November 24, 2019


Guide Me, Jesus!

Preacher:
Passage: Psalm 100; Luke 1:76-79

Synopsis: As we celebrate Thanksgiving this year, I’m especially grateful for public school teachers who put so much energy into helping their students flourish and into extra efforts to meet the needs of the disadvantaged in our community. I’m also so grateful for our church’s generous support of my ministry that has enabled me to minister outside the walls of our church in various efforts to improve the lives of people in our community. This is an example of how Jesus guides us on the path of peace (Luke 1: 79).

 

This Thanksgiving season I’m especially grateful for the dedication and hard work of our public school teachers. Our daughter Sara, who’s a special education teacher, called me several days ago. She wanted a listening ear as she talked about some tough stuff in her classroom. One of her students needs extra academic support but the person who has custody of her has to give permission and sign the papers. The student is living with her grandmother who doesn’t have custody. Her mother, who has custody, suffers from drug addiction and they don’t know where she is.

 

Life can be hard and Sara cares deeply for this student as well as her other students. But she’s also the mother of two small boys; she only has so much energy to give. Her spouse Heather is the busy principle of a formerly struggling school that she has worked hard to turn around. Both need to maintain a healthy balance between their work and their home life. I’m so grateful to have a daughter and daughter-in-law who so generously give themselves in this way.

 

I’m equally grateful for the dedicated schoolteachers I’ve learned to know at Daniels Run Elementary School and other Fairfax County schools. Last Sunday evening Ruth and I, along with Johnny and Joanna Wen and their children Ryland and Lillie, attended a celebration and fundraiser for the organization those teachers formed called A Place to Stand.

 

We’re involved in this effort because our church has helped them distribute free produce gleaned from local farmers markets. Once a month, for the past two summers, we set up a tent and tables in our church parking lot where needy people can come to get fresh produce. This effort had a slow start but it has kept growing as more people find out about it. We already have plans to start distributing produce again next April.

 

At the gathering on Sunday evening, I learned that A Place on Stand has a holistic, sustainable approach to eradicating homelessness and hunger. This includes sustainable housing, healthy food, adult education programs, employment, and health clinic partnerships. If you want to know more, please pick up one of their flyers that I placed on the table by the basement entrance.

 

As I anticipate our thanksgiving meal following our worship service today, I’m also thankful for our church. It has been so good to serve as our pastor for the past seven years. Your lives have touched my life and we’ve grown together as followers of Jesus. I’ve had a wonderful opportunity to minister here in our community in so many different ways and I wouldn’t have been able to do that without your generous support. Thank you!

 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “In normal life one is not at all aware that we always receive infinitely more than we give, and that gratitude is what enriches life. One easily overestimates the importance of one’s own acts and deeds, compared with what we become only through other people.”  At the heart of gratitude is the recognition that we’ve received much more than we can ever give. This is grounded in the bounty of the earth and our creator God. Diana Butler Bass comments:

The universe is a gift. Life is a gift. Air, light, soil, and water are gifts. Friendship, love, sex, and family are gifts. We live on a gifted planet. Everything we need is here, with us. We freely respond to these gifts by choosing a life of mutual care. . . Gifts bring forth gratitude, and we express our appreciation by passing gifts on to others.[1]

 

Two themes merge in our worship today. As we anticipate our annual church thanksgiving meal, we’re grateful for all the good gifts we receive from God. Today is also the “Reign of Christ” Sunday on our church calendar. This has both spiritual and political dimensions. Psalm 100 is a psalm of procession as participants greet their king with shouts of acclamation at his appearance.

 

A similar event today might be the energy of the crowd at the inauguration of a president. The worship in Psalm 100 is religious because the focus in on God but the symbols and rituals come from the political life of ancient Israel. We need to remember that the religious and the political was not separated in the way it is today in our secular world. We forget that humans are intrinsically religious and that we always serve some ultimate meaning, be that ourselves or some value beyond ourselves such as our country, or our God. As in Bob Dylan’s song:

You may be an ambassador to England or France

You may like to gamble, you might like to dance

You may be the heavyweight champion of the world

You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls

 

But you're gonna have to serve somebody, yes

Indeed you're gonna have to serve somebody

Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord

But you're gonna have to serve somebody.

 

Biblical commentator James Mays notes that in ancient Jerusalem, the king’s palace was adjacent to the temple. One was the house of the human king and the other was the home of the divine ruler. The question throughout the history of Israel was: whose will really rules? Israel’s prophets were constantly pushing the kings to remember that to serve God is to live in a rule that excludes slavery to human governments or to the power of other “gods.”

[Likewise,] in Roman times the early Christians said, “Jesus is lord,” in their worship in an empire that required people to say “Caesar is lord,” and they paid for the choice. Because worship is the direction of trust and obedience to a power whose will and way make a difference in life, it’s always an activity with political consequences.[2]

 

Zechariah’s prophesy in Luke’s Gospel picks up on the acclamation tradition of Israel by praising God for raising “up a mighty savior for us in his servant David’s house” (1:69). “Because of our God’s deep compassion, the dawn from heaven will break upon us, to give light to those sitting in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide us on the path of peace” (1:78-79).

 

Let’s consider how Jesus guides us on the path of peace. We have recently put the word peace in the name of our church. How do we live into that? Two religious scholars have studied the role of religious communities in both violence and peacemaking. In her book, Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence, Karen Armstrong debunks the notion that religion is inherently violent. All major religions, including Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Hinduism, have an active peace practice that includes personal and communal reconciliation. Religion has, however, often been coopted by the violence of empire and insurgents fighting against empire.

 

For example, Christianity was nonviolent for its first three hundred years. That changed when it became the religion of the Roman Empire after Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in 313 C.E.  Soon after, bishop Augustine developed his justification for fighting a so-called just-war. It didn’t stop there. We were soon killing accused infidels and heretics in the name of Christ.[3]

 

The scandal is that such Christianity cannot be recognized as following Jesus who taught us to love our enemies. In his book The Ambivalence of the Sacred: Religion, Violence, and Reconciliation, Scott Appleby contrasts religious extremists who exalt violence as a spiritual imperative in their quest for justice with religious peacemakers who’re are committed to ending violence and resolving conflict through nonviolent means.[4]

 

He studies recent Mennonite peacemaking efforts that began as a response to the horrific violence of WWI and WW2. This effort grew out of Mennonite life and practice. He quotes Jewish peacemaker and scholar Marc Gopin, “Every aspect of Mennonite life and formation of character reinforces values, personality traits, and modes of engagement that express humility, a studied effort to emulate Jesus, and . . . engagement with others that emphasizes listening, care, and gentle patterns of interaction.”[5]

 

I wonder, do such characteristics shape us and the life of our church? How? How not? How does this shape our mission and community outreach? How does it reflect the light from God that dawned in the life and ministry of Jesus. And how does Jesus guide our feet in the way of peace?

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[1] Diana Butler Bass, Grateful (HarperOne, 2018), xviii

[2] James Mays, Psalms: Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1994), 318.

[3] Karen Armstrong, Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014).

[4] Scott Appleby, The Ambivalence of the Sacred (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000), 11-13.

[5] Ibid. 149.

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