Monthly Archives: December 2014

“For nothing will be impossible with God”

—By Linda Goertz

Last year at Advent time, I went to an evening service at St. Paul’s in Oregon City, where they had laid out a labyrinth pattern on their parish hall floor, and we walked that path in silence.  Beforehand, each of us had received a little piece of paper with a message.  Mine, which I still have tacked up on the wall at home, said, “I want to be born in you this Christmas.”

Those words went straight to my heart that night.  It’s been decades since LeRoy and I had to face my inability to have children, but that loss is still part of who I am.  So that loving reminder that Christ longs to be carried in and birthed through each one of us was, for me, a miracle that is both old and new.

I’m astonished at Mary herself.  I don’t think she, as a young, not-yet-married woman, was saying to herself, Oh, I sure hope I get pregnant soon! – let alone, I hope a messenger from the Most High God suddenly appears before me!  The Scripture translation we have says she was “much perplexed,” but I think that must have included an element of terror; because right away the angel says, “Do not be afraid, Mary.”

Throughout the story of Jesus’s arrival in this world, angels are always telling people, “Don’t be afraid.”  They tell Mary, they tell Joseph, they tell the shepherds, “Don’t be afraid.”  Because, really, a Word from God, a message, a call from God is scary; it can sound impossible.  “How can this be?” we say along with Mary, “since I’m” . . . since I’m just ordinary me, not smart, not powerful, not someone important in the world.  Since I don’t know what to even say when hatred and violence are screaming; since I feel powerless in the face of systemic oppression; since the bad guys sometimes seem to be winning.

So the angel, the messenger from God, tells us that the Holy Spirit will come upon us, will overshadow our inadequacies and the world’s failings, with a power that’s not our own.  That nothing is impossible with God.  Nothing.

God’s desire, God’s intent for us is always healing, always a wholeness beyond our imaginings.  Not just, “We’re going to get some encouraging information from God to improve our lives,” but we will be transformed.  Mary was never the same after this – she lived out exponentially more joy and more great sorrow than the little just-betrothed Mary of Nazareth ever dreamt of.  Because God intended her to be fully herself, and she had the boldness to say YES, to say, Here am I, the servant of the Lord, let it be with me according to your word.  Not according to her best imaginings and plans, but according to God.

In our Old Testament reading, King David had a plan ready, too.  He was grateful for his victories, he loved God, and he proposed creating a sign of that love and gratitude: he decided to build a temple for God.  And his trusted advisor Nathan — the prophetic Nathan who doesn’t hesitate to tell David when he’s sinning – agrees.  What a great idea, a dwelling for God; it’s so totally what good people of faith all over the world have been doing, in honor of the God who saves and guides and loves us deeply.  Build a beautiful sanctuary for God.  Right?

Not according to this story.  God tells Nathan – who then has to go tell the king, remember – God says, I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about . . . did I ever speak a word . . . saying. ‘Why have you not built me a house of cedar?’

What we think God wants of us may not always be what God wants most for us.

Creating a place of beauty where we can come and worship God is good; I believe that God loves it when sisters and brothers come together and celebrate our joy at who God is.  I think the delight and awe we express when we prepare for a feast like Christmas, when we decorate the church and make it lovely – like some folks are going to do after church today – I think that’s a good and delightful thing to do.  But we can’t be only in this building – not while God’s own Self is moving in the world.

In the passage from Samuel, God is so emphatic: I took you from the pasture…I have been with you wherever you went…I will make for you a great name…I will appoint a place for my people…I will give you rest.  And then the biggest declaration: the Lord will make you a house.

God receives our love and our homage and our worship – but not our trying to place the Holy in a box with a roof.  God makes the dwelling place by being God.

At St. David’s, we’re going through a transition in leadership and many of us have that wild mix of feelings that comes with change.  We have new ideas and plans and hopefulness but sometimes we feel anxious enough that we really, really just want to nail things down.  Maybe we want certain things in our worship or our outreach work to change, or certain other things to stay exactly the same, or that one person on the committee to do what we want . . . we can get pretty busy building God’s house according to our own ideas.

But meanwhile, God is moving around, here, there, outside, in unexpected places.  God is sitting on the curb beside a man who smells bad, God is at a used car lot with the woman who doesn’t have enough money for even an old clunker.  God is in Syria and North Korea and Sierra Leone and Jerusalem, in downtown Portland marching and in the solitary confinement cell of a prison, and out on the mortgaged family farm and with the student whose loans are due and the teen who feels life isn’t worth living.

God is moving, and our privilege is to step outside and join God as we hear the call.  There will always be time to gather here, and we need to do that regularly, but that messenger of God – the one who tells us not to be afraid – is calling us now, calling us outside, telling us that nothing is impossible when the Holy Spirit empowers us.  So if you’re feeling a nudge, listen to it, for it may be God’s call to come outside.

And you know what we say in reply to that call, don’t you?  We say, Here am I; here we are, servants of the Lord. Let it be with us according to your word.  Amen.

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What Shall I Cry?

-Sermon by Lindsay Ross-Hunt

“Grant us stillness of heart, oh God, that we might have eyes to see and ears to hear the moving of your spirit among us.  Amen.”

I want to talk this morning about waiting.  After all, Advent is supposed to be about waiting, right?  But waiting for what?  The chance to officially have permission to sing Christmas carols instead of Advent hymns?  To open that one package under the tree that has captured your attention? To gather with family and friends whom you may not always get to see?

These are all lovely things to look forward to, but they are not what we are waiting for during this season of Advent.  The waiting of Advent, as we see in this morning’s readings are not a passive “can’t wait” sort of attitude, but rather an active preparation for what is to come.  Because what is to come is beautiful.  And hard.

I was a little worried about what to preach this week.  After the ruling (or lack thereof, really) in the Eric Garner case, I saw a friend on post on Twitter, “preachers, if you didn’t preach last week on how #blacklivesmatter, you now have another chance.”  The weight of yet another situation where an unarmed black man was killed by a police officer–an agent of the state–and this time entirely on video, left me at a loss for words.  And not just a loss for words, but almost a kind of inability to even understand what I was feeling.  I felt full of emotion and yet empty at the same time.  And so I found myself asking, along with the individual in Isaiah, “What shall I cry?”  Everything I could come up with felt inadequate in the face of such injustice and pain.

To the individual in Isaiah, God says, “All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field.  The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breathe of the LORD blows upon it; surely the people are grass.  The grass withers the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.”  This may seem strange comfort to us, who live in a culture where we’re told we can be and do anything–and we believe it!–and that we as individuals matter and have an impact on the world.  Being told we are like grass doesn’t seem like much comfort.

But imagine you are in exile.  Imagine your conquerers have told you your God has been defeated and is dead.  Imagine you are a stranger in a country where you are different from everyone else and where those who destroyed your home continue to endeavor to destroy your culture and identity by trying to make you more and more like them.  Where you are subject to the rules crafted by those in positions of power, not those who understand what life is like “down here.”  Perhaps, in a place like this–in a place like the Israelites in exile in Babylon, in even here in Black or Native America, these words may sound different.  Equalizing.  Because if we are all grass, then that person in power is not so powerful after all.  In fact, the only true power is the word and promise of God to bring salvation and shalom.

This is what we hope for.  This is what we wait for.

In our readings this morning, we are drawn a spectacular vision of just what this salvation of God looks like, and especially in the Psalm.  We chanted this morning, “Truly his salvation is very near to those who fear him, that his glory may dwell in our land.  Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other.  Truth shall spring up from the earth, and righteousness shall look down from heaven.”  Wow.  Did you catch that this morning?  I think this is one of the most beautiful passages in all of scripture.  “Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other.”  And God is in the midst of it all.  God’s presence dwells in the land among God’s people.

But while this picture is beautiful poetry, it is also a profound statement on human society.  God’s shalom involves not just mercy, but truth.  And not just peace, but righteousness–or right relationships.  This is super important.  Because the absence of conflict without right relationships is empty–in fact, it may describe any number of oppressive societies throughout our history.  And mercy without truth is incomplete.  In the New Testament reading this morning, Peter says that on the day of the Lord, “the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.” Again, another reference to how the salvation of God involves transparency.

Why is that transparency so important?  Why does mercy also need truth?  We don’t like to talk much about sin anymore, it’s loaded with all sorts of theological and emotional baggage for many of us.  But in our efforts to distance ourselves from those seemingly judgmental religious systems we throw the proverbial baby out with the bath water.  We can’t escape the reality of sin in our world, and the way in which we are tangled up in it, the way we are involved and perpetrate it, the way it impacts and harms us and those we love.  This is a part of the active waiting of Advent: looking with fresh eyes at the truth that needs to be identified so that right relationships, mercy and peace can move forward.
I heard Cherokee theologian Randy Woodley, a professor just down the road at George Fox say once that, “Shalom is always tested on the margins [of society]–if it’s not working on the margins, it’s not working. Repentance is choosing to use your power for the benefit of others.”

Ten minutes on any news broadcast can tell you that it’s not working.  People are afraid.  People are dying.  People are taking to the streets all over this county desperately asking to be heard in whatever way possible, crying out all over the land for truth telling and right relationship.  For shalom.  When I heard the text in Isaiah say, “God will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep,” I couldn’t help but think of the countless images of these heartbroken and outraged mothers calling for change.  Of the letters going around Facebook from one mother to another pleading for white folks to have eyes to see and ears to hear . . .

Isaiah’s words this morning are both words of comfort in the midst of this pain and words of challenge.  Let’s remember that to be comforted is dramatically different than being comfortable.  We are not called to be comfortable. On the contrary, as Advent people we are called to step into all the broken and messy places of this world and work towards the salvation and shalom of God.  Theologian Debra Dean Murphy says, “hope is not wishful thinking; it is risk and action and the courage to undertake both.”

So how will you wait this Advent season?  How will you, in your own way, “prepare the way of the Lord through the wilderness” and work towards the mercy, truth, righteousness and peace that is God’s promise of salvation? There is no shortage of opportunity around us.  Saint Augustine once said, “it is solved by walking.”  Let us walk together.