The Sermon on the Mount has intrigued and fascinated the Christian Church for over 2000 years. We begin today on a four-week period where the lectionary takes us through some of the highlights of it. Let’s begin with the beatitudes:
The crowds were gathering around an itinerant preacher, but those in the back had a hard time hearing him. One says to another, “What did he say?”
Another man says, “I think it was ‘Blessed are the Cheese Makers.’”
“Ahh,” was the reply, “what’s so special about the cheese makers?”
“Well obviously it’s not meant to be taken literally; it refers to any manufacturers of dairy products.”
Thank you, Monty Python from preachers everywhere for this introduction to sermons on the Beatitudes. You can’t beat the comedy in The Life of Brian. Sure, it mocks Christianity, but Christians have done a lot over the millennia to be mocked about. Plus it’s incredibly funny. And also thought provoking.
I had the privilege and honor of preaching today at the town wide service in remembrance of the life and ministry of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This is that sermon.
It is very humbling to be asked to preach today. I must admit a little bit of apprehension for me to be here with you today. I am aware that I speak from a position of privilege granted to me solely on the basis of my skin color. In that way, at times I don’t feel as I have the authority to speak about the civil rights movement or about Dr. King.
But then, I remember my authority, and indeed all of our authority, comes not from humans, but from God. I took the same ordination vows as Dr. King, pledged to uphold the same faith as Dr. King, and preach the same word as Dr. King. So with humility and courage, and with gratitude to Dr. Sutton, I offer this word to you.
“Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
In April of 1963 the center of the civil rights movement was in Birmingham, Alabama. Dr. King and the leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference were invited to Birmingham to help kick-start a campaign of non-violent resistance with a hope to spark negotiations to desegregate the city. Read more…
I know I’ve used this illustration with you before, but when you have a favorite movie of all time, with a great baptism scene, you want to pull it out whenever possible.
It’s the Coen brother’s film, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” starring George Clooney as Ulysses. A story loosely based on Homer’s Odyssey, the film is set in 1930’s Mississippi. The three main characters of the movie, including Ulysses, are escaped convicts on the run from the law. As they make their way through the woods of rural Mississippi, they come across a river where a procession of people dressed in white robes are making their way into the river. And in the river is a preacher who is baptizing them. As they process, they are singing:
“As I go down to the river to pray
Studying about that good old way
And who shall wear the robe and crown
Good Lord, show me the way”
As Ulysses witnesses this scene, his two partners are moved to rush into the water and be baptized too. We see them be immersed into the river by the preacher and come out feeling like changed men. One of characters, Delmar, comes slogging out of the river to Ulysses and proclaims:
“Well that’s it boys, I been redeemed! The preacher warshed away all my sins and transgressions. It’s the straight and narrow from here on out and heaven everlasting’s my reward.”
Ulysses questions him and Delmar responds, “The preacher says all my sins is warshed away, Neither God nor man’s got nothin’ on me now. C’mon in boys, the water is fine.” Read more…
OK, pop quiz time. Let’s see how well you know the story.
Question 1 – According to the Gospel of Matthew, how many visitors came to see Jesus in Bethlehem? (trick question – It doesn’t say)
Question 2 – According to the Gospel of Matthew, who were the visitors that came to see Jesus in Bethlehem after he was born? Kings, Magi, or Wise Men? (Another trick question – depends on the bible translation. Most say magi or wise men. None say kings. Original Greek says Magi.)
Magi refers to the priestly class of the Zoastrianism faith who spent much of their time studying astrology. Later translations switched to wise men since Magi was too similar to magic, and magic was seen as the work of the devil.
OK, last question – According to the Gospel of Matthew, what were the gifts the Magi brought with them? This one is not a trick question. Gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
So much of what we think we know about the wider birth narrative has been shaped by thousands of years of tradition, that sometimes it helps to go back to the scriptures to the story itself and see what is really in there. Every once and a while we need to go and separate the Gospel from our pop-theology-mythology. Let’s hear the story again: Read more…
Sitting on the Hillsides, by Ann Weems:
Most of us who gather in Bethlehem on this night
are not the star seekers.
We’ve not traveled our dreams
month after month and year after year,
pouring over predictions and promises.
Most of us sit on our hillsides
tending our sheep,
business as usual.
Oh, we’ve heard rumors of stars,
but we don’t really give ourselves to seeking.
After all, there’s more than enough to do
in the daily tending.
We’re simply not on the lookout for stars,
nor expecting any light in our darkness.
I suppose the important thing is,
in the light of the glory of the Lord,
to recognize the voice of an angel
and to get up,
and in spite of our sheep
to go even unto Bethlehem
to see this thing that has happened.
It is probably the second most important story in our faith, second only to the story of the Resurrection, and it is being told around the world tonight. It is being told in churches, and in homes, in hospitals, and on battlefields. The whole world is proclaiming the birth of the Christ child.
Yet, that’s not how it was on that night almost 2000 years ago. It was a simple affair. Just Mary & Joseph in the stable. There was no announcement in the temple. No one ringing bells when the baby was born announcing the newborn king. No fanfare. Read more…
“The Visitation,” by He Qi
“…Mary set out and went with haste…”
What would you do if you were 13 years old and pregnant? Mary was unmarried, so there was no legitimate reason for her to be pregnant.
Well, no reason that anyone else would buy.
Today, a 13 year old getting pregnant may be a small scandal. Then, it was earth shattering. Two millennia of reading this story has set it in stone for us. We forget that these people aren’t the characters we see in nativity artwork, in beautiful clothing sporting halos. Mary is a real person – a real little girl.
And Mary’s pregnancy would have been a disappointment to everyone in her hometown, especially to her parents and her fiancé.
So, if I were her, I’d want to get the heck out of there too. Probably with haste.
A Pastoral letter shared with the congregation this week.
Dear Friends in Christ,
It has been a hard year for many of us. The absolute worst. Over the course of the last year, we have had nine funerals and memorial services for members and friends of the church. In addition, many of us have lost family members or close friends during this time. And yet, we have had moments of joy interspersed with our grief. The birth of babies. The calling of a new pastor. But still, many may wish that they could bury their heads in the sand and avoid the month of December all together, because it will be too hard. Yes, it will be hard.
As we approach the one-year anniversary of the massacre in Newtown, and as we enter the Advent and Christmas seasons with the weight of grief from so many losses, I want to offer up some ideas to help our community get through the upcoming month. First, recognize that we are still grieving. It is okay if you feel sad or angry. Second, you may want to consider a media fast during this time. Many news outlets have been and will be running stories about the anniversary. We do not need to live through it again. Third, surround yourself with loved ones and rely on each other to get through the rough days. And lastly, don’t feel guilty if you find yourself experiencing some joy this December too. Advent and Christmas are God’s time for breaking into our lives to show us light in the darkness.
Friends, as we continue to live into the new realities of our lives we need to remember to rely on each other to walk with us in our struggles. God is patiently working to create new beginnings for us when we are ready. God is looking for the opportunity to break into our lives with the promise of new life. God is preparing the resurrection for us.
On the morning of Saturday, December 14th, the sanctuary of the church will be open from 10:00 – 12:00 as a quiet place to come and pray. That evening, the Stratford Interfaith Clergy Association will be sponsoring An Evening of Remembrance at 7:00 pm at the First Congregational Church in Stratford.
And on Sunday, December 22nd at 7:30 pm, we will be having a Longest Night service, also known as a Blue Christmas service. This worship experience is designed for those who have trouble finding joy in the Christmas season. We will light candles for those we are remembering, share in communion and lift each other up in prayer. I hope that you will find this a meaningful experience.
It is my prayer that we will all be able to see glimpses of God’s love and joy this Advent and Christmas season.
Grace and Peace,