"How Can This Be?"

Anna Blaedel
First UMC, Osage

4th Sunday in Advent—PEACE

Ephesians 2:14-20
Luke 1:26-38

“It gets darker and darker, and then Jesus is born.” It gets darker and darker, and then Jesus is born. Today is winter solstice, the shortest day, the longest night, of our year. When we most need light. As we tell and retell the Christmas story in the sing-song rhymes and soul soothing familiar carols, read of the Magi following a star in Matthew and shepherds tending their flocks in Luke, seek out Christmas concerts and adjust travel plans to the snow, it seems to me this sentence by Wendell Berry sums it up. “It gets darker and darker, and then Jesus is born.”

The Prince of Peace, Emmanuel, God With Us, this One for whom we wait and watch, is coming into the world. Soon, now… It gets darker and darker, and then Jesus is born.

Today we light the Peace candle. Today we read from Ephesians and from Luke. “For Christ is our peace.” Jesus is coming, Jesus the one who breaks down diving walls and reconciles hostilities between us, who creates a new humanity, and enables a new intimacy with the Divine. Making peace, reconciling those who remain stubbornly divided. “So,” we read in this epistle lesson, “Jesus comes to proclaim peace to those far off and peace to those who were near, so that no one, anywhere, will be strangers or aliens.” No border fence or hardened heart, no war machine or deep despair can thwart this one who is being born. It gets darker and darker, and then Jesus is born.

The Holy One, birthed in a manger in the Middle East. And, given the task, how poignant, the birth place of this Prince of Peace. How fitting, the dark skin, the Arab ethnicity, of this Middle Eastern messiah, born to save us, to bless us when we are peacemakers, to break down barriers and reconcile hostilities. It gets darker and darker, and then Jesus is born.

It is all a bit absurd, isn’t it? Our God, the Holy One of power and majesty, born in a barn? The Prince of Peace, coming to the world at the very site of decades of bitter hostility, terror and warfare, exile and division and violence? The one who we worship, coming to us in the form of utter vulnerability, depending on us, us!, to make room in the world, room in our hearts? At least to me, it’s all a little bit absurd. How can this be?

“Holiness,” writes Anne Lamott, “Has often been revealed to me in the exquisite pun of the first syllable, in holes—in not enough help, in brokenness, mess. High holy places, with ethereal sounds and stained glass, can massage my illusion of holiness, but in holes and lostness I can pick up the light of small ordinary progress, newly made moments flecked like pepper into the slog and the disruptions.” Newly made moments flecked like pepper into the slog and the disruptions. It gets darker and darker, and then Jesus is born.

Yesterday I sat in the very last pew of the sanctuary at Our Saviors Lutheran for Shawn Berg’s funeral. Even having never met Shawn, I wept as his friend Al spoke of Shawn’s love for his daughters, his devotion to his three girls, Elizabeth, Isabel, and Payton. I wept for their unimaginable loss, their unfathomable grief. Al shared a quote Shawn had valued, a quote, I am learning, reflected how he lived and died. “Like is not about waiting for the storm to pass, it’s about learning to dance in the rain.” Give peace to every heart, God, even when, especially when, peace seems impossible. It gets darker and darker, and then Jesus is born.

In the sixth month, God sends Gabriel to visit Mary. “Greetings, blessed one! The Lord is with you!” Mary is perplexed. God, with her? And, because Mary is Mary and not me, she doesn’t brush this off as absurd. She ponders these words in her heart. She prays. “Do not be afraid,” the angel tries to reassure her. “You are going to bear a child. Name him Jesus. This baby is going to be very, very special, Mary. He will be called the Child of the Most High, and he will create a new kind of kingdom, one without end. This child will be holy.” “How can this be?” asks Mary, glimpsing the absurd. Not only is she pregnant, without participating in the due process, she is pregnant with the child of God. “Oh, you know, the Holy Spirit,” says Gabriel. “For nothing is impossible with God.”

And, unlike Abram, Moses, Samuel, Jonah, the list goes on and on of those who question God, who give a big fat No, at least initially, to God’s sacred callings. Mary does not cry, “You’re crazy! Nor, I cannot. I am not worthy,” nor, “I’m not strong enough or good enough or ready enough or…” Mary says simply, “How can this be?” And then, with courage and faith and deep deep peace, after only a few sentences from the strange angel in her midst, she replies, “Here am I, the servant of God; let it be with me according to your word.” Even though she will be shamed. Even though people will talk. Even though there will be whispers and glances and frowns when she walks down the street or into a room or perhaps even into her place of worship... Even though she is young, and unmarried. Even though, even though, even though. “Here am I. Let it be…” she says.

God invites the unimaginable, offers the unfathomable. And Mary says, simply, “"Let it be.' I will participate in this sacred story."

The Prince of Peace, born to a world at war. It gets darker and darker, and then Jesus is born. “So, Jesus comes to proclaim peace to those who were far off and peace to those who were near…so then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but members of the household of God.”

Members of this community of the household of God have gathered on Thursday evenings this Advent season for a time of prayer, scripture, spiritual practice, and song. Many of the songs we have sung are from the Taize community in France, a Christian lay monastic community committed to the belief that contemplative practice—simply praying and singing in community—can birth God’s justice and peace in the world. By inviting God into our hearts and our lives, by taking time out, carving time out, by gathering together when it is cold, lighting candles in the darkness, we celebrate Jesus’ birth. In preparing ourselves to meet God, we prepare the world for God’s work, and enter the process of welcoming the Prince of Peace into this world so desperately in need.

Each Thursday, we have lit candles and prayed for the people and places in need of Peace, in need of God’s tender care. In a few moments, these same candles will be lit. As we offer up the prayers of our hearts, name in silence and aloud in community, the people and places waiting for the Coming Care of Jesus.

And, in doing so, we welcome the Prince of Peace into the world. In the midst of it all, in the mess of it all. The Holy One, coming into the holes and cracks in our hearts and lives and world. How can it be? It gets darker and darker, and then Jesus is born. May it be so. Amen, and amen.

"carbonated holiness"

Anna Blaedel
First UMC, Osage
December 14, 2008

3rd Sunday of Advent—JOY

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
Luke 1:46b-55

I want to begin by sharing one of my favorite poems with you, written by one of my favorite poets. If you are comfortable doing so, I invite you to close your eyes as you listen. “Magnificat,” by Christina Hutchins.

What shall I do
with this quiet joy?
It calls forth the expanse
of my soul, calls
it forth to go singing
through the world,
calls it forth
to rock the cradles of death
and without fear,
to collect the rain
in my spread hands
and spill it
like laughter,
calls it forth
to touch and carry
her suffering, his age
our dense flesh,
to bear into this world
a place
where light will glisten
the edge of every wing
and blade of grass,
shine along every hair on every head,
gleam among the turnings of every wave,
the turning open of each life,
each human hand.

What shall we do with this quiet joy, calling forth the expanse of our souls, calling us forth to go singing through the world?

Let us pray: Come, Holy Spirit, come. Come as the fire and burn, come as the wind and cleanse, come as the dew and refresh, come as the light and reveal. Convict, convert, consecrate, until we are, wholly thine…

Writer Anne Lamott has written one four word sentence I have remembered since first stumbling upon it, about four years ago. “Laughter,” she writes, “is carbonated holiness.” Laughter is carbonated holiness. When we give into laughter, when we stop taking ourselves so seriously, when we allow for interruptions of joy, the Spirit bubbles up, the Sacred flows and overflows.

Laughter is carbonated holiness. In our joy, we meet God. In our laughter, God meets us.

Today we light the Advent candle of Joy. And today, we gather to celebrate and learn from the children of this community. And today, we read two of my very favorite passages of scripture.

From Isaiah, where the Spirit of a living God is revealed. God who anoints the prophet to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners. To comfort all who mourn. It is God’s desire, the Holy One’s dream, to replace ashes with garlands, and mourning with gladness.

What shall we do with this quiet joy, calling forth the expanse of our souls, calling us forth to go singing through the world?

And from Luke, Mary’s Song of joyful praise, the Magnificat. Two pregnant women, dear friends, greet each other, and the child Elizabeth is carrying leaps for joy.

Another short sentence from Anne Lamott: “Gratitude is the secret to joy.”

In the midst of oppression, broken heartedness, captivity, imprisonment, and mourning, Isaiah proclaims the coming of the one who will bring good news, bind up the brokenhearted, proclaim liberty to the captives, release to the prisoners, and comfort all who mourn. Gratitude, giving way to joy.

And Mary, her future unknown, her faith tested. Mary, an unwed woman, waiting for a child, waiting for God. Her life turned upside down, her soul centered in God. “My soul magnifies God, and my spirit rejoices in God,” Mary sings. Gratitude, giving way to joy.

I want to close with another story, this one told by Carol Stigger.

“At the Christmas Eve church service, I sat with my two boisterous grandchildren, ages three and five. Their parents sat in front of the church to present a nativity reading titled "Silent Night." They had warned the children to behave. I had warned the children to behave. With scrubbed angelic faces and Christmas wonder in their eyes, they looked like model children posing for a magazine holiday spread. I indulged myself in a few moments of pride.

Alec pinched Aubrey. I was grateful that the organ thundered into the first hymn just then, drowning out her yelp. I grabbed her hand before she could return the pinch. During the Lord's Prayer, Aubrey shredded the program I had given her to color on. The crayons had already rolled under the pew. I watched bits of paper fall on the carpet like snow. I would help her pick it up later, but for now the naughtiness I was allowing kept her occupied and her brother quietly admiring. We were enjoying an uneasy truce when their parents stood to deliver the reading. "Mommy!" Alec yelled. She frowned, and he sat back in his seat.

"Silence," my son said to the congregation. "Think for a moment what that word means to you." My daughter-in-law signed his words. Earlier that year, she began to use her new signing skills for the benefit of the few hearing-impaired members of our church. Alec said a naughty word, thankfully too low for many to hear. I scowled at him, shaking my finger and my head. Aubrey grinned. Then she proclaimed, every syllable enunciated perfectly, in a clear voice that carried to far corners of the sanctuary, "Alec is a potty mouth!" Everyone stared. I was too stunned to speak. My son and his wife looked at each other. But instead of anger, I saw surprise. My son set aside his script and told another story. He told about their daughter being born profoundly deaf. He talked about four years of hearing aids and speech therapy with no guarantee she would ever learn to speak plainly. He talked about the rugged faith that kept the family praying she would have a normal life. He said Aubrey's outburst was an answer to prayer: the first perfectly enunciated sentence she had ever spoken. From the back of the room, a lone voice sang the last line of a beloved Christmas Carol: Hark! The herald angels sing, Glory to the newborn king. While the congregation sang four verses of the unscheduled hymn, my two little angels wiggled in their parents' arms, adding laughter and giggles to the joyful Christmas noise.”

Gratitude, giving way to joy. Laughter as carbonated holiness. Children, interrupting us that we might meet God. What shall we do with this quiet joy, calling forth the expanse of our souls, calling us forth to go singing through the world?

Amen, and amen.

"what shall I cry?"

Anna Blaedel
First UMC, Osage
December 7, 2008

2nd Sunday of Advent, HOPE

Isaiah 40:1-11
Mark 1:1-8

Last week I was at Faith Home, visiting with Phyllis Watson. A member of this faith community for over 50 years. Her three children, baptized and confirmed here. Her husband and oldest son, laid to rest here. Now Phyllis is transitioning to Hospice Care, living her final months of life here on earth. In the ways dementia and death work, Phyllis is residing in a liminal space, a thin space some theologians call it, where the past blends with the present, becoming part of the future. Thin because the boundaries become blurred, between life and death, past and present, love and loss, grace and grief, earthly and eternal—cease to be separate, cycle and smudge into each other. Where we have been, where we are, where we are going, entering into each other.

Then, on Friday, I met with Phyllis’ daughter Joan. Nurtured in this church, Joan is now returning regularly to spend time with her mom, sit with her, support her, celebrate her. As Joan and I sifted through the layers of grief and loss, we also laughed. Our conversation centered on hope. What will be, what might be, ushered in through what has been and what is.

Poet Emily Dickenson wrote, “Hope for the future is hidden in the present.” Hope for the future is hidden in the present.
And, like a star shining in the sky, a light illuminating the dark, a Christ child born in a barn, we are invited by God, we are called by our faith, to search for this hope, hidden even here, even now.

Let us pray: May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight, O God, our strength and our redeemer.

“Comfort, O comfort my people,” says God. So begins this morning’s scriptural text, so begins this passage from Isaiah. If you attended the services for either Beda Dodge or Jo Ann Squier, you know I typically read this scripture at funerals. Our story begins, the story begins, in the midst of great suffering, and in the midst of it, God’s desire for comfort, hope, given.

This text was written by an anonymous prophet, one we have come to call Isaiah, in the 4th century BCE. About 600 years before Jesus’ birth. Judah and Jerusalem are under constant threat by Empire, living in fear of destruction by the powerful and power hungry Babylonians. It is a hard time to hope, for the Israelites. Their homes have been destroyed by war, their community torn apart by terror and violence. The economy has crashed and there is no bail out package to be given. The Israelites are deported, sent to Babylon in exile. In this text, we meet a people not too different from ourselves—scared, feeling forgotten and forsaken by God, searching hard for a glimmer of hope. And we meet a God not too far from us—who is working in the world to bring them home.

The prophet pleads with the people—Don’t give up! Don’t forget God’s faithfulness, not now! Remember God’s promise, made long ago, a promise of the past, known in the present, a promise which will usher us into an unknown future? Recall the hope! Prepare a way in the wilderness for God to do God’s work. In doing so, we participate in God’s work. God with us, Emmanuel.

It is a thin place, this exile, this wilderness wandering, where hunger meets hope, loneliness meets love, bitterness meets blessing.

In his letter to the Romans, so many centuries later, Paul writes: We do not hope for what we already see. What kind of hope is this? We hope for what we cannot see, what is yet to be and become.

“Hope for the future is hidden in the present.”

Look! Can you see it? It is there, it is here, to be found! Listen for the lone voice, crying out in the wilderness, look for a star shining in the night sky, listen for the Christ child, crying out!

Theologian and Biblical scholar Ken Stone writes, “Christians confess both that Christ has already come and yet Christ is still coming. Old things have passed away; all things have become new; yet in many respects we continue to groan with creation, for a redemption that is still arriving.”

Comfort, O comfort my people. Cry Out!

Yesterday, I attended an Advent brunch at Our Saviors Lutheran Church. Many of you were there. Kris Meyer, the guest speaker told many stories. One of them has especially stayed with me.

A church not so different from this one was preparing for its annual Christmas program. The Sunday School teacher directing the program faced the daunting task of assigning roles to the children for the nativity drama. I imagine Brenda, Rozanne, and Angie can especially commiserate! There was one boy, named Jack, who was difficult to cast. Previous years’ programs had proven Jack could rarely remember his lines. When he did, he failed to deliver them with any enthusiasm or umph. His smile was never quite as bright, his voice never as clear, his performance never as, well, cute as the others’.

So Jack was cast as the Innkeeper. All he had to do, thought the teacher, was say, “No!” “No,” was all Jack had to remember. The day of the program came, and Mary and Joseph made their way across the stage. “Is there any room at your Inn?” a four foot Joseph implored? Silence. Joseph prodded, “See, she is pregnant. Due any day now. Is there a room at your Inn?” Silence. “Any room at all?” Still silence. Young Jack the Innkeeper said nothing. From side stage, the teachers and other children tried to help Jack along. “Just say no, Jack! No! No room! No room at the Inn! Jack, just say no!”

After a long time, long enough for people to start shifting in their pews, long enough for Jack’s parents to look embarrassed, long enough for the Sunday School teachers to wonder why on earth they have agreed to do the program one more year, long enough for all to seem lost…Finally, Jack grinned. Jack grinned, and he cried out, “Yes! Yes! I can make room!”

And, hidden in a mixed up, messed up present, a program planned and prepared, hope for the future is born. A lone voice, crying out in the wilderness, creating chaos in the plans, making a way for God.

Cry out, says a voice, and I ask, “What shall I cry?”

Chaos is breaking out—the valleys are lifted up, the mountains and hills made low. The uneven ground level, the hills made a plain. Cry out! A word of welcome, an unexpected, unanticipated space made, for Emmanuel, God With Us. A word of hope, rooted not in people’s strength or goodness or bounty, but in God’s faithful presence making all things new. In God’s promise of liberation—from death, from exile, from meaninglessness, from loneliness, from hopelessness. Hope for the future, hidden in the present.

600 years before the birth of Jesus, the prophet told of one who would come, one who would restore hope, rekindle love, resurrect an ethic of justice and peace. 60 years after Jesus’ birth, Mark tells the good news of Jesus, shares with us the glad tidings we are to tell, speaks of the liberation we are to live into. And now, two thousand years after his death, we are still called to listen for a lone voice, still led into and through and out of wilderness wandering, still commanded to Cry Out! A lone voice, in spite of it all, crying “Yes! Yes! I can make room!” And hope for the future is born. Amen, and amen.

advent blessing

may peace and hope and joy and love break into our lives and crack through the chaos in spite of it all and because of it all and in the midst of in all

may we look up, look out, look in, to find a star shining.

may we look for ways of being Love Incarnate. may we be open to receive Love Incarnate from God and those around us.

o come, o come, Emmanuel...

"wake up!"

anna blaedel
first umc, osage
november 30, 2008

first sunday of advent
sunday of LIGHT

Isaiah 64:1-9
Mark 13:24-37

Let us pray: Have thine own way, God, have thine own way. Thou are the potter, we are the clay. Mold us and make us, after thy will, while we are waiting, silent and still.

On Thanksgiving eve—violent attacks consumed Mumbai, formerly called Bombay, India—at least 150 dead, over 370 wounded—machine gun and grenade assaults—hotels, a train station, a Jewish center, a hospital and movie theater—the places we go for shelter, safety, security. Ripped open.

Written in the New York Times “Even by the standards of terrorism in India, which has suffered a rising number of attacks this year, the assaults were particularly brazen in scale and execution.” A life where terrorist attacks are becoming common place, where terror tears through our ability to relate, to see God among us.

Sajjad Karim, a British member of the European Parliament, told Sky News: “A gunman just stood there spraying bullets around, right next to me.” Before his phone went dead, Mr. Karim added: “I managed to turn away and I ran into the hotel kitchen and then we were shunted into a restaurant in the basement. We are now in the dark in this room, and we have barricaded all the doors. It’s really bad.”

Mumbai—13 ½ million people—place of culture and community—a public library built in 1833—the birthplace of India cinema—government funded art exhibits open to the public—a national park—economic opportunity—coffeehouses and exquisite restaurants—places of worship centuries old—churches and temples and mosques.
And darkness, despair, devastation, death.

“In those days, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light and the stars will be falling from heaven and the powers of heaven will be shaken,” cries the gospel.

Lest we think we are far removed from this violence—I e-mailed another United Methodist clergy member who I see at various conferences and denominational meetings. He is from Mumbai. He lives and ministers in the US. His family is still in Mumbai. He cannot get in contact with them. Does not know whether they are alive or dead. Knows they are terrified, in the middle of darkness, despair, devastation, death.

“I can do nothing but pray,” he said. “And wait. I am waiting for God’s light to flicker in this darkness.”
We are a world, and we live in a world, desperately in need of a coming light.

People, look East, the time is near…

O come, O come, Emmanuel, in ransom captive Israel…

Advent…today the liturgical season shifts from Ordinary Time, to the Extraordinary time of Christmas…God becoming Flesh, to dwell among us. Advent, a time of prayer and preparation…preparing our lives and homes and world for God’s coming, Christ’s birth into our lives, Christ’s light shining into our desperation and despair.

Advent invites us again, now, to receive the Christ child anew. In our hearts. In the places we least expect to find light, the places we need it most.

Keep awake, implores the gospel writer. “Beware. Keep alert. You do not know when he will come.”

We don’t know the exact moment. Unlike Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, the biggest shopping day of the year, where a promised opening at midnight, 4 am, or 6 am has people lining up for hours to spend money we don’t have on things we don’t need in a global economy that can’t sustain it and an environment that can’t take more packaging and plastic, let alone discarded purchases from last years spending fury.

On Black Friday, a Walmart employee was trampled to death by the mobs of people hungry to consume and wanting to buy. Trampled to death. By greed. Unwillingness to wait. Single regard for stuff. Black Friday, indeed.

In Advent, we are not promised a time. We have to wait. And prepare. Left longing, in darkness, desperate for a light to shine the way.

Advent. A star shines, lighting our way to God. If a star shone in our sky, lighting the way to the Christ child, would we notice? It is far too rare, I’m afraid, that I take the time, make the time, to look up, to look out, to look in, for God’s light shining.

Could we even see the star amidst the mega watt billboards about borrowing and buying, the big screen and flat screen tvs isolating us in our homes and feeding the lie that the latest gadget or newest show or flashiest fad will sustain us?

Is a star shining in our sky, lighting the way to the Christ child? Stop. Turn off our computers and tvs. Look.

The prophet Isaiah cries out—“We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you…”

O Come, O Come, God with Us… Will we call on your name? Attempt to find you in this season of frenzy and chaos? Allow you to find us?

Light the candle, for the waiting has begun… We have started on our way…Candle, candle, burning bright, shining in the cold winter night; candle, candle burning bright, fill our hearts with Christmas light…

The gospel reading this morning is an apocalyptic text. About the end times. There is so much suffering everywhere. Devastation, destruction, death and despair. The world must be ending, what else could be possible?

It’s hard to find a flickering light. It’s almost easier to adjust to the darkness, become accustomed to destruction. To ignore the devastation in Mumbai. To forget the violence in Fallujah. To tame down the terror in Afghanistan. To overlook pain or poverty in Osage. To turn away from or numb down the pain and fear and anxiety in our own hearts. “But in those days,” proclaims the gospel, “after that suffering, the sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.” And then.

And then. And then… When hope has almost left us. When suffering seems solidly to stay. A light will flicker. And then the longing, the preparation, the anticipation, has begun…

And then, in it all, the good news. “Yet,” says Isaiah. In spite of all of this…In the midst of all of this. You are our God. We are the clay, and you are the potter. You form us and shape us and breathe life into us and light our path for us. Not only do you create us, you then come to us. You find us when we fail or forget to look for you. You declare us your people, and then come to dwell among us and fill our lives with your light.

A flickering light does not eliminate darkness. But, neither can darkness eliminate the light.

When we lead lives of opulence and safety, we have only illusions of who we are.

And when we create illusions of opulence and safety, we forget who and whose we are.

And when we forget who and whose we are, we become unable to love and be loved.

Because we are scared. Because we are preoccupied. Because we are addicted. Because we are isolated. Because we isolate ourselves. Because because because. But. And.

As people of faith, we are promised: Isolation does not have the final word. Fear does not have the final word. Economic crisis does not have the final word. War does not have the final word. Darkness does not have the final word. “Keep awake! Keep alert! You do not know when the time will come. But know, the time is coming!”

God is being born, anew. God is choosing, once again, to become flesh. Choosing to enter this world to offer hope. To come into the darkness of death and despair, and shine, shine, shine, a light to guide our way. A flickering light to restore our faith in God’s eternal flame. Beware! Keep alert.

A light is shining. Do you see it? Wake up! Look!

Light the Advent candle, one: Now the waiting has begun; we have started on our way…

Our preparation has begun. Our anticipation has begun. Hanging lights and finding wreaths and trimming trees. Sending cards and remembering traditions and creating memories. And. Each week, here at church, an invitation each Wednesday from 5:30-6:30 to share a meal, practice fruitfulness, and prepare for our faith community’s future. An invitation each Thursday from 6-6:30 to prepare spiritually, a service of contemplative prayer, meditation, music, and scripture.

Stop, and sink into this season. Look into the turbulence, the terror, in our hearts and in our world, and then dare to search for that flickering flame. Wait, not passively, but with longing. Prepare a way for Christ in this world so desperately in need. Wake up! Stay alert! God is coming! Love and Light Incarnate being birthed into our lives, anew. Amen, and amen.

"sheep, goats, and children of god"

anna blaedel
first umc, osage
november 23, 2008

psalm 100
matthew 25:31-46
stewardship sunday

I hate asking people for money. And I am not inclined to preach about God’s judgment. But. And. It is Stewardship Sunday, and our lectionary text from Matthew is the story of God’s final judgment, and I am your pastor, your preacher. So, I am stuck. And so are you. Let us pray. O God, may the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all of our hearts, be acceptable and pleasing in your sight, O God our Strength and our Redeemer.

Last Thursday, I locked myself out of the parsonage. For the second time in two weeks. The first time I found an unlocked window and crawled right on in. If there are rumors of a shadowy, lurking stranger at the parsonage, fear not. It was me. Then I carefully locked all my windows, and popped the screen back . So, Thursday, there was no way in. I was cold. I was hungry. I was tired. I was mad at myself. I had a sermon to write. And you helped me. You left your own baked potato waiting, you set aside your work, you came into the cold, you gathered your crowbars and cordless electric screwdrivers. And you helped me. You got me inside, you made me smile and feel a little less alone, a little less stupid. You even made me spare keys so it might not happen again. You saw my need, and you responded.

Just as you do this to the least of these, you do it to me, says Jesus.

Giving all you have and all you are, for the good of the community, for the glory of God.

Anthony Robinson writes, “Goodness is not planned. It is not a heroic decision or clever calculation. It is an expression of who we are.” Stewardship. Faith. Doing good. Responding to human need. Expressions of who we are, and whose we are.
Many of you who have celebrated birthdays since September 1 when I arrived in Osage have heard me repeat Henri Nouwen’s call to celebrate. Nouwen writes: “Birthday’s need to be celebrated. I think it is more important to celebrate a birthday than a successful exam, a promotion, or a victory. Because to celebrate a birthday means to say to someone: “Thank you for being you.” Celebrating a birthday is exalting life and being glad for it. On a birthday we do not say: “Thanks for what you did, or said, or accomplished.” No, we say: “Thank you for being born and being among us.”

If you notice the strange faces here up front, you will know I am gifted by people who have traveled and gathered and slept on floors to feed me, surround me and celebrate my birthday. I am grateful. Birthdays need to be celebrated.
We all need reminded that simply being is a gift from God, that each and every one of us is created by God, blessed by God, called good by God, invited by God to do good in the world, to live out of our blessings and blessedness. Thank you, for being born and being among us. This is what stewardship is about. This is what the gospel story is about. And it is how well we participate in this practice, by which our faith will be judged.

When John Wesley was initiating the early Methodist movement in 17th century England, things did not look good. Fast and furious economic development in urban areas was draining the resources of rural people. Farming families were pushed closer to poverty, isolated socially and economically. Young people left their small communities in search of money and opportunity in the cities. The church was so concerned about its own well being and wealth that it was forgetting—about people in the community, people hungering for food, for faith, and for meaning. Things did not look good for Wesley, or his followers.

Someone asked him if he was afraid of the Methodist movement dying out. Hear Wesley’s response: “I’m not afraid of the Methodist movement dying out. I’m afraid of us becoming a dead sect, keeping the form but losing the power.” Keeping the form, but losing the power.

This is the warning Matthew sends out with this morning’s Gospel story.

In the 25th chapter of Matthew, in the story this community chose at Charge Conference to be our story, Jesus reminds us of our power, cautions us against keeping the mere form of faith. In speaking of the final judgment, the last days, Jesus did not ask, “Have you been born again? Or, how strong is your faith, really? Or, what hymns do you sing in worship? Or, what is your church’s operating budget? Or, what is your membership roll? Or, what awards have you received? What committees have you sat on? What influential people have you known? What amount did you commit on your stewardship commitment card?”

Jesus asks, “What did you do? Did you feel the hungry, visit the sick and imprisoned?” Did you do everything you could? Did you give all you are and all you have? Then the good news: “Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked, ignored, or forgotten, that was me—you did it to me.”

Then he separates the people, much to their own surprise. The sheep: those who hear God’s word and then DO God’s work. The goats: those who hear the word, but don’t respond. And the sheep are as surprised to learn they are sheep as the goats are to find they are goats. They have not done heroic deeds, they have not singlehandedly eradicated poverty or cured cancer. They have done what they can. Responded to need through an expression of who they are and whose they are.

You are sick? We will visit. In prison? We will come inside the walled, guarded gates. Hungry? Sit. Let’s eat. Thirsty? Here’s water to refresh you. Locked outside in the cold? We’ll come and help. Strange? Alone? Outcast? Ignored? Welcome! It’s good to have you here! Welcome!

Celebrating God and each other, simply for being, for being born and being among us. We are beautiful and blessed. And we are broken. We are God’s beloved, and we are the least and the lost. We can offer Christ’s compassion to those we meet. And we are in need of receiving Christ’s compassion from those we encounter. We are called to be sheep, hearing God’s call and responding by doing God’s work of offering hospitality and building the community of God. And, we are expected to welcome the goats among us.

We are not expected to save others. We are called to connect. God saves. And Jesus sets the example. He did not ask people to volunteer, or sign their names on the dotted line of a sign up sheet. Jesus invited people to become disciples, for the transformation of the world. To build relationships and connections. Jesus saw the deep need in beautiful, broken people, and then sat at table to eat together. Pray together. Mourn together. Grow together. And he asks all who follow him to go out and do the same. Jesus knew, sign up sheets stay filled and commitment cards are turned in, when people seek ways to serve God and serve each other. Not as a requirement, but as a response.

And in doing so, we are told, we will meet God. Here. And in prison. Where there is hunger and need and isolation and neglect. We care called to feed the hungry not because there is overwhelming poverty, but because people are hungry. People need to eat. We need to eat. Again, hear the wisdom of Henri Nouwen, a pastor and priest and sheep, in his own right. “When I went to Peru for the first time I was strongly motivated by the burning issues of Latin America. I had heard and read about illiteracy, malnutrition, poor health, infant mortality, and many other problems. I wanted to do something to alleviate the suffering of my fellow human beings. But when I arrived in to Peru and began living there, what I came to know first of all were not issues but people: Sofia, who struggled with back pain; Pablo, who lost his job over and over again; Maria, who dreamed about having her own doll; Pablito, who wanted to go to the library and read books; and Juanita, who loved playing practical jokes on me. They certainly suffered from poverty, oppression, and exploration, but what they asked of me more than anything was not to solve their many problems, but to become their friend, share my life with them, mourn with them in their sadness, and celebrate with them in their gladness.”

“When you do it with the least of these, you do it with me.” Finding the form, without losing the power.
The form: Building the church. Being the church. Building the reign of God, here, now. The power: God’s grace, filling and forming our lives; Learning from Jesus to see the broken places in and around us, the needs and pains and tender buds of possibility, and then respond. The form: An annual stewardship drive. The power: Giving all we have and all we are, as a grateful response to all that God gives us.

"When we preach a grace which saves us without changing us, we have the form without the power." (noted from a sermon written and preached by Janet Wolf at the Bishop's Preaching Academy, 2008)

When we feed the hungry but forget that we too, need fed, we have the form without the power.

When we give to the church because we fear judgment and forget we are blessed, we have the form without the power.
Stewardship Sunday. Prayerfully committing ourselves to envisioning and creating the kingdom of God, the community of Christ here, now. Responding to God’s abundance by offering back all that we have and all that we are.

We are not nor need we become a dead sect. Remember our power, and respond to the needs we see by saying “Yes!” This is Stewardship. This is practicing our salvation, a salvation Jesus shows us, starts today. This is practicing goodness by expressing who we are as beloved children of God, to a world beloved by God. You know something about being sheep. I see the signs of salvation in our midst.

Form: Writing a check, turning in your commitment card. Power: Committing what you have to create new life, invest in faith, do ministry, practice hope, and build community.

Form: Serving as a trustee. Power: Caring for where our community gathers, how and where we worship and gather at table, where we learn and teach and practice the stories of Jesus, the story of our faith.

Form: Gathering as a worship committee. Power: Envisioning experiences of worshipping an awesome God, inviting opportunities to refill spiritually and reconnect with the sacred, creating sensory encounters with the divine—taste at table, sound and sight through passion-filled music and art.

Form: Saying “yes” to a slot on SPPRC. Power: Prayerfully assessing and attempting to meet the spiritual needs of the community. Offering leadership for building relationships with God and with each other.

Form: Renovating another room for another nursery. Power: Practicing radical hospitality to the babies, children, and parents of this community. Building a welcoming space for those who might become part of this church.

You know something of the form of faith. You also practice and participate in it’s power. When you bake cookies for the Hanging of the Greens advent festival, when you peel potatoes and cook beef and do dishes for the Roast Beef Dinner, when you donate to the women’s shelter, and sing in the choir and serve coffee for fellowship and play bingo at the county home, you are practicing stewardship, practicing discipleship, building the community of God on earth. And when you look to see who is left out, who is left alone, who is pushed away, placed on the periphery, when you reach out to the least, last, and lost, someone in pain, someone struggling, someone in need, someone who doesn’t know where else to turn, you are reaching out to God, responding to God with a faith-filled, life-giving, good-news embodying, hope-producing, grateful-giving “YES!”
“When you did this for the least of these,” says Jesus, “You did it to me.”

The form of faith, with the power of being created, blessed, and beloved of God. Committing all that we are and all that we have. Celebrating God and each other for being born and being among us. Thanks be to God! Amen, and amen.