Sermon: How Can This Be?

At the heart of the Annunciation is the declaration that God isn’t here just in the extraordinary times. God isn’t here just when we need divine providence. God loves us, and calls us, right here, right now, right where we’re at in our ordinary, everyday lives.

L'_Annonciation, Philippe de Champaigne (1644)
L’_Annonciation, Philippe de Champaigne (1644)

Sermon: “How Can This Be?”

Delivered at ARK Community Church, Dalton MA, December 21, 2014; (Fourth Sunday in Advent).

Scripture Readings:
Luke 1:26-38 (NRSV) 

I’ve been considering Mary’s question in this morning’s reading from Luke, where Gabriel tells her that she will soon have a child, a son; that he’ll be a great King, and that he will sit on the throne of his ancestor, David.

Mary responds by asking “How can this be?

As Christians, this is a question we often ask ourselves, or perhaps others ask of us: How can this be?   It’s a question we ask about the birth of Christ, about why we believe, about why we find ourselves in various situations. And, as we read this passage in Luke, we see that a lot is wrapped up in this simple little question of Mary’s: How can a baby be born of a virgin?  Why is God doing this?  Why does it matter?

I begin by asking myself “what was Mary thinking when she asked this?”  What I do know is that the common assumption, that she’s wondering how a virgin can give birth, is not what she is perplexed about.

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The God Who Trusts

Madonna and Child by Pompeo Batoni, ca 1742.
Madonna and Child by Pompeo Batoni, ca 1742.

This Christmas Eve, I thought it would be useful to share a simple thought: that God trusts us.

Orthodox Christianity is very explicit about this – God became incarnate and accessible to us through the birth of an infant human child.

Newborns can do nothing for themselves: they are vulnerable and rely totally upon those who love them for protection, for sustenance, and for life itself.

Jesus and the entire plan and hope represented by the Virgin Birth would never have come to fruition if his parents had not cared for him, fed him, educated him and loved him.  If they had failed to do so, nothing else would have saved him, or us.

So, God became vulnerable to us through the birth of Christ.  God trusted us to take care of the babe and so ensure the fulfillment of God’s plan.

In other words, God trusts humanity – for all its flaws and failings – to do the right thing, and to accomplish the mission.  Even more importantly, God believes that you are ultimately good – because a creature that is inherently evil would never be entrusted with God’s child.

Therefore, God knows you are lovable.  God values you.  God believes in you, and is willing to risk everything based on that belief.

God trusts you…

Have a Blessed Christmas.

… And as my fellow North Central College Alum, Bruce Nesmith, said in response to these thoughts: “Maybe in 2015 we can trust our best selves more.

Copyright (c) 2014, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as proper credit for my authorship is given. (e.g., via a credit that gives my full name and/or provides a link back to this site – or just email me and ask!)

Jesus’ Last Command

This week in Boston, we’ve seen so many people in our community coming together to minister in many ways to those who wounded, whether visibly or not, by this tragedy. This reflects how Jesus called upon his disciples to love one another and minister to each other, especially in times if crisis, as we see in this morning’s scripture. It is a story we know all too well – but the disciples didn’t know it, yet.

Sermon presented 4/28/2013, Sudbury Memorial Church, UCC
Scripture: Excerpts from John 13:4-35

This week in Boston, we’ve seen so many people in our community coming together to minister in many ways to those who have been wounded, whether visibly or not, by this tragedy. This reflects how Jesus called upon his disciples to love one another and minister to each other, especially in times if crisis, as we see in this morning’s scripture.  It is a story we know all too well – but the disciples didn’t know it, yet.

What the disciples knew was that Jesus had just washed all of their feet, and told them that if they truly love him they must follow his example by ministering to one another, as he had.  He then foretold his imminent betrayal by one of their own.  Finally, Judas accepted an offering of bread and vanished into the night on some unknown errand.  It was the evening of the “Last Supper.”  The disciples had taken shelter from the darkness outside in the cherished, annual celebration of their love and connection with each other, and with the people of God.

We remember and celebrate this even today, in the sacrament of communion.  The sharing of the bread is seen as the sharing of the Body of Christ that has been broken for us.  By eating of it, we are sharing in his life, in his death, and in the resurrection.  By eating of it together as a community, we are acknowledging that we are all part of the Body of Christ here on earth, working together to continue His ministry and to make manifest the Kingdom of God that is already all around us, even though we may not yet see it in all of its glory and perfection.

Judas took his piece of that bread as he left the light and warmth of his companions, and his Lord, as he retreated into the night.

Why did John think it so important to preserve the memory of this strange offering to the Betrayer?  Judas is someone to be shunned, damned and forgotten for all time – why remember anything about him at all?  Was that gift just for Judas?  I doubt it.  No passage in the scriptures has just one lesson for us – or I’d be out of a job!

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Reflections on the Passion (Palm Sunday, 2012)

Presented at West Boylston First Congregational Church, UCC, April 1, 2012 (Palm Sunday).

(NB: This message was preceded by a dramatic reading of the arrest, trial and crucifixion of Jesus from Mark 14 & 15, which included the Congregation participating as the mob that shouted out [to Pilate] “Crucify Him!.”  The reading is available as a Pamphlet from St. Gregory’s Church of Muskegon, MI.)

How does it feel?

How does it feel to be here this morning, to be one of those shouting “Crucify Him” during our dramatic reading from Mark?

How does it feel to be one of them, one of the mob, one of those calling for His death?  To turn on him in his hour of need?  How does it feel?

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The Most Pernicious Idol of All

A sermon originally entitled “Mine!” given October 9. 2011 at First Congregational Church UCC in West Boylston, MA.

Scriptures:

OLD TESTAMENT LESSON   Exodus 32:1-14

A CHRISTIAN LETTER           Philippians 4:1-9 (& Acts 16:11-15)         

GOSPEL LESSON                    Matthew 22:1-14

One thing I recently noticed about my little boy “AJ” is that when he builds things, it’s about the process, not the goal.  For instance, when he’s building a tower with these big cardboard blocks and it gets too high, he knocks them down and starts over again.  His play is not about being the biggest, nor the best, nor the tallest, nor any other human measure of success.  It’s about playing – about stacking blocks.  That’s where his fun is, that’s what makes it meaningful and valuable to him.  What’s more, his parents’ approval is not important. …Well, at least not yet!  – But our participation is.

Now, recently we had a dinner for a number of friends and their toddlers at our home. After some visiting, we went into the room where the kids were playing, and … guess what …  … … The Dads saw the kids playing with these big blocks!

Well, as good parents, we had to participate, shouldn’t we?

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Is God Involved?

One of the biggest questions any faith must address in their theology is to what extent God is involved in human affairs.  The answer can range from seeing God as distant and totally uninvolved (if not unapproachable); to heavily involved in every last detail of our lives.  None of the world’s major faiths have a single viewpoint on this issue.  Instead, we see a range communities within each of these great faiths with a broad range of views on the continuum between these two extremes.

The “distant” conception sees God as a distant, uninvolved deity.  In this view, humanity is often seen as an accidental or deliberate byproduct of creation, as rejected or cut off from God, or perhaps even forgotten by Her (or Him).  Adherents of this view usually believe it is up to humanity to somehow bridge the gap between us and God to achieve salvation.  For myself, I have difficulty with this view, since I believe God can (and does) have a personal relationship with us.  A distant and uninvolved God wouldn’t care about us one way or another, and our very existence would therefore be meaningless and futile.

A “Highly Involved God” is one where all pain, suffering and bad choices in this life are “fixed” because of God’s love for us.  While I believe God loves us, I have concerns with this point of view because it requires God to interfere in human affairs on an ongoing basis.  If God miraculously heals or favors me in some way, the cost is probably that someone else must suffer or be denied access to the benefits I am being given.  As a Rabbi once said: if I take a walk one day and see a fire engine racing by me towards smoke rising in the distance from where my house is, and I pray for God to let it not be my house that is burning, then am I, in effect, asking that someone else’s house be burned?  A God who interferes in human existence in such a way would not be respecting the gift of freedom of choice, which I believe lies at the heart of what makes us human, and is what makes us capable of having a true relationship with God.  If God does not permit us to suffer the consequences of our own choices, then we are no more than pets, or perhaps robots: playthings without a meaningful existence of our own.

The Book of Job in the Hebrew Bible makes this same argument: as a human, I am finite and limited in my understanding.  Therefore, I cannot know all the consequences of what I ask of God.   So, when God does not grace me with what I see as a favorable answer to what I am requesting, is that a bad thing?  I think not.  To me, it merely means that I do not know the full story, and that I am asking for something that is not in line with God’s perfect will for me and for all of Creation.  It is not a matter of “not having enough faith” or not being perfectly obedient to God’s will.  (In fact, I would argue, as did Paul, that no one can ever be perfectly obedient, and therefore none of us ever “deserves” God’s grace.)  But, let’s get back to the question of “Is God Involved?”

Is God involved?  Does God actually care for us as individuals?  Does God even notice that we exist?  For me, the answer is “Yes”

I believe that the primary reason for the historical existence of Christ is to demonstrate that God shared with us and walked with us, both fully human and fully divine.  God knows what it means to be happy, to be sad, to be hungry, to be satisfied, to love, and to grieve.  Through Christ, God has experienced all of these things, and so knows exactly what it means to be human.  Through doing this, God demonstrated that he (or she) cares for us as individuals: that each and every one of us matters to God.

Further, as Christ said in John 14:26, the “Comforter”, the Holy Spirit, is still with us.  I believe this is the same spirit that manifested itself as the “voice” that came to Elijah in the cave (I Kings 19:13).  I believe that the Holy Spirit is but one of the many avenues God uses to communicate with us, to help us learn for ourselves what God already knows is best for us.  Yet, God will never seek to shield us from the consequences of our choices.  If we make a bad choice, bad consequences will follow.  For me, the doctrine of “original sin” teaches us that we cannot help but make imperfect choices.  In other words, any choice we make will ultimately lead to negative consequences for someone, if not for ourselves.

So, the answer is Yes, God is involved: God is constantly talking to us, feeling what we feel, walking our walk.  But, it is up to us to choose to listen and to walk the path that God knows is best for us.  Yet, if we fail to do so, God remains with us, experiencing with us the pain and loss we’re experiencing.

I believe that God never gives up on us, and so I will never give up on the God I see as a very personal and very loving God.

 

Copyright (c) 2011, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via mention of my name on your site, or a link back to this site).