“Unprepared” – Rev. Tony Romaine – 03/15/2020
One time I planned a day long hike for my wife and myself. We were planning on hiking out to a place called Rabbit Ears, were going to eat lunch out there, then return home. Since we knew this trip was going to be a long one, we packed not only our lunch, but plenty of water to drink along the way. We had a very nice trip, but on our way back to our car, we noticed a group of hikers coming toward us that had not packed anything. Knowing they had quite a bit of hiking ahead of them in the Summer heat of the mountains in Colorado, and that they had only a little bit of water and that was it, we gave them what water we had not used and some bananas too boot. But the thought that kept going through my mind was how unprepared they were for this long journey they were on.
Unprepared is probably exactly how our ancestors who we hear in the Genesis passage for today must have felt when they had to journey through the wilderness and did not know where their food would come from or where they might get water. All they knew is that they had to get out of Egypt and follow God’s call into the wilderness. But what they were truly unprepared for was how God would work in their lives and provide for them all they would ever need.
Unprepared is exactly what the Samaritan woman at the well was for Jesus that day. As we hear in Gospel passage, she is so stunned that a Jew would even be talking to a Samaritan, let alone a stranger at a well. But the most stunning thing Jesus does for her is to tell her everything from her past that only she would know about. Demonstrating to her that He is a prophet, until the time she says to Jesus that she has heard one will come who is to be called the Messiah, where Jesus responded, “I am He.”
Unprepared was she also because she was being offered the living water of forgiveness, grace, mercy, and love that only Jesus can provide, water which will quench the eternal thirst of our sinfulness, water that will never run out. And in an act of great significance, but is so often overlooked, as this stunned Samaritan woman, who has just been personally welcomed into eternal life through Jesus, returns to town to witness to all there…she leaves her water jar behind! What need have we of any other water when we have the Word of Jesus?
As I give this message today, we are in the midst of two seasons which leave us unprepared: Lent and, a new one to us, Coronavirus. As a person who does not believe in luck and seeks to find how God is working in everything, I do not want to tie God’s will into any virus or pandemic. However, the fact that this is striking us in the midst of the season of Lent cannot go unnoticed. At the time when we are fasting, praying, meditating, spending time reflecting on our existence and our soul-journey with God, we are now also having to be separated, distanced, away from what is normal, and take precautions that leave us at best feeling unprepared and at worst panicked.
See, we like to think we are very different from the ancient Israelites who were berating Moses and asking him why he led them out of Egypt into this wilderness where they have no food or drink. Sure, they may have been slaves back in Egypt, but at least they had stuff to drink and to eat. But we are not like those people, those people panicked and turned to the only thing that they knew as normal. Those people questioned why God would ever leave them to be in this wretched desert. Those people did not trust that God would provide. But are we very different from “those” people at all?
And are we different from the woman at the well? Perhaps we say to ourselves, “If Jesus were talking to me, I would know it was Him!” Or we say, “Why didn’t she just trust and believe it right away when she saw Him, of course he was Jesus!” Or we say, “How come the townspeople had to invite Jesus to their town to preach, why didn’t they just trust the woman’s testimony?” And again, are we very different from the woman or the townspeople? Would we know it if God was talking to us through a Savior? Would we know it if God were talking to us directly? Would we trust someone who witnesses the faith to us that her testimony is true, or are we a “see it for myself” type of people?
Alright, I think we know the answers and that is why I ask these rhetorical questions. But here is the hope amidst our journey that comes from our passage in Romans: God sent Jesus, Jesus came, and did so even before we could know, even before we could believe; in our total un-preparedness, God saved us. Which begs the excellent question, why?
God sent Jesus, who willingly died for our sins upon the Cross, because we are always unprepared. Whether we willingly sin or unknowingly sin, our hearts need the reconciling love of Jesus Christ to save us because there is an imperfection to our humanity that prevents us from being totally prepared. At any point in time, we are the lost in the wilderness who are doubting our God and asking for food and water, or perhaps even asking to be enslaved by the sins of our creature comforts as we deny that God can or will provide, or are denying God and worshiping our false idols of government or television or celebrity who we think can provide for us. At any point in time, we are the Samaritan woman by the well, trying to hide the sins of our past, trying to hide the sins of our present, trying to be something we are not and being called to the Cross through Jesus who knows the depths of our souls.
But the hope in this, is that at every point in time, we are loved by Our Creator who knows every hair on our head, every inch of our bodies and who loves us beyond compare. The hope is that though unprepared, though imperfect, though sinners, though guilty of treating our neighbors as enemies and our friends as strangers; the hope is that Our God saved us by a grace we cannot obtain on our own, by a power not found through food or water, by a forgiveness that runs deeper than the deepest well, and by a love that can outlast any season, any virus, any wilderness we may be going through.
This is the hope in the eternal Christ who has saved our souls for eternity through the Easter we will one day celebrate, and hope that we will once again come together as a congregation and be able to worship and see each other and perhaps even embrace that we made it through an unprecedented wilderness; that we survived by the grace of God.
And in these times, in this wilderness, of Lent and Coronavirus, when we feel most unprepared, we must use our God-given wisdom and scientifically appropriate precautions to limit our exposure to each other. However, we can still pray, we can still call one another, we can still love, and we can still be together in this journey through the blessing of a phone call, a letter, a card, a note, a mysterious bag of groceries, and yes even an extra package of toilet paper left for those who need it!
I am just as guilty as the next person of being against the distancing modern technology affords. But, we too often forget that medical improvements, modern technology, and the devices we use that indeed can separate us; if put to the right purposes can also be used to draw us together.
This is the blessed perspective that we all too often forget in these times of peril. Yes, if we want, we can fall into despair and depression. But if we hope, if we have faith in God, if we trust in Christ’s promise, then we can make it through by relying on God’s Word, God’s Grace, and God’s Love through each and every one of us.
We are amidst a wilderness; we are on a long hike that seems to have no end. But let us not despair, for we know that there is an Easter light on the horizon, we know that our God will not forsake us, we know that when we cry out to God for help in the middle of life’s trials and tribulations, that God hears our prayers. And when all seems lost, we know and trust and believe in Jesus who is living water, food without end, and eternal love everlasting!
So we are unprepared, we are in over our heads, we perhaps feel we are on a long hike without the basics to get us through, parched, hungry, thirsting for normalcy; then let us turn to Our Guide, Our Provider, Our Eternal God! For God has given us the eternal water of Jesus Christ, the manna of our Daily Bread, and God is longing for us, loving us, even when we are unprepared, Amen!
Rev. Tony Romaine
Max Lucado: "Forgiveness is unlocking the door to set someone free and realizing you were the prisoner."
Look, forgiveness is the most difficult thing we are called to do as Christians. It goes against our very nature as animals to forgive someone who has harmed or hurt us in one way or another. We are programmed to hold onto past pains so that they do not occur again. When in fact, it is that “holding on,” which traps us and ensnares us in a powerless prison.
Before we move any further, let us be clear, forgiveness is not about forgetting. To say, “forgive and forget,” is not only harmful but also un-helpful to anyone who is actually trying to go through the act of forgiveness. We must never forget some of the things that have happened to us, to our world, and to the people around us; doing so would be a tarnish upon our very faculties as God-created, thinking individuals. But forgiveness is something entirely different. Forgiveness is taking the power back from the individual, organization, or entity which has caused us strife. Forgiveness is freeing ourselves from the bondage of having to hold a grudge, of having to hold onto past pains, of having to forever relive something that we just do not want to carry any longer, and forgiveness is the final step in a long path toward healing.
In trauma-care, we are taught that the final step for people who have experienced trauma is forgiveness. Again, this is not a motion toward forgetting or condoning the harm that occurred, but it is a step toward releasing the bondage of that event on said person’s life. The reason it is the final step toward healing in trauma situations is because it is the most difficult and can take quite a while to even get to, if people ever get there at all.
With what has just been said in mind, let us today ask ourselves why Jesus would want us to forgive our brother or sister. The answer begins with another part of our very nature which we cannot change no matter how hard we try; our sinfulness. We are bound to do harm or hurt to someone at sometime regardless of intent and sometimes with ill intent very much on our mind. In this respect, we are inherently sinful; again, whether we intended to be or not, and in this moment, we have then caused harm to another person, thing, etc.
We then become the ones who need to be forgiven for our actions or inactions and we come once again to the Golden Rule we have all memorized since we were children, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you!” And so, one reason Jesus desires us to forgive our brothers and sisters is because we desire the same for ourselves. And if we seek forgiveness, we must also offer forgiveness.
Which naturally transitions us into my next point of why Jesus would want us to forgive our brother or sister. We live in community. We live in community and when you live in community, a harm or hurt or injury against one individual is a harm or hurt or injury to the whole community. We have seemed to lost sight of this virtue nowadays. We judge and hold judgment and reserve the right to determine who is right and who is wrong.
We go about our lives thinking we live very separate lives; we are not like those people who look down on others, we are not like those people who do not care for their neighbors, we are not like those people who fight and struggle and are at constant war, we are not like those people who lack basic human respect for one another…and we think we are different from the people who do harm in our communities because we would not do the same or we are distant from the injury.
When in fact, when we as Christians do harm to anyone, we as Christians are doing so under the community name of Christian. And when we do harm as Christians, we do double the harm for Christ did not call us to hurt, He called us to Love. Thus, we all need forgiveness as part of community and we all need to reconcile as brothers and sisters so that accountability can be paired with forgiveness; always remembering that forgiveness is not condoning, but forgiveness is an act of love, an act of freeing the community of the bondage of hurt.
One final point about living in community when it comes to forgiveness; when we have hearts that are quick to judge, quick to accuse, quick to call people fools or idiots, quick to insult those we think are lesser than us; we create fracture in our community. And we quickly go down a road where forgiveness is never an option for the love, we should have for one another is trapped behind a wall of segregation, inequality, inhumane treatment, and disregard of fellow human beings. At which point to forgive seems even more out of our nature and love a distant memory. This is not the community Christ calls us to, because at some point, we must also answer for our mistakes, our hurts, our harms, our sins.
Which brings me to my final point about why Jesus would want us to forgive our brother and sister. At some point, we must all “come to terms with our accuser on the way to court.” And if you missed this metaphor from the Gospel passage today, the accuser is God and we are on our way to court. Perhaps this makes you uncomfortable that God would be your accuser, and you would be headed to the judgement seat. Christians today do not want a God who judges good and bad, right and wrong, Christians nowadays want a very loving God who only looks at our good points.
Hey, I get you, I am right there with you, and if any of you have listened to many of my sermons you know that I am one who preaches and teaches about a God who is a God of love till I am blue in the face. But at some point, we must also recognize that God is our judge, in fact our sole eternal judge and so we must come to terms with the accusations against us; i.e. our sins, and reconcile on the way to court.
In plain speak, we must seek God’s forgiveness with a repentant heart and truly confess, repent, and reconcile with our God, who indeed loves us. And even though God is accuser, even though God is judge, our God loved us so much that Jesus came and was sacrificed so that our sins were forgiven and we were set free. To go back to the metaphor, on the way to court, we pray for forgiveness for we know we cannot do it alone, and because we have come to ask forgiveness from the only One who can forgive everything; through Jesus Christ, our debts are paid, our sins forgiven, and every last penny accounted for, we do not go to prison, but are freed by the grace and love of God.
“Forgiveness is unlocking the door to set someone free and realizing you were the prisoner.”
It is a daunting task to forgive. It is an ongoing task to forgive. It takes a lifetime of prayer, patience, empathy, and love to forgive. Perhaps the most helpful comment I read lately about forgiveness is that when we forgive we are not forgetting, but re-routing our hurt, pain, and sorrow through heaven for God to take on; freeing ourselves to repair, live anew, and free; therewithin lies the hope, forgive and be freed, Amen
“United in…” Reverend Tony Romaine
Elizabeth Coatsworth in Five Bushel Farm wrote this poem:
“The warm of heart shall never lack a fire
However far he roam
Although he live forever among strangers
He cannot lack a home
For strangers are not strangers to his spirit,
And each house seems his own,
And by the fire of his loving-kindness
He cannot sit alone”
We are a people who are walking in darkness. We go about our days and wander about the world consuming and consuming, siloing ourselves off into ever deeper division and fear. We are in the darkness because we choose to follow those that seek to divide us, those that seek to keep us afraid and those who, because they look like us, sounds like us, or tell us what we want to hear, are those who we think we agree with.
We divide ourselves along party lines, we say we are Republican or Democrat. We divide ourselves along social lines; we say we are pro-life or pro-choice, we say we are for LGBTQi peoples or against LGBTQi peoples. We divide ourselves along denominational lines; we say we are UCC or UMC or Lutheran or Catholic or Presbyterian. We divide ourselves along national lines; we say we are American or Swedish or Norwegian or German or French or Italian. And in doing all this dividing, which we think is good for us because we need groups to reside in or peoples who are like-minded, we eventually become so broken that fixing the divide seems nearly impossible.
This morning, we hear Paul speaking to the church in Corinth about this very thing. Paul is writing to a church which is dividing itself based on their favorite preacher or evangelist. People are becoming followers of one person, they are choosing to follow one person and lift that person up as the best of the best, and anyone who disagrees with them are wrong. Does this remind anyone here of our current state of affairs in the United States?
But what Paul tells the church in Corinth is for our ears to hear loud and clear this day also. We are not baptized into being a Democrat or a Republican, we are not baptized into being a UCCer or Methodist, we are not baptized in the name of whomever baptized us. No, we are baptized in Christ, we are united in Christ, and anything else, any other descriptor, any other divisive language is not only not necessary, but seeks only to separate and do harm to the Christian unity.
As Rev. Mary Hinkle Shore states,
“When Paul urges “the same mind and the same purpose” in verse 10, Paul may sound like someone who is simply uncomfortable with conflict, but he has his sights on something greater than keeping the peace. The individual points of division in Corinth are merely a symptom of an underlying problem: the Corinthians do not understand that the cross of Christ was God’s way of upending their ways of defining and valuing themselves and one another.”
I love that language, “upending” our ways of defining ourselves and others, “upending” how we value ourselves and others. Because in Christ all are welcome and all are valued. In this manner, we are united in Christ. Which means we are united in the life, death, resurrection, and return of Christ. All too often we as Christians focus solely on the death and resurrection piece of what Christ promises. The greatest gift given was the forgiveness of our sins and the salvation of our souls; no doubt about it! But what about the life that Christ calls us to? What kind of life is Christ calling us to live as we walk about the Earth?
This is the part where we are supposed to be united in what Christ has taught us, but this is all too often the part which divides us the most. As we seek to define the ways in which Christ taught us to live our lives, we then purposefully, and maybe even innocently, begin to divide ourselves among the “in” and “out.” Who can have Communion, who can serve Communion, who can be baptized, who cannot be baptized, who can worship here, who is not welcome here, what songs are we supposed to sing, what words are we supposed to use, what types of people can sit in our seats, who can sit at our table, or use our tables and chairs, and the list of division goes on and on. Until we are a small group of like-minded individuals who have no counter voice to speak truth to the false narrative of factionalism.
This is not the life Christ is calling us to, and in many ways, thankfully not what our church, First United Church represents. We purposefully and diligently came together through difficult conversations and agreements and councils to form a United Church that is composed of United Methodists and UCCers. Which historically are two congregations which are composed of Methodists, United Brethren, Congregational, Christian, German Reformed, and German Evangelical churches. Which means that if you are keeping count as I have been, that our First United Church is composed not of two denominations, but more like six denominations. And if you also include all the individuals who are sitting amongst us who were once Catholic, Lutheran, non-Believer, or what have you, then this United Church is composed of not six, but eight or more disparate denominational histories.
But none of that matters if it divides us. None of our history matters if we use it to supplant ourselves over one another, none of what makes me me should make you any less of you, and none of our “Unitedness” matters if we are not truly United in Christ, united in Christ’s baptism, united in living a life with one another as Christians, united in Christ’s death and resurrection, and united in the belief that one day Christ will come again and wake us from our deep slumber to restore us to peace. United in the Christian belief that the color of skin, the amount of wealth, the status of being, the political beliefs, the social beliefs, the sicknesses or illnesses which hamper us, age or race or sex or whatever, is not stronger than the unity which Christ calls us to through our baptism that we are made one in Him.
Furthermore, the upending of our life when we repent and follow Jesus is that we become children of the light who are healed and saved through the one belief that Jesus can heal us, Jesus can unite us and Jesus can and did save us.
Listen again to part of our Gospel for today:
15 “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles--
16 the people who sat in darkness
have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death
light has dawned.”
17 From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
23 Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. 24 So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them.
Or perhaps, hear it this way: land of the United States, land of Minnesota, on the road by the river, across the Mississippi, First United Church of the Little Falls—the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light. We once sat in a time of darkness, in a shadow region, but we repented and believed in the unity of Christ and the kingdom of heaven indeed is near.
We were sick and diseased, we thought division was the only way, we used to think lowly of our neighbor and separate ourselves because they were different. But then we realized, we are all sick, we are all weary, we are all in need of the healing that only Jesus can bring.
And so, we followed Jesus, and brought to him all our illnesses and hurts. We came and laid at his feet those afflicted with physical disease, those whose hearts were trapped by fear, those who had demons past or present, those who were so wracked by the fear of what might happen that they were paralyzed and could not love those worshipping alongside of them, those who could not see the God-spark in their neighbor, and so, were blind to Christ in each other, and Jesus cured us all. And in that day, the words of the prophet Isaiah came true:
For a people who once walked in darkness, saw a great light; a child was born for them, a son whose authority rests upon his shoulders and is named: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. And because they were united in Christ, Jesus multiplied the nation and increased its joy; For the yoke of their burden, the burden of living the lie of divisiveness and the bar across their shoulders, the oppressive rod of fear, was broken.
“For the warm of heart shall never lack a fire…and we cannot sit alone!”
In the Tao Te Ching, the classic Chinese philosophical work of Lao Tzu, it has this to say about water, “Nothing in the world is softer than water, yet nothing is better at overcoming the hard and strong. This is because nothing can alter it. That the soft overcomes the hard and the gentle overcomes the aggressive is something that everybody knows, but none can do themselves.”
God has truly gifted us with an amazing thing when water was created out of the cosmos. Did you know that most of our water that was formed on earth, probably came from asteroids crashing into earth at a very formative time in our creation, roughly 3.8 billion years ago? And through time and formation, eventually broke down through geologic and chemical processes to become what we know as water today.
It’s amazing to even think about that 3.8 billion years is how much planning God had for our existence. And in terms of our human bodies, when we are born our bodies are roughly 90% water and by the time we are adults it only shrinks to about 60-65%. Now I know that you are probably thinking to yourselves that this journey into science is great, but what is the point here! The point is that water, beyond being an essential part of our world, and an essential part of our bodies, is an essential part of our spiritual existence as well. But we must explore all the states of water in order to fully understand all about God’s amazing waters.
Ice: When our hearts become solid and frozen, we become like ice. We become hard-hearted, we become cold to others, and we close ourselves off to the ebb and flow of human interaction. We also close off any ability within ourselves to allow other waters in, to allow for cleansing, and to allow for the natural flow of our humaneness, or moral attitude toward others. Yes, ice is important for cooling off, it is important for cooling drinks, it is important for Arctic transportation and exploration, it is important for the cooling of our planet and many more important things. However, iciness, as an eternal state, only leads to a cold-hearted reality where fracture is probable and death is certain.
Steam or Vapor: When we are so hot that we get to a boiling point and our waters evaporate into steam or vapor, then we destruct on another level; we disappear, we become unrecognizable, and we no longer can be seen or touched. When we get so angry with ourselves or our neighbors, when we do not allow for cooling off or calming down, when we can only spit vitriol and hate, when we heat up and heat up and heat up until our state is no longer recognizable…then we transform into the very thing we did not think would ever happen, we transform into something other, we evaporate out of a state of flexibility and malleability into a state where we are no longer in control. When we are vapor or steam, we are at the whim of others, at the whim of the wind, and we can be blown away by the slightest of breezes. Yes it is good to express emotion, yes it is good to get rid of waters that have turned bad, but vapor or steam burns others badly, it destroys and breaks down bonds, and can be lost forever to the winds of hate.
Water: When we are water in its liquid state we are flexible, malleable, life-giving, and patient. The greatest canyons and mountains have been carved by the tiniest of rivers, the smooth stones of the North Shore tell the story of patience and endurance. Water supports life, it gives life, and it is essential to life. Yes, waters can flood, we can have too much of it and it can be destructive; certainly, too much water can be life-threatening. And when we use too much water and we run out, too little water can also be life-threatening.
But, this is what water teaches us; balance. The balance that our lives must have and that we must work to not be overly set in one of our states. When our waters begin to cool, well then it is time to warm ourselves up and find that balance once more. When our waters begin to boil, then it is time to calm and cool and find that balance once again. When our waters turn stagnant and stale and begin to rot or fester, then it is time for us to open new channels of irrigation and find our flow once more. And when our rivers move too fast, churning our lives over rocks and boulders, then we need to find that soothing eddy to relax in once again.
And if you think that I am just overly stretching a metaphor and wrote this sermon because I love water and nature, while you are not necessarily too far off on all accounts, I do want to offer you this one question: why did God choose to baptize with water? Why are we not baptized with soft linen sheets? Why are we not baptized with sand or dirt? Why are we not baptized with strong wind?
We are baptized with water because we are cleansed in the process and renewed by God’s eternal and amazing Creation.
See there is a very important part to today’s sermon that I have been purposefully saving for last: Jesus came and was baptized in the water too! He did not have to be, Jesus was pure and blameless even before being baptized, we hear John proclaim that while he is baptizing people. But Jesus came, stepped into the waters, was baptized and God’s Spirit descended upon Him and blessed Him.
Why? Because like ice that is frozen and cold, God’s distance can sometimes feel like we are closed off to love. Like ice which is hard and frozen, God can sometimes seem indifferent to our existence and the pains and agonies we experience as human beings.
Because like vapor or steam or gas, God’s distance can be unrecognizable and unnerving. We are not always sure if God is there or here, if God can hear us, or if God even cares for us. Like gas, we can feel burned by the sinfulness of our world and the degradation of our bodies. And like vapor or steam or gas, God’s distance can seem like it comes and goes like the winds that blow.
But, when a baby was born into the hands of humans, when a child grew in exile and returned through the desert to be cleansed and baptized in the river Jordan, when Jesus humbled Himself and was baptized by John, all the cold was melted away, all the unknowable solidified, and Jesus washed in the eternal waters of God’s ever-flowing streams, became like water to us, knowable to us, flowing in and through our fingers, cleansing us with waters before unknown, and ultimately freeing us to flow into our God-given canals of life.
And in doing so, in that one moment, all who would be baptized in the name of Christ, became one in the water with Jesus. The water that brings life, the water that experiences death, the waters which are greater than all things, the waters which flow eternal.
Lao Tzu also says in the Tao, “The highest goodness is like water. Water easily benefits all things without struggle. Yet it abides in places that men hate.”
What better description of Jesus’ life as an element is there than water. Jesus who wanted the best for all people and did so without struggle. Jesus who came and taught us how to live our lives flexible and open to loving our neighbor, Jesus who went to the places that men of his day hated, sat with those who were hated, ate with those who were hated, forgiving those who were hated; like water which stretches out even into the most arid of places.
So may we remember, “Nothing in the world is softer than water, yet nothing is better at overcoming the hard and strong.” And may we forever be like God’s Amazing Waters, ever-flowing like Jesus, molding, moving, loving, Amen
The Gift of Light
I don’t know if any of you have ever been in a cave, or on a cave tour, but they are quite interesting. One particular cave I went on we entered into a room that was almost fully enclosed, and our cave guide told us this room was completely dark, meaning there was no light at all, and so when the lights were turned out, we got to experience complete, and I mean complete, darkness. Now, to scare us, our guide also told us that if we remained there too long, maybe for a few days, we would go completely blind. And while this is scientifically untrue, the complete darkness was suffocating, scary, and real…and while one’s eyes may not go blind, I definitely felt anxiety within me without light shining in.
How dark must our world get before we realize that we need to be the gift of light to one another? We live in a society that has spun so far out of control, that we can sling arrows across the world at each other and do so in the name of freedom.
How dark must our world get before we go completely blind? We demonize the innocent and the needy, we make it their fault they are homeless, we make it their fault they need help, and we turn a blind eye, pun intended, to their needs.
How dark must our world get before we no longer see the light? We fail to see the good in each other, we fail to be patient with one another, we fail at being Christian to one another, because we fail to love one another.
Jesus was and is the gift of light to our world and we use our history, our tradition, our faith to do everything opposite of what Jesus called and is calling us to do. But in order to fully demonstrate this, I want to tell us what the gift of light does or does not do:
Despite complete blindness from the cave I spoke of at the beginning being a myth that the guide used to make our experience a little scary; we have all experienced temporary blindness at some point or another. We have all had someone turn on a light in a dark room, or walked out of a movie theater into a bright day, or something similar that forces us to kind of put our hand up, blink profusely, be in a little pain, but then ultimately we get used to the light and adjust accordingly.
How fitting a metaphor for how God works in our life. Perhaps a little discomforting to know that love is the only answer, perhaps a bit painful to remember the sins of our past, perhaps forces us to put our hands up wondering what in the world we can do, and perhaps we blink profusely because the tears of knowledge that God’s love is enough for us and the world are streaming down our face.
And as such, I have saved the greatest part of the gift of Light for last: the Gift of Light heals. It takes broken people and makes them whole, it takes broken souls and renews them, it takes people who know not love and loves them, it takes a world torn apart and mends it back together and it takes you and I to do it, for we have seen Jesus in our lives, and that gift is meant to be shared. We no longer have to live in darkness, fear, doubt, or misery; for we know what it is like in the light and we get to choose. Our blindness is only temporary. It is when we choose the gift of Light that our eyes are opened and we see, Amen
“This Is the Day!”
I know that it will be a stretch, but I want to begin understanding our Gospel parable today by telling a parable myself:
You see, we do a funny thing when it comes to selling houses. We could live in a house for ten or twenty or even longer years and have a plan to upgrade the bathroom or kitchen or dining room, add a bedroom, or garage or what have you. But we put it off and we put it off, and finally when we are looking to sell the house, we remodel and upgrade and make the house much more attractive to potential home buyers. When what we should have done all along is done the upgrades and improvements along the way so we could have enjoyed them as part of the home we always wanted to live in, not just wait until the last moment and then finally make the improvements.
You might be asking yourself, what does this have to do with sheep and goats and visiting the sick and imprisoned, feeding the hungry, welcoming the poor or stranger. And while on one level you are correct to wonder, what it actually all comes down to this time of year is the idea of “This is the Day!”
Often times we hear people say things like, “live each day like it is your last” or “today is a present, so treat it as a gift.” And normally I dismiss these things as positivity thinking about how to spend our days being attuned with one another, but lately I have been thinking about what it truly means to be present and to spend time with myself and others.
So, let us today ask the question, what if today was your last day on earth, what would you do if This is the Day?
No doubt if you had loved ones you would want to spend every moment with them letting them know how much they mean to you and perhaps dispensing what wisdom you have gained. Perhaps you would try to visit a place you have never been and always wanted to go, perhaps you would actually say what you have been meaning to say for years to a lost friend, family member, or someone you know you were mean to. Perhaps you would just turn in, not let anyone near you, and do the old dog maneuver and separate yourself from the pack and be alone in your last moments.
But remember our theme today is what would you do if today was your last day, and so I want to key in on something that we all too often paint over. Caring for the least of those among Jesus’ family begins with caring for yourself. Now this does not mean going overboard and turning overly inward and not helping others, but this means that you must love yourself before you can love others. This means that when you need that day to just rest and recuperate and recharge, that you take that day to do just that. So that when you are ready, you act, as the hands and feet of God incarnate!
In other words, and to stretch my parable out even further, you must make improvements so that your house is in good order and then when ready, you can invite people over. For if self-doubt, fear, and guilt reside within you, then you will have every excuse in the world to not help those around you. But if hope, faith, trust, and love are your foundations, then indeed your house is built upon the Rock of the Ages.
What this boils down to, is that all too often, we put things off in our lives and back burner our most important tasks for another day. All too often we make ourselves too busy to slow down and love ourselves, let alone, see the lost among us, the poor among us, the outcast longing to be known among us. And as such, all we then fail to look into the mirror and realize that perhaps we are the very lost we seek to help, that we are the very poor we want to assist, or we are the very stranger that longs to be welcomed.
Furthermore, what Jesus is telling us today, is that when we slow down to recognize and help others the way we would want to be helped, is when we are doing the very same thing for Jesus himself. So that on the day of reckoning, when the sheep and goats are separated (and I’m sorry to all the goats, I don’t know why you always get the short end of the parable) when all our accounts come due in life, we will be judged by one simple measuring stick…did you do it to the least of these?
Did you give the hungry food?
Did you give the thirsty something to drink?
Did you welcome the stranger?
Did you clothe the naked?
Did you care for the sick?
Did you visit the imprisoned?
It’s as if Jesus gives us a checklist of righteous measurements. It also seems quite daunting, doesn’t it?! But it is easier than you might think. Because often times it begins with us. But because after we have our house in order we must act and help others out, as Jesus calls us to do, and because I am all about offering some solutions today to help us on our way, here is a list of things you could do when ready to help the least of these:
Buy a bag of food at Coborn’s for the food shelf
Donate a case of water to Oasis of Central MN
Bring cookies to your new neighbor, or a neighbor you have not met yet
Take those old shirts of yours that you haven’t worn for decades and donate them to Good Will
Volunteer at the hospital
Volunteer at the Church
Volunteer at the Prison
Say prayers for all those mentioned above
And here is the truly amazing part of our faith: when you stumble, because you will; when you fall, because you will; when you sin, because you will; it is in those moments that the greatest of all of us, Jesus Christ, comes to save the least of His family…which perhaps just may be us! That no matter the day, whether This is the Day or it is another day in the future, we are saved by the grace of God, we are forgiven by the Cross of Christ, and we are lifted up to try anew each second, minute, hour, day, month, or year because at some point we will do something to help the least of these. And in that moment, when you may not even know what you did, in that moment, you were Jesus to the least of His family.
To quote a Haitian prayer, “Lord, what we were yesterday is not what we are today. What we are today is not what we were yesterday.” Today is a new day, this coming year is a new year, what do you plan to do with it? What repairs or improvements does your house need? What repairs or improvements does your neighbors house need? Are you going to do something now, or just wait until the last possible moment to finally be the love God longs for this world?!
This is the Day, This is the Day, All Glory to God, for This Is the Day, Amen!
Signs of Love
Rev. Tony Romaine
In Susan Trott’s trilogy about a Holy Man, she writes about a monk who lived on top of a mountain in a hermitage. To get to the hermitage, pilgrims would have to travel a long path up a steep and winding trail packed by fellow travelers. There were separate paths up and down, as the path was not wide enough for two-way traffic. The journey was arduous, and people may have to camp out for days before seeing the Holy Man, as he would only take visitors during the Summer months.
As one of the characters finally reached the hermitage which was a quaint two story non-descript house on a rock foundation facing East, the pilgrim knocked on the door and it was opened by one of the monks at the hermitage. The pilgrim knew he was a monk because every day the monks would go down to the village to pick up supplies and they were always dressed in drabby gray clothing and simple attire. And so, this man answered the door and said, “Yes, how may I help you?” The traveler answered, “I have come to see the Holy Man.” The monk at the door said, “Ah yes, follow me.” The monk then led the pilgrim through the hermitage passing open rooms and doors and finally they were at the back gate. As the monk opened the back door to the hermitage and said, “Goodbye.” The Pilgrim stunned said, “What, wait a second, I came to see the Holy Man.” And the monk answered, “and so you have.”
I love the idea of slowing down as we come to the end of our Advent season, because it reminds me that we can sometimes journey through life, an arduous journey no doubt, and miss all the signs that God is with us, or that God longs for us along the way. In fact, I sometimes think about if God is already among us and we just fail to see. Or if Jesus did come, would we recognize it?
See, we ask for signs that God is with us, we ask that God make present what the next revelation is, but then do we take the time to see it? And would we trust it if someone stood up in the middle of downtown Little Falls and proclaimed that a young woman would give birth to a child and that child would be named Jesus and he would come to save the world?
Unfortunately, I think not, for long gone are the days when the prophets went to the king’s court and proclaimed about a young maiden who would give birth, long gone are the days when a disciple would go from town to town and proclaim the Good News, and long gone are the days when the whole world stops and awaits a newborn baby…or are they?
Sometimes we have recency bias, or a tendency to think that what we are experiencing can only be happening to us. But I think that in those times before Jesus’ birth many Jews in the Mediterranean world were feeling much like we do today. They were feeling forgotten by a world which was ruled by leaders who seemingly could care less about the people who actually support and uphold the society. They were being persecuted for their beliefs and were being marginalized because of their religion. They were tolerated, but that was about it, by a Roman society that had no use for their God or their religion or their temple. And they were holding onto hope that one day a Messiah would come and would save them all; because it was written that this would happen and because it had happened before.
And then something marvelous occurred to these Jews, an angel appeared to an unwed virgin and promised her that she would become the mother of Emmanuel, God With Us, and that same angel appeared to Joseph to let him know that everything would be more than okay and that he should stick by Mary’s side because this was God’s work and Joseph should trust in God. And a sign was proclaimed that the messiah would come in the form of a baby. That God would save the world through this baby Jesus.
I think we overlook this one important fact all too often, that the sign of love that God sent into our world was not a thunderstorm breaking forth and a baby floating down from the heavens, it was not God incarnate with lighting bolts streaming from fingertips and flowing golden locks of hair appearing out from behind marvelous white clouds, it was a baby born in a room of a house reserved for animals, born into a feeding trough, and probably quite dirty and unkept.
But more so than the actual birth itself, is the symbol that God bursting forth into our lives in the from of a baby holds, the sign of love that we received o so many years ago…A baby needs to be cared for, nurtured, held, loved. A baby needs to be raised and taught and helped along the way. A baby is the most fragile form our human bodies take until our dying days when we are fragile once again. And so, if you have not thought of it yet, here is the important fact we often overlook…our salvation came in a form that requires our attention, our care, and our love; which means God incarnate, God in our lives, requires our attention, our care, and our love.
In other words, we must nurture each other, we must care for each other, and we must be the love for each other as if everyone we meet is God incarnate! In this respect, the sign of God’s love is in each of us, the love God has for the world lies within our hands and feet, and the only way we will ever recognize God within us is when we begin to recognize God within each other!
I know the cynics out there are immediately wanting to know about criminals or the mentally insane or the abusers and harassers and the list goes on. And you are correct, because we cannot change the past. But remember, Jesus did not come to change our past, He came to change our future. Jesus was the fulfillment of the law and the prophets, His coming fulfilled all prophecy, but His coming was to give us a future which we could live into, one where we are free to love without restrictions and to choose anew. And if we fail to recognize the sign of God’s love within ourselves and each other than we will never realize God’s love in the world, or see it even in the innocence of a baby.
And so, if there is only one thing you ever know about Christmas may it be this: God loves you!
Is there a hole in your heart? God loves you
Do you miss someone? God loves you
Are you a believer? God loves you
Do you doubt or absolutely not believe? God loves you
Are you sad or lonely? God loves you
Are you conflicted, guilt-ridden, sin-filled? God loves you
God loves you so much that instead of staying distant and far away, instead of being something you could never feel or see, instead of being something you could never relate to; God burst into our world so that you could touch the divinity which exists within you, and you could see the divinity that exists within the other.
You might be wondering how I could know that God loves you, how could I possibly know? I know because I am broken, I am imperfect, at times lonely, at times depressed, and in those moments when I feel that I am not worthy of love, that I am not worthy of God’s grace, that I am not worthy of the life I have been given, in those moments when the deepest love of my most dearest loved ones or those who love me beyond compare cannot even reach the depth of my despair…It is in those moments when God’s love fills me and repairs me; because I am God’s child, I am of the Creator, and I am loved as a carnal being of God’s own hands.
As we have journeyed through the Advent season, we have spoken of putting on the Armor of Hope and awaiting the coming hour of God, we have spoken about the Root of Peace and how God calls each of us to be promoters of peace regardless of our history, we have celebrated the Joy that children bring through song and Scripture, through music and innocence. And here we are now on the cusp of celebrating the birth of Jesus into our world. As this season ends, it will bring relief to many that the busyness is over, the cooking is done, the family time spent, all the gifts either bought or not bought.
But the irony is that we will just ramp things up again, that we will inevitably speed up to the pace of life again, and we will undoubtedly start to go so fast as to miss the very important signs of God’s love in our lives once more. This is what happens to us, this is why the Advent season is so important, this is why we eventually come to another season of reflection and waiting in Lent, and this is why no matter how many times, years, decades we experience the message of Christmas, we need to hear it again and again and again. That God loved us so much that Jesus was born to save us, to love us. That the one true sign of God’s love lives within us all, and that love is meant to be shared with one another.
And so, let me leave you all with a piece of advice, a sign of God’s love. This is not from me, but rather this advice is from a Holy Man on the Mountaintop: “If you look on everyone you meet as a holy person, you will be happy.”
What better sign are you waiting for?
The Root of Peace
Rev. Tony Romaine
One of the great questions we struggle with as humans is purpose. For what reason were we created? Why were we even born? And as we journey through Advent and this season of waiting, it gives us momentary pause top ask the same about Jesus. I mean I know my family has its skeletons and secrets, but look at Jesus’ lineage from our Gospel reading today.
Here are just a few eyebrow raising ancestors:
Tamar who had two husbands die on her, was shunned by Judah, pretended to be a prostitute so she could bear a son for Judah, was almost burned to death before Judah recognized that she was carrying his son.
Rahab, who was a woman of the night, who hid two Israelis and saved them from certain death, was saved when the city of Jericho was destroyed because of her loyalty and righteousness.
David, said to be the greatest king in all of Judaism, author of many of the Psalms, still sent his best friend and best general to the front lines of a war to be killed so he could have Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, to himself.
Ruth, a Moabite widow, a foreigner from another land, stays with her mother-in-law Naomi and although not originally a follower of God, becomes one through family loyalty and dedication to Naomi.
This less-than stellar lineage makes us think about why Jesus has this family history. Absolutely it is important to connect things back to the line of Jesse which our prophets speak of and of which Jesus is a part, but more importantly, it is to demonstrate that out of the brokenness of our humanity comes peace, out of the destruction we cause ourselves comes healing, and out of the despair and loneliness comes love.
This line of Jesus is one filled with sinners ranging from murderers to adulterers to the greedy and the list goes on. And yet, this is Jesus’ lineage, heritage, and this is the line through which God chose to become incarnate. So, why do you think Jesus was ever born at all? I mean really think about it. Why would God even need to come in the form of a baby to save our world, grow into a wise adolescent, and then seemingly at the apex of his ministry; be cut down and crucified?
Sure, we can respond about the resurrection and eternal life and the forgiveness of sins; all good things and true. But there is one important reason we are forgetting that is key to our message today: God became incarnate through Jesus Christ to demonstrate and teach us that the way we are supposed to be living is part of our history and inside us already.
Yes, we are sinners, all of us in one way or another, have sinned. Perhaps some are murderers or adulterers or criminals or gluttons or greedy or you name the sin and I guarantee it is here in one form or another. And yet, we are here in this church which God longs to be in this community, we are here to worship and bring ourselves to Jesus, we are here to repent and ask forgiveness so that we can be saved and we are here because the peace we long for in the world can only be found through Jesus Christ.
But what we often forget is that that peace also has to come through us. If the Israelite soldiers had not kept their promise to Rahab and saved her life, this line would be broken. If David had not repented and confessed his sins, atoned for them and been forgiven, the line would be broken. If Ruth had not stayed with her mother-in-law and travelled to a land where people hated her, where people despised her, if she had not taken another people’s God and been loyal to Naomi and her house, the line would be broken.
At any point along this lineage, Jesus’ heritage could have been broken by one act of unkindness, rage, hatred, or selfishness. And yet, this is the lineage that survives, and this is the line of Jesus, the tree that sprouted from the root of Jesse, the tree that was born to be the root of peace.
Our world is spinning out of control right now. There are people who spout hatred and bigotry in all corners of the world, there are people who are lost and feel there is no way out, there are others who are lonely because they feel abandoned by the world and their God, and there are others who use every part of their power and privilege to keep people down just because they can.
That is why Jesus was born people. God became incarnate to show us that we have the power to bring about peace on earth, we have the hands that can offer hope, and we have the abilities to make life better for other people. And when we do, whether it is through small acts or grand gestures, we cannot possibly understand the impact we might have on someone.
If we want the world to be at peace, we have to work for it. The powers of evil and greed and gluttony and murder and destruction and all those bad things are seemingly always going to be there. But that is why you were born. You were born to fight the evil in the world. Not with guns or bullets or missiles or bombs.
But with wisdom beyond your years or knowledge you have obtained over the years. With courage to defy the powers that be and to be a broadcaster of peace, not hate. With a repentant heart that is not too proud to ask for forgiveness and to recognize your own failings, because with a repentant heart all can be forgiven. And you were born to bring peace about in this world with the greatest weapon of all; God’s love. God’s love which resides in you through the Holy Spirit and was set free and directed by our Great Teacher, Jesus Christ, who lives and breathes, and offers this world peace through your hands and feet.
And so I say to you, so what if you are old, young, rich, poor, married, single, divorced, widow, gay, straight, white, black, Republican, Democrat, hawk, dove, believer, questioning, or non-believer, long-time member, new member, or not a member. God loves you and has given you everything you need to make an impact on your world. God sent Jesus to save you from your sins so that nothing can hold you back from loving others as God has loved you. And God created you just the way you are so that in your own special way, you can bring peace to whatever part of the world you affect.
It will not be easy. Our world wants to make you afraid that different is wrong, that other is evil, that stranger is violent and going to harm you. And that is why this lineage of Jesus is so important. Because it demonstrates that foreigner is sometimes savior, that stranger is sometimes protector, that different is not dangerous, and that peace can be found even amongst the most chaotic of histories.
What will your root be remembered as? Will people look back on your life and remember you as a peaceful person, who brought love to other people, who helped out the needy and who sacrificed so others could find peace? And when people reflect about why you were born, what might they say?
I know for me; my life has been one of ups and downs. Perfection is hard to find, self-doubt a constant battle, fear and anger a daily battleground. But that is why finding peace and offering peace and love and hope is so important. See, peace is not the absence of conflict, peace is being able to offer others love regardless of conflict. Peace is not the absence of violence; peace is being able to not respond with violence. Peace is not the absence of fear; peace is being able to be present despite my fears. And peace is not the absence of death; but peace is being able to trust that Jesus has conquered death, so nothing in this world can scare me so much as to not offer love.
Honestly, saying these things brings fear to the forefront of my brain and hearing them trickle out of my mouth makes my heart tremble. But that is why amidst the question of why we were born, it makes sense to remember why Jesus was born. For His Hope, His Joy, His Love and His Peace is the only thing that sees us through. And that message is one that I hope this world never forgets, Amen