Monthly Archives: December 2011

December 30th, 2011 eNote

Below is my weekly email to the Tonganoxie UMC congregation.  I share it here so that others can keep in touch with what the church is up to.  Let me know if you’d like to be added to the list to receive the note weekly.

Greetings Tonganoxie UMC Family,

I hope that you’re all doing well and have been able to enjoy some of the unseasonably warm weather this week! I spent a couple of hours yesterday morning visiting businesses up and down 4th street on behalf of the Chamber of Commerce and there seemed to be a general cheeriness about people that I can only attribute to the beautiful weather! I look forward to enjoying it a bit more today and tomorrow and hope that you are able to as well. I am finishing up my sermon and preparations for Sunday this morning, but I want to share a couple of quick things with you as we prepare to head into another holiday weekend and into 2012.

New Year’s Day Worship – One Service, 10am

This Sunday, January 1st, we will be worshiping together at 10am in the Sanctuary. We will have some extra strong coffee ready to go about 30 minutes before the service if you want to gather and visit before worship. The service will be a casual, yet meaningful opportunity to kick-off 2012. We will celebrate communion and reflect on the reality that God is “Making All Things New.” Please plan to be present for this service of worship!

Church Office Closed for New Year’s

The church office will be closed on Monday, January 2nd, in observance of New Year’s Day. The office will open again at 8am on Tuesday January 3rd.

Introduction to Tonganoxie UMC Class

I am currently working on putting together a brief class that will serve as an introduction to Christianity, to United Methodism, and to our Church. The class is being offered on Sunday afternoon January 29th from 3-5pm in the Chapel. Whether you are a lifelong member of our congregation or are not yet a member, this class will provide a great opportunity for you to learn more about who we are and who we believe God is calling us to be as a congregation. Once you have been involved with one of these classes you are welcome to join the church. However, you are welcome to attend the class and not join the church. More information will be included in the bulletins in the coming weeks, but I wanted to share this with you now so that you might mark your calendars.

I have now been your pastor for just shy of 6 months and it has been an incredible journey thus far! I am so excited to see how God continues to move and guide us in 2012 so that we might continue being (and becoming), “a community of faith inviting all to know God, connecting with each other, growing in our faith, and serving our community and the world.”

If I don’t see you before, I’ll see you next year (and in worship on Sunday)!

Grace and Peace,

Jeff

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12 25 11 Born This Day

My sermon from December 25th, 2011 based on John 1:1-14.

Did anybody find anything exciting under a tree at your house this morning? What was it?…

How about in a stocking? Anyone hang up a big overstuffed sock last night and just happen to wake up with some things in it? What did you find?…

I remember Christmas morning growing up; stockings were always hung by the fireplace in the front room. The tree was a couple of rooms away. My sister and I had to wait until the appointed hour before we could wake mom and dad up and then we would all begin with stockings. Our stockings often had some candy and some nuts in them. They often had some little trinkets or games or toys of some kind. One of the things I remember getting almost every year growing up was the lifesaver storybook, anyone ever get one of those?

Well, I think I must be getting old, because my favorite Christmas treat isn’t the lifesaver storybook. It isn’t a candy cane. It isn’t even something chocolaty, which is rare for me. This year I have come to realize that my favorite Christmas treat is an orange, or best of all one of these little Clementine’s. I just love these! They’re easy to peel. They’re sweet, but kind of tart, and they’re the just right size for a little snack.

Shortly after Heather and I started dating I had the opportunity to spend Christmas with her extended family in Salina. Her grandma and grandpa Kollhoff do a great job of providing stockings for all of the grandkids and every year, without fail, they put an orange in everyone’s stocking. I have to tell you, a decade ago I didn’t get it. I didn’t want an orange on Christmas; I wanted a treat, some chocolate, some candy of some kind. Like most all of the grandkids, I usually just set my orange to the side. It was so ordinary. I could get an orange at any point in the year. It didn’t seem like a Christmas treat, it just seemed so ordinary…

Today we celebrate the birth of Christ or as he is often referenced in the scriptures, Jesus of Nazareth. His mom and dad, Mary and Joseph, likely would have called him Yehoshua which in English we say as Joshua. The name Yehoshua is a compound word that translates most closely as God liberates or God saves.

We call him Jesus. His mom and dad likely called him Yehoshua and in the Bible he is called many different things. In the book of Matthew he is called Emmanuel, which means God is with us. The word Christ, which means anointed one, is often used as a name or a title for Jesus. The scriptures also refer to him as Lord (a kingly title) as both the son of God and the son of Man, as the Lamb of God and the Light of the world, and as Rabbi or Teacher.

While all of these names and titles and images for Jesus help paint a picture for us of who Jesus is and who he can be for us, there is one name or title that I want to focus on this morning as we talk about and celebrate the child who is born this day. That title is “Word of God.” Today we celebrate that the Word of God has been made flesh. I want you to hear again those first five verses of the John text that were read a few minutes ago…

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life and the life was the light of all people. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

The Gospel of John has a very different feel to it than the other three gospels and it tells the story of Jesus, not in a practical narrative way, but with a more mystical tone. In John, the story of Jesus’ birth doesn’t reference a trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem and it doesn’t talk about shepherds or wiseman or angels. However, the story of Jesus’ birth in John’s gospel connects back to the very creation of our world, to the stories found in Genesis. Let’s take just a minute to unpack all of this…

Some force or spirit or being is present with God at the very creation of heaven and earth. The author of John identifies this spirit as the Word of God. And not only was this spirit or being with God, but at the same time that this spirit was with God, this spirit was God. And all that exists, all that came into being, came into being through this spirit, this essence, this Word of God. Everything that exists in all of creation, you and me, and everything that we can see came into being through this very word of God.

The author of John continues, then, with words that I find to be very powerful, “What has come into being in him was life and the life was the light of all people.” Not only did this spirit, this word of God, bring all things into being, but in him was life itself and through him all things came to have this life which is the light of all people.

Ok, now I know this might be kind of hard to track in its heady philosophical language, but let me try to break it down. When God created the earth there was a spirit or a presence there with God. It was through this spirit or presence, this word of God, that all things came into being. But even more than just bringing them into being, this word of God brought life to all things because of the light that was the essence of this word of God. We are more than just an accumulation of atoms and molecules and cells. There is a life inside of us that is deeper than simply the physical and scientific realities that we know. Though so much of what we are and see and experience seems ordinary, it is truly extraordinary because of the light of life that is born this day.

John concludes the section of text that we read this morning with the statement…  “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” Today we celebrate the fact that the very word of God, the very creative essence of God that gives life purpose and meaning and beauty, is born into our midst. Today we celebrate that this life and this light have come so that the ordinary might be extraordinary.

 

This fall I was talking to Ben Myers, a member of our congregation, who shared a bit of his boyhood story with me. He had several siblings and their father died rather suddenly when he and his siblings were still quite young. The community rallied around his mom and their family and his mom worked incredibly hard. At the recommendation of several people in the community she opened an account at one of the local banks and tucked away all of the money that she could there as a means of providing protection for her and her family.

The 1930’s were a tough time all around, though, not just for Ben’s family. The local bank closed in the depression and never opened back up. Ben’s family lost everything that they had put in the bank and this single mom of several kids had to work even harder to survive.

Ben explained to me that his mom worked incredibly hard and did everything in power to provide for the family. She gardened extensively so that they could eat out of the food she raised. She was too proud to ever ask for anything from anybody and wouldn’t receive help or assistance in providing for her family. As Ben told me the story he had a reflective look in his eye and then he confessed, “sometimes I would go to the neighbors and they would give me an orange, but I would never admit it to my mom. She was too proud.”

 

When I used to get an orange in my stocking at Heather’s grandparents I would overlook it and just set it to the side. It was so ordinary I didn’t really understand it or appreciate it.

When Ben was growing up an orange was a very rare treat, something to be eaten without mom’s knowledge for she was too proud to accept help from anyone.

Over the last several months I have taken the time to really savor these little oranges. I peel them and breath in deeply the aroma as I watch the little mist spray up and fill the air in front of me. I have peeled the sections away from one another one at a time and enjoyed the delicious sweet flavor of the fruit. I hope never to look at this fruit as ordinary again. I hope to always be able to appreciate the extraordinary in it and in all of the life that we live in the presence of the word made flesh.

As we celebrate Christ’s birth this morning I invite you into an awareness of the incredible and extraordinary things all around us. I invite you to think about gifts that you might be taking for granted that you have the opportunity to see and to appreciate differently in the light of the life of the Word of God who has become flesh and who dwells among us.

 

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12 24 11 Ready Or Not

My sermon from December 24th, 2011 based on Luke 2:1-20.

This is Eden. Eden Faith Hodges to be more exact. Eden is Corbin and Rebecca’s daughter. She is Caleb and Leah’s baby sister. Yesterday she turned 5 weeks old. She was born on Friday night the 18th of November and weighed 5 pounds, 13 ounces. From what I can tell, she’s perfect.

She has 10 tiny little fingers and 10 tiny little toes. She scrunches her tiny little nose and makes these adorable little grunting noises when she sleeps. As her pastor it was an incredible joy to visit her in the hospital and hold her when she was just a couple of days old. I know that her mom and dad and brother and sister and grandmas and grandpas feel incredibly blessed by the gift that she is.

This evening I wanted to introduce her to you as we celebrate the birth of a child born some 2,000 years ago who would grow to change the course human history. Tonight we remember Mary and Joseph who would have held their newborn son and looked at him with the same affection and care with which Rebecca and Corbin and all of their family look at Eden. Tonight we celebrate the birth of a child. (Give her back)

Like I said, Eden was born on the 18th of November, Friday night the week before Thanksgiving. And while she is an incredible gift to her family, to this church, and to the world – this wasn’t the plan!

You see, the Hodges had a plan. If you know Corbin and Rebecca, you know they had a plan! They were going to spend a quiet thanksgiving together, one of their last events as a family of four. Over those days together they were going to finish getting a new crib put together and painted for Eden. They were going to finish putting together her room. And then, on the Monday morning after Thanksgiving they were going to head to the hospital for a c-section that had been scheduled weeks in advance. Corbin had arranged to be off of work during the week following Thanksgiving. The Hodges had their plan.

Some 2,000 years ago now Mary and Joseph had plans of their own. Initially they had plans to be married and we can imagine what those plans might have looked like and the kinds of things they might have been hoping for and preparing for. And then an angel appeared to Mary telling her that she was going to bear a child. The plans that she and Joseph had quickly changed.

When Joseph heard what was happening, he began to develop plans of his own. The Gospel of Luke tells us that he planned to dismiss Mary quietly. He didn’t want to make a scene, he definitely wasn’t going to seek the punishment that he could have based on the law, but he was going to end their relationship and dismiss her quietly. And then an angel of the Lord appears to Joseph interrupting his plans and inspiring him to stick by Mary’s side. Again, Joseph’s plans changed.

And so again Mary and Joseph begin planning for their life together. Surely it will be different than they had first expected, but they began reworking their plans. As those plans are coming together, near the end of Mary’s pregnancy, they have to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem so that they might be registered for the census. I imagine they had some plans regarding how this would unfold, they would get to Bethlehem, get registered, and then get home to Nazareth before Mary delivered. They likely had plans for where they were going to deliver in Nazareth and who was going to be there. But while in Bethlehem, it came time for Mary to deliver and their plans had to change once again.

The gospel of Luke also tells us about Shepherds and the experience they had that night. I imagine that those Shepherds who were in their fields had plans as well. I imagine that after being in the field watching a flock over the night when your shift ends you want to go home and get something to eat and take a nap or get some rest. And suddenly, there before them, appeared an angel of the Lord telling them to go to Bethlehem to find this child who had been born. And regardless of what their plans had been, Luke tells us that these shepherds went with haste.

Mary and Joseph had plans and they were interrupted. Repeatedly. The Shepherd’s had plans and they were interrupted. It seems that, in many ways, the story we tell and celebrate tonight is a story about interruptions, isn’t it?

Anyone had to deal with any interruptions or changed plans over the last several days or weeks? Anyone sitting here tonight feeling like you can relate with the shepherds or Mary and Joseph or the Hodges?

If you’re anything like me, you have planned to do so many things, but they haven’t all gotten done. Maybe there were cards you wanted to write or things you wanted to bake. Maybe there were some presents that you never got around to buying or things that still need to be wrapped when you get home tonight. I would imagine that in the last several days and weeks most of us have had to deal with an interruption or two and then altar our plans accordingly. It is hard to tell where the time has gone. We are here to celebrate Christmas Eve and tomorrow is Christmas morning. And you know what, it doesn’t matter whether our plans unfolded the way we wanted them to or not and it doesn’t matter whether we got everything done that we thought we wanted to or whether we think we’re ready. Tonight we are here to celebrate.

In fact, in the midst of all of the interruptions and changes of plans we have experienced, we are incredibly blessed with the opportunity to receive remarkable gifts. Again, think about Mary and Joseph. How do you picture them in those moments after Jesus is born? Do you think they’re focused on the fact that they’re not yet married or that they’re not at home or that they’re not in a formal room, but rather in the midst of animals? Do you think they’re focused on all of the things that didn’t go as planned?

I imagine that in those first moments of holding their baby boy, all of the plans that didn’t work out, simply slip away. I picture Mary and Joseph holding the young Jesus and marveling at his ten tiny fingers and ten tiny toes. I picture them watching with wonder and awe as he wrinkles his little nose and makes funny little grunting noises while he sleeps. I believe that Mary and Joseph would have been so consumed by the amazing miracle of the gift that they had been given that all of their unfilled plans would have seemed completely insignificant.

One of the special things that we celebrate today about the birth of Jesus is that his birth was not just a gift to his mom and dad or to the shepherd’s some 2,000 years ago, but that it continues to be a gift to you and to me and to all of our brothers and sisters throughout the world as well.

Tonight we celebrate the one who we proclaim is the king of kings and regardless of what is happening with the mess of politics in our country and around the world, we can celebrate a ruler unlike any other who invites us to a different way of living.

Tonight we celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace and the good news that regardless of the stress of our financial struggles or the tension that exists in relationships with family and friends, we have the opportunity to live in relationship with one who offers us meaning and purpose and most of all peace.

Tonight we celebrate Christ the wonderful counselor who can help us deal with and rise above the pain and frustrations we so often experience.

Tonight we celebrate the birth of one who offers us freedom from those things that entrap us and forgiveness for all of the ways that we fall short of who God has created us to be.

In the gift of Christ that we celebrate tonight, we are offered the opportunity to see and to know God in remarkable ways. As the angel proclaimed to the shepherds in the field, we are invited to experience the “good news of great joy for all the people.”

Sunday evening, just a little bit more than a week after Eden was born Heather and Hannah and I took dinner to the Hodges and had the chance to visit with them for a few minutes. As we chatted I asked Corbin and Rebecca if they had done any reflecting over that weekend about the fact that the initial plan was to pack up that night and head to the hospital the next morning to have Eden. We chatted a bit about how all of those previous days, had been bonus days, even though they hadn’t initially been a part of the plan. No matter how hard we work to plan, sometimes things don’t go the way we intend for them to, sometimes things happen whether we’re ready or not.

Tonight, whether you’re fully ready or not, you are invited to welcome the gift of this child. And though this child will grow and live in ways that teach us how to better connect with one another, and will challenge authority in ways that become threatening, ultimately to the point where they will have him put to death, and though we know that he will ultimately die and rise again, tonight we need not be too focused on all that will be. We are invited simply to pause, to breathe, to reflect, and to treasure the gift of God’s love come to be with us.

Tonight we celebrate the birth of the one who came with ten tiny fingers and ten tiny toes to change the way that people understand and relate to God and one another. A child is born. And we are invited to embrace that gift whether we’re ready or not.

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December 16th, 2011 eNote

Below is my weekly email to the Tonganoxie UMC congregation.  I share it here so that others can keep in touch with what the church is up to.  Let me know if you’d like to be added to the list to receive the note weekly.

Dear Tonganoxie UMC Family,

Last night the Clinger house was filled with the energy of 13 youth, a couple of younger kids and 6 adults who gathered together for the youth group’s Christmas party.  There was a ton of great food, fun games and some silly presents as well.  It was a great time and a real joy to host in our home!

I know that this weekend and next week have the potential to be incredibly busy for many of you, but I have several exciting things to share this morning and hope that you’ll take a few minutes today or tomorrow to read through this note.

A Church With Purpose

As a United Methodist Church our mission is that of the denomination, “To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  This fall, as we worked through our series of small group gatherings and our retreat it became clear that our ministry together would benefit from a clear and defined sense of purpose to guide us in living out that mission.  Last Sunday at charge conference a statement of purpose was adopted to provide us with such a guide.  You will hear more about this in the coming days and weeks, but I wanted to introduce you to it here this morning.  Tonganoxie United Methodist Church exists to be “A community of faith inviting all to know God’s love, connecting with each other, growing in our faith, and serving the community and the world.”  The keys here are four words that I would  like us all to begin to really internalize – inviting, connecting, growing and serving.

Invite Friends, Family, Neighbors

This Sunday morning we are going to be blessed with several great opportunities to prepare our hearts and minds for Christmas.  Next Saturday is Christmas Eve and next Sunday is Christmas morning.  In addition to wonderful opportunities for worship, the next ten days include many great opportunities for inviting people to experience God in our community.

I’d like for you to consider sending an email to friends or family members or neighbors who might not have a place where they plan to worship in the coming days.  You can cut and paste what is below and of course, feel free to amend this language to fit your situation.

Dear (blank),

I attend Tonganoxie United Methodist Church and would like to invite you to consider joining me sometime in the next week or so.  This is such a crazy time of year with so much going on, but I have found that taking the time to be in worship really helps me center and focus on the things that are most important in life.  I think you would enjoy the opportunity to worship with us and would love to have you join me.  This Sunday, the 18th, is a day full of special music.  Our 8:30 service will be a special service of Lessons and Carols, at 9:30 we are going to have a special children’s music program, and our choir will present their Cantata at the 10:30 service.  We also have two special worship services planned for Christmas Eve, one at 7pm and another at 11pm.  On Christmas Day we are having a special worship celebration at 10am that will be a lighthearted and fun celebration of Christ’s birth.  We will sing Happy Birthday to Jesus and even celebrate with some special cupcakes.  I’d love to have you join me for any of these worship opportunities.

Sign the email as you’d sign any note to this friend and personalize it as much as you’d like.  Remember, we don’t invite people to the church for the sake of the church, we invite people to the church because we believe that they will benefit from encountering God in our community of faith.

If you’re on facebook I would also invite you to consider following the link below and clicking on “share” underneath the picture.  You will be able to add a personalized note or invitation and the information about our worship opportunities will appear on your profile.

https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=261286147258448&set=a.261286093925120.73976.238329159554147&type=1&theater

Clingers’ Open House

Sunday afternoon Heather and Hannah and I are hosting a Christmas Open House at the parsonage from 4-7pm.  We simply desire to provide a time to welcome you to our home and to share in some food and conversation.  You are welcome to come when you can and leave when you must.

Souper Bowl Challenge

Our congregation has been challenged by McLouth UMC to a little competitive mission project in January and early February.  We will be competing to see which congregation can collect the greatest number of cans of soup for local hunger projects as a part of the Souper Bowl of Caring.  McLouth UMC has divided their congregation into teams for several years and held an internal competition, last year collecting some 3,300+ cans of food.  This year they desire to see the event grow even larger and have chosen to challenge us to a competition.  Susan Geiger has agreed to help lead our charge in responding to this challenge and there are already a number of exciting ideas circulating.  If you’re interested in being a part of the planning of this project, an initial meeting is going to be held on Monday the 19th at 11am at the church.  If you’re interested, but not available for that meeting you can send Susan a note.

It is an incredible gift and a joy to serve as your pastor.  I look forward to sharing all of the special times in worship with you over the next 10 days as we prepare for and celebrate Christ’s birth and I am excited about our ministry together as we head into the future as “A community of faith inviting all to know God’s love, connecting with each other, growing in our faith, and serving our community and the world.”

Have a wonderful weekend and I’ll see you Sunday in worship!

Grace and Peace,

Jeff

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12 11 11 Proclaiming In Word

My sermon from December 11th, 2011 based on Luke 1:46-55.

It had to have been a startling request! At the very least it would have been disruptive. At worst it was incredibly dangerous. She was only 13 years old. She was poor. She wasn’t married. Yet there stood an angel of God announcing to her that she would bear a child who would grow to be the messianic king.

And so, if nothing else, this request was disruptive. She and Joseph had a plan to get married. Surely they had plans for how that would all play out, a vision of what their future was going to be. And now an angel appears telling Mary that she is pregnant. What would the angel’s announcement and God’s plan mean for Mary and her relationship with Joseph?

And beyond disruptive, this plan likely would have seemed downright dangerous. On the most basic level, living conditions were rough in the 1st century and being pregnant and delivering a child posed a serious threat to the health of a woman. Having a baby at all was dangerous.

When the angel brought the news that this baby that she was carrying would be the king, it would have meant that this child was to be a direct threat to both King Herod and the Roman Empire. This was dangerous business. If the ruling powers were to find out what she had been told by the angel, she and the child would surely be killed. After all, Herod had already killed two of his own children and his favorite wife because he believed that they aspired to take over his throne.

The danger, however, wasn’t just in giving birth to a son who would become king. She wasn’t even married. The law commanded that if a woman was engaged to be married and was found to be pregnant by another man, that she was to be put to death. God’s request to Mary was dangerous indeed!

In his Advent devotional, The Journey, Adam Hamilton paints this picture of how disruptive and downright dangerous this request would have been. Yet what is so remarkable about Mary’s response is that she doesn’t even seem to acknowledge or be worried about the disruptions or the dangers. And so this morning I want us to spend some time exploring Mary’s response and a lesson that it might contain for us.

Today is the 3rd Sunday of Advent and we continue our journey of preparation for the coming of Christ’s birth. Two weeks ago we began by talking about the call to keep awake as we seek to travel through this season – to keep awake to God’s work and God’s nudges as we seek to travel not just the path of preparing to celebrate the past, but also the path of preparing for the future coming of Christ in our hearts, our lives, and the world.

Last week then we looked a little bit at what it might mean for us to truly prepare for Christ’s coming during the season of Advent as we named some of the realities that make this most wonderful time of year so dang tough. It is a stressful and anxiety producing time of year and as a culture we have taken to spending excessively to the point of generating debt and creating a significant amount of waste. We were then introduced to the invitations offered by a movement called the Advent Conspiracy; invitations to worship Worship Fully. Spend Less. Give More. and Love All.

It’s interesting that as we look at the Gospel of Luke we don’t really see any direct insight into what Mary thought or felt as she reflected on the message brought by the angel. But what we do see is what she did and what she said after the visit by the angel, the visit that contained that message of disruption and danger. To begin with we are told that Mary went with haste to visit her relative Elizabeth.

Luke tells us that Elizabeth wasn’t a young woman. In fact, when her husband Zechariah was visited by an angel announcing that Elizabeth would bear a child he said, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years?” Yet shortly after the Angel’s visit Elizabeth conceived and in the sixth month of her pregnancy the same angel pays a visit to her relative Mary. And when Mary hears of the plans that God has for her she takes off to go and to visit her relative Elizabeth.

When Mary arrived and greeted Elizabeth, Luke tells us that,

When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

Elizabeth immediately knew that she was in the presence of the mother of her Lord and rejoiced and celebrated that. She had a powerful experience of God as Mary came into her presence and she put that experience into words. Elizabeth, verbalizing her experience of God, sets the stage here for the second thing that Luke tells us Mary does following the visit from the angel. Shortly after arriving at her destination Mary speaks words that celebrate what God is doing in her life. Hear these words again spoken by a poor, thirteen year old whose life has just been disrupted and put into great danger:

“My soul magnifies the Lord, 47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 54He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

Having had her life disrupted and potentially put into danger, this young girl speaks these magnificent words of praise that echo strains of the song sung by Miriam, the mother of Moses as well as the song sung by Hannah, the mother of Samuel. Mary places herself in the company of these great women of faith as she sings words of praise of God’s redemption and of the work that God is doing.

One of the commentaries I read this week made special note of the tense Mary uses in the words she speaks here. She does not speak in a future tense about things that God will do, rather she speaks in the present as if these things have already and are happening. God has shown strength, scattered the proud, brought down the powerful, lifted up the lowly, filled the hungry, sent away the rich. God has done and is doing all of this according to the promise he made to Abraham and all of his descendants. Mary seems to understand what is happening here, that God is doing something amazing through her, even though her life is being disrupted and changed in unimaginable ways.

As we read these words and look at Mary’s story today, I believe it extends to us an invitation. As we prepare for the coming of Christ and journey through this season of Advent I believe Mary’s words invite us to proclaim with our voices, to put into words, the good news in which we believe. The good news that God our savior is doing incredible things in our lives and in our world now. On this journey through Advent we are invited to proclaim in word the good news of God.

Now, many of the words that I have heard spoken about the Christmas season in the last week or two have been focused around the debates that seem to rage just a bit stronger each year. The debates about whether employees of stores should say Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays. The debates about whether our schools have Christmas breaks or holiday breaks and whether they have Christmas music programs or Holiday music programs. Friends, I want Christ to be the center of Christmas, I really do. However, I’m not sure that engaging in these debates or these arguments is really the best use of the words that we are invited to use as we proclaim the good news of Jesus.

The proclamation that we are invited to do in the tradition of Mary and of Elizabeth is something that happens at a deeper level than these cultural debates and clashes. We are invited to make clear statements about the things that God is doing in our lives. We are invited to share our stories of transformation and hope with our families, with our friends, with our neighbors.

In a message a month or so ago now I shared one of my favorite quotations, attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, “Preach the gospel always. When necessary, use words.” As a general rule I stand by this sentiment and think that one of the most powerful ways that we can share our faith is to live it out and share by example.

However, I invite you to consider, that in the craziness of this season, with all of the mixed messages that surround us, that with the bizarre blurring our Christian faith and secular religious traditions, that this might be the perfect time to proclaim our faith in words.

Over the next couple of weeks there are some exciting things happening in community of faith, opportunities for people to experience God’s love through worship and times of celebration. Next Sunday we’ll have a special service of Lessons and Carols at the 8:30 service, at 9:30 the kids will present a special music program, and at 10:30 the choir will present their cantata. The following Saturday night, on Christmas Eve, we have two special services planned, one at 7pm and another at 11pm. Christmas morning we also have a special service scheduled at 10am, a fun and light-hearted service to which kids are invited to even wear the pajamas.

Each of these events can offer you an opportunity to put your faith and your excitement about what God is doing into words. Next Friday when I send out my email I’ll include a simple sample text that you might cut and paste in an email to friends or family or some words that you might take to make your own and invite someone to join us for worship on the 18th or on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning.

Elizabeth and Mary had powerful experiences of God and put words to those experiences. We are invited to do the same. I invite you to consider whether or not there might be someone – a friend, a family member, a co-worker who might benefit from really hearing the good news of this season. I invite you to consider putting into words the hope that you have because of this child that is to be born. I invite you to then share those words and to proclaim that good news and that hope.

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December 9th, 2011 eNote

Dear Tonganoxie UMC Family,

Last Sunday I preached a message that included an invitation for this Advent and Christmas from a movement called The Advent Conspiracy; an invitation to Worship Fully.  Spend Less.  Give More.  Love All.  Though I spent a good part of last week preparing this message and preached it twice on Sunday, this Wednesday morning I still found myself in a place full of stress and frustration.  It was the 7th of December and I really hadn’t bought anything for Christmas, Heather and I hadn’t really even finalized our Christmas budget or plans for our families, and I found my anxiety to be elevated and a general sense of crankiness to permeate my soul as the expectations and pressures of the season mounted.  As I reflect on that morning in hindsight now I can only chuckle and think, dang, it is a tough time of year, isn’t it?!  I hope and pray that you have had a blessed week and that you’re finding time in the midst of the craziness of this season to reflect and prepare for the coming of Christ in our lives and in the world.  I want to share just a few brief things with you in today’s email.

Financial Secretary Job Opening

In last week’s email I mentioned that Norma Hunter would be retiring at the end of January and that we would be hiring a person to manage the finances of the church.  Wednesday evening Staff Parish finalized a position description for a Financial Secretary (roughly 10 hours a week) and we are now accepting applications.  If you or someone that you know might be interested in applying for this position or wants to at least see the position description, please contact the church office.  Applications are available in the office and are due by 9am on Monday the 19th of December.

Year-End Staff Appreciation

Tomorrow morning Staff Parish is hosting a Christmas Brunch for all of our staff in conjunction with a quarterly staff meeting.  The aim of this brunch is to show our congregation’s appreciation for all that our staff does throughout the year.  While I often serve as the “face” of the church as the pastor, the ministry that we do would not be possible without the gifts and dedication of our staff.  I do hope that you’ll take the opportunity to express your gratitude to them as we wrap up a wonderful year of ministry.

Staff Parish has also invited some of our volunteer music leaders who play an integral part in the weekly worshiping life of our congregation.  I hope they know how appreciated they are for all that they do.

Join us for Charge Conference (and Potluck) This Sunday

This Sunday, December 11th, following our second service, we will be having our 2011 Charge Conference, our annual business meeting for the church.  We will be sharing a potluck meal together following worship and then will conduct the business of the conference (adopting the pastor’s compensation package, the church budget, and the church leadership for 2012 as well as adopting a statement of purpose to guide us in 2012 and beyond).  After votes have been taken on the necessary matters our District Superintendent, Mike Chamberlain, will lead a time of reflection and conversation on the ministry of the past year and plans for future.  I look forward to hearing what you all have to say during that conversation!  This meeting is open to all members and friends of the church.  I do hope you’ll plan to join us!

Again, I hope and pray that you have had a good week.  I look forward to seeing you in worship Sunday as we continue our Advent Journey and “Prepare the Way” by exploring Mary’s story found in Luke 1:46-55 and the invitation we have to be people “Proclaiming in Word.”

Grace and Peace,

 

Jeff

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12 04 11 Lifting High the Valleys and Making Low the Hills

My sermon from December 4th, 2011 based on Isaiah 40:1-11 and Mark 1:1-8.

This morning we continue our Advent journey. As we discussed last week, Advent is the season of preparation leading up to our celebration and remembrance of Christ’s birth. As we use this season to prepare I want to invite you to be intentional about what it is for which we are preparing. If you were with us last week I hope you’ll remember the two different, paths of preparation that we can travel during this season of Advent.

One path is the path that begins back in mid-September sometime now preparing to celebrate and remember the birth of Christ on December 25th. The preparations along this journey include the planning, budgeting, making of lists, shopping, wrapping, decorating, baking, delivering, and celebrating with friends and family that we do during the month of December each year. As Christians there can be great value in remembering and celebrating the birth of Christ. Christmas is a magical time of year!

However, my fear is that the world today drives us to focus nearly all of our energy on preparing for these material celebrations. Oftentimes it is hard to find the time and energy to focus on the other type of preparation that this season of Advent can be about. The other path that Advent offers us the opportunity to travel is one to reflect, to be in prayer, to ponder, to contemplate, to study, to think about what it means that the son of God came into this world as a little baby and that the son of God will come again.

It’s a tough thing to balance these often competing paths. We want to focus more on the path of preparing our hearts and souls and lives for the coming of Christ into the world and the coming of Christ into our lives, but there is so much to do, isn’t there? And then like we talked about last week, this is a really tough time of year for so many people, and the days are short and the weather is cold, and the skies are often cloudy and gray.

I invite you during this season of Advent to name and claim the stressful realities that you’re experiencing. There is great pressure to keep up with the Jones, There is the sense of obligation to families (whether it’s buying enough of the right kinds of gifts for kids or spending enough time with the right sets of parents and grandparents at the right times). There is pain of broken and hurting relationships amplified by the societal pressure to be joyful and cheery during this most wonderful time of the year. Again, it’s a tough season and it’s ok to admit that to yourself. Would it be helpful for you to just speak that out loud… “This is a tough time of year!”

As we make our preparations during this season of Advent, I invite you to ask yourself a question that I have found myself asking over the last couple of weeks, “Does it have to be this way?” Or maybe to put it another way, “Is this (the stress, pressure, expectation, anxiety) what Christmas is really all about?

What our Bibles contain as the book of Isaiah today was written some 500 – 700 years before Jesus was born. These 66 books record a significant part of the story of the people of God. Scholars have divided these 66 books in Isaiah into three different sections each section believed to be authored by someone different under slightly different sets of circumstances. All of them written in the tradition of the prophet Isaiah.

Chapters 1-39 were written as a prophecy of doom for a sinful nation that had strayed away from and was rebelling against God. Traditionally it is believed that these words were written prior to a period of several decades known as the Babylonian captivity a time when the region was conquered by Babylonian forces and many of the Hebrew people were taken into captivity. It was an incredibly dark and seemingly hopeless time for the people of Israel as they were held captive in a foreign land and cut off from their home.

The words that we read a few minutes ago from the beginning of the 40th chapter of Isaiah mark the beginning of the second section of this book. This section was likely written near the end of the Babylonian captivity and contains words of prophecy and hope for a time when God’s people would be restored and a new and glorious future would be revealed.

The movement of hope begins with these powerful words, “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. 2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.”

A couple of generations previous to this time the people of God had forgotten who they were and had begun to live in ways that were rebelling against God’s hopes for them as a people. And as a result of this living the people had come to be separated from God. Hold on to that thought for me…

In 2010 the average individual in the United States planned to spend $816.70 on food, presents, and decorations for Christmas. For a household with 2 adults this number is $1,633.40. Reports from the last years indicate that roughly 25% of this spending is put on a credit card and that the average family finishes paying off their Christmas debt sometime in mid-April. A report I read this week indicated that 1/3 of all bankruptcies filed in the month of March indicate holiday overspending as one of the causes.

According to the EPA, each year between Thanksgiving and New Years Day household waste in the United States increases by 25%. This added food waste, shopping bags, packaging, wrapping paper, bows and ribbons – it all adds up to an additional 1 million tons a week going into our landfills.

As a culture we are spending more than we really have to ultimately generate an incredible amount of waste in the name of celebrating the birth of our Lord and Savior… You still holding on to that thought from the experience of the Israelites? …the people of God had forgotten who they were and had begun to live in ways that were rebelling against God’s hopes for them as a people. And as a result of this living the people had come to be separated from God. Again, I think this all begs the question, does it have to be this way?

The author of these words in Isaiah continues their message of hope with words about what would happen as God’s people prepared to return to God, to come home from their season of exile. I invite you to hear the imagery used in this beautiful passage “3 A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4 Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. 5 Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’”

God’s people are returning to God and every valley shall be lifted up and every mountain shall be made low. As people prepare to return to God the uneven ground will become level and the rough places a plain. And as this happens the prophet tells us that the glory of God shall be revealed and that all people shall see it together… Barriers to experiences the abundance of God’s love will be removed and all people shall see the glory of God together.

In 2006 a group of religious leaders began to connect many of the dots that we’ve talked about here this morning. They acknowledged that people struggle this time of year to find time to focus on the real meaning of Advent and Christmas because they’re so busy with preparations of another sort. They acknowledged that this is a tough time of year. They acknowledged that in our celebrations of Christmas we often consume in ways that are detrimental to our pocketbooks, to our planet, and to our very relationships with God and others in the world.

As they were connecting these dots they also began to talk about the realities that others face in the world, people who have incredible need. And they began to ask themselves tough questions about what the point of Christmas really is and about how all of this might be related. Born from these reflections and wrestlings was the Advent Conspiracy. Take a look…

Worship Fully. Spend Less. Give More. Love All. These are four key themes of The Advent Conspiracy, themes I invite you to ponder as we move through the coming weeks. Worship Fully. Spend Less. Give More. Love All.

Friends, the good news that we celebrate today is that we are preparing for the coming of one who offers us unconditional love and an opportunity to be reconciled to God no matter how much we have rebelled or how far we have strayed. As we prepare the way for this one who is to come we are invited to play a part in raising up the valleys and making low the hills. We are invited to play a part in making the uneven ground level so that the glory of the Lord might be revealed and all might see it. So that you and I and our families may see the glory of the lord. So that families on the other side of the planet without clean water to drink or food to eat might see it. This Advent I invite you to Worship Fully. Spend Less. Give More. Love All.


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