Sunday, December 29, 2013

Shepherds’ Story: Believing by Cheri Holdridge (with an assist by Kurt Young)

If an angel came in here right now and gave us this message, would you believe it? The message is this: Jesus has come back to the earth. He is in the Old West End of Toledo right now, at the corner of Delaware and Robinwood, in a small park. There is a gazebo there and he’s there, wearing a white robe and holding a walking stick. He’s sitting on one of the benches telling stories. 

Would you believe an angel with that message today? Would you jump in your car and go right over there? And if you saw him, would you believe then? Because you know, it’s one thing to hear such a story. But seeing really is believing. 

Now, one part of this story that makes it really hard for us to relate is the angel part. All through December we have been hearing stories from scripture about angel visitors. First they came to Zechariah to tell him that his very old wife would give birth to John the Baptist. Then the angel came to Mary, and then another to Joseph in a dream. Today we get angels in the fields with the shepherds.

It’s really hard for us in the 21st century to read these stories and wrap our minds around angels. The words angel means messenger from God. Now we can just decide to believe that they were in the collective imaginations of the people – some sort of apparition. Or you can believe that there was a physical manifestation of some other worldly creature sent from God to give a message.  God can do anything after all.  
Maybe you don’t believe in angels at all. You just can’t bring yourself to swallow that part of scripture. You have been trained in logic and science and you just can’t go there. Even if you don’t believe in how the people say they got the message, or how scripture records that they got a message – they each still seem to have gotten a message from somewhere. 

They each got a message and something about that message came true. Zechariah got a message and he and Elizabeth, at a very old age, had a baby. Mary and Joseph had a baby and raised him as their Son. 

And the Shepherds (from Luke 2:8-20 for those following along on the web), in a field outside Bethlehem, got a message to go into town, to a place outside an inn, to see a baby lying in a manger. And they went. 

Why did they go?  If I told you Jesus was in the Old West End right now, sitting in a gazebo telling stories, why would you go?

The shepherds went because they needed hope. They needed hope.  In fact, as the story tells us, they didn’t just go to the manger they RAN to Bethlehem, ran to the manger. You see, the people of Israel were living in misery. Their country was occupied by the Roman army. They were paying high taxes to Rome. They were not free. This was not the land flowing with milk and honey and peace that God had promised to them. And, in fact, they had wandered far from God. 

The people were walking in darkness and they were longing for a Messiah. They were longing for a Savior would who bring them hope. There were prophecies of a Messiah who would feed the poor and send the rich away empty handed.  That is what they people were waiting for. 

When the angel came and said: “The Messiah has come.” The Shepherds ran right over to see this baby and the scripture says, “Seeing was believing. They told everyone they met what the angels had said about this child. All who heard the sheepherders were impressed.

Did you catch that last part? The Shepherds were the first evangelists. They told everyone, and everyone was impressed.

Can you imagine, being so taken with a baby, that a baby would give you hope for the future?

That baby had not done a thing. You’ve been around babies, they don’t realy do anything.  But somehow they knew that this baby was the hope of the world. Shepherds! Now let’s remember these were not religious scholars. These were not experts on theology. Being a shepherd was a stinky dirty job.  They were the bottom (they would have appeared on Dirty Jobs if that show was around then). But these guys came running in from the fields, took one look at Jesus, and said, “Yes, he is the one we have been waiting for.” They went and told their friends and everyone was impressed.

Friends, this is a really simple formula for evangelism (for drawing other people to Jesus): 1) we see Jesus, 2) we believe, 3) we tell other people, 4) they believe.   It’s just that simple.

Now, let me ask you: where did you see Jesus this week?  OK, so you did not drive over to the Old West End at the corner of Delaware and Robinwood and see Jesus in a white tunic, holding a walking stick, looking like he stepped right out of the first century. Fair enough.

But, did you see his followers living in his way? Did you see these things this week:  compassion, forgiveness, generosity, reconciliation, patience, honesty, self-control and even accountability? 

You see, when those shepherds ran to the Bethlehem to the manger to see Jesus that is what they were looking for. They were looking for a Messiah who would bring all those things to a broken world. They were looking for someone who would turn their world around. They were looking for a leader who would lead them to be people of compassion, forgiveness, generosity, reconciliation, patience, honesty, self-control and even lead them to accountability. 

And the scripture says, when they found they baby, they “let loose, glorifying and praising God for everything they had heard and seen. It turned out exactly the way they’d been told!” Jesus was everything the angels said he would be. He was just an infant, but the shepherds knew. They just knew in their hearts that he was the one.  That is the kind of effect Jesus has on our world.

But this is the thing. Right now, we Jesus followers, we have kind of a bad brand. You know what a brand is right? There is the brand, the perception, that the owner wants the public to have of itself. We Jesus followers have one idea of what our brand perception should be. But then there is the image brand. That is what our image IS in the public. 

Right now we have a brand problem. People think that Jesus followers are hypocritical, judgmental and homophobic.  That is the top three things people see us as.   But this is what we want our brand to be. When people hear the term Jesus follower, we want them to think: compassion, forgiveness, generosity, reconciliation, patience, honesty, self-control and accountability (in a good way).

So here is what I think we need to do: when we see those actions in the world, we need to say: “Hey, you’re being like Jesus and that’s great.” 

When someone forgives you, I could say to them, “I know I don’t deserve to be forgiven, but I’m a follower of Jesus and he forgave people all the time, so I thank you for giving me another chance.” 

What about when you see a child showing compassion or kindness? Why not say something like this? “I saw how you were just kind. You were being like Jesus. He was kind too. Thank you for being like Jesus.” What do you suppose it would mean to a child to get that sort of positive affirmation?

I want to thank all of you who were generous in giving to our Christmas offering. We raised $4172 this year for the children here in Toledo and in Zimbabwe. You honored Jesus’ birthday by being generous. I believe that was a wonderful way to celebrate his birth and I want to thank you for being like Jesus in your generosity.

What about this? What if your partner is honest with you and tells you when you do something that bugs him or her. What if rather than getting defensive, you said, “It is hard for me to hear this, because I don’t like criticism. But I thank you for being honest, because honesty is crucial to us having a good relationship. I know you want to be like Jesus and so do I so I’m going to try to work through this with you.” Wouldn’t that be a much more productive way to handle someone being honest with us, than the way many of us handle such conversations?

You see, I think the shepherds give us an invitation. They give us an invitation to believe in Jesus and to believe that living like him can really make a difference in our lives. All of these qualities: compassion, forgiveness, generosity, reconciliation, patience, honesty, self-control and accountability, are qualities that Jesus embodied every day of his life. 

He came to change us. The shepherds ran to see him because they really wanted to be changed. The believed that he could change them and in so doing he could change the whole world. Jesus can change us too, and change our world through us. 

So this week I urge you to look for Jesus. Look for acts of compassion, forgiveness, generosity, reconciliation, patience, honesty, self-control and even accountability. And when you see them, believe in the power of Jesus. Name the power of Jesus and give thanks. And then be inspired to go and do likewise. This is how the movement of Jesus will grow in our world. When we believe and then live as his followers. Amen.

Oh, and if you want the link to that great rendition of The Little Drummer Boy Pastor Cheri told you about in worship,  here’s the link -

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Jesus’ Story: Bringing Hope by Cheri Holdridge (with an assist by Kurt Young)

Every year Forbes Magazine comes out with a list of the most miserable cities in the United States. In 2013 Toledo was #11. Forbes said this about Toledo; #11 Toledo, Ohio: “Job growth has been anemic in Toledo and residents are voting with their feet by leaving the city.” (Source: Some of the things they looked at in order to measure what makes a city more miserable, rather than desirable are these:  “violent crime, unemployment, foreclosures, taxes (income and property) and home prices. The also include … quality-of-life issues like commute times and weather.” (ibid) Toledo seems to makes this list every year.

Yes, things are tough in Toledo. We don’t really need a poll from Forbes to tell us that times are hard in Toledo. Many of us know the victim of a violent crime. Everyone in this room knows someone who has been unemployed or underemployed; or had a house foreclosure. Some of us are these people.

When you hear a scripture like this one from Isaiah about people who live in a land of deep darkness, some days, it feels like Isaiah could be writing about Toledo Ohio in 2013, doesn’t it?

Well, guess what? To the people in a little town called Bethlehem in about the year 0, these words from the prophet Isaiah, also seemed as if they could have been written just for them. Bethlehem was a backwater little town. It wasn’t know for much of anything.  Jacob’s wife Rachel had died there. People liked to visit her tomb and pay their respects. It was the home of Jesse, the father of King David, you would think that would give it a little, but even that did not seem to give it much notoriety. Because you see, the people of Israel were living under the rule of the Roman Empire at this time. So no one had it good.

In fact Emperor Augustus decided he wanted to be sure the Romans were getting plenty of tax money from all the Israelites so he decided to do a census. The only way they knew to do that was to make everyone literally travel to the hometown of their ancestors and register. So Joseph and Mary had to travel to Bethlehem because he was from the house of David, which, as I said, had its home base in Bethlehem.

Now I can tell you, it is a long journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. I have made that trip on a nice cozy air-conditioned bus, and it took several hours.  It was long enough in a tour bus. I would NOT want to walk it while 9 months pregnant. Yes, maybe Mary did have a donkey to ride but let me tell you even on a donkey I would not want to make that trek! No way!

But remember Mary and Joseph had something that no expectant couple has. They had the promise that their baby would bring hope to the world! So perhaps that eased her discomfort, a little. Remember that both Mary and Joseph had been visited by angels, and those angels had informed them: this child is no ordinary child. This is Emmanuel – God-with-us! And so as Mary and Joseph made that long journey to Bethlehem, perhaps they were thinking, “Any day now, this baby is going to be born, the one we have been waiting for. This is not just the child we have been waiting for, this is a child the whole world has been waiting for.” Perhaps as they traveled they talked about their dreams for that child, and wondered what that child might do to ease the misery of a nation.

If you have ever prepared for a baby, maybe you have had conversations about your child’s future. But I imagine our conversations are pretty mundane compared to the ones Joseph and Mary must have had. We ordinary parents just worry about things like this: will our child be born healthy. Will he have friends? Will she get good grades in school and get a good job.

But Mary and Joseph, they had to wonder: What did the angel mean when he said, this is the one the prophets spoke of. Could this be the child of which Isaiah spoke (Isaiah 9:2, 6-7 for those following along on the net)? Could a little baby really live up to these expectations: authority rests upon his shoulders;
    and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually,
    and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
    He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
    from this time onward and forevermore

I wonder, as Mary and Joseph made that long journey from Nazareth way down to Bethlehem if they talked about that baby in Mary’s womb, the one they would call Jesus. Did they wonder if he could really bring hope to a nation living in the misery of living under foreign rule?

We know the old, old story, they got to Bethlehem, and he came time for Mary to give birth. The city was crowded from all the people coming for the census, and the only place they could find to stay was out behind an inn with the animals, probably in some sort of cave. And Mary used a manger, a feeding trough for a baby bed.

Those are really all the details we know of that first night. There have been lots of embellishments for Christmas pageants: a drummer boy, a donkey and lots of other animals. But all we know from Luke’s gospel (Luke 2:1-7 for those following along on the net) is that there was a crowded inn, a manger, and a baby boy named Jesus.

He was born in this small city outside of Jerusalem. Jerusalem was the seat of power for the religious leaders and for the government. Eventually Jesus would go there to challenge the powers and principalities of the day.

But the important part of the story for us, is the simplicity. God did not send the Savior of the world into the center of the action from the beginning. Jesus was born on the edge, in a little miserable town, to poor parents, temporarily homeless hardly noticed by anyone. It was a town that would have been on the list of most miserable cities. This is how God came into the world.

And so, we know that if Jesus could begin in a place like that, and have the impact that he did, then he can surely come to a place like Toledo, in the 11th most miserable city in the United States (according to Forbes magazine) and surely do something for us.

Because you see, wherever he comes, Jesus does not stay on the sidelines for long. Jesus is a bright and powerful light, that moves into any space of darkness and fills it with light.

Do you remember the stories of how he brought hope to the world? What are your favorites? I love the story of how he found the woman caught in adultery. The people were going to stone her as was their custom, their law, but Jesus reminded them, “No one is without sin.” Then he said, “Let the one without sin cast the first stone.” Of course no one did. They all knew they were sinners.  He brought hope to that woman, to all of them and to each one of us that even though we sin, we can leave our sin behind and have a new start. We can forgive one another because we have a common understanding that we are all sinners in need of God’s forgiveness.

Do you remember how Jesus showed compassion for the children and said “Let them come to me”? He had time for everyone. No one was insignificant to Jesus. He brought hope to the people. He said that no one was outside the circle of God’s love, not even the children, not the lepers, not the poor, no one. Because Jesus loved the unlovable and the vulnerable, he gives hope to us when we feel unlovable and vulnerable.

Jesus’ story is a story of hope. He had humble beginnings. God chose to come into the world through the vulnerability of an infant born to temporarily homeless parents, in a country living under the miserable conditions of foreign occupation.

The people who walked in darkness
    have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
    on them light has shined.
For a child has been born for us.

That child comes to bring hope to us. We don’t have to walk in the darkness. God sent Jesus so that we can walk in the light. So come, let us live as people of hope. Let us walk in the light. Amen.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Joseph’s Story: Obeying by Cheri Holdridge (with an assist by Kurt Young)

One of mine and Kurt’s favorite TV shows is the Big Bang Theory. It’s about these really geeky guys who work at Caltech in Pasadena. Three of the main characters are physicists, one is an engineer and then there is Penny, the aspiring actress who lives across the hall and who works at the Cheesecake Factory. The smartest of the scientists is Sheldon Cooper who went to college at the age of 11 (that is the same age as my son Jamie, just to give you a little context). Sheldon sees the world through his own logic. He has no sense of sarcasm, or humor (well, he tries to do humor, ending any joke with Bazinga) which is what gives the show most of its great humor. Sheldon is like Spock (from StarTrek) on steroids. He is super scary smart and does not understand why the rest of the world does not bow down to his superior logic.

Our theme for today is obedience, and I want to show you a clip from the Big Bang Theory, because in it, we see some examples of what it means to live by rules. You will see that Sheldon has rules for everything (when he forms a relationship with a woman later in the show, their relationship agreement is dozens of pages long). The guys and Penny are planning a surprise birthday party for their friend Leonard so Sheldon sets up rules for secrecy. Everyone must obey his rules. Then we learn about his rules for gift giving. When Penny tries to impose her more friendship-based rules of gifts giving, that does not make sense to Sheldon, we hit an impasse, until Howard finds a way to speak Sheldon’s language. 

In the clip, Sheldon is refusing to buy Leonard a gift.  His logic, Leonard knows what he wants better than he does.  Leonard will then be obligated to buy him another gift of similar value.  This will continue until one of them dies, leaving the other the “winner”.  Only when Howard, instructs Penny to describe it as “non-optional, social obligation” does Sheldon stop lodging his objections.  Howard, turns to Penny at the end of the scene and says “he came with a manual”.    

You see, Sheldon needs for there to be rules in the world. And he REALLY needs for people to be obedient to his system of rules. Don’t even get me started on the list of rules in his roommate agreement with Leonard (it’s larger than the relationship agreement and covers the mundane like where carry out dinner comes from on what night to the extraordinary like what happens if one gets super powers).

But he really does have a good heart. Deep inside, he cares about these friends and he needs them, even if he can’t admit it. Sheldon is so smart it is if he is not of the same world as the other people who are around him.  They joke about him being his own species. He has to learn how to be in relationship. But these other four friends are patient with him. There really is not a more devoted group of friends than these 5. In their own quirky way, they are obedient to one another and to their own rules of friendship. 

I just can’t help but think that long ago, in a land far from Pasadena California, there was another man in another culture who also knew something about adapting to changing situations that were uncomfortable to him.  He was a rule follower and it was hard for him when others wanted him to change the rules. That man’s name was Joseph. 

Joseph, awe know, was a good Jewish man. In Matthew’s Gospel, it says he was righteous. The word righteous is a powerful word in scripture. It means he was someone who lived in a right relationship with God. His words and his actions were in alignment with God’s laws. It’s hard to be in alignment with God at all times. Now, according to the laws of the time, when two people were betrothed in marriage, the legal contract was already made. It was a done deal. The actual wedding was actually just a celebration of the legally binding agreement that had already been made between the groom and the father of the bride. But, of course, the marriage had not been consummated yet, so the bride should be a virgin until after the marriage ceremony. 

When Joseph finds out Mary is pregnant there are really only two options according to the law of the day: 1) he can have Mary stoned to death; or he can divorce her. If he divorces her she will live in shame and poverty forever. 

Joseph is a rule follower, like our Sheldon Cooper, so everyone would completely expect him to make one of those two choices. Even if his friends knew him to be a compassionate man, he just had no choice in that day, in that system. This was the world in which he lived and those were the rules.

But then, you know what happened. Another angel. These last few weeks, we have had lots of angels in this Biblical narrative. An angel came to him in a dream and said: “There is more going on here than you see, Joseph (Matthew 1:18-24 from the New Revised Standard Version for those following along on the net):
Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
23 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
    and they shall name him Emmanuel,”

Now when Joseph awoke from that dream, we don’t know what happened. We don’t know if he went to talk to a friend. We don’t know if he hesitated. We don’t know if he was afraid, or immediately rushed out the door convinced of what he must do. He was a human being, after all, so I have got to imagine that there was some second guessing going on. “Was that really an angel? Or am I losing my mind?”

But we do believe this. In the end, Joseph took a risk. He turned away from obedience to the law of the day, and he turned toward obedience to God. He turned away from obedience to the law, and turn to obedience to God.

Isn’t that fascinating? Sometimes in order to be faithful to God, we have to be brave enough to turn away even from obedience to the laws of own leaders, and sometimes our religious leaders. Whew! 

That is some complicated obedience. He chose to stand with Mary. And then it very simply says: he took her as his wife and she gave birth to a baby and they named him Jesus.  The story in Matthew’s version is very simple. There are no details about the inn and the shepherds and all that. Here in this chapter, the focus is on the parents, and especially Joseph and whether or not he will be able to be play his part.

Now, I think obedience is a really hard concept in our culture. It is sort of an old fashioned concept. We use “obedience” to talk about training pets, right? Take your pet to obedience school. We never talk about children being obedient anymore. We use much more progressive language in child development now. We want to nurture our children to think for themselves and have good self-esteem and become independent and healthy. Obedience seems way too over-bearing. 

If we think about being obedient to God, it smacks of some sort of church that would tell us what to believe and expect us to be in lock-step, right, not this kind of church.  You think about a church that would not let us think for ourselves. I get that. I want a God who allows me to ask questions. After all, God gave us free will and God gave us brains so we could think. 

But there is a place in this God-human relationship for us to listen when God calls, and to respond. And that, my friends, is obedience. And I believe there is great freedom in doing something risky in this world FOR GOD. There is freedom in doing what is risky in this world for God. When we are obedient to God, and stand with the oppressed in this world, then we have great power. Because we are not standing alone. We are standing with God. When were obedient to God and standing with God, that is truly powerful.

I imagine that when Joseph told his friends, “I’m going to stand with Mary” they told him he was making a big mistake. But he knew that Mary had been chosen to give birth to Emmanuel – God-with-us. I don’t think Joseph could have comprehended the enormity of what that really meant. But he knew it was important. And so he had the courage to break one set of rules in order to be obedient to God. He was willing to face the ridicule and even the shame brought on by the people around him. 

How about us: Has God ever called you to break some kind of rule in order to obedient to God? Now, I don’t take the breaking of rules lightly. But I teach my children that when a rule is unjust, and someone is being treated unfairly, that is a good reason to stand with the oppressed. You can bet that you will be standing with God. Our obedience is obedience to a higher power.

Is God calling you to do something that is scary? Is God calling you to listen to God rather than to the rules of social convention? Is God calling you to do something in the New Year, to serve God in ways that will require you to take some risks? Perhaps God is calling you to stand up for yourself in the face of injustice? Perhaps God wants you to be a rule breaker in some way that you can be more obedient in your path as a follower of Jesus? 

I don’t know for sure how this scripture speaks to you. The possibilities are limitless.  I know that Joseph chose to listen to the voice of God that came to him in a dream. The voice said, “Stand with Mary even though the rules of your people would tell you not to. Because I have big plans in store for that baby and I need you to be the surrogate father. So be courageous.” And Joseph, like Mary, said “yes” to God.
Christmas is coming, in just a few short days. I don’t what surprises God might have in store for us? What opportunity might God put in front of you to be obedient to God and make a difference in your life or in the life of someone else? I wonder, will you say “yes” to God this Christmas?  Will you?