Sunday, December 14, 2014

"Finding Shelter" - article for Leader-Telegram Dec. 13, 2014

Note: This essay was written for the "Faith Walk" supplement in the local newspaper, which was published on Dec. 13, 2014. Unfortunately, they do not have offer this on-line, so I offer it to you here. 

Two months ago, my church hosted a Halloween party for the GSA (Gender and Sexuality Awareness) groups from the local high schools. Beyond it being a very fun party, there was a moment at the end of it that has had deep meaning to me as a pastor and a follower of Jesus. 

It was while we were in a circle introducing ourselves and sharing some of our story. One of the boys told how he and his mom had pulled into the church's driveway and weren't sure if they were in the right place. Then they saw the rainbow flag that hangs in my office window, and as the boy told the story, when they saw the flag they knew that they were at least in a safe place. 

Unfortunately, many churches are not safe places for our LGBT brothers and sisters, and many are not safe for foreigners (especially so-called "illegal" immigrants), women, single or unmarried parents, the mentally ill, and others. 

Why bring this up at Christmas time? Because the birth of Jesus involves instances of being on the margins and an outsider. Christmas is the celebration of the birth of the Prince of Peace, and it is a good time to remember the Christian priority of compassion over law, justice over convenience, and mercy over judgmentalism. 

Jesus' was conceived by an unwed teenager. She and her husband went to Bethlehem for the birth, and there they found no place in the inn. After Jesus was born, the only people who seemed to realize the world's savior had been born were not his own people, but shepherds and foreigners. Shepherds were about the lowest rung on the social ladder at the time, and the foreigners were neither racially or religiously related to Jesus. 

Mary, Joseph, and Jesus then became homeless, fleeing to Egypt to live as immigrants, probably illegal, for a couple years to avoid persecution. While they were there, the king of Jesus' people slaughtered the newborns in Bethlehem because he feared the political ramifications of  a newborn "King of the Jews". 

When I consider the many immigrants in this country, and our long history of immigration, I wonder, "How many of them are Jesus?" When I consider the pregnant teens and single mothers, I wonder, "How many of them gave birth to a Jesus?" When I hear politicians and TV pundits try to stir us up to be afraid of the foreigner, the person who is a different race or religion or style of clothing, I wonder, "How many Jesuses are they telling us to fear?" How many political refugees, how many of the homeless, how many poor children pushed into the filth are actually Jesus?

If Jesus can live in all those categories or labels we like to inflict on others, then let us stop to consider that anyone on whom we choose to toss those labels just could be Jesus. As is recorded in Matthew 25, Jesus said that whatsoever we do to the least of these we do to him. Jesus is in everyone. This Christmas, as we retell the story of Jesus' birth, let us remember he is not just an abstract concept born 2000 years ago, but that he lives on in each of us, especially in our neighbors. Let us treat our neighbors as such.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

"Peace Kills Fear", Sermon for Second Sunday of Advent.

The second Sunday of Advent is the Sunday that we light the candle of Peace. The opposite of peace is not war (though war is definitely not peaceful), but is fear. Fear is what stops us from being at peace within ourselves and with our neighbors, and even with God.

How do you find ways to work around your fears? What other opposites to peace can you come up with?

“Peace Kills Fear”
Sermon, Year B, Advent 2, December 7, 2014
Plymouth United Church of Christ, Eau Claire, WI
© Rev. David J. Huber
Focus Scripture: Mark 1:1-8 

(you may also listen to the sermon)

“Prepare the way of the Lord,” said the prophet Isaiah. Prepare the way of the Lord and make his paths straight. And that’s the message that John the baptist is also proclaiming. He is there to help make some paths straight, to prepare people for Jesus. He’s setting the tone.

He’s also Jesus’ cousin. We don’t learn that in this Gospel, but we do in one of the others. The gospel writer here, whoever wrote this gospel of Mark, was not too concerned with origins. So we have no birth narrative about Jesus. It starts right here with the words we read, with John the Baptist, and then Jesus shows up as an adult.

Mark’s Gospel begins with this message from John to repent. To repent. That words gets a bad rap because it has been abused, and been used to abuse others, to call others to repent. Think of the guys on the street with the signs that say “Repent, for the end is near!” Or words about “Repent so you can get into heaven” or “If you don’t repent you will not escape the suffering that God wants to bring upon you.”

I don’t think that’s helpful. That’s not healthy talk about repentance. Not a good way to think about it.

To repent means simply to change direction. To change your path. It’s not a Golden Ticket to heaven. It’s not some kind of terrible self-flagellating or self-abusive activity that we have to go through to avoid God’s wrath or to re-earn God’s love. We always have God’s love. To repent is simply change direction. For us as followers of Jesus, it means to change our direction to follow Jesus again. We got a little off the path, we repent, we move back to Jesus’ path.

Our confessions are moment of repentance. A chance to say “These are the things that I or we are doing, which are not the things that Jesus would like us to do. So forgive us, and let’s move on.” It is to say that I am going to admit to how I have strayed from the path. I am going to admit it, say it. There is power in speaking it and not just thinking it. There is power in saying it out loud, or using the words. And then I will change my course away from it and back to following Jesus.

That’s all that Jesus wants, really. For us to follow. That’s what he says often in the Gospels, “Follow me. Do what I am doing.” Jesus always beckoning us, inviting us, even when we stray off the path. “Come back! Come back, and follow me!” Never putting up a stop sign to say “No, you can’t follow me until you feel bad enough, or guilty enough.” Jesus saying, “Yeah, whatever you did in the past, I know about it. It’s okay. It’s in the past. Come back to my path and follow me, and don’t worry about it. Be at peace.”

“Follow me and be at peace.”

Jesus doesn’t want perfect people to follow him. Perfect people are liars. None of us are perfect. There are not perfect people. But maybe follow Jesus toward perfection. Follow Jesus toward his perfect peace. Follow Jesus and find perfect peace.

Today we light the candle of Peace. Not because the world is at peace or because we have achieved it. The candle is not a sign to say, “We’ve done it!” But we can light it in defiance of the world, or as a witness to a world that is not at peace, to say that this is what God wants. God wants us to be at peace. And not just among nations, but within ourselves. Advent can be a very un-peaceful time. Lots of busy-ness. Christmas parties. Decorating. Going shopping. Concerts. Baking. Advent can be a very un-peaceful time, even though this is supposed to be a time for waiting and anticipation for Christmas. Our world is also not always peaceful. There are nations at war, people at war, violence in the world. Steve’s songs are, at some level, about that: finding peace in the busy-ness and chaos of the world.

[edit: the Steve here is Steve Carlson, who was our guest musician for the day. Hear his music and buy his CD at the link.]

When I think of “peace” I see visions of no war, no hurting each other, no violence. It would be nice to have the world not at war any more. But I also think of it’s opposite, which isn’t war, but I think it’s fear. Fear that often leads to not being at peace. Fear. At least in terms of what keeps us from being more peaceful.

I see an awful lot of fear in the world today. Our media thrives on it, our politicians make a living on it. The incidents in Ferguson are related to fear. Cops being fearful, the young black men being fearful, everyone in the system being afraid of one another. The riots come out of that fear. The chokehold incident with the cop in NYC is another sign of that fear. There is the fear of the other. Fear of immigrants, fear of LGBT brothers and sisters, fear of women in power, fear of other religions. Religions fearing one another. Nations fearing one another. Fears about losing resources.

We also have personal fears. Fear of losing a job, fear of getting sick and maybe losing our home because of it. The fear of not having enough. Or the fear of not being able to have everything we want. We have cities making it illegal to feed people who are homeless. That’s certainly wrong, and I think it comes out of fear. Fear that the homeless might be more visible, or more will come into town, or that we might have to admit our corporate sin that allows homeless to happen.

The angels always say, “Don’t be afraid!” Do not fear. Be at peace. There is a lot of our inability to be at peace that comes out of fear. That’s not the only thing, but to me it seems to be the big thing happening today. Fear all over the place. We are so afraid of so many things. The media keeps feeding the fear cycle. Politicians and other leaders keep boosting it.

Don’t let fear rule your life. Making your decisions on fear is a life of avoiding, not a life of living. Not a life of “going into” but of “staying away from.” Live into God’s generosity. Don’t be afraid. God will always love. God is generous. God is abundant. Live into God’s generosity and God’s hope and into Jesus’ peace.

Turn away. Change direction. Take a moment of repentance to change direction away from fear and into Jesus’ path of peace.

May you find that path this Advent season and coming into Christmas.


Mouth Watering Anticipation. Sermon for First Sunday of Advent.

On the first Sunday of Advent, I compare the Advent season of four weeks of waiting with arrival at a restaurant. The food is not served yet, but the anticipation has begun. 

What are you waiting for this year? What do you anticipate?

“Mouth Watering Anticipation”
Sermon, Year B, Advent 1, November 30, 2014
Plymouth United Church of Christ, Eau Claire, WI 
© Rev. David J. Huber
Focus Scripture: Mark 13:24-37 

(you may also listen to the sermon)

Today is the first Sunday of Advent, that four weeks of preparation and anticipation that leads us into Christmas. This is a time of anticipation and preparation. Waiting. Keeping awake. Paying attention. We are in a broken in a world. A world that is not yet what God has imagined for it. We have not achieved what God has imagined for this world. We are a broken world that longs for mending and longs for repair. We heard that even in the Psalm we read. This longing for mending and for repair goes back thousands of years. Longing for the dark places to be lit up and healed and made whole.

We await the birth of Jesus. We are in the advent of Jesus, waiting, waiting for Christmas. We've begun our yearly journey toward Christmas. The radio, TV, and stores started their journey in September. The Hallmark Store had their Christmas ornaments out in July. They started Christmas a long time ago, and for them, Christmas will end on December 25. But we who follow Jesus know that Christmas begins on December 25 and then lasts for 12 days after. The Twelve Days of Christmas like in the old song. We celebrate for twelve days until Epiphany. So we are not in Christmas yet, we are in the time of Advent. The time to prepare ourselves to be ready to greet and meet the baby Jesus when he comes. 

We can think of today, the first Sunday of Advent, as that we have come to a restaurant. We have come to a restaurant while we have been so hungry and had such need of being filled and fed. We have been so hungry. We've been invited to come to this restaurant, and have been looking forward to it for weeks. We are excited. Maybe we've been thinking about what to wear for it. What will we wear for that meal? What will be served? What will be on the menu? What do we have to look forward to? So the day comes, and we put on our best clothes. Our best clothes might be a suit and tie, maybe a tuxedo, or perhaps a pair of shorts and a polo shirt that doesn't have too many stains on it. Maybe it is an evening gown or a Little Black Dress, or maybe the best clothing is a pair of jeans and a sweater with not so many holes in it. Whatever it is, you've put it on.

We arrive at the restaurant and see the outside. It's beautiful, lit up from the inside so you can see through the windows, and it has large impressive doors on the front. The valet takes your car, and he somehow knows your name. He's also been waiting for you, keeping awake, waiting for you to come and he takes your car. Then the doorman swings the doors wide open for you, and he also calls you by name and has been waiting for you. He says, “Thank you for coming, go on in!” The maître d’ has been waiting as well for you, greets you by name, and takes you to your table and pulls out the chair. You sit, he pushes the chair in. He tells you, “The chef has prepared a very special meal for you tonight. She knows exactly what you need. Exactly what you have been longing for.” And he leaves a menu on each of your places around the table. 

Do you feel your mouth watering in anticipation? You have had all this preparation coming in to the restaurant. The experience of the meal began as you pulled up in the car. When you saw the restaurant, and when you were greeted. Anticipation. Preparation. 

I was in Los Angeles a number of years ago. I was there to see some friends. I'd never been there. I was in between places, moving from Hawaii back to NYC, so I thought I'd stop in LA and see my friends Patty and Juan and see the city. I spent a few days with them, and while I was there, they said, “We know this restaurant that we want to take you to.” I don't remember the name of it, but they wanted me to experience it. They asked me, “Do you like garlic?” I said, “Oh, I love garlic! Love it! Can't get enough garlic.” And they said, “Then this is the restaurant for you. We'll take you there tonight on the way to the airport.” My mouth was already watering in anticipation of the meal. A restaurant that is known for its garlic! Exciting! Maybe not for you, but for some of us. It was so exciting! So we did whatever it was we did that day, and went to the restaurant for supper. As we pulled into the parking lot, I saw the restaurant's sign. It was whatever the restaurant's name was, and then in large letters was their motto: “We flavor our garlic with food”. I am in the right place! 

[edit: the restaurant’s name is The Stinking RoseI also had the motto incorrect; it's actually “We Season Our Garlic With Food®”. The phrase under the restaurant's name is A Garlic Restaurant which is also in itself pretty mouth-watering, and the motto shows up on menus and other visible places in the restaurant.]

“We flavor our garlic with food”. [edit: “We Season Our Garlic With Food®”.] That anticipation started when I saw that sign. Oooh, this is going to be an experience! Think of how Disneyland and Disneyworld begin their experience in the parking lots. Many places do. Even churches begin their experience in the parking lot. As people come in, what do they see? What do they experience? 

So back this restaurant that I had you imagine you are at, where the maître d’ has left the menu on your table, you pick it up and see it is a fixed menu. It is simply telling you what the chef is going to be bringing you. Not a menu from which you choose, but the chef has prepared this meal for you. You look, and you see that what she is preparing, what you are looking forward to, are Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love. 

That's the first Sunday of Advent. We've looked at the menu. We've heard what is to come, and have been shown what we are to receive: Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love. And we sit in anticipation to be wowed, to be fed, and to be filled. 

That is what the first Sunday of Advent is like. Not to the feast yet, but we know what is coming. 

Hope. Peace. Joy. And Love.

That's what we have to look forward to in Christmas when Jesus arrives again, coming into our world to bring love, healing, and wholeness with the hope, peace, joy, and love.

Thanks be to God. 


Sunday, November 30, 2014

My Aunt Tootie died today.

I have found much solace over the years in these words from Dietrich Bonnhoeffer. I like Bonnhoeffer's realistic view, and his honesty to not pretend that "God will make it all better" (in the sense of taking away all the pain), but that instead God will make the pain itself a source of gratitude.

I didn't want to post anything earlier for fear of family getting bad news from a facebook post so wanted to make sure that the news has gone out - the sadness I feel today is from the death of my Aunt Tootie, my mother's older sister, who had been a mainstay in my life and in my mom's. My mom lived with Tootie and her family when mom was a teenager (all six of them living in a basement for years, because no house was on it yet), and in the last six months or so of her life, mom moved back in with Tootie (this time in a house, not just a basement, but the same one!) so she could die in the comfort of home under good and loving care. Tootie's house and the home she made were always a kind of sanctuary, especially as I grew older. Many laughs, lots of extraordinary meals (she and I love duck, and we got to have a couple ducks these last few years), God only knows how much coffee, cake, pie, and cookies, and more love than one can quantify.

Here is Dietrich:

“There is nothing that can replace the absence of someone dear to us, and one should not even attempt to do so. One must simply hold out and endure it. At first that sounds very hard, but at the same time it is also a great comfort. For to the extent the emptiness truly remains unfilled one remains connected to the other person through it. It is wrong to say that God fills the emptiness. God in no way fills it but much more leaves it precisely unfilled and thus helps us preserve -- even in pain -- the authentic relationship. Further more, the more beautiful and full the remembrances, the more difficult the separation. But gratitude transforms the torment of memory into silent joy. One bears what was lovely in the past not as a thorn but as a precious gift deep within, a hidden treasure of which one can always be certain.”

Thursday, November 27, 2014

On Being Gratitudinal - sermon for Thanksgiving

On Thanksgiving Eve, the three UCC churches in town hold a joint worship service of thanksgiving. This year it was at First Congregational, and I was the preacher. Here is the sermon text I preached from. I talk about the importance of the act of giving thanks to be more than just saying it, instead of showing our thankfulness by the way we live, showing gratitude by serving the people around us. 

How do you show your gratitude to God, or your gratitude to anyone/anything?

Have a blessed and happy Thanksgiving Day!

“On Being Gratitudinal”
Sermon, Year A, Thanksgiving, November 26, 2014
Given at First Congregational UCC, Eau Claire, WI 
© Rev. David J. Huber
Focus Scripture: Amos 5:7-15, 21-24, Matthew 25:34-45 

In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "A Matter of Honor", First Officer of the Enterprise-D William Riker does an officer exchange to go serve temporarily on a Klingon starship called the Pagh, a word that means “zero” in the Klingon language, by the way. 

Klingons are a warrior race - combat, honor, staring down death, rising up through the ranks by assassinating your superiors when they get weak, they are honest, honorable, don't pretend to be something they aren't. They are loud, boisterous, laugh loudly and feel anger fully. That is what matters. That is what they value. 

They are very much a race who are in the moment. 

Riker is the first Federation officer to serve on a Klingon ship, because for a long time the Federation and Klingon Empire were enemies. They had been hesitant allies for 50 years after the Khitomer Accords in the year 2293, but the real alliance was with the Romulans. But after the incident at Norendra III in 2344, just a few years before this story, in which the Federation ship Enterprise-C helped Klingon ships defeat some Romulans who had betrayed the Klingons, which act then solidified the alliance between Klingons and the Federation and dissolved the one between the Romulans and the Klingons. 

Oh, I'm sorry... Does this geekiness make my brain look fat?

Anyway, Riker, a human, comes to this Klingon ship, and lots of Klingonness ensues in which we learn that there are no old warriors. Riker has his leadership challenged by second-in-command and he has to fight him, finally putting the Klingon's head through a computer monitor; Riker learns that the Klingon food gagh, a kind of worm, is best when served live; and then the captain of the Klingon tries to attack the Enterprise-D because he thinks they did something to his ship. Riker tricks the captain, there are lots of Klingons threatening to kill each other because they don't like each others' commands, but Riker keeps them at bay, calls off the attack, gets the ship fixed and everyone is happy except the Klingon captain who gives Riker quite a belt to the head in anger and Riker goes back to the Enterprise.

As I watched, I thought, "What a way to live."
     and then I paused for a moment, and thought, “No, what a way to die.” And said that with a feeling of awe.

Not just dying through combat or the glory of battle, but that the Klingons have about them a sense of death always around them - death is always on the horizon, and so there is a fullness in their lives knowing how precious it is this short time that one is alive. No pretending of there being a long life, so put things off to tomorrow... whether it be a party with friends, a chance to eat, a time to make love. Life is short, so there's no need to hoard, to acquire, to be stingy, to be worried about possessions.

Tomorrow we might die, so let us live right now. That's not even Klingon – that's the Bible. 

“Today is a good day to die”, that's Klingon. Though originally it was Crazy Horse, but co-opted by the Klingons.

They have found something to live for, and so do not fear death. 

And in that, I see a sense of gratitude. Gratitude, as I think of it, is thankfulness in action. Thankfulness lived. 

This moment is all that there is, it is the gift given to me to be alive right now, so in gratitude I will make the most out of it. 

“I'm so thankful for the gift of today, I will live it fully. I am so thankful for the gift of having enough, I will share it. I am so thankful for the people around me that I will spend time with them.”

And also this sense that, since life is temporary, what is the point of hoarding anything? Why hold on to things, or go without using them, or go without sharing them, when one knows that there is only a short time to experience and enjoy them? And once we're dead we can't take them with us. And once we're dead, we can't share. We can share through our estate planning or wills, sure, but I've heard good wisdom from some who have said to me that they are taking the things they planned to leave in their wills and giving them to the people now – then they can see the enjoyment. It's a way of saying “I have such thankfulness for what has brought me joy that I want to share them in gratitude.”

The prophet we read is railing against those who do not share. The rich have too much and are beating down and ignoring the poor. They're even cheating the poor. Taking advantage of the weak. We see over and over in the prophets that the sin God is upset about is not sharing. Being unjust toward those who have the least.

We like to balance budgets on the backs of the poor. It's easy. We like to think we won't die, and that we win by accumulating the most/

A Klingon might say that our attachment to things keeps us afraid, and being afraid keeps us from living. So would Yoda. And Confuscious. Lao Tzu, Buddha, and Mohammed as well.

Jesus said that we win by sharing. Keeping things to ourselves says, “God, you aren't generous enough to me.” Serving others says, “Thank you, God, for being generous.”

Our job is to love the world. As we dedicate ourselves to this vocation, to daily loving the world - we are more and more showing our gratitude, not just with words but with our very lives.

Compare this to Bilbo Baggins, the famous but also very hesitant Hobbit, described in this song that the dwarves sing:

Chip the glasses and crack the plates!
Blunt the knives and bent the forks!
That's what Bilbo Baggins hates-
Smash the bottles and burn the corks!
Cut the cloth and tread on the fat!
Pour the milk on the pantry floor!
Leave the bones on the bedroom mat!
Splash the wine on every door!
Dump the crocks in a boiling bawl;
Pound them up with a thumping pole;
And when you've finished, if any are whole,
Send them down the hall to roll!
That's what Bilbo Baggins hates!
So carefully, carefully with the plates! [Book version]

A turning point, in some ways, in Bilbo's life: he's been asked to go on an adventure, but does not want to go. He likes his comfort, his hobbit hole, his fine linens and delicate plates and ancestral silverware. The dwarves, who've lost their land, their home, their story, their history, they find Bilbo's hesitance to be almost offensive. Bilbo is afraid something might break, especially that the something might be him. He would rather see the dwarves go unfed and homeless than take the risk of serving them because he is afraid that he might break a plate, or soil a doily. He is afraid, and so he does not live. He only survives. 

But, he learns! He likes his stuff, his comforts. And I'm not anti-comforts or anti-stuff. But he learns through his adventure to let go, and learns that by letting go he is finally alive.

But, we know that serious preachers don't quote Star Trek or recite Dwarven poetry. 

So.... Wittgenstein.

Mmm, that felt good.

Schopenhauer. Schillebeeckx. Nietszche. Dag Hammerskjold. Wittgenstein.

As Wittgenstein wrote, “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” – but what limit has action? 

Jesus never said, “Here's what I want you to believe. Repeat after me.”
He said, “Here's what I want you to do. Follow after me.”

Thankfulness – words. Important! Don't get me wrong. “Thank you, God, for what I have.”

But gratitude – thanksgiving in action.
  Thank you, God, share my water.
  Thank you, God, share my food.
  Thank you, God, share my clothing.
  Thank you, God, let me visit you in prison, let me visit you on the street, let me visit you in the hospital...

Words have incredible power to shape worlds. To define reality. To change reality. To take an imagination at warp speed and go places no one has gone before. But they are not omnipotent.

What if our language, 
     our language as Christians, 
     the language of our Christian vocation, 
        not be confined to liminal words of thanksgiving, 
          a lexicon of sounds and scribblings 
          inherently limited in comprehension 
          to only that population which shares it in common, 

          but what if, instead, 
            the language of our Christian vocation 
            be the universal language of gratitude, thankfulness in action, 
            through service to others,
            a kinetic language of movement that does not limit the world 
                 or attempt to circumscribe it, 
          but which by refusing to live for ourselves
            creates ever new lands and capacity 
              for flourishing the imagination of what is possible. Amen.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Spending God's Currency

Jesus' Parable of the Talents is often used to talk about stewardship of money - but what if Jesus is also (or alternatively) talking about stewardship of God's currency: the story that God has handed down to us, the story of the faith, which we have been asked (actually, which we have been charged) to share and to live. 

How do you share God's story through your words and/or actions?

[you can also listen to this sermon]

“Spending God’s Currency”
Sermon, Year A, Proper 28, November 16, 2014
Plymouth United Church of Christ, Eau Claire, WI
© Rev. David J. Huber
Focus Scripture: 1 Thess 5:1-11, Mt25:14-30

That parable does end on a bit of a nasty note. But, there is still good news in there.

This is a parable that you have probably heard used in stewardship campaigns or sermons before. This often gets brought out to talk about stewardship, especially about giving money to the church, and also time and talents. How we steward what God has given us to support the church. Are we generous, are we sort of generous, or do we hide our treasure in the ground and hold it for ourselves. This parable works very well for that. And we are going to be sending out a stewardship letter soon with the pledge cards for next year. Because the church does require money to run. It is needed, and that money comes from us. Comes from those of us who are in the community, and it requires our time and talents as well as we saw this last week. You all put in a lot of time and talent putting together our Holiday Bazaar. Many hours devoted to setting things up. Many talents offered in baking, working the kitchen to clean dishes or prepare beautiful plates of food, setting the tables and waiting on them, bagging up treasures and working the till, talents at keeping the place beautiful and decorated. Lot of time and talent went into this last week, and I thank you all for that.

To be part of the Church is to be part of something bigger. To be part of the Body of Christ. As it is a part of us, so also part of us goes into creating it.

But, I'm not here to give a stewardship sermon or talk about money. Because I think that parable of talents that we read here is also a parable about what we do with something else that God gives us: the gift of God's story. What do we do with God's story? What do we do with the Good News of Jesus, the Prince of Peace, and the Good News of his community of love? That's also one of the talents given to us by God to be good stewards of. What do we do with the story entrusted to us? And with our life in the church?

I think many of us hide it in the ground. I know I did. That was the tradition in the church I grew up in, not to talk about the church much outside the walls. Not to share the story with other people. We tended to keep our religion out of the public sphere. It's certainly a much more comfortable and safe thing to do. But Jesus asked us to share the message. He commanded us to share the message! "Go out and make disciples of the nations!" Spread the Good News. Share it.

As I have worked with my coach this year and mentor and with others in the group that the Conference has put together – the six of us ministers working together on church growth and church vitality and how to be evangelistic – let’s not be afraid of the word, might as well say it; to do evangelism – I’ve gotten better at being invitational. I know that I have hit on that word a lot, being invitational and showing hospitality. But I do it because it is so important. That also is one of the talents that God has given us: to share the story. Not talent in the sense of, say, a musical talent or a talent for language, but talent in the sense of currency as used in this parable.

I think it is showing fruit among us. It is showing fruit. It’s a slow process, this relearning. It certainly has been for me. I never had in any of my seminary training anything about evangelism or church vitality or growth. None of that. And most of our seminaries in the UCC, and other mainline traditions, have very little on evangelism. Some are better at it. The Evangelistic Churches are, of course, really good at it. This has been a big learning curve for me, and a new thing. To be more willing to share with others and invite them in. It can be kind of scary.

But this process is showing fruit. We’ve had more visitors this year, and because of that invitation. And the visitors that we’ve had this year, most of them have been coming back and coming into the life of this congregation. Whether they become members or not, they’ve become part of the life of this congregation. We have invited them in and welcome them, and that has been wonderful to see. Some even have joined and become members. So this works! We are all in the learning curve of how to do it. I’m learning, and you can do it as well.

It is amazing what happens when we don’t put that talent underground but share it. Share the story. Share the story of God’s love by inviting people in to hear it, but even more to experience it. To be part of the community.

It is amazing what can happen when we share our talents and invest them in others’ lives. That’s what we are about in the church, yes? Changing lives for the better? Letting people know that there is a God who loves them unconditionally. That we can have hope in the face of a world that seems hopeless and frightful, scary, dangerous. That we can live with one another in a community of peace, love, and dignity, despite our differences. That our differences don’t have to divide us. That’s the message of the church, and one of the talents that God has given us to possess, share, and invest.

And so we have this year opened our doors to those who have come in. We have also opened our doors to other groups. I talked about this a few weeks ago, but before Halloween we opened our doors to the high schools’ Gender Sexuality Awareness groups so that they could hold a Halloween party here. I told this story the Sunday after that party, but you might not have heard it. Many of the teens here were gay, lesbian, transgender, though not all. At the end of the party, we sat around in a circle and introduced ourselves and shared some story about who we are. One boy shared a story that he came to the party with his mom who drove him here, and as they pulled into the parking lot they weren’t sure if they were at the right place. They had not been here before, and were nervous that maybe that they were in the wrong place. And he had been a bit hesitant about coming to a church anyway, but as they pulled in they saw the rainbow flag that is in my office window and as the boy told the story, “I saw the rainbow flag in the window and I knew that even if I wasn’t at the right place, I knew that at least I would be safe here.”

Hear that? “At least I would be safe here.” That’s hospitality and Christian living. How awful that some of our LGBT brothers and sisters, and others, would even have to ask the question on the way to a church, “Will I be safe there?” Heartbreaking, but sadly, some churches are not safe for certain people. We opened our doors. That’s hospitality and invitation, to open doors to people.

I am talking this week with some folks who have asked if they can use our building for doing Reiki, a Japanese massage, healing, spiritual thing. At the election bake sale, one of the women working was asked by some people about the church, so she told them about who we are and what we do, gave them a tour of the building, and then offered an invitation to them to come join us for worship. Two of the people she invited joined us last Sunday! Simply because they had been invited. I’ve followed up with them by email. I don’t know where that will go, but we’ll see. We extended an invitation, and a “yes” was the response. That was a good moment, being invitational.

Next week we have some high schoolers I met at the Halloween party who will offer a song for us that is about being thankful that one of them has written.

The first Sunday of December we have another musician, Steve Carlson, who I met through networking. We had coffee together, and during out talk I discovered he is a musician. He gave a CD which is just wonderful. So I asked him to come share his music with us, and he has agreed to do so, and will be here December 7.

The Halloween party that we had I challenged you all to invite someone. I challenged the kids to bring a friend, and the rest of you to bring someone. We had over 40 people here. That’s the biggest Halloween party I think since I’ve been here. And it was because you invited someone to come with you. So thank you!

I’ve been so happy to see you inviting people in, and have been inviting our visitors to come be part of the life of this congregation: to help with our street ministry, to help with the bazaar, to help bake, to help make greeting cards for the bazaar. Thank you for inviting visitors, even though not members, into the fellowship of the church. That’s what sharing our talents – the currency of love that God gives us – looks like. The more we share the more we have. There is great power in invitation and in sharing.

We have that story of God’s love, grace, the power of God’s healing love, to share. To invite people in to experience that love. We double the amount of our talents by sharing them. By investing them in other people.

So I challenge you to double your talents by inviting someone to join you in a church event. Whether it’s a Sunday morning worship, or Thanksgiving Eve. Or to the Community Table on Saturday. Or if you know musicians, invite them and give me their names and contact info and I will invite them. Invite them into quilting. Our Christmas decorating on December 6. Invite someone. Or if you are hesitant to invite them, but know someone who would be a good fit, give me their name and their contact information and I will invite them.

Let us not keep our talents – and remember, talent here is the story that we have been given and the community of love that we have, and the hope that we share as Jesus’ people – let us not keep them hidden but put them to work. Let them shine! Share them with the people around us into this hurting world that needs to hear a good word. People that need to know that they are loved, that they do matter, that they have dignity. Let us keep up that good work and do even more at being invitational, welcoming, and open.

The master came back and the one who was given the five talents said, “Look, I have made five more talents!” and the one who had been given two said, “Look, I have made two more talents!” and the master said, “Well done, good and trustworthy servants, you have done well. Enter into the joy of your master.”


Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Who Will Jesus Look Like? A sermon from Nov. 9, 2014

How will we know Jesus when he returns unless we practice seeing him in the people around us? He will not come back as a first century Palestinian Jew in a robe and sandals like the pictures and paintings we see of him. And he is also already among us, and he looks like a homeless man, a grieving wife, a child caught in war, the sick and suffering. He looks, in fact, just like our neighbors. And also like us.

What are the habits you practice to help you notice Jesus, such as kindness, invitation, hospitality? Something else? Please share below how you practice, and how you have seen Jesus in your life. 

“Who Will Jesus Look Like?”
Sermon, Year A, Proper 27, November 9, 2014
Plymouth United Church of Christ, Eau Claire, WI
© Rev. David J. Huber

Listen to the sermon


Pay attention. Keep the lamps going. Pay attention while you’re waiting. Be wise about your waiting. Be prepared for when the Lord returns, which could be at any time! “You know neither the day nor the hour.” It really seems in some ways more of an Advent lesson. Advent being that time before Christmas when we are waiting for Jesus to be born, waiting for God to break into our world. But in a sense, all time is Advent time. All time is waiting time. As we wait and we wait for Jesus may ask ourselves, “I wonder when Jesus is going to show up?” Or, “I wonder when Jesus is going to show up.”

Because you never know. You just never know you will come to face to face with Jesus. We don’t know the hour or the time. We just never know when we will come face to face with Jesus. And when we do, will we be ready? Will we know that it is Jesus? Perhaps if you have to ask that question, then maybe the answer is self evident. Will you have brought enough oil, so to speak? Will the lamps be trimmed and burning when it happens? Will we be ready?

Which I kind of take to mean, “Have you been preparing? Have we been preparing ourselves for the return to come face to face with Jesus? Have we been practicing what that might involve, or what we might do if it happened?”

Much as soldiers will drill, and drill, and drill; and police and firefighters run scenarios and practice and run drills; and astronauts train on simulators to try to practice every possible emergency scenario. Practice and practice and practice so that when something unusual happens, they are ready and prepared. It’s not so new when it happens. It might be a surprise, but they know how to handle it. “This is a surprise, but thankfully I have the tools to deal with it!” They are ready for it> They have the mental memory and the physical memory, and they can go on a kind of autopilot because they have rehearsed it, practiced it, they’ve been through it.

For the follower of Jesus, we can practice as well. Practice to prepare to greet Jesus if he returns. We could just sit back and say, “Well, if it’s Jesus, of course – of course! – I will greet him and say hello and treat him well” and do whatever we might think that we ought to do. “Of course, if it’s Jesus, I’ll greet him. I don’t need to practice that.”

But how will you know if it’s Jesus?

But how will you know if it’s Jesus unless we’ve practiced?

Unless we’ve practiced by greeting others as though they were Jesus. By greeting others as though they were Jesus. Because we may think that we will know Jesus. I mean, we’ve seen the pictures, right? The paintings, the drawings of Jesus. We know what he’s going to look like. He has long brown hair, white robe, sandals, maybe or maybe not a beard. If it’s November I’d like to think that Jesus would at least have a beard in solidarity with no-shave November for men’s health.

We’ve seen the pictures of Jesus, right?

But I don’t know. I don’t think Jesus is going to look like that. I don’t think we’re waiting for a guy with long hair, a white robe, and sandals. That would be too obvious. It’s also the dress of a first century Palestinian Jew, not someone of today. That’s a very idealized situation to think that Jesus will look like the pictures. To think that Jesus will conform to our idealized expectations, to assume that there is only one way he might manifest, is to not be prepared.

It’s equivalent to telling a police officer, “You don’t need to train. You will know who the bad guys are. They’ll be obvious. And when you say ‘stop’ they will stop.” Or to tell the firefighter they don’t need to practice because it’s just throwing water on a fire. How hard is that? Nothing unusual. It’ll be okay.

We need practice. To rehearse it. Jesus is not going to show up as a first century Palestinian Jew in a white robe, long hair, and sandals. Jesus is going to show up however he wants to. Jesus will show up as the smelly homeless man asking for a meal. Jesus will show up as the mother at Shopko or Randy’s who has the three out of control kids, who isn’t a bad mom wanting our judgment but is a single mom trying to keep things together after her husband died or got shipped off to Iraq or Afghanistan. Or Jesus will show up as the immigrant who wants a better place to live and a better life for his children. Or the person who comes into our sanctuary for the first time and doesn’t know the prayers, or the proper way to be a Christian in worship, and perhaps does some things not like we do, or makes noise, or does whatever it is that might make us uncomfortable. But we’re the hosts – we don’t get to be uncomfortable. Jesus can look like anyone. Jesus will look like the people downtown who go to Sojourners. The people that you work with. The people eating at Community Table. Jesus looks like our shut-ins, and people in the hospital, and children who are in war, and soldiers who are in war. And Jesus looks like you. Like us. Like all of us.

That’s what Jesus looks like, because we are all the face of Jesus. Whatever we do to the least of these, we do to Jesus. We are all the face of Jesus as are those around us. Jesus looks like us. Especially Jesus looks like an opportunity to serve or to show hospitality, to be invitational, to be gracious. To follow Jesus is to follow this call to hospitality and to be invitational. To be ready, therefore, for when Jesus appears by greeting all and treating all as though they really are Jesus.

Because they are.

To fail at greeting the least, or even to fail at greeting the greatest, is to be the bridesmaid that has no oil and is not ready, as we serve God and we serve Jesus.

There is that choice that Joshua offers the people. He offers a choice: serve whatever gods you want, or serve the LORD, the God who rescued you, the God of Abraham, the God of creation.

I will tell you a story. When I was a teenager, I was 13 or 14, maybe 8th or 9th grade. I was in junior high. I was at school one day, just a regular normal day. Nothing unusual that day, except for what happened to me. At some point during the day, and I don’t remember how this happened – perhaps I saw it written down somewhere, but I think it was the Holy Spirit whispering in my ear – but as I sat in a class that day I heard something whisper in my ear, and it said, “Joshua 24:15”. Joshua 24:15. Joshua 24:15. Over and over, all day.

When I got home, I rushed to find a Bible and I pulled it out to look this up. It took a while because I wasn’t particularly biblically literate. I wasn’t sure where Joshua was to be found. I wasn’t even sure if Joshua was a Bible thing, but it seemed like something that ought to be in the Bible with that name and a number and a colon and a number. So I went to the Bible, and opened it up, and lo and behold, there it was!

And it was one of the verses we read today. Right there in front of me.

It says, “Now if you are unwilling to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve. Whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the river, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.”

BAM! There it was. All laid out for me. It hit me: That was it! I had no idea what an Amorite was, or even who Joshua was, or what the context was, but I understood that line: As for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.

And so began a lifetime of trying to live by that idea of serving the LORD, however imperfectly I do it. That has been one of those verses that has been in my head fore a long, long time. This idea of serving the LORD. We serve the LORD by serving one another. We serve the LORD by greeting people. We serve the LORD by being ready, by greeting people as though they might be Jesus. Not to be stingy with our lamp oil, but to keep it flowing and keep it burning because that’s a lamp oil we will never run out of. God will always give us more/ We can stop the flow. We have control of that. We can choose to be stingy, or not do what we’re called to do. But that lamp oil will always be there.

So we practice, and to be ready to greet Jesus himself and if we’re lucky, or keep our hearts open, hopefully at some point we will realize and see that Jesus has always been with us. He has always been around us. He has been here in the people who surround us. Jesus has always been there, all along, just hoping that we would notice and say hello, offer an invitation, be gracious, show hospitality.

And so may we all notice and see Jesus more as we serve the Lord through our hospitality, and through our invitations, and through our greetings, and keep our lamps trimmed and burning all the time.


Death is Not the End - Sermon for All Souls/Saints Day 2014

On All Souls/Saints Day at Plymouth church, we take time to remember those in the congregation who died in the past year, and also offer time to remember any friends or family as well. It is a day to remember and give honor to the dead who touched our lives in one way or another and made us into the people we are. 

Who has died that you give honor to, or shed a tear or form a smile when you remember them? Family members, favorite teachers, mentors in the church or in your profession, community members who made a difference, perhaps even a pet or someone you never knew but admired from a distance, such as a musician, political leader, etc. 

Who are you remembering right now?

Please share below.

“Death Is Not the End”
Sermon, Year A, All Souls and All Saints Day, November 2, 2014
Plymouth United Church of Christ, Eau Claire, WI
© Rev. David J. Huber
Focus Scripture: Rev. 7:9-17 and Matthew 5:1-13 

Listen to the sermon

Today is All Saints/All Souls Day. We have a lot of music and a lot of prayers today, so I will let those do most of the speaking. I’m not going to talk much here.

If you’ve been here for a funeral or a memorial service, you’ve heard the message that I tend to give. You’ve heard my words about how we, as followers of Jesus, are an Easter people. Not people of death, but people of life, because God is a God of life. And even after our bodies die, we live on in eternal life with God and with all who have gone before us. We don’t know what that looks like or how it works, but we have that assurance that we go on. Even after our bodies die.

Our God is a God of life. A God of life, love, and hope. Not a God of death, wrath, and anger, but a God of life, hope, and abundant love. So the focus is not on the afterlife, but on this life. The life that we are living. And on this day, we can look to the lives of the saints who have gone before us. The saints who have passed on our traditions for almost two thousand years in the Church. Look to how they lived while we are alive to see how to live. To look at the lives of others of whatever faith they are from, who have shown us how to live. Those who have shown us how to be God’s people as we strive to create God’s realm here on earth. God’s vision here on earth.

Those who have gone before us that we remember today have shown us what a life of faith looks like. How to live faithfully. Some of them have also shown us how to die faithfully. How to die with dignity, with grace, with love and courage, and with faith in the face of death. How to face our mortality even as we live as fully as we dare to live in God’s abundant life, embracing the life that God wants us to live. So today is a day to remember those who have died. And to do so by celebrating and remembering how they showed us to live. What they showed us, what they taught us as they passed on their faith to us as they shared fellowship with us here in the church, and also outside the church as they served their families, their friends, and their community. We can remember what we have learned from them by sharing meals and passing on stories. We are a people who love stories and communicate with them. We pass them on to the next generation, whether it be sharing them here at church, or at the supper table at home, around a campfire late at night or in the car on long trips, or family gatherings on holidays.

Through us these people live on. Through stories, through what they shared with us and taught us. They also live on in our memories. Our remembrances of them. How we remember and share stories about them, they will live on in us as they live on with God. As we live our lives here and now we stand on the shoulders of the people that we remember today. The church that they built, the world they built, the community they built for us. We stand on the shoulders of those who have lifted us up to show us grander horizons, pointing us toward God, saying, “Live this way! Go this way!”

And so thanks be to God this day for all of the saints that we remember. The ones that we will read the names of, and the ones that will be remembered by us silently or in other ways. Thanks be to God for all the saints we remember today. 


Thursday, October 30, 2014

"I Wasn't Sure if the Church Would be a Safe Space" Sermon for Oct. 26, 2014

The Gospel lesson for this Sunday was the Great Command - Love God and love your neighbor as you love yourself. Part of being loving is being invitational. Another part of loving is providing a safe space. 

Have you had a time when a church was not a safe space for you or someone you knew? How do you provide safe spaces for those around you, whether it be in a church or your home or even in how you interact with strangers? Please comment below.

“I Wasn't Sure if the Church Would be a Safe Space”
Sermon, Year A, Proper 25, October 26, 2014
Plymouth United Church of Christ, Eau Claire, WI
© Rev. David J. Huber

Love God. Love your neighbor as yourself. In that command is also a command to love yourself. Love your neighbor and love God, but also love yourself. That’s something we often miss when we talk about not being prideful, being humble, make sure to put others before yourself, etc. But here is a command that we are to love ourselves as well.

Maybe not be haughty and obnoxious about it, but a command to love ourselves. It’s okay to do that. It’s important to do so. Because then we can love others. If we love ourselves then we can love others. And the starting point of loving yourself is knowing that God loves us. Relying on that. Relying on the truth that God loves us, no matter who we are or what we’ve done. None of that matters to God. Anything that we might think that makes us unlovable, does not matter to God. God loves us anyway. Unconditionally. So embrace that love.

And then – spread that love to our neighbors! Spread that love to our neighbor. Those you work with, those you live by, those around this church in the neighborhood, in Eau Claire, and the entire world. Spread that love to our neighbors.

Think of God’s love as a bag of seeds. A bag that we are told to take and go sow. It is a bag of seeds that never run out. Whenever you take a handful and sow it around, it refills. There is always sufficient love. Think of them as whatever kinds of seeds you like. Violets, marigolds, wheat, or some other vegetable you really like. Perhaps turnips or parsnips. Or acorns. Throwing seeds for trees. Whatever it is. We all have our own kind of seeds, and our own way of doing this, and our own kind of godly love to share with the world. It’s a bag of seeds that never runs out, so there is no need to keep any in reserve. There is no need to be afraid of running out. We can toss it around with reckless generosity. There is always more love. The more you give away, the more you have. That’s the paradox of God’s love, and what God’s love is like.

We have here in this passage the command to love God, love your neighbor, and love yourself. That’s what we’re all about as the Church, as the carriers of Jesus’ message. We’re all about love and sharing it. So we should be inviting people in to share in that love. To be part of it.

More than just inviting people, or asking them to come here to buy stuff at a thrift sale or a pie and ice cream social or holiday bazaar. Those are wonderful and good things. They are a way to bring the community in, and especially for us to work together in fellowship with one another. But we want to go beyond inviting people to come in to just consume our product, to invite them into our community and produce with us. To be part of our fellowship. To be part of us and produce the fruits of God’s love, the Spirit Fruits, beyond being consumers to sharers of what we have. To come produce with us, adding their unique seeds of love and for us all to become stronger because of it.

So I am pushing this invitation idea a lot and the idea of hospitality in our talk of church growth and vitality. A really important part of being a strong church is to be invitational and to show hospitality.

So what does “being the church” look like? It looks like loving our neighbor. It looks like helping one another. Helping in our community. The radical message that we hold here as Jesus’ people, the one that Jesus preached, is the message that it’s not God’s intent that we have to be self-sufficient by ourselves. Not God’s intent that we have to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. Not God’s intent that we have to be the self-made man or self-made woman or self-made however you self identify. No, the message is that God’s intent is that we do this in community. To do this with one another. We can’t do any of those things alone. I think it is a fiction to think that we can be self-sufficient, pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, or be self-made. We always rely on other people. We do that in community.

We help each other to be sufficient. We pull each up others’ bootstraps. We help one another make ourselves.

What does “being the church” look like? It looks like loving our neighbors. It looks like inviting the community in, such as to our Halloween party to share in our festivities. Or whatever else we are doing, such as helping with our street ministry. Inviting people in to help us with that. Or inviting your friends to come to Community Table and help us serve there in November (the 22nd). That will expand our circle and expose more people to us.

What does “being the church” look like? It looks like loving our neighbors. Which looks like hospitality. Yesterday (October 25) we opened our doors to the Memorial GSA (Gender and Sexual Awareness group, including LGBTQ teens and their allies and advisors). They had asked if they could have a Halloween party here at Plymouth. I said, “Absolutely!” We said a big “Yes!” to their request to use our space, and then they extended an invitation to the North High School GSA and also to ChiHi. We opened our doors to the community. Especially, we opened our doors to those who aren’t served as well as the rest of the community. So we opened our doors and some things happened. As I talked with Jamie, the advisor from Memorial, she mentioned that when the party had first come up in the group and told the kids they had found a place for the party and said it was going to be at a church, some of the kids weren’t so sure about that. Some weren’t sure they wanted to have it at a church. Not because they worried about church-state separation, but because they weren’t sure they could trust a church because of past abuse they’d experienced or seen. But they went ahead, and did it, and came and we had a wonderful time and they trusted in it. After the meal, we got in a big circle and introduced ourselves and shared some stories. In that sharing, the president of the GSA said that he hoped everyone experienced a safe space here at the church and in the group.

One of the teens, who was wearing a cross-dressing crazy psychotic nurse costume, told the story that he came here with his mom who drove him here. When they arrived, there weren’t many cars here because other kids had been dropped off by parents or came as a group. They had not been here before, so they weren’t sure if they were in the right place. But they pulled in, and as they drove up to the building, he said – and this is in relation to that comment about being in a safe space – that they weren’t sure if they were in the right place, but he saw the rainbow flag that is in my office window and he thought that even if they weren’t in the right space, he at least knew he was in a safe space. If they have a rainbow flag in the window, this should be an okay place for me to be. That he felt safe that he could come in and, if not the right place, could ask directions and not have to worry.
That question, “I wasn’t sure if the church would be a safe space,” no one should ever have to ask that question or to say it. “I’m not sure if the church is a safe space.” But for many, for too many, the church is not a safe space. So we – Plymouth – provided a safe space with something as simple as a rainbow flag in the window to say, “Yes, this is a safe space for you.” A remarkable moment that touched my heart when he shared that story.

We had a wonderful time, and Plymouth provided a safe place for 35 or so teenagers who are gay, transgender, questioning, not sure, and some who are their allies, who were impressed and very grateful that a church opened its doors so that they could have a party. And not just a party, but a Halloween party, which not ever church would allow, either.

They left a note, which I made photocopies of placed on the tables in the fellowship room. After they left the party, I found a thank you note on the table from them. “Thank you for allowing us to hold a party here. (heart). It’s greatly appreciated, North GSA”.

I left copies of it because I thought you all need to see and to know that opening our doors meant a lot to the teenagers that were here, and to their advisors.

After the party, some of the teens weren’t picked up right away. A number of musicians were in the group sitting around, so we came into the sanctuary and they played on the piano, and guitar, and sang. Great musicians. I made some good contacts and have invited a couple of them to come sing in worship. A few of the girls had beautiful voices, and one is a wonderful songwriter.

So we have made some connections by inviting people in.

We show our love for God in the way that we love our neighbors. Through invitation, through hospitality, by meeting their needs, by making a safe place, and by taking some risks in generosity by opening our doors.

Taking risks in generosity. That’s what “being the church” looks like.

And in the months and years to come, we will become more and more that church.