Sunday, November 25, 2012

Greening our Hearts

(A Sermon based on 1 Corinthians 13 for the Hanging of the Green 2012)

This morning we have celebrated the greening or the decorating of our sanctuary for the Advent and Christmas seasons (a reminder: Advent begins next Sunday and continues until Christmas Eve; the Christmas season begins on Christmas Day and ends twelve days later). The decorations serve to enhance the always-present beauty of the sanctuary; they make an already beautiful place even more beautiful.

Decorations can dress up a place that is not already attractive, though. Imagine that you are driving around town at night looking at Christmas lights. You drive through various neighborhoods and by many houses, all the while thinking, “Well, that’s pretty.” Then imagine that you drive through those same neighborhoods and by those same houses in the middle of the next day. In some cases, you will still think the houses are pretty. In other cases, not so much.

You can dress up an ugly place. You can enhance a beautiful place. Or, you can make an ok place into a better than average place.

Let’s apply that line of thought to our hearts.

A human heart can be a beautiful place; it can also be an ugly place or a mediocre place. I suspect that for most of us it is mediocre or fair-to-middling or sometimes good, sometimes bad. For us, the days of Advent and Christmas can be, as all days can be, days when we focus on greening our hearts, on adorning them further with those qualities that make all the difference in a life. Let’s use these days to focus on the greening of our hearts with faith, hope, and love.

This is not a matter of dressing ourselves up so we can appear to be better than we in fact are. I remember clearly how, around forty-five years ago, I would at this time of year suddenly become much more interested in the quality of my outward behavior just in case Santa was watching; I didn’t want to be on the wrong list. Notice that we’re talking about greening our hearts, about adorning our innermost being, and not about dressing up our actions. We want to develop strong root systems so that we will produce the right kind of produce. If we feed our hearts, the actions will follow.

Remember, too, that this is about what God does in and through us, not about what we do for ourselves. Our responsibility is to be open, to be seeking, and to be receptive to whatever God has for us. To understand the difference between what we can do and what God can do, try this: first, when you finish decorating your house for Christmas, step back and admire the job you have done; then, on a clear night, go outside and look up at the stars to see what God has done. You will see the difference.

God will green our hearts with gifts that endure, with blessings that have staying power. As Paul said, “Now faith, hope, and love abide, these three,” and those are the great realities with which God will adorn our hearts.

God will green our hearts with faith.

“Faith” means “trust.” There is an axiom that says that a person who chooses to represent himself in court “has a fool for a client.” The same principle applies if we try to represent ourselves in life. “Fools,” the psalm has it, “say in their hearts ‘There is no God’” (Psalm 14:1). We are made by God and we are made for God; therefore, we need God. God is the only One worthy of our trust because only God is God.

Trust in God is meant by God to be a beautiful reality in our lives and it becomes more beautiful as we grow in humble confidence that God’s will is becoming our will and God’s ways are becoming our ways. But trust in God can become an ugly reality when it deteriorates into arrogance and assumption, when we come to think that we really do know God’s will and way and when we assume that our will and way are God’s will and way.

Do you remember the father who said to Jesus, “I believe; help my unbelief”? (Mark 9:24). That’s a good prayer. Another good prayer is, “I believe; help my belief”; that is, don’t let my belief get the best of me and make me arrogant and shallow.

What a beautiful thing it is, on the other hand, when we simply and humbly give ourselves over to God, trusting that, both because of and despite who we are and what we do, God will show us the way.

God will green our hearts with hope.

Hope, biblically speaking, is confidence born of the assurance that God keeps God’s promises and that God is working God’s purposes out. Hope is not wishful thinking; hope is not fantasy; hope is not looking at the world through rosy-colored glasses. Hope sees the world as it really is and understands that reality is challenging and that the way through it is hard. But hope also believes in God and believes that God is working and will work God’s purposes out for all of creation.

Hope looks forward to that time when we will know as we long to know and we will be known as we long to be known. Meanwhile, hope gives us light in the midst of darkness, purpose in the midst of doubt, direction in the midst of chaos, and life in the midst of death.

God will green our hearts with love.

Our hearts are not suitably adorned, though, unless they are adorned with love. Faith, as great as it is, is without love arrogance. Hope, as great as it is, is without love selfishness. We can have great faith but still not be who God means for us to be and we can have great hope and not have the heart of God. But God will by God’s grace fill us with God’s love so that everything we are, say, and do is enlivened by the love of God. Faith and hope, while necessary in the living of this life, will not be needed in the next life; but love, being eternal (God is love, after all), will endure forever.

What is the love of God? It is seen in the fact that God made us even though God did not need us; it is seen in the fact that Jesus died for us when we were not worthy of such a sacrifice. It gives and gives and gives and sacrifices and sacrifices and sacrifices. So when that love fills us it will cause us to want to give and not to keep, to sacrifice and not to protect, and to help and not to hurt.

This Advent season, let’s ask God to decorate our hearts with faith, hope, and love. When God does, what will your life look like?

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Give Thanks

(A Communion Meditation based on Luke 22:14-20 for the Sunday before Thanksgiving Day)

The American Thanksgiving holiday has a long and rich history. Its roots can be traced to November 1621 when those English Separatists, known to us as the Pilgrims, celebrated their first corn harvest in the New World with a three-day feast that was shared with their Native American allies. The feast of thanksgiving, declared by Plymouth Colony Governor William Bradford, followed the harvest that followed the summer and spring that followed their first winter in the New World, a winter during which around half of the settlers had died. The Pilgrims celebrated their blessings, then, but they did so in the shadow of great suffering and of great trials as well as in the face of the great unknown that stretched out before them.

The first national Thanksgiving Day proclamation issued by the new United States government was that of President George Washington in 1789; he called for it as a day to give thanks for the successful war for independence and for the ratification of the United States Constitution. In 1863, at the height of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln made Thanksgiving a national holiday to be held annually on the last Thursday in November. Since 1941 Thanksgiving Day has been observed on the fourth Thursday in November. [All information about Thanksgiving from]

Our consumption-driven culture has done its best to reduce Thanksgiving Day to “Black Friday Eve”; I hope that we will make every effort to foster and to observe a true spirit of Thanksgiving on this Thanksgiving Day. Let’s spend some time reflecting on our blessings, thanking God for them, and asking for guidance on how we can help those who are not similarly blessed. I would suggest reading a Thanksgiving Psalm at your Thanksgiving dinner table, such as this one:

I will extol you, O Lord, for you have drawn me up, and did not let my foes rejoice over me.
O Lord my God, I cried to you for help, and you have healed me.
O Lord, you brought up my soul from Sheol, restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit.
Sing praises to the Lord, O you his faithful ones, and give thanks to his holy name.
For his anger is but for a moment; his favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.
As for me, I said in my prosperity, “I shall never be moved.”
By your favor, O Lord, you had established me as a strong mountain; you hid your face; I was dismayed.
To you, O Lord, I cried, and to the Lord I made supplication:
“What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the Pit? Will the dust praise you? Will it tell of your faithfulness?
Hear, O Lord, and be gracious to me! O Lord, be my helper!”
You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy,
so that my soul may praise you and not be silent. O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever.
(Psalm 30)

Our Scripture reading is not about a Thanksgiving meal but it is about a meal; it is about a Passover meal that Jesus shared with his disciples—in fact, it was the last meal that he shared with them and so it was a very meaningful time. The Passover meal did and does include prayers of thanks, though, so it did and does have a thanksgiving element to it.

We are told that Jesus gave thanks both for the cup and for the bread before he passed them among his disciples. Those prayers were likely the prayers that all Jews prayed at their Passover meal; with those prayers they blessed God for the fruit of the vine and for the bread from the earth. It is a good thing to give thanks for life, whether you, like our own Esylena Dougla, have celebrated your 94th birthday or like my Aunt Mary who will turn 100 next Sunday, or have lived a much shorter time. It is a good thing to thank God for our most basic and thus most necessary blessings, namely, our food and drink.

Let us thank God that we have enough!

There is a greater thanksgiving involved in the Passover meal, though. The Passover commemorates the deliverance of the Israelites from Egypt through the exodus. It was a thanksgiving, then, for God’s deliverance of God’s people from captivity and oppression. Jesus shared the meal with his disciples as he was about to lead another even greater exodus; he was about to win the victory that would liberate us from sin, death, and meaninglessness. He would do that through his crucifixion and resurrection. How has God in Christ set you free?

Let us thank God that we are free!

The Passover meal that Jesus shared with his disciples was his last meal with them; on the next day he would give his body and shed his blood for his disciples and for us. In sharing in the bread and the cup, the disciples were, even though they did not know it yet, joining themselves to the sacrifice and suffering of Jesus. They would have the privilege of loving, giving, serving, and sacrificing like Jesus did; they would have the opportunity to give their lives up for God and for others like he did. We have the privilege of loving God and loving others by giving ourselves up.

Let us thank God that we can love, serve, and give!

When Luke says that Jesus “gave thanks” for the bread and the cup, he uses the Greek word eucharisto; that is a word that some Christian traditions use to name the Lord’s Supper. The Lord’s Supper is in some ways, then, a Great Thanksgiving. As we come to the Table of the Lord today, let us give thanks that we have enough, that we are free, and that we can love…