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.