome as a teenager, and the paralysis of that disease had left my hips stiff and weak, so I assume this episode was a long-term side effect of that.)

I cried with each step, for hours, but I had not thought to bring any pain relievers on this outing. I was in so much pain, I contemplated throwing myself to the ground and trying to roll down the mountain. I thought that might be less excruciating. Of course that wouldn’t have worked. Nathan made a sling with his shirt, and we both put our arms in it as a way for him to bear some of my weight. It wasn’t enough. At some points, he even tried carrying me.

As we struggled down the trail, a man who was hiking up the mountain saw us and stopped to ask what the problem was. By “coincidence,” he “happened” to be a doctor, and he “happened” to have eight Advil tablets in his pack, and he “happened” to know that, considering the circumstances, I could safely take that many at a time, and maybe that would get me down the mountain. I cried in gratitude. I took the Advil, and I made it down the mountain. That “coincidence” was definitely a God thing.

When we start to recognize God at work in our lives—when we stop “lifting up God’s nature as a vain thing”—an interesting thing happens. We still get surprised and delighted when those “God things” happen in our lives, but we begin to relate to God on a new level. We begin to trust God in new ways—for ourselves, for others, for our church, for our community, for our country, for our world. And more good things, more “God things,” more coincidences happen, until the only thing that feels right to say is, “Holy God, We Praise Your Name!”

Amen!

The Names of God

With Number of Occurrences and Scripture References

  • The most common one—the one we’ve already talked about in this sermon series—is Yahweh or Jehovah, which means I Am (I Was, I Am, I Will Be).
  • More than 2,000 times, starting in Genesis 1:1, God is called Elohim, which means Creator.
  • 28 times, beginning in Genesis 14:18, God is called El Elyon, which means Most High God.
  • Seven times, beginning in Genesis 17:1, God is called El Shaddai, which means Lord God Almighty.
  • Three times, starting in Genesis 21:33, God is called El Olam, which means the Everlasting God, the God of Eternity, the God of the Universe, the God of Ancient Days.
  • 434 times, beginning in Genesis 15:2, God is called Adonai, which means Lord, Master.
  • Six times, starting in Exodus 20:5 (the second commandment), God is called Qanna, which means Jealous or Zealous.
  • 286 times, starting in 1 Samuel 1:3, God is called Jehovah Sabaoth, which means the Lord of Hosts, the Lord of Powers.
  • Twice, starting in Jeremiah 23:6, God is called Jehovah Tsidkenu, which means the Lord Our Righteousness.
  • Twice, starting in Exodus 31:13, God is called Jehovah Mekoddish, which means the Lord Who Sanctifies, the Lord Who Makes Holy.
  • Only once, in Exodus 17:15, God is called Jehovah-Nissi, which means the Lord My Banner, the Lord My Miracle.
  • Only once, in Psalm 23, God is called Jehovah-Raah, which means the Lord My Shepherd.
  • Only once, in Exodus 15:26, God is called Jehovah-Rapha, which means the Lord who Heals.
  • Only once, in Ezekiel 48:35, God is called Jehovah Shammah, which means the Lord Is There.
  • Only once, in Genesis 22:14, God is called Jehovah Jireh, which means the Lord Will Provide.
  • Only once, in Judges 6:24, God is called Jehovah-Shalom, which means the Lord Is Peace.

21st-Century Idols

Sunday Worship at Black Forest Community Church
Black Forest, CO
January 18, 2015
© Rev. Diane Kay Martin

                                                                                              21st-Century Idols

Scripture Reading:       Exodus 20:1-6

Then God spoke all these words: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.

Last Sunday, we started a series on the Ten Commandments. I wrote our Call to Worship today as a way to revisit some of the major themes we covered last week. Recall that when Moses asked God what his name is, God said, “I Am.” And that “I Am” contained in it the sense of past, present and future, as in “I Was, I Am, and I Will Always Be.” And the God of Israel, who called himself “I Am” and sought to be in covenant with them, longs just as much to be in relationship with each one of us. Each one of us! As I encouraged you to “hear into” the song that David, Sarah, Kelly and Cole sang a few minutes ago, it is this God who sees our tears and says, “Let me into your life. Let me into your pain. Let me ‘fix you.’”[1] And that’s good news, because sometimes we need fixing, amen?

Recall that in today’s (and last week’s) scripture, God introduces himself by what he’s done for the people. God says, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. … What did I do? I freed you from bondage! That’s how you’ll know it’s me: I am the God who sets you free! All down through the ages, I just keep setting you free!”

In a covenant agreement, each party has an obligation, something they bring to the table. God’s part, in this covenant, was setting the people free. The people’s part was that they would worship this God alone. None of the other gods (the “strange” gods, as the Hebrew text actually reads) with whom they had become familiar while they were in bondage were to have a place in their hearts. Because none of those other gods loved the people of Israel as this God did. None of those other gods had earned a place in their hearts, as this God had. That is the First Commandment: You shall have no other gods but me.

That is very clear, and God doesn’t need to say it twice. The Second Commandment, then, makes a different point—it begins to get at the way our God, our only God, wants to be worshipped, and that is without any images of him. For a long time, I thought the Second Commandment was sort of a restatement of the first. No other gods, and no carved images of other gods. But no—we’ve already got those other gods out of the way. Case closed. Not gonna do that. This commandment is about our God. All of the foreign gods had form and shape. They all had images that could be seen, images that represented their natures. But the God of Israel—Jehovah, the Great I Am—did not want to be bound by images. Just as much as he did not want his people to be in bondage, he did not want them to put him in bondage!

What I mean by this is this: The moment we carve—or paint, or engrave, or stitch—an image of something, that image is imbedded in our mind’s eye, and that is forever how we see that thing. As soon as the people would have carved an image of God—what they thought God must look like, based on what they thought God must be like—then God would have been “stuck” in that image, in that personae. And God does not want to be stuck!

Every reformation of the church in every age bears this out. We don’t see God the same way people saw God a generation ago. A generation ago, God was white. Black was evil. Thank God for reformers like Martin Luther King Junior who helped us see the light. A century ago, God was male. Female was sub-human, not worthy to vote. Five hundred years ago, God was Catholic. Protestants were heretical. Seventeen hundred years ago, God was Constantinian. All other views were anathema. Two thousand years ago, God was Jewish. Gentiles were outsiders. Four thousand years ago, God favored polygamy. Monogamy was a poor man’s lot. Six thousand years ago, God told his people to attack neighboring countries. Peace was a compromise of God’s promise of sovereignty. We do not see God in the same way our ancestors did! And thank God for that! I would not want to be stuck in any of those perceptions, would you?

But the minute we decide we have God figured out, to the point that we are tempted to draw God into a box and tape the lid shut—the minute we are tempted to “carve” out for ourselves an image of what we are certain we know about God—that’s when we limit God to the point of rendering him impotent. We actually put God in bondage to our own limitations—we actually limit what God can do in our lives and in our church, and God says, “Let me out!”

Because we do not know the last thing about God yet. Some might even say we don’t know the first thing about God! But I would rather have it that way. I would rather be surprised by God than be cursed to serve the same God of my great-grandparents’ era, the god of three and four generations ago. I want to be free to discover God for myself. I want to be free to “seek the vision of Christ, making it my own,” as in this church’s purpose statement.

The god of my great-grandparents’ era was a stern god. He loved scary, overpowering pipe organs and hated alcoholics. He created the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression to punish the people for their sins. He sent itinerant preachers to small towns to bring people to their knees in agonizing tears of repentance, for that was the only way to find salvation. I am so glad I do not serve the god of my great-grandparents’ era. I am so glad God is not “stuck” in that image.

In 1620, when the Pilgrims sailed for America aboard the Mayflower, they had great hopes of founding a society where they would have liberty to follow God as they saw fit. The Reverend John Robinson bid the Pilgrims farewell with these earnest words: “I charge you before God to follow me no further than you have seen me follow the Lord Jesus Christ. If God reveals anything to you by any other instrument of his, be as ready to receive it as you were to receive any truth by my ministry, for I am verily persuaded the Lord hath more truth and light yet to break forth out of his holy word.” In other words, God has not yet finished speaking! In other words, in the shortened motto of our denomination, the United Church of Christ, “God Is Still Speaking.”

God said, “You shall not make for yourselves any carved images of me—because I do not want to be set in stone! I do not want to be stuck! I need room to breathe! I need room to speak! I need room to be seen and heard in new ways!”

In the context of this interpretation of the Commandment, how would God “punish children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me”? By making them worship the God of their great-grandparents generation! By forcing them to try to accept an image of God that was relevant four generations ago but is anachronistic now. By taking the joy of discovery out of the covenant relationship God desires to have with each generation of his people!

My husband Nathan has been installing a new fence along the east side of our property. He’s been digging new holes for the fence posts, because the old posts don’t line up with where the new posts need to be. He was digging one hole, and he hit something hard. It wouldn’t give. But right next to it, the dirt gave way. He dug straight down at that spot and discovered bricks—a circular wall of bricks that, a few generations ago, formed a well. Now, we don’t know why that well was filled in and buried. All we can assume is that it no longer worked. Maybe it dried up. Maybe it was contaminated. Maybe it leaked. But the landowner gave up on it and dug a new one. Now, Nathan could have kept digging around that old well. He could have kept poking at it, stabbing at it, excavating it, digging out the dirt around it to expose the sides of it. He could have cleaned it up, polished the bricks, built it up a little taller, made it look nice and spiffy, even built a little roof over the top, hung a bucket over the opening, thrown in a few coins. But it still wouldn’t have produced any water! The well is dry! It’s cracked. It’s broken. It leaks. It will never produce anything of use again. No, he did the best thing he could with that old well: he dug his new hole next to it and filled the well back in with dirt. He gave it up. He let it go. He moved on. He did not waste his time trying to make something old and broken do what it is no longer able to do. He did not turn that broken-down old well into a 21st-Century idol, something that was relevant years ago and is anachronistic now but we just keep trying to make it work!

In the song our youth sang a few minutes ago, I asked you to imagine that was God saying, “I want to fix you.” God’s main interest is us! God is less interested in usdoing things a certain way than about us being free! Free to discover who God is today. Free to fall in love with the God of the 21st Century. Free to fall in love with Jesus who is as timeless as love itself.

God’s main interest is also those people outside these walls, who are looking for a church in Black Forest and aren’t really sure where they’ll find what they need. God is less interested in what we’ve been in the past than about what we will be to them—relevant, appealing, welcoming, accepting—now!

Do we have any 21st-Century idols here? Do we have any old, broken-down wells that will never produce anything of life again? Have we carved God into images of stone, or are we letting God breathe the breath of new life into who we are, who this church is? For, hallelujah, “the Lord hath more truth and light yet to break forth out of his holy word.”Let us dig new wells; let us love the still-speaking God; let us embrace new truth and light from Jesus, who is God’s holy Word.

Amen.

 

 

[1] Four of our youth sang the song “Fix You” by the pop band Coldplay.

I Am

Sunday Worship at Black Forest Community Church
Black Forest, CO
January 11, 2015
© Rev. Diane Kay Martin

                                                                                                I Am

Scripture Reading:       Exodus 20:1-17

Then God spoke all these words: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name. Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it. Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”

You may have read in my Footprints article this week that today I am going to begin a series of sermons on the Ten Commandments. This series will take us right up to Palm Sunday, so hang on for the ride. I’m not sure what insights God will give me through my study, research and prayer. Please pray for me during these weeks, that I may faithfully live out the directive in 2 Timothy 2:15: “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth.” That is truly the desire of my heart.

The Ten Commandments. I’m sure thousands of sermons have been written about each one of them. But as our world changes at lightning speed with the use of electronic devices and social media and digital data, are those old rules still relevant? Or are they just antiquated, outdated relics from a much simpler time? I don’t think so. I believe the Ten Commandments still have a lot to say to us. I believe that’s their beauty—their radical relevance, their timeless truth.

Let’s review the scriptural context of the Ten Commandments for a few minutes, to set the stage for this entire sermon series. Remember that the people of Israel had been enslaved in Egypt—cruelly treated for more than two hundred years—until, the Bible says, God raised up an unlikely deliverer: Moses, a murderer in exile who had a speech impediment; and God told him to go to Pharaoh to tell him, “Let my people go!”

There’s a key point in the story here—from which I have drawn my sermon title: “I Am.” You see, Moses was hesitant. He was self-conscious. After he committed murder as a young man, he had fled from Egypt. The people of Israel—his people—didn’t know him. How could he convince them that he was legitimate—that their God had really sent him? He didn’t even know this God’s name! And everybody knew that all gods had names! Molech and Asherah and Baal and hundreds of others in the Greek and Roman pantheon. So Moses asked the God of Israel, “Who shall I tell them has sent me? What is your name?”

And God answered, “Tell them ‘I Am’ has sent you. Tell them ‘I Am Who I Am,’ and I Am the God of their ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”

This is significant because this is the first time in our Bible that God’s name is revealed—not really a name at all, but more of a statement about who God is to themnot really a name at all, but more of a promise of whoGod will continue to be to them. Because that same word that’s made up of four Hebrew letters that are pronounced Yahweh or Jehovah and are translated here as “I Am” has the past, present and future tenses all rolled together. It means “I was, I am, I will be,” and I will continue to be for all generations just as I am for this one. In those four letters, God promises to be faithful to us!

How many here have seen Cecil B. DeMille’s epic 1956 movie, The Ten Commandments, starring Charlton Heston as Moses and Yul Brynner as Pharoah? If you’ve seen it, a couple of images may come to mind. The first scene you may remember (later parodied by Jim Carrey in Bruce Almighty with a bowl of tomato soup!) is the parting of the Red Sea and the crossing of the people of Israel into the Promised Land. The other scene is Moses coming down from Mount Sinai carrying the two slabs of stone that bear the Ten Commandments. Moses went up as a young man, but he came down gray and wizened, glowing and full of the mystery of God.

God had raised Moses up and given him a new start he didn’t deserve—who does, really?—and through Moses, God delivered the people from slavery. And this is the deliverance that God repeatedly reminds them of—in his preface to the Ten Commandments, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery”—and all through the Old Testament: “I am the Lord your God who delivered you from bondage. I am. That was me. I was that God. I did that. Remember. Don’t forget. I did that. No other God but me: I am.”

The people of Israel lived in a culture where all kinds of gods were worshipped. Molech, Asherah and all manner of Baals—and hundreds of other gods who each had their own particular area of divine expertise—all of them vying for the attention of the people. A god of music, a god of fertility, a god of rain; a god of the hunt, a god of intelligence, a god of war; of wine, of the dead, of fire, of travel, of sea, of home, of air, of sleep, of pretty much anything else they wanted some deity to be in charge of. None of those gods promised to love their followers. But none of them sought to be in relationship with humans. They only sought fear. And blind obedience.

And here comes the God who calls himself “I Am,” saying, “Look! Look what I have already done for you! You no longer have the whips of your masters tearing at your backs! You no longer have to work all day, trying to make bricks hold together when they won’t even give you any straw to bind them with! You no longer have to worry about being separated from your family at the whim of someone who thought you looked good and offered your master a good price for you! I have given you freedom! I have given you dignity! I have made you a people! I did this because I love you and it hurt me to see you in such pain. I couldn’t bear it any longer, and I had to intervene. And now … won’t you enter into this relationship with me? Won’t you reciprocate?”

Yes, along comes the God of Israel—Yahweh, Jehovah, “I Am”—ready to make a covenant with the people. If you get nothing else out of this sermon, it’s this one word: covenant. In a covenant, both parties make promises. Both parties agree to be bound to the other. Both parties basically say, “I do,” as in a marriage. God—the great “I Am” whose nature is love—said “I do” to the people of Israel, and it took them forty years of wandering around in the wilderness to figure that out, because it was so radically different from the way any of the gods they had ever heard of related to humans. This God sought to bind himself in loving covenant with these people, and he seeks to bind himself in loving covenant with each one of us!

And this God who said “I do” to the people of Israel (and still says “I do” to us) gave them/us his first command—one that is totally reasonable in an “I do” type of situation. God said, “You shall have no other gods before me.” Nobody besides me. I’m it. I’m your number one, your main squeeze. No Greek deities on the altar of your heart. No Roman ones either. No gods of money, work, popularity or success. Those things do not last. I do, because I Am. No putting sports stars, movie stars or television stars up on pedestals—you know they will fall off eventually. I won’t, because I Am. But I will put you on my pedestal, and I will make sure you do not fall off. And I want to be the only one on yours.”

Partners, spouses, married or unmarried—isn’t that the way you feel? No other gods or distractions had better come between you and your love. I was in a relationship once in high school where my boyfriend didn’t see any problem with going to community events with another girl—walking around, even holding her hand—and he was surprised when I gave him back his class ring! He later said, “Well, you’re the one who broke up with me.” Nope, that doesn’t work. That’s not the kind of covenant I was looking for.

It’s not the kind of covenant God is looking for, either. God wants to be our Number One. But how do we do that? We take the time right now—every day—to nurture a relationship. And how do we do that? Well, there are nine more commandments to come, and I truly believe that we will find some guidance there. Maybe that’s the reason we have Ten Commandments: nine more just to help us follow the first one.

Because it’s not enough to just say I love you. We need to know how our partner wants to be loved. What if Nathan said to me one day, “Honey, I love you so much, I’m going to buy you a Humvee”? I don’t want a Hummer; I want a hug. God gave us nine more commandments to tell us how to love him.

But to me, the most encouraging thing is that God has already taken the biggest steps toward us. Compared to what God has done for humanity, all down through the history of the world—delivering the people of Israel from the bondage of slavery; sending his son Jesus to show us, in the flesh, how much he loves us; sending his Holy Spirit to walk with us, guide us, comfort us—the steps we need to take in God’s direction are relatively small. When I consider all that God has been, all that God is, and all that God will continue to be in my life, it fills me with praise. It fills me with joy. It makes me want to shout: “Great is thy faithfulness, great is thy faithfulness! Morning by morning new mercies I see. All I have needed thy hand hath provided; great is thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me!”

Will you sing that wonderful old hymn with me right now? It’s number 189 in your green songbook. Great is God’s faithfulness, indeed. Amen.

Gifts for the Christ

Sunday Worship at Black Forest Community Church
Black Forest, CO
December 24, 2014 – Christmas Eve
© Rev. Diane Kay Martin

                                                                  Gifts for the Christ

Gospel Readings

Luke 2:1-20

And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed. (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem (because he was of the house and lineage of David), to be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, who was great with child. And so it was that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn. And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were filled with fear. And the angel said to them, “Fear not: for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign to you: you shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” And it came to pass, as the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us now go to Bethlehem and see this thing which has come to pass, which the Lord has made known to us.” And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told to them concerning this child. And all who heard it wondered about those things which the shepherds told them. But Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, just as they had been foretold to them.

Matthew 2:1-2, 9-11

Now, behold, wise men from the east went to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the east and have come to worship him.” … They departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over the place where the young child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. And when they entered the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him. And they opened their treasures and presented to him gifts: gold, and frankincense and myrrh.

Merry Christmas! … In order for this sermon to work, I need to know something about you. May I do a quick survey? How many here are either receiving or giving at least one Christmas present this year? … Of course you are! It’s a tradition that God started when he gave us the gift of his son Jesus on that very first Christmas. And people have been giving gifts at Christmastime ever since.

The three wise men, mentioned in our Matthew passage, were the very first ones—besides God, of course—to give gifts at Christmastime. But why did they do it? Why did they come? What drew these men from their home country to travel on camels across hundreds of miles of desert?

What drew them? It was a star—a star of hope—because these three wise men were star-watchers! The Greek word for “wise men” in this passage is magi. The magi were astrologers; some believe they were priests in the Zoroastrian religion. Astrologers watch the stars; they know their movements; they know the legends attached to each of the heavenly lights. And when the stars aligned in certain ways, these wise men believed that certain legends—certain prophecies—were about to be fulfilled.

These wise men saw a new star in their eastern sky, and they knew, from legend, that somewhere to the west of them, another “star” had been born. These wise men—non-Jewish priests from somewhere near modern-day Iran—had apparently heard a Jewish legend of a leader who would be born under a particular star. They saw the star when it rose in their eastern sky, and they followed it. They followed it all the way to Jerusalem, and then to Bethlehem, where they found the newborn “star”—the baby Jesus, lying away in a manger, and they knew this child was destined for something great.

Something great—but what? Let me paint a slightly different picture for you than the way we normally read this passage. What if those three wise men—wise as they were—couldn’t agree on what kind of greatness this baby’s future held? What if each of them had his own private pack for the babe, certain that he drawn the only correct conclusion from the stars? And what if they argued all the way to Bethlehem about it?

One wise man brought gold. Gold was a gift symbolic of royalty. This wise man saw Jesus as a king—the long-awaited king who he believed would restore Israel to its former state of peace and prosperity.

Another wise man brought frankincense. Frankincense—literally, “pure incense”—was a gift symbolic of deity; this gift said this wise man saw Jesus as God. So this wise man stuffed his pack full of that precious aromatic herb that was used in the Temple, in the worship of the God of Israel.

The third wise man looked farther into the future and packed myrrh. Myrrh was used as an antiseptic and an analgesic—a numbing agent, a pain killer. It was also used in embalming. The gospels tell us that when Jesus hung on the cross, he was offered myrrh on a sponge as an act of mercy, to numb his pain, lessen his suffering. This wise man’s gift essentially foretold, at the baby’s birth, the fact that he would one day suffer in death, and that the death would be a significant one.

And what if the wise men traveled together on this unexpected faith journey, debating about who this child really was, who he was to be, and why he had been sent into the world? They may or may not have come to an agreement by the time they reached the stable door—they may not have settled the question, once and for all, of “What child is this?” But would it be okay if they didn’t? Is there just one way, once and for all, to know Jesus? Can one person know him as king, one as God, one as suffering servant? Maybe later on their faith journey—maybe on their way home—one convinced the others to see it his way. Or maybe not. But they still brought their gifts.

What gifts do we bring to the Christ child? That depends on how we regard him. “What child is this?” At least one of the magi was convinced that Jesus was a king; so he made sure to bring him gold. At least one of the magi regarded him as God; he brought the frankincense for worship. And another somehow had a foreboding sense that this baby would grow up and make the ultimate sacrifice for all of humanity. Hoping to reach far into the future and somehow ease the pain of that suffering one, this wise man brought myrrh.

What gifts do we bring to the Christ child? That depends on how we regard him. And we are all wise men in our own way … aren’t we?

“What child is this?” Is he, to you, more of a friend? That’s okay. What gift will you bring? A faithful heart, a relationship of trust. … A wonderful gift.

“What child is this?” Is he, to you, more of a sibling, a brother? That’s okay too. What gift will you bring? A love that lasts a lifetime, a love that would in fact give its life for the other. … Another wonderful gift.

“What child is this?” Is he, to you, more of a teacher? What will be your gift? A teachable spirit, an inquisitive nature, an attitude that lives by what is learned. … Yet another wonderful gift.

“What child is this?” Is he, to you, more of a provider? What will be your gift? Faithful stewardship, careful use, and generous sharing of the earthly blessings God so richly provides. Still another wonderful gift.

These are all worthy gifts because they are honest gifts. They flow from our hearts; they are symbolic of how we know Jesus today. We may not offer the same gifts every Christmas, because our perception of who Jesus is will continue to grow. But regardless, these are all gifts for the Christ, and Jesus accepts them as if they were all gold, frankincense and myrrh. All of our gifts are worthy to be placed on the altar of our journey of faith, offered up to that little baby, who was born away in a manger on that silent night, holy night, so long ago.

Gifts for the Christ. What will you bring? Amen.

From the Manger into the Light

Sunday Worship at Black Forest Community Church
Black Forest, CO
January 4, 2015
© Rev. Diane Kay Martin

                                                                From the Manger into the Light

Gospel Reading: John 1:1-5

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

Today is the Sunday before the Christian holiday of Epiphany, which is always celebrated on January 6. Epiphany, meaning “shining forth,” officially ends the Twelve Days of Christmas, so on Tuesday, it will be time to put all those partridges in pear trees and turtle doves and French hens and calling birds and golden rings and geese a-laying and swans a-swimming and maids a-milking and ladies dancing and lords a-leaping and pipers piping and drummers drumming—away for the year. … Here at church, we’re going to do it next Saturday. We left them up today so we would all be in the mood for Jo Wasson’s Epiphany Open House this afternoon.

Now, some humbuggers would say it’s not soon enough; let’s be done with Christmas and get on with the year. After all, there are closets to clean and resolutions to keep and business plans to revise and bills to pay and taxes to file. Enough of the frivolities of Christmas! Others would say let’s hang onto it a bit longer. Let’s enjoy the decorations and the lights for a few more days. Let’s let the themes of hope, peace, joy and love resonate in our hearts for a while. I am in the second camp. I say, “Why rush it?” It took so long to pull all of those things out of their boxes; let’s wait a while before putting them back in. How many are in my camp?

Yes, in fact, if you drive by our house almost any evening of the year, you’ll see not only a string of white lights on the street side of the house and a string of rope lights on the alley side, but white lights on a little tree shining brightly in the living room window. Almost any evening of the year. … No, of course it’s not a Christmas tree all year. Soon it will morph into a winter tree, then a Valentine’s tree, then a springtime tree, then an Easter tree, then a Memorial Day/Fourth of July/Labor Day tree, then an autumn tree, and then, once again a Christmas tree. I’m not crazy; I’m just a little obsessed. J

But really, why take down the lights right away? This is, after all, the darkest season of the year. Granted, we have moved a whole two weeks past the shortest day of the year, so we have gained roughly six minutes of sunlight since then—from 9 hours and 21 minutes to a whopping 9 hours and 27 minutes of sunlight each day.

So I leave my lights out and I leave them on, and why do I do this? Because I happen to be a very big fan of light! And I’m not alone. Studies have shown that exposure to reduced amounts of sunlight can have a profound impact on a human’s circadian rhythms and can lead to a variety of health issues including depression and bipolar disorder, sleep disorders, metabolic disorders leading to obesity and diabetes, and even cardiovascular disease and substance abuse.[1] Almost all forms of life require light… So yes, those are very good reasons to be a big fan of light.

And the writer of the Gospel of John says Jesus is the light! That’s just one more reason to be a big fan of Jesus, amen? John says Jesus is the Word—meaning pure truth—and he is God—co-creator of the universe and all that is good—including life. John says Jesus is life—the kind of life that lights up people—all people—the kind of life that shines in the darkness—the kind of life that overcomes darkness.

All the more reason to be a big fan of Jesus, amen?

I love all of these images because they rise above the physical—they are metaphysical in that sense—and they show Jesus to be something (someone) who can help us do the same. Jesus can help us rise above the physical.

Think about that list of health issues I read a minute ago—things that can be caused (or at least worsened) by a lack of light. Think about other health issues that weaken our bodies and burden our spirits—especially at this time of year: all sorts of flu bugs and respiratory issues and new diagnoses we did not anticipate. Think about relationship issues, family issues, financial issues—well, I don’t have to name any more, do I? You already know where I’m going with this, and chances are you’ve already thought of several things you would be delighted to have the light of Jesus help you overcome. And he can.

That manger where Jesus was born was a pretty dark place. Candles or lanterns don’t put off a lot of light. The star led the visitors to the stable door on that dark night, but I doubt that it provided much light inside. That manger was full of darkness and fear and anxiety and exhaustion and pain and turmoil and unsavory sounds and smells—and then came the Light! Jesus was born, and everything changed! And John says, “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not[/will not/shall not/cannot] overcome it.”

I love the fact that Epiphany comes so soon after Christmas, during the darkest season of the year, to remind us that because Jesus came into the world, there is light here. Because Jesus came into the world, there is life here—abundant life of the kind that transcends the troubles of this physical world. Jesus is truth, holiness, creativity, life and light—and that is just what we need to get us through to Easter! Amen? Amen!

I have chosen once again this week as our closing hymn the song Auld Lang Syne, to which I have added new lyrics to Robert Burns’ original ones. The phrase “auld lang syne,” in Burns’ original Scottish dialect, means “old long since” or “old long time ago”—or, simply, “days now in the past.” Burns himself wrote several variations of the lyrics, so it did not feel too disrepectful to add my own thoughts to the song. Note as we sing it the poignant blend of looking back and looking forward, learning from the past to create a brighter present and future. And let us make this our prayer for the new year, with the Light of Jesus to guide us!

Auld Lang Syne

Robert Burns

Should auld acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind?

Should auld acquaintance be forgot and days of auld lang syne?

For auld lang syne, my dear, for auld lang syne.

We’ll take a cup of kindness yet, for auld lang syne.

And in the love of God, we’ll grow in wisdom through the years.*

Both friend and foe will find in us a respite from their tears.*

For auld lang syne, my dear, for auld lang syne.

We’ll take a cup of kindness yet, for auld lang syne.

Should centuries of lessons learned be never brought to mind?*

The future rests on wisdom’s gift from auld lang syne.*

For auld lang syne, my dear, for auld lang syne.

We’ll take a cup of kindness yet, for auld lang syne.

(Lines marked with * written by Diane Martin, 2003)

 

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Circadian_rhythm

2014: The Year in Review

Sunday Worship at Black Forest Community Church
Black Forest, CO
December 28, 2014
© Rev. Diane Kay Martin

                                                                   2014: The Year in Review

 Scripture Reading: Romans 14:12-13

So then, each of us will be accountable to God. Let us therefore no longer pass judgment on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another.

Every year since 1976, the scholars at Lake Superior State University in Sault Ste. Marie on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula release their annual “List of Words and Phrases Banished from the Queen’s English for Mis-Use, Over-Use and General Uselessness.”[1] At about the same time, ironically, the Oxford Online Dictionary releases its annual list of words being added to its rolls. And, oddly, many of the same words appear on both lists.

Every year, the lists read like a lexicon of popular culture—full of the most used, misused and overused words of the year. I have compiled for you the top ten words from both lists for 2014, and here they are:

1) Selfie is, at this point, the most nominated word this year. A selfie is an image of oneself taken by oneself using a digital camera, to be posted on social media.

2) Number two is twerk, or twerking, a suggestive dance move about which we need to say no more …

3) Number three? Twittersphere, meaning the “realm” of the social media website Twitter. For example, “The Twittersphere was all abuzz after that performance…”

4) Number four is hashtag. We used to call it the pound symbol or the number sign, and then it came to be used as a way to categorize content in social media. But now it’s seeping from the Twittersphere and being usedas an exclamation in verbal conversation and advertising, as in: “Hashtag – annoying!”

5) Mister Mom comes in a close number five. Thirty years ago, when Michael Keaton starred in the movie by the same name, the situation was an anomaly. Maybe the term has resurged because it’s no longer so unusual? If so, that’s sad, don’t you think? Not that dads are stepping up, but that moms are stepping down…

6) Next is T-boning, one car crashing into another car at right angles. Why is this suddenly notable enough to be named after a cut of beef?

7) Number seven is a phrase: on steroids. As in, “Wow! That church service was really on steroids!” Hmmm… does that make me want to go back there?

9) And the next is a suffix—actually, a pair of suffixes: -ageddon and -pocalypse. As one blogger wrote, “Every passing storm or weather event is tagged as ice-ageddon or snow-pocalypse. … When running out of cashews becomes nut-ageddon, it’s time to re-evaluate your metaphors.”

10) And number ten, from the fascinating world of politics: intellectually or morally bankrupt. It’s generally used by members of each political party when describing members of the other.

And what would we do without new words like humblebrag, subtweet, binge-watch, acquihire, air punch, adorbs, hot mess, neckbeard, tech-savvy, pharmacovigilance, listicle and clickbait? Really, what would we do?

That’s the year in review in the world of speech. But many more serious and poignant things also happened this year—things that cause us to look back, sometimes joyfully, sometimes wistfully. Summer has quickly turned to winter; the year is at its end, and we wonder if we, as a human race, have done anything more right this year than we did last year. Or is it too late for such wondering? Will we ever really get it right?

<<Sarah and David McHugh now sing The Head and The Heart’s “Winter Song”.>>

Will we ever really get it right? I invite you to sit back now, and listen to a recap of the year we have just lived—international, national, local, and congregational events—some positive, some negative; some serious, some humorous. Remember, as you relive these events, how you felt about the people involved. Pray, as you listen, for each person we mention here, regardless of how you feel about the situation described. And resolve, as you live 2015, to see people as God sees them. Resolve, as the Apostle Paul urges us, to “no longer pass judgment on one another … to never put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another.”

January 1 – On the same day major provisions of the Affordable Care Act went into effect, Colorado became the first state in the U.S. to allow for the sale of marijuana for recreational use. Washington followed suit in July, followed by Alaska, Oregon, and Washington, D.C., and now more than half of U.S. states provide some sort of protection for marijuana use.

January 5 – Rev. Diane Martin preached her call sermon, received a 90 percent vote, and accepted the call to serve Black Forest Community Church. We don’t think there was any connection between this event and the previously mentioned one! J

January 10 – BFCC member Bruce Colby passed away.

February 7 – The 2014 Olympic Winter Games began, marking the first time the Russian Federation hosted the games. The U.S. came in second in total medal count, with 28, compared to Russia’s 33.

February 10 – Rev. Martin began her ministry at BFCC, meeting with Rev. Jim Reid for five hours of orientation.

February 16 – Rev. Martin preached her first sermon as pastor of BFCC: “Crossing the Jordan Together.”

March 7 – Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 vanished off the coast of Vietnam and has not been found, leaving 239 people missing.

March 16 – Bibles were presented during worship to our 6th-grade students.

March 18 – The first confirmed death from the Ebola virus occurred in Guinea, West Africa. By mid-December, confirmed cases worldwide topped 19,000; confirmed deaths exceeded 7,500.

March 30 – Theresa Palaia was hired as our new nursery worker.

April 5 – BFCC celebrated its relationship with La Foret Camp by participating in its Fun Day, complete with hay rides driven by Frank Bowman.

April 13 – BFCC celebrated Palm Sunday with a rousing kids’ parade through the Sanctuary and a beautiful cantata presented by our choir.

April 20 – Easter Sunday! Hallelujah! Christ is risen!

April 27 – Camp Sunday at church, with lots of camp songs and camp-style food! It was also the kick-off of History Month, with bios of our long-time members and sermons telling the stories of our Sanctuary artwork and stained-glass windows.

May 3 – The youth held a record-breaking garage sale, thanks to the efforts of Cindy Halsey and other dedicated youth parents.

May 11 – BFCC received nine new members: by new membership: John Cunningham and Barbara Lehman; and by membership transfer: Michael & Linda Minyard, Clarke & Cheryl Yearous, and Rev. James Reid and his sons Curtis and Phillip.

May 18 – BFCC honored its one 2014 graduate: Sarah McHugh.

May 25 – Rev. Sue Artt, our Acting Conference Minister, joined us in worship and delivered a beautiful benediction at the end of the service.

June 15 – It was a busy Sunday with Father’s Day, the one-year commemoration of the Black Forest fire, and the baptism of Olivia Holland.

June 27 – BFCC member Ted Parker passed away.

June 30 – The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge gained momentum when television personalities broadcast a live ice-bucket dump. The challenge went viral and, all told, raised at least $42 million to help fight Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

July 1 – Our office administrator Kimberly Carrillo began training Theresa Palaia as her replacement.

July 5 – Our youth mission trip group left for Back Bay Mission in Biloxi, Mississippi.

August 2 – Pastor Diane officiated the wedding of Dan Keating (son of Sue Garrett) and Jen Fornoff.

August 3 – BFCC held a very inspiring worship service in Taylor Chapel at La Foret Camp. And the Murrays returned from Canada!

August 9 – The African American teenager Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Protests lasted for several weeks.

August 11 – 63-year-old actor and comedian Robin Williams was found dead in his California home. The death was later ruled a suicide, possibly related to depression caused by early stage Parkinson’s Disease.

August 16 – BFCC took a big part in the Black Forest Festival, hosting a hamster ball water ride and other activities in our parking lot, a booth at the Festival grounds, and the first-prize-winning float in the parade, thanks in part to Art Navalta’s homing pigeons!

August 23 – Pastor Diane officiated the wedding of Jim Taylor (friend of Tim Black) and LaDon Pendleton.

August 24 – BFCC received five new members: by new membership: Michael Ketch, Ben Tippie,Cliff & Sharon Grady; by membership transfer: Rev. Diane Martin; and two honorary members: Xion and Brock Tippie. We also baptized Sharon Grady!

September 2 – Cliff Grady had surgery. … And the Islamic militant group ISIS executed 31-year-old American-Israeli journalist Steven Sotloff in the Syrian Desert. Images went viral before being mercifully swept from the internet.

September 14 – We had Rally Sunday and kicked off our new Sunday School year!

September 19 – Our youth went on their second mission trip, to La Puente Home in Alamosa.

September 21 – The People’s Climate March, the largest climate protest in history, took place when 400,000 people came together in New York City to demand climate action.

September 22 – and a month later, on October 22 – two different men climbed the White House fence; both were apprehended.

September 28 – We baptized Aurora Lynne Miller (Becky Bain’s granddaughter) during worship!

October 1 – We started our Adult Study Group, Simplify!

October 4 – Dorcas Lahnert was hospitalized and Jo Wasson suffered a stroke.

October 5 – We dedicated the altar chairs and table that were commissioned with memorial funds from Rev. Nick Natelli and Audeen Murrah.

October 7 – Same-sex marriage became legal in Colorado when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of a lower court’s decision that Utah’s ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional. To date, marriage equality has now been achieved in at least 35 states.

October 16 – A stand-up comedian made a comment about Bill Cosby that started a flood of allegations against Cosby—16 to date, and it’s not over yet.

October 19 – Five representatives of BFCC attended the Southeastern Association Annual Meeting at Broadmoor Community Church.

October 27 – Singer/songwriter Taylor Swift “broke up” with country music and released her first pop album, titled 1989. The album sold nearly 1.3 million copies in its first week, debuting at number one on the Billboard 200 and making Swift the only act to have three albums sell more than one million copies in a week.

November 1 – Our youth had an overnight lock-in and prepared a spook-tacular feast for the congregation after worship the next day.

November 4 – The midterm election was the most expensive in U.S. history. The $3.7 billion spent produced the lowest turnout since 1942 and resulted in the largest Republican majority in office in nearly a century.

November 9 – Our congregation honored our veterans and learned a little bit more than we wanted to know about Nick Kneebone’s adventures in the military!

November 30 – We baptized Caeden McGrew during worship!

December 14 – Our choir presented its beautiful Christmas cantata.

December 19 – The youth went Christmas caroling.

December 21 – We dedicated ten new hymnals to Bruce Colby’s memory, and then the children and youth presented their program “A Piece of Christmas.”

December 24 – We celebrated Christmas Eve together, with readings, carols and candlelight.

December 28 – And here we are, together again, for the last time this year.

I think you’ll agree with me that 2014 passed unbelievably quickly. As we move into 2015 and consider making meaningful New Year’s resolutions, may I suggest one from our scripture reading in Romans: “Let us therefore no longer pass judgment on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another.”

And we step boldly, full of love for God and for one another, into 2015.

Amen? Amen!

 

[1] http://www.lssu.edu/banished/current.php and http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/words/what-s-new

Advent Peace

Sunday Worship at Black Forest Community Church
Black Forest, CO
December 7, 2014 – Second Sunday of Advent
© Rev. Diane Kay Martin

                                                                                           Advent Peace

Gospel Reading – Luke 2:13-14

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

Hope. Peace. Joy. Love. Again, those are the themes of our four-Sunday journey through Advent. Advent means coming or beginning, and during Advent, we prepare our hearts for the coming of Jesus into the world, the beginning of God’s rule on earth.

Hope. Peace. Joy. Love. Last week I preached on hope, and I told you about my friend Brenda who became, sadly, a victim of lost hope when life became too difficult for her. Today our theme is peace. A moment ago, you heard Bev Turner read our brief scripture reading on peace: “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!’” Or, in another version: “and on earth peace, good will to all!”

Those verses are from Luke’s Gospel, and when Luke wrote these verses, it seems he was very inspired! The words are big; they’re bold; and they’re full of superlatives! (This is especially evident in the Greek.) The multitude of angels proclaimed glory to God in the highest heaven, and proclaimed peace and goodwill to all on earth!

Luke’s angels—suspended between two dimensions (the celestial above and the terrestrial below)—were so ecstatic about this birth that they proclaimed the very best they had to both: glory to God in heaven, and peace to all on earth. Notice what their very best hope for us was: peace!

And that is our hope too, amen? The longing for peace is as old as humankind itself. Indeed, the longing for peace is as old as the absence of peace—the chaos—that our human nature brings about. Likewise, peace as a Christmas theme is, as evidenced in today’s scripture reading, as old as Christianity itself. We read it in Christmas cards. We hear it in carols spanning back centuries. Cries for peace pulse through human experience like the beats of a metronome—percussive, rhythmic, marking times of struggle, conflict, war. We do not learn quickly; we keep playing to the same cadences—peace, war, peace, war, peace, war. And our most eloquent pleas for peace come during times of war, times of unrest, when our hearts long for tranquility and we begin to dare to believe that human nature was intended for so much more than this. Such, for example, was the case with Father Joseph Mohr, distraught priest and resident of a war-torn village in Austria, when he penned the words to “Silent Night” in 1818:

Silent night, Holy night / All is calm, all is bright
‘Round yon virgin , mother and child / Holy infant so tender and mild
Sleep in heavenly peace / Sleep in heavenly peace.

Fifty years later, in 1867, the longing for peace inspired also Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to write. Longfellow, an American poet during our country’s Civil War, was grieved to learn that his oldest son Charles, who had joined the war without his father’s blessing, had been severely wounded in battle. Longfellow, feeling the dissonance between the Christmas message of peace and the apparent lack of it in the world, wrote:

I heard the bells on Christmas Day / Their old familiar carols play,

And wild and sweet the words repeat / Of peace on earth, good will to men.

I thought how, as the day had come, / The belfries of all Christendom

Had rolled along the unbroken song / Of peace on earth, good will to men.

And in despair I bowed my head / “There is no peace on earth,” I said,

“For hate is strong and mocks the song / Of peace on earth, good will to men.”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep / “God is not dead, nor doth he sleep;

The wrong shall fail, the right prevail / With peace on earth, good will to men.”

Another century; another war. Peace, war, peace, war, peace, war. But in 1914, when World War I was raging, a Christmas miracle occurred. You may have heard this iconic story… It was the Christmas Truce of 1914, and this is how the story is told:

During World War I, on and around Christmas Day 1914, the sounds of rifles firing and shells exploding faded in a number of places along the Western Front in favor of holiday celebrations in the trenches and gestures of goodwill between enemies. On Christmas Eve, many German and British troops sang Christmas carols to each other across the lines, and at certain points the Allied soldiers even heard brass bands joining the Germans in their joyous singing.

At the first light of dawn on Christmas Day, some German soldiers emerged from their trenches and approached the Allied lines across no-man’s-land, calling out “Merry Christmas!” in their enemies’ native tongues. At first, the Allied soldiers feared it was a trick, but seeing the Germans unarmed, they climbed out of their trenches and shook hands with the enemy soldiers. The men exchanged presents of cigarettes and plum puddings and sang carols and songs.[1]

And among those carols, the one sung simultaneously in French, English and German because it was known by soldiers of all three languages, was that carol from another war in another country: “Silent Night.”[2] What a beautiful example this is of how the true peace of Christmas overcomes even the trenches of war. The peace of Christmas, inspired by something as seemingly insignificant as the birth of a baby in a barn. But this seemingly insignificant birth came as an outpouring of something very significant: the unlimited nature of a divine love that knows no bounds—that breaks into our world to bring peace to all humankind. If only we could fully live into that love and not relapse into fear, greed, violence and war.

But another generation, another war. You may be aware that today is Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day, marking the 73rd anniversary of the Japanese attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. In 1941, when the U.S. had not yet entered World War II, the Japanese saw the U.S. Pacific Fleet, based at Pearl Harbor, as a threat to their plans to overtake Southeast Asia, so, two and a half weeks before Christmas, they attacked the base, devastating thousands of troops and dozens of ships and planes in a matter of two hours. And America cried out to God, grieving the loss of hope, the loss of peace.

But the metronome ticked on, and just seven years later, again two weeks before Christmas, peace once again had its day. The war was over, and the United Nations adopted its Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This declaration—second only to the Bible among the world’s most translated documents—declares, in Article 1, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act toward one another in a spirit of brotherhood[/sisterhood].” And what would the angels call that? A spirit of peace! Peace on earth, good will to all! And in that spirit, we celebrate Human Rights Day this Wednesday, December 10.

But … another decade, another war. The Vietnam War. In 1955, during the war, Jill Jackson and Sy Miller, a couple in California, did an experiment. They hand-picked 180 teenagers of diverse backgrounds from around the world and brought them together on a weeklong retreat. During the retreat, Jackson and Miller wrote a couple of verses that soon became a theme song for the peace movement and has now also become popular as a contemporary Christmas carol. I remember singing this song in middle school when my only reference to the war in Vietnam was the occasional sanitized black-and-white video clip on the evening news. I had no idea that my classmates’ brothers and uncles and cousins were actually dying over there. I had no idea what terrible emotional and physical condition the survivors would be in when they returned.

Sy Miller wrote in his own words what happened at that retreat: “One summer evening in 1955, a group of 180 teenagers of all races and religions, meeting at a workshop high in the California mountains, locked arms, formed a circle and sang a song of peace. They felt that singing the song, with its simple basic sentiment, ‘Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me,’ helped to create a climate for world peace and understanding. When they came down from the mountain, these inspired young people brought the song with them and started sharing it. And, as though on wings, ‘Let There Be Peace on Earth’ began an amazing journey around the globe. The song spread overseas to Holland, England, Italy, France, Germany, Lebanon, Japan and India; to South America, Central America, Africa, Asia and Australia. The Maoris in New Zealand sang it. The Zulus in Africa sang it.”

Miller continues: “This simple thought, ‘Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me,’ first born on a mountaintop in the voices of youth, continues to travel heart to heart—gathering in people everywhere who wish to become a note in a song of understanding and peace—peace for all mankind.”

And the lyrics? Two simple verses (in its original version):

Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.
Let there be peace on earth, the peace that was meant to be!
With God as our father, brothers all are we.
Let me walk with my brother in perfect harmony.
Let peace begin with me. Let this be the moment now.
With ev’ry breath I take, let this be my solemn vow:
To take each moment and live each moment in peace eternally!
Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me!

Two simple verses that spread around the world and some say jump-started the peace movement of the ’60s and ’70s. Two simple verses that 180 teenagers embraced and shared until the words became one of the best-known peace songs in the history of the world—180 teenagers who saw no contradiction between such a lofty goal as world peace and such a humble, tiny start as “me.”

But in God’s realm, the best things start small, don’t they? A tiny twinkle in God’s eye, saying, “What if I created something that’s a whole lot like me to live in this beautiful world?” A tiny spark in God’s heart, saying, “What if I sent a tiny baby in a manger, someone who could grow up to be a whole lot like them, to show them how much I love them?” A tiny inkling in my soul, your soul, of what peace in this world might really look like—of what it would take to reach out in faith, in courage, and stop that pendulum over on the peace side, and leave it there—forever.

So let there be peace—and hope and joy and love—on earth, and let it begin with me! Let us pray:

We dream God’s dream, of a world at peace

Where enemies are reconciled, and children play in safety;

Where the poor and powerless find justice.

We remember God’s promise of a Ruler of Peace,

Filled with the Spirit of God, of wisdom and understanding,

Of counsel and might, of justice and faithfulness.

We continue on this Advent journey, and we pray:

Come, Lord Jesus!

Open our lives to the peace you bring;

Let us turn to you, and be ready!

 

[1] http://www.veteransforpeace.org/our-work/remembering-christmas-truce/

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Silent_Night

Advent Hope

Sunday Worship at Black Forest Community Church
Black Forest, CO
November 30, 2014 – First Sunday of Advent
© Rev. Diane Kay Martin

                                                                                    Advent Hope

Scripture Reading – Romans 8:24-27

For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

Hope. Peace. Joy. Love. Those will be the themes of our four-Sunday journey through Advent. I get to preach on hope (today) and peace (next Sunday). On Joy Sunday (December 14), our choir will present its cantata, and I’m sure that will be a joy. On Love Sunday (December 21), our children and youth will present their Christmas program, “A Piece of Christmas,” which I’m sure we will love. Then we will gather on Christmas Eve and celebrate the completion of our Advent journey and the birth of the baby Jesus who forever altered the course of human history. I hope you will join us for as many of these services as you are able. …

Did you notice how naturally the word “hope” fit into that last sentence? Hope—the essence of human desire, the language of the unspoken longings of the human heart—and I would take that a step further and say that hope is the very foundation of human life. The Dalai Lama said, “No matter what sort of difficulties, how painful [our] experience is, if we lose our hope, that’s our real disaster.” … If we lose our hope, that’s our real disaster. …

I discovered how very true that statement is a few years ago when I worked as a chaplain at Penrose and St. Francis hospitals in Colorado Springs. Time and time again it became painfully clear to me that when a person loses hope, she or he is at the greatest risk of suicide. That’s because we humans need that one thin thread to hang onto—that one fine fiber of hope that some part of life is better with “me” in it, or that if it’s not better now, someday soon it will be. We have to know that we have a purpose—that we mean something to somebody, even if that somebody is a dog or a cat or an iguana.

Indeed, hope is the foundation of human life. Hebrews 6:19 describes hope as the “sure and steadfast anchor of the soul.” Notice that: hope; not faith. Interesting. Hope is a sister to faith, but they’re very different. Hope is general—an optimism about life and our place in it. We might say we hope for something, but as soon as we say we hope in something, then we are really talking about faith. Because faith is more specific—directed at something: God, myself, you, our country, the inherent goodness of humanity or nature. And “people of faith” are usually called that because of their faith in God.

But I love that the traditional themes for the Sundays of Advent include hope but not faith. I think in that way the tradition acknowledges the true essence of hope—the true inclusivity of Advent—the reality that some people who have been so beaten up by life cannot always make the leap to faith, but many are still able to cling to some tiny thread of hope. And that tiny thread can carry us through a lot of heartache.

But recall the Dalai Lama’s words: “If we lose our hope, that’s our real disaster.” Do you ever think back to moments in your life that really drove home a point for you—times that really changed what you knew to be true about something? Well, I’d like to tell you about one situation that drove home for me the importance of hope.

In September of 2003, I became a licensed minister and began serving as Acting Associate Minister at First Congregational United Church of Christ in Longmont. In my first week there, I received a greeting card in the mail from someone named Brenda Brockish. In the card, Brenda stated that she was a member of the congregation, and that we were pretty close in age—our birthdays were even in the same month—and that she would like to come in and get to know me sometime soon. But, she warned, I should ask the senior minister about her first, so I wouldn’t be shocked when she walked in.

I heeded Brenda’s advice and asked Anne about Brenda. Anne said, “Oh! Well, here, let me show you,” and she took me to the room where the photos of all of the recent new members were posted. She pointed to a picture of a very stocky, balding, masculine-looking woman dressed in pink pumps and a very frilly pink dress. “That’s Brenda,” she said, “known as Tom to her family. Brenda is a man,” Anne said bluntly.

I gulped. What was I supposed to do with this? This person wanted to meet me, and I was supposed to be her/his/her pastor. How would I regard this Brenda/Tom person? I had no idea, but I was her pastor. And I needed to meet with her. So I called her, and we set it up.

A few days later, Brenda came into my office, dressed to the nines. Shiny pumps, pantyhose, skirt, blouse, beads, handbag. I invited her to sit down. She did, and we started to talk—awkwardly at first—but that soon wore off. Brenda was a sensitive, caring, considerate person with a wonderful sense of humor, two cute dimples when she laughed, and a mischievous twinkle in her eyes when she teased—and she often teased. Before she left that day, we shared a time of prayer together, hand in hand, two fellow Christians in parallel turmoil about roles and identities and how to “be” in this world.

Over the next few months, Brenda and I got together several times. She told me about her struggle—how, even as a young boy, she/he used to go to bed at night and pray, crying, “God, I’m supposed to be a girl. Please, before I wake up tomorrow, make me a girl.” Disappointed, he/she would wake up as Tom.

But what an amazing person this person was! I found myself really liking this person. Nathan did, too, and we invited her to accompany us to important events, like my meetings with my Church & Ministry Committee when they reviewed my Ordination Paper, my Ecclesiastical Council when I was approved for ordination, and my Ordination itself. Of all the friends I made in Longmont, Brenda was among the most special. Ironically, she was one of the people who made me feel the most comfortable in my skin.

I struggled deeply with this. I was especially puzzled when she told me that she/he had once been married—to a woman—and that when that woman later had a child, fathered by another man, Brenda as Tom had acted as that child’s father—still did, now that the boy was 21 years old. Brenda didn’t share that information with many people, but she shared it with me.

And I shared some of my insecurities with her. And she understood.

I lived in Longmont for just a year, until I received my first “real” call, to a UCC church in Wisconsin. I visited Colorado a few months later though, and I had coffee with Brenda. No dessert, because she was on a diet and had lost nearly 30 pounds. We had a nice conversation and said goodbye.

Brenda was always so thoughtful. She remembered my birthday, a couple of months after our coffee date. On March 14th, a week before my birthday, she wrote me a lovely birthday card, thanking me for being her friend and for all that I had done for her, and on March 15th, she took her life. … I learned later that she had sent similar cards to several people who meant a lot to her—who had accepted her as she had come to them. But life was just too difficult for Brenda. She couldn’t change the way she was, the way she felt—transgendered individuals never can—and she didn’t feel she had the strength to live that way anymore, so she lost hope and found solace in a bottle of pills.

If we lose our hope—the sure and steadfast anchor of the soul—that’s the real disaster. That’s when it becomes impossible to tolerate the here and now. Brenda escaped the here and now to gain whatever relief the hereafter might bring, but what a great loss to this world (and to me) her passing was.

The Apostle Paul writes in the passage that is our scripture reading today that in hope we were saved. Then he goes on to say that we only hope for things we don’t already have. What is the implication here? Could it be that while in one sense we are saved—we have partaken of God’s mercy and grace and love—in another sense there is part of our “salvation” that we are still waiting for—that part of our salvation that delivers us from the struggles and pains of this earthly life? Could Paul be acknowledging here that for all of us, life on this earth is hard—very hard at times—and we all need a lot of help just to get through it? Paul writes here, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” I believe Paul is saying that sometimes life is too tough for us to even know how to pray, but God’s Holy Spirit prays for us—God’s Holy Spirit whose name means breath, prays for us, on our behalf, in sighs that are deeper than words. Because God knows that sometimes the wait is so long, so difficult, that words cannot express it.

During this Advent season, let us be particularly mindful of those among us for whom hope is an elusive anchor and faith may be also slipping away. Let us handle all people with tremendous care, realizing that anyone can be pushed to that edge. During this Advent season, let us also ourselves cling to the hope that someday, the longings of our hearts will be fulfilled. And above all, let us cling to God’s love, which makes possible all hope, joy and peace in our lives.