Prepare Ye The Way of the Lord

The Gospel of Mark tells the story of Jesus’ life, ministry, and death. It begins in the middle of the story, and ends before it’s over.

Mark begins John baptizing people in the Jordan River. There’s no wise men, no manger or shepherds. There’s no virgin Mary or stunned Joseph. There’s no Christmas at all. There’s just John, the wild and wooly prophet telling people to change their lives and minds, and look forward to the coming one. Jesus shows up pretty quickly, and is baptized. As he comes out of the water, Jesus hears a voice from the heavens, “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.”

Thus marks the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Thus marks the beginning of the musical Godspell. Thus marks our beginning of Lent, and our photo journal. For the next few weeks I will be writing and reflecting on different themes, songs, and stories that are found in Godspell. After a prologue, Godspell begins with John the Baptist blowing the shofar and calling the people to baptism. In our production, the children are the first ones up. Then they bring the adults with them to the stage. We sing joyfully, “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord,” until Jesus comes to be baptized as well. It is the start of the musical. More importantly, it is the start of our journey. We are invited this week to take pictures of things that makes us think of “Prepare the Way,” and words like begin, embark, baptize, water, and Spirit. Some began the journey by sharing pictures, all of which you can see on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, and Twitter using the hashtag #tryLENT. These are some that were shared on various social media:

Announce

Announce

Begin

Begin

Start

Start

Water

Water

The Jordan River

The Jordan River

 

Lent begins with Ash Wednesday. It begins with these words: “From dust were you formed, and to dust you will return. Repent, and believe in the gospel.” These were the words I used as I applied ashes to the foreheads and hands of those that came forward on Ash Wednesday. As the start of Lent, Ash Wednesday is a chance to take the sign of the cross in ash, and begin the journey toward Easter. We begin the season of Lent with reminder of our own mortality, a call to repentance, and a call to faith.

Why then, on the first Sunday of Lent do we share the story of Jesus being baptized? Why the sudden shift from Death, mortality, and repentance to baptism? Because it really isn’t that much of a shift. The words of the imposition of ashes are a poignant reminder, and an apt starting point for the journey of Lent.

“From dust you were formed and to dust you will return.” This has not only a theological truth rooted in the second creation story as found in Genesis 2. It has a scientific truth in our understanding of the cosmos. Carl Sagan is famously quoted as saying, “The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.” All of this is to say that we are mortal. The human body was made as a fragile vessel.

When we take on the ash of the cross we are reminded of the simple fact that we will die. The truth of death is one of the only universals of life. It is something we all share. Yet it it is a truth we seldom want to acknowledge. It is good, every now and then, to be reminded of our own mortality. Not to dwell in morbidity or to scare people into believing. Instead, I like to remind myself and others of our mortality so as to savor every breath. Yes, we were formed from dust and to dust we will return. But in between, we are fill with breath. We are filled with life. We are filled with spirit.

On Ash Wednesday my daughter came forward to receive ashes. I placed my finger on her forehead, rubbed some dirt on her and said, “From dust you were formed, and to dust you will return.” I looked into her deep brown eyes and I could scarcely get the words out. It was too much. It was the truth, but in that moment it felt like too much truth. Somehow I got the words out. I was thankful that this was not the end of the imposition. I had more words to speak. Through my tears, I put my hand on her shoulder and continued, “Repent, and believe in the good news.”

And thus we get back to the beginning. “Repent and believe in the good news,” was the heart of John’s message while he was baptizing. It was Jesus’ first message after coming back from the wilderness. In Mark 1:16, Jesus says, “Now is the time! Here comes the God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust the good news” (Common English Bible). This translation gives us the meaning for repent. For too many teachers and preachers repentance has to do with shame and guilt. Repentance though, is not about shame. It is about orienting. It is not about looking back, it is about looking ahead. It acknowledges that we have fallen short, but repentance does not allow us dwell on sin. When we repent, we turn. At the beginning of Lent, and at the beginning of this journey, we are invited to repent.

Turn away from those things that distract us from God. Turn away from the things that pull us away from life. Turn away from the things that get in the way of loving God and loving others. Turn toward forgiveness and reconciliation. Turn toward justice, healing, and peace. Turn toward grace. Repent, and believe the good news. And what is that good news? It goes back to Jesus being baptized. When he got out of the water, there was a voice from heaven saying, “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.” (Mark 1:11, Common English Bible).

The ashes are a reminder of our mortality. They are reminder that we must turn away from the things that keep us from life and toward the things of God. And they are reminder of this good news that we may all share. “You are God’s son. You are God’s daughter, whom God dearly loves. In you God finds happiness.” To believe this statement is as true of me as it is of Jesus is not to believe I am the messiah. It is to understand that God’s love is so full, so abundant, so steadfast, that even I am God’s son. I was formed from dust, given the breath of life, and offered the water of baptism. I am God’s son, adopted into God’s family not because I earned my way to such a distinction, but only by the grace of God.

This is good news. This is truly remarkable news. This is amazing news. It is the kind of news I want to share. It is the kind of news that makes me want to sing. “Prepare the way of the Lord. Repent, and believe in the good news. Prepare the way for a journey with Christ.”


 From February 25-March 3 we’re invited to reflect on “Day by Day.” This song in the musical comes in a time when the community coming together. The song includes the beautiful prayer “See thee more clearly, love thee more dearly, follow thee more nearly.” So the words we should look for are things like follow, grow, see, community, friendship. Please share pictures using #tryLENT


 

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For as long as I am able, and for as long as you want me to

carry“Will you carry me to bed?” she asks.

“Of course,” I say. I set aside the laptop, and get up off my chair. “One, two, up,” I say as she leaps up into my arms. I hold her close, smell her hair, kiss her head.

“Wait a second,” I say as I realize something. “Weren’t you just in the bathroom brushing your teeth?” I ask.

“Yes,” she says sheepishly.

“And you came in here to ask me to carry you to bed?”

“Yes.”

The bathroom where she was brushing her teeth is across the hall from her room. She was literally 15 steps from her bed when she finished rinsing. I was sitting in my chair, down the hall, in another room.This meant she walked an extra 40 feet or so to come get me to carry her to bed instead of just crawling in herself. I chuckle, and as I squeeze her through the door, he legs hits against the frame.

“I’m sorry sweety, are you okay?” I ask her as she falls into bed. I can tell it probably hurt, and I feel terrible that I banged her into the door. “I’m not sure I can carry you any more, you’re getting so big. You don’t fit through the door.”

Now she’s got her head buried in her pillow and she doesn’t respond as I  go and get her little sister. I pick her up from in front of the sink, carry her to her lofted bed and gently toss her in. She giggles. Then I notice that her sister is still laying with her head in her pillow. Then I notice her shoulders shuddering. It’s the telltale sign of sobbing. Now I’m afraid that I really hurt her leg.

“Are you okay? Did I really hurt you?” I ask as I lower myself to her bed and place my hand on her back.

“My leg is fine,” she says through her tears.

“Then what’s the matter?”

“You said you can’t carry me any more.”

I carry my daughters a lot. I think they know that there is a rare occasion that I deny scooping them up into my arms. I know it’s a sure way to get a big hug, and usually more. “I’ll carry you, but I get tired, so you have to kiss my cheek to give me strength,” I tell them. In the morning, I’m a rickshaw as my sleepy daughter gets ready for school. Every morning I can judge how well she slept by how much I have to carry her. Sometimes it’s just from her bed to the bathroom. After some late bed times, it is to the bathroom, then back to her room, then to the kitchen before she can bring herself to use her own legs. I never mind. Like I said, it’s a great way to get some cheek kisses. My little one and I have a whole routine that is like our own secret handshake, except with ear lobes and noses.

As she sobs into her pillow I realize the mistake I made was not in being careless with her body. It was being careless with her heart.

“Oh sweetheart,” I say. “I can still carry you. Of course I can still carry you,” I say as I turn her over and scoop her into my arms. The tears slow.

“I’m sorry. I made a mistake. I should have said, ‘I have to be more careful with you,’ I just felt bad that I banged your leg into the door. Next time we’ll just have to go in sideways or something, okay?”

She smiles and nods and squeezes me a little tighter. I look her in the eye and say, “I will carry you for as long as I am able, and as long as you want me to. I promise.”

It is a sincere promise. I will carry her as long as I am able and as long as she wants. I know that eventually one of those things will come. Physically, there is sure to be a time when I cannot carry her. She will become a grown woman. I will become an old man. To be honest though, the ability to carry her is one of the reasons I workout. In our last house, the ability to carry them both up the stairs without getting winded was a highlight of my fitness level on par with finishing my first 5K.

I know that there will be a time when she may be physically small enough for me to carry her, but she will not want her Daddy to do such childish things any more. I seldom tell her to “grow up” in admonishment. I know that she will. There will be a time when I put out my arms, and count, “one, two, up,” and she won’t leap into my arms. There will never, however, be a time when I won’t be willing to try.

This is my promise. For as long as I am able, and for as long as you want me to; I will carry you.

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#TRYLent Photo journey through Lent

TRYLent revisedHere’s something we’re going to try at our church, Two Rivers United Methodist Church. From February 16-April 4 everyone will be encouraged to participate in this photo journey. Each week we will have a different theme. Pictures should be marked with the hashtag #TRYLent. TRY stands for Two Rivers Youth. Lent is the time of year when we participate in repentance, preparation, and reflection as we move toward Easter. I love the season of Lent because it is a time to encourage new practices that can bring us closer to God. I don’t focus my energy on “giving something up for Lent.” Last year I wrote about giving up, and the need to give up my own sense of control. I’ve also done a lot in the past to encourage building relationships in Lent by offering the 40 Notes in 40 Days exercise. I’ve also encouraged people to Take something up for Lent.

I’ve participated in photo journeys before. I usually don’t make it more than about a week. That’s why this isn’t a daily journal. Instead, it’s a weekly one. Each week corresponds with the theme of my sermon on the coming Sunday in Lent. I will be preaching in Lent using the songs of Godspell as my guide. I’m going to work to include a blog about each week as well. Here’s the schedule for my sermon series. The posting schedule is Wednesday to Wednesday, so pictures will be posted leading up to the Sunday, and for a few days after. Then shift to the new theme. The exception to that is the week that includes Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. Here’s the schedule:

Feb 18-24 — Prepare the Way.  Themes for the week: Preparation, Baptism, Water, Holy Spirit. The text will be Mark 1:4-13, the baptism of Jesus.

Feb 25-Mar 4 — Day by Day. Themes for the week: Community, Fellowship, Growth, See more clearly, Love more dearly, Follow more nearly. The text will be Mark 18:21-35, the parable of the unforgiving servant.

Mar 5-Mar 11 — By My Side. Themes for the week: Pebble in your shoe, Conflict, Tension, Determination, Courage. The text will be John John 8:1-11, the story of the woman caught in adultery.

Mar 12-Mar 18 — On the Willows. Themes for the week: Sadness, Depression, Lamentation, Betrayal, Judas. The texts will be Psalm 137 and Matthew 26:14-16, which is the moment Judas agrees to betray Jesus.

Mar 19-25 — All Good Gifts. Themes for the week: Thankful, Seed, Harvest, Gifts. The text will be Matthew 13, the parable of the sower.

Mar 26-April 4– We Beseech Thee. Themes for the week: Palms, Crucifixion, Sorrow, Service, Supper, Bread Broken, Washed Feet. The text will be Mark 11:1-11, Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and Palm Sunday.

Apr 5-Apr 8 — Beautiful City. Themes for the week: Easter, Resurrection, Eternity, Empty Tomb, Wonder. The text will be Mark 16:1-8, the women find the empty tomb.

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2014 #AdventRun Results

advent run radius

 

The 2014 Advent Run is over, and the results were overwhelming. As a way to promote healthy living over a period that is often frought with bad habits, the Fadvent run resultsat Pastor and Pulpit Fiction teamed up to make a Virtual Run to Bethlehem. The second annual Advent Run started on Thanksgiving Day, when we opened up the link to submit miles run or walked.

We set three goals, our basic goal, our 2013 goal, and our extended goal. All three were surpassed during the first week.

2014 Goals:

  • Basic Goal: Nazareth to Bethlehem, 103 miles
  • 2013 Total: 27 runners. 233 miles.
  • Extended Goal: Narareth to Bethlehem to Egypt, 333 miles.

2014 Results:

70 Participants

22 states

3 countries

2143 miles.

In other words, if we started in Nazareth, we could have made 10 round trips to Bethlehem.

If you put the compass point in Nazareth, a 2141 mile radius includes parts of Sweden, England, India, Kenya, Morocco, Spain, and England.

One of the things that made this Advent Run special was the ability to be a part of a group. Below are the results of the group runs. The group The Good Race, which seemed to be based in Virginia, had the most participants and the most total miles. The group from Traveler’s Rest United Methodist Church had pastor Jonathan Tompkins add 6 miles, and Kyle paced the entire Advent Run with 209 miles. Pulpit Fiction hosts Robb and Eric combined for 36 miles.

Thanks everyone for participating.

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group results

 

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#CancerSucks

teal ribbonCancer sucks.

Are there any two words written that were ever more true?  Is there anyone that read that sentence and didn’t think, “Yep, it sure does.”  It sucks more than the suckiest suck that has ever sucked.  Sorry about the 10-year-old mouth, but I think most would give me a pass.

My Mom has cancer.

Those words were hard to even type.  It’s not something I ever wanted to say again.  Six years ago her ovarian cancer went into remission.  Six doses of chemotherapy spread out over three week spans knocked it out. We hoped it was knocked out for good, but we have already established the sucky nature of cancer.

After my Dad told me the news, these are the things I did:

I cried. I sobbed full force, white-knuckled into my pillow. I know cancer. Cancer and I work in a lot of the same places. I can meet cancer at a hospital, or at someone’s home, or in a conversation at church, and I seem to know what to do. I’m not saying that I’m altogether comfortable with cancer, but we’re familiar. This time though, I wasn’t ready. I thought we had an agreement.  Cancer isn’t supposed to bother me at home, but like I said, Cancer sucks.

I hugged my wife, because it was her turn. We seem to take turns being strong in moments like this. It is strange, but I seldom recall a time when we were both crying at the same time. Someone told me once that I’m supposed to be the spiritual leader of our home. That’s bullshit (again, sorry about the language, but my emotions are pretty raw). We are partners. Sometimes I’m strong and confident and fearless and protective and all that stuff. Sometimes I’m not.  Sometimes I’m fragile and raw and broken. Sometimes she kicks me in the ass, and says, “Get up. Suck it up, and get after it.” Sometimes she holds me, strokes my head, and lets me just be broken. It seems like she always knows when she needs to do either, and I love her for this.

We went to our friends house. We have good friends. We have the kind of friends with whom we can play “Cards Against Humanity,” and hold nothing back. Nuh-thing. We share the big celebrations like weddings and births and C-League Volleyball championships (Go Spiking Vikings).  We share the mundane stuff of life like carpools, Tuesday dinner, red wine, and school plays. As soon as I was able to stand, I needed to see our friends. We’ve already buried two parents together, and they know more than anyone that there are somethings that even my lucky rocket-ship underpants won’t help. At their house, the conversation went something like this:

“I just found out that my Mom’s cancer is back.”

“That sucks.”

“Yep.”

Sometimes friends have the perfect words for the moment.

A couple of weeks passed before we were able to tell anyone beyond our very small circle. Finally yesterday I emailed the prayer chain at our church. I’m not sure why I was resistant. Sometimes I feel like a character in Harry Potter, afraid to say the name of You Know Who for fear that speaking it’s name will give it power.  Or maybe I can’t let go of ill-gotten notion that as a pastor, I shouldn’t be vulnerable. There are people in the church that are in need of care, and I how am I supposed to care for anyone when I’m hurting?

The text I’m preaching from on Sunday is 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18, and starts with these words, “Rejoice always. Pray continually.  Give thanks in every situation because this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” You’ve got to be kidding me. (I typed and then deleted a certain expletive in between the words “be” and “kidding me” about five times. I decided to go with leaving it out, so you can re-read that sentence and put it back in, if you so choose).

Rejoice always? That’s going to be a hard sell.

That, however, might be the point. Rejoicing always isn’t about skipping along in a land of rainbows and gumdrops. Praying continually is not about kneeling, folding my hands, and closing my eyes to the world. Giving thanks in every situation isn’t about denying the parts of life that just plain suck.

I rejoice in the life my Mother has lived, and I rejoice in the life she continues to live. I rejoice in her strength. I rejoice in her faith. I rejoice that she just called me from Sam’s Club to ask if I needed a new top coat. “Yes,” I said as I paused from writing this very blog. “My overcoat is blue, and it would be nice to have a black one for funerals.”

You see, I deal with cancer all the time. Truth be told, we had no deal. I knew all along that cancer goes where cancer is not welcome. I’m not rejoicing in its return. Yet in the midst of all things I give thanks.

I give thanks for a Mom who gives me more than I could ever imagine. I give thanks for her partner, my Dad, who taught me that its okay to take turns being strong. I give thanks for my brother and sister, for getting the teal bracelets and the Christmas gift. I give thanks for my own partner, for being strong enough to hold me up from time to time. I give thanks for my daughters, who teach me every day about grace. I give thanks for my friends, who right now are probably thinking, “I thanked your Mom last night.” I give thanks for my church, who didn’t get an invulnerable pastor. They deserve better.

calvin

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An advent letter to my congregation

christmas eve candleDear Church,

This is our first Christmas together, and I cannot tell you how excited I am for Christmas Eve.  Every year, there are two moments I most look forward to at Christmas.  One is my daughters coming down the stairs on Christmas morning, pausing for a picture, then slowly making their way to see what magic transpired under the tree.  The other is singing “Silent Night, Holy Night,” as the lights are slowly turned down and the candles are lit in the sanctuary on Christmas Eve night.

I know that Easter is supposed to be the big day. Singing “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” with the throngs and the organ and the lilies and the spring air at Easter is pretty special, but it is Christmas that touches my heart like no other. I know that Christmas is wrought with commercialism, consumerism, and a secularity that some mourn.  Maybe that is why that moment is so special to me.  It is so needed.  It is that moment where nothing matters but joy.  I can block out the noise and the fear and the distractions.  Sure, “Silent Night,” has helped contribute to a falsely idyllic understanding of Christmas, but I’m okay with that.  It is a song that can end war, even if only for a moment.

I get a pretty special view for Christmas Eve.  I get to stand up front and look out at the faces of those gathered.  I can close my eyes and see it through the years.  I can picture each of the congregations I’ve had the awesome honor to serve.  I can see the faces of those who have supported me, shaped me, challenged me, and molded me into the man and pastor that I am today.  I can see the faces of young and old, woman and man, single and married, healthy and sick.

I can see the faces of people lit by the glow of a small candle as we sing those holy words, and I’m very much looking forward to singing it with you.  We haven’t been together very long, but things are going well.  No church is perfect, but I believe that I am right where I need to be.  Already we’ve laughed and cried together.  Already we’ve dreamed of a Kingdom future, and mourned the loss of pillars.  Already we’ve eaten too much, shared some of our scars, worried a little, and stumbled through some movements.   Already I can see the excitement and the energy.  I can see good things happening.  I can see people being fed without asking first if they deserve it.  I can see invitation that is born from joy, not fear.  I can see welcome.  I can see grace, and a desire to share lives,  not just small talk and pleasantries.  I can see the Body of Christ, redeemed by Christ’s love, reaching out into the world.

Incarnation.  That is what Christmas is all about.  It is the coming of light in a world of darkness.  It is God breaking through all of the barriers.  It is strength and power and might redefined in the form of a newborn baby.  Christmas is peace, love, joy, and hope.  And just as that candle spreads from the table in the sanctuary to those that are singing in the pews, Christmas is the light of Christ spreading into the hearts of the faithful, and being carried out into the world.  It is not about “happily ever after.”  It is about the presence of God in the midst of real life.

It is a reminder that right here in the world is a promise that God is with us.  Right here with the cancer is hope. Right here with the struggle and upheaval is peace.  Right here in the gathering of Christ’s people is joy.  Right here with our fellow humans, hurting, sinning, and falling, is love.

So I’m waiting for Christmas Eve, and not altogether patiently.  I’m waiting to wish you a Merry Christmas, and to see your face lit by the glow of a candle.  It’s my favorite time of year, and I’m so glad we can do this together.

In Christ,

Your pastor

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A service of Communion for Advent

The following is a liturgy I wrote for use during Advent.  Permission for use in worship is granted.  A note that it was “written by Robb McCoy, at http://www.fatpastor.me”; would be appreciated.  If you’re going to use it, I also love hearing about it in the comments below, but that’s not necesarrt.  The musical settings found in the liturgy are Copyright 1990 Steve Garnaas-Holmes. Published by The General Board of Discipleship of The United Methodist Church.  The links are to a pdf file.  Some of the Words of Institution are also from the United Methodist Book of Worship.

Communion Liturgy for Advent

One:      In this season of expectant waiting, we are invited to Christ’s table here and now.  Coming to Christ’s table is a way to experience the grace of God.  Therefore it is open to all.  The only requirement is a sincere heart.  The only barriers to the table are created in our own heart.  So we come together as a people to confess our sins to God.  We confess as a people because we all fall short of God’s plan of perfect love.  We do not confess to avoid punishment.  We confess to free our own hearts and minds, so we may remove the barriers we build between ourselves, our God, and our brothers and sisters.

All:          We confess that we have not loved you with our whole heart.   We go about our lives as if Christmas is an event to be celebrated, but not lived.  We hear the good news, but do not heed it.  We turn away the holy family for there is no room in our hearts.  We hear the cry of the expectant mother, desperate for care and a place to lie, but listen instead to the carols.  We see the lowly children, born in mangers among the filth of the world, but we look instead to the decorations.  We hear the call of the Angels to come and worship the newborn King, but we bow down to the idols of our culture.  Forgive us, we pray.  Forgive us and free us for joyful obedience.  Remove the barriers that we construct, and empower us to be a people doing the real, gritty, holy, graceful, loving work of Christmas every day. In the name of the Holy Spirit, we pray.  Amen.  (pause for silent confession and prayer)

One:      Out of the wilderness a voice calls out.  Prepare ye the way of the Lord.  Prepare ye the way of love.  Prepare ye the way of forgiveness.  The Christ child was born in the midst of darkness.  The waiting is over.  Christ may be born today in your heart.  In the name of Jesus Christ, we are all forgiven.

All:         Joy to the World. Amen.

(Musical Setting)

One:      The Lord be with you

All:         And also with you.

One:      Lift up your hearts.

All:         We lift them up to the Lord.

One:      Now let us give thanks to the Lord our God.

All:         How good it is to give thanks and praise.

One:      It is good to give our thanks and praise.  It is a good and joyful thing always and everywhere to give thanks to you, God Almighty, creator of heaven and earth.  You create the world from chaos.  By simply speaking, you set the cosmos into motion, and create all things from the dust of stars.

All:         Blessed are you, O God the Father, Creator of heaven and earth.

One:      God of many blessings, you called out a family to be a blessing to all the families of the earth.  You gave them a land, and promised to make of them a great nation so that all of the nations of the world could be blessed.

All:         Blessed are you, God of Abraham and Sarah.

One:      God of salvation, when the people were but slaves in Egypt you called upon your servant Moses.  You gave him the power to speak salvation to the Pharoah, and led your people out of slavery.  You led them over the water, and helped them Passover into freedom.  When the people were hungry, you gave them food from the sky.  When the people were thirsty, you brought forth water from the rocks.  When the people were no people, you gave them the Law.

All:         Blessed are you, God of our salvation.

One:      When the people asked for a King, you anointed David to be a just ruler. Though flawed, David united the people, and you promised to be with his line forever.  When the Kings rebelled, as you warned them they would, you anointed the prophets, who called the people back to obedience.  The prophets spoke the truth to power, and called the people to remember who and whose they were.  The prophets warned the people of the consequences of injustice and false worship.  When the people fell into exile, the prophets spoke words of hope and restoration when all around them, there was nothing but despair.

All:         A voice is crying out: “Clear the Lord’s way in the desert! Make a level highway in the wilderness for our God!

One:      You promised the coming of an anointed one, who would lead the people to peace and righteousness.  You promised that the descendant of David would rule forever.  You promised that out of Bethlehem would come the Prince of Peace.  You promised the coming of your Kingdom, when “swords would be beaten into plows, and spears into pruning hooks.”

All:         “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.”

One:      John the Baptist came, telling the people to “Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven!”  John wore clothes made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist. He ate locusts and wild honey. People from Jerusalem, throughout Judea, and all around the Jordan River came to him. As they confessed their sins, he baptized them in the Jordan River. And so now we come, having confessed our sins, searching for the Holy Spirit to come and fill us with expectant grace.  We come to be transformed by what has already come, and waiting with hope for what is to come.  We deck our halls with joy, but it is our hearts that truly matter.

All:         Prepare the way of the Lord in our world.  Prepare the way of the Lord in our communities.  Prepare the way of the Lord in our churches.  Prepare the way of the Lord in our hearts.

One:      And so, in hopeful anticipation, we give thanks to you, God of Creation,  God of Abraham and Sarah,  God of salvation, God of the Law, God of King David, God of the Prophets, God of hope and deliverance, God of John, and God of us all.  We join in praise and come together to sing unending hymn of the saints of glory.

(Musical setting)

Holy, Holy, Holy Lord.  God of power and might adored, heaven and earth are shining bright with the glory of your light.  Loud Hosannas now we sing. In the highest they may ring. Blessed is the coming one. Christ Emmanuel your son.  Glory in the highest. Holy God, your name is blessed. 

One:      Holy are you, and holy is your Son Jesus Christ, who is the Word made flesh.

 

All:         Holy are you, and Holy is your Son Jesus Christ.

One:      Who is the one to whom John pointed in the wilderness.

 

All:         Holy are you, and Holy is your Son Jesus Christ.

One:      Who was born to us in a manger, for there was no room in the inn.

 

All:         Holy are you, and Holy is your Son Jesus Christ.

One:      Who came to show us the way to your love.  He proclaimed good news to the poor.  He restored the sight to the blind.  He called the children to his side, taught the women, ate with sinners, and called out the religious leaders blinded by the letter of the Law.

 

All:         Holy are you, and Holy is your Son Jesus Christ.

One:      Who was betrayed by those who loved him.  Who was persecuted by those who feared him.  Who was crucified by those who thought that his death would be the end of him.

 

All:         Holy are you, and Holy is your Son Jesus Christ.

One:      Who, on the night in which he gave himself up for us, he took bread, gave thanks to you, broke the bread, gave it to his disciples, and said:

All:         “Take, eat; this is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”

One:      And when the supper was over, took the cup, gave thanks to you, gave it to his disciples and said:

All:         “Drink from this, all of you.  This is my blood of the new covenant, poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

One:      And so, in remembrance of these your mighty acts in Jesus Christ, we offer ourselves in praise and thanksgiving as a holy and living sacrifice, in union with Christ’s offering for us, as we proclaim the mystery of faith.

All:         Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again.

One:      Pour out your Holy Spirit on us gathered here, and on these gifts of bread and wine. Make them be for us the body and blood of Christ, that we may be for the world the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood.  Make us a Christmas people, secure in what has come, and hopeful for what is yet to be.  By your Spirit make us one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world.  Keep us vigilant in our Advent waiting until Christ comes in final victory and we feast at his heavenly banquet. Through your Son Jesus Christ, with the Holy Spirit in your holy Church, all honor and glory is yours, almighty Father, now and forever. Amen.

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Zacchaeus was a wee little man?

Sycamore trees in America are tall, grand trees that are not easily climbed.  This type of Sycamore is found exclusively in Israel.  This particular tree is found in Netanya, about 50 miles from modern Jericho.  You can see from it's shape though, that it would be quite easy to climb.

Sycamore trees in America are tall, grand trees that are not easily climbed. This type of Sycamore is found exclusively in Israel. This particular tree is found in Netanya, about 50 miles from modern Jericho. You can see from it’s shape though, that it would be quite easy to climb.

The Gospel of Luke tells a short story about Jesus and a man named Zacchaeus.  It is found in Luke 19:1-10.  I included a link to a site called Bible Study Tools, where you can read two different translations of the story.  The two translations are going to be important, but we’ll get to that shortly.  If you’re not familiar with the story, it is a very simple episode of a short man named Zacchaeus meeting Jesus.  Zach is not only short, but he is a chief tax collector, and a rich man.  When he encounters Jesus (from in a sycamore tree so that he could see) Jesus tells him to get out of the tree because he has to come over for dinner.  The people in the crowd grumbled at this because they weren’t big fans of tax collectors.  As a response to the crowd’s grumbling, and perhaps more importantly, in response to Jesus’ invitation, Zach declares, at least in one translation, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.”  Jesus responds with praise and repeats the theme of the Gospel of Luke, that he “came to seek and save the lost.”

The story, as told above, is a great story of conversion.  As the traditional interpretation goes, Jesus inspired something in Zach to make him change his ways.  By inviting himself over, and including him in the community, Jesus inspired Zach to change heart.  He re-examined his relationship with money, and decided to live a more righteous life.  This is a reasonable story, and one that is surely good news.  Even with this traditional interpretation, there is some radical love going on here.  First of all, Jesus offered grace to Zach before there was a conversion.  This can be read as a story of God’s preceding grace (or prevenient grace, if you want to use a $20 Methodist word); the kind of grace that comes before we do anything about it.  Jesus indeed came to seek and save the lost.

There is even a sweet children’s song to go along with it, although the song has little to do with conversion.  I read one description of the song that says it is a “reminder that even small people are important.”

Short Jesus

Short Jesus

Recently though, I’ve come to see Zach a little differently.  First of all, while it is clear that someone in the story is short, the truth is the Greek is ambiguous as to who the short one is.  Zach climbed in the tree, so everything thinks he’s short, but read that sentence again without assuming that Jesus is the tall hero with long flowing brown hair and perfect complexion.  “He was trying to see who Jesus was, but, being a short man, he couldn’t because of the crowd.”  If a short man was walking in the midst of a crowd, he would be hard to see.  In other words, climbing a tree would be helpful to see over the crowd whether Zach was the short one or Jesus was the short one.  We just assume Zach is short because the hero of the story is never short (unless the hero is a hobbit).

This is really a minor issue.  Jesus’ height isn’t really an important issue, but I believe it reveals to us the way we bring our own assumptions to the text.  We assume that Jesus is the tall one because we want our heroes to be tall, dark, and handsome.

The fact is, we bring our own assumptions to a lot of parties.  Another assumption is revealed in the translation issue I mentioned earlier.  Most translations have a simple word that, at least in my mind, alters the meaning of the story.  After Jesus invites himself over to Zach’s house, Zach says, “I will give…”  The Common English Bible, however, leaves out that little ‘will.’  This is a fact that David Lose pointed out before the Common English Bible existed.  In fact, the ‘will’ is left out of the King James and the RSV as well.  It seems like more modern versions of the text have shaped the story the way we want it to appear.  We want this to be about conversion.  We want this to be about how Jesus’ grace changed the heart of a terrible tax collector, because then the story can be about someone else.  It can be about those terrible people that gained money in illicit fashion, and now must repent.  It demands nothing of the reader.  Since none of us are chief tax-collectors, t’s so easy to simply see others in the role of Zach, and leave ourselves with a gentle reminder that all are indeed welcome to the table.

If Zach’s declaration is not in the future tense, then the story feels different.  Instead of Zach changing his heart because of the grace of the savior, we have him defending himself against a grumbling crowd.  It turns out, he’s been doing what John the Baptist had told him to do.    Back in Luke 3:12-13 we are told that John the Baptist was baptizing tax collectors.  They asked him, “What do we need to do?” John replied, “collect only what you are due.”  It seems like Zach was doing just what cousin John had taught them.

Now, the focus is not on the heart of that dirty-old tax collector.  The focus is on the heart of the grumbing crowd.  Remember too, that “all who saw it began to grumble.”  Not the Pharisees and their letter-of-law strictness.  Not the chief priests and their holier-than-thou attitudes. Not even the disciples, and their always-a-step-behind bumbling.  All of them. Zach is not confessing a change of heart to Jesus, he is defending his honor to the grumbling crowd that assumes he is not worth their time.

The uncomfortable truth is, the story of Zacchaeus reveals more to us about our own grumbling hearts than it does about his own.  It’s no longer easy to see Zach as some wretch who was saved by Jesus’ compassion.  Instead, we are forced to see him as someone who was excluded from society because – dare I say – the assumptions that were made.  Who else do we refuse to see?  Who else do we judge by their credentials, and deem unworthy?  How many times have we seen the grace of God, and thought, “he doesn’t deserve that.”  How often do we grumble without knowing?

Zacchaeus wanted so desperately to see Jesus that he was willing to risk humiliation.  He was willing to venture out into the crowds that would surely reject him.  But it was not Zacchaeus who saw.  Instead, he was finally seen.  He was seen by Jesus – spotted there up in a tree, not exactly a place of dignity and respect.  He was seen by the unforgiving crowds.  He was seen by those who would do their best to not see him.  Maybe in the end, that’s all any of us really need.  To be seen, not as a job title or a resume.  Seen not as a role to fill, or a caricature of what others think we should be.  Simply to be seen, as one who was made in the image of God.  To be seen simply as one who fails and wins, who cries and laughs, who has lost and loves.  To be seen by Jesus, even as we risk humiliation and scorn, and be invited to come to the feast.

Listen to the Pulpit Fiction Podcast about Zaccaeus

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2014 #AdventRun to Bethlehem

According to google maps, the journey along the Jordan River from Nazareth to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is 166 kilometers, or 103.2 miles.

According to google maps, the journey along the Jordan River from Nazareth to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is 166 kilometers, or 103.2 miles.

CLICK HERE TO SUBMIT YOUR RUN

In 2013, we had our first Advent Run/Walk to Bethlehem.  As a way to promote living well in the midst of a season that is notoriously difficult on healthy habits, we went on a run together.  The goal was to honor the journey of Mary and Joseph by running the 103 miles it takes to get from Nazareth to Bethlehem. We promoted the run through this blog and at The Pulpit Fiction Podcast.  We asked people to log in their runs and walks online, and shared updated results a few times between Thanksgiving and Epiphany.  The results were phenomenal.  Even though I bowed out early because of a terrible chest cold, the 2013 Advent Run had 23 different people log 67 different runs for a total of 255 miles.  The runs took place in 14 different states and London, England.  Our longest runner was Jessica, who ran 30 miles.  My Pulpit Fiction partner Eric ran 6 times for just over a marathon (27.2 miles). We reached our goal of 103 miles in just two weeks, so we created a challenge goal.  We decided to honor the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt (as told in the Gospel of Matthew) and go 333 miles.  We didn’t make that goal, but I think that is a good goal for 2014. Here’s how to participate: Follow this link, and then book mark it.  This year we added a “Group” option.  If you are a part of a church, club, or class that wants to participate in the #AdventRun, then tell people to enter their group name.  We’ll compile individual, group, and total miles. You won’t be able to register a run/walk until Thanksgiving – November 27.  We’ll keep it open until Epiphany – January 6. Follow The Fat Pastor on Facebook

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The greatest sync since The Dark Side of Oz

A lot of awesome stuff happened in 1989.  The Berlin Wall fell.  The USSR ended their war in Afghanistan.  A brave man stood in front of a tank in Tienanmen Square, inspiring millions in the hopes of democracy.  The Velvet Revolution produced free elections in Czechoslovakia.   The Boys of Zimmer won the NL East.  Montana to Taylor won Superbowl XXIII.   Taylor Swift was born, and there was a National Aerobics Championships.

Tonight, my daughters and I enjoyed a spirited dance party to Taylor Swift’s “Shake it Off” in our kitchen.  After finding this video, my only question is, “how did they get a camera in our kitchen?”

Seriously though, this video is truly amazing.  It was posted on my Facebook as a link from Huffington Post.

Unfortunately the Huffington Post article, and the maker of the video incorrectly identify this aerobics championship as the 1989 season.  This is actually the 1988 championship.  It was hosted by Alan Thicke, and apparently, this happened too:

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