Saturday, March 26, 2016

Hear the Good News of God's Choice for Us (leader-telegram article, March 26, 2016)

This was an article for the Leader-Telegram originally written for their Faith Walk supplement, but they had too many entrees, so they used some of the clergy submissions for their Saturday "Matters of Faith" columns, which is where this one ended up on March 26, 2016.

My congregation, Plymouth United Church of Christ, are spending the six weeks leading up to Easter talking about choices. We started by talking about the choice to throw stones or not. Jesus lamented over Jerusalem saying, “You who kill the prophets, and stone those who are sent to you.” We do like to throw stones at people or ideas we don’t like. Throw them at the normal evolutionary change that happens around and within us. Throw them at the faults of others. Throw them at those who speak words of peace for people and nations. We are considering our choices because we are on a journey to Easter, which is the sign that God has made a choice for us. In Christianity, Easter is the numero uno holy day. The day of the empty tomb and Jesus’ resurrection is the starting point of the faith. Christmas is far most popular, celebrated by people all over the world, including many who do not identify as Christians. And why not? The birth of a child around whom has been created a holiday of gift giving, feasts, choral concerts and carols, images of families gathered peacefully and functionally around a Christmas tree stacked with wrapped presents while a fireplace roars and crackles... It's so popular it covers a large swatch of our yearly calendar. By my estimate, it occupied about one-fourth of 2015. But Christmas is only a small part of the whole story that culminates in an empty tomb and a rolled away stone on Easter morning; God shouting to the world, “I choose you!” I like to think that the stone rolled away from the tomb is also symbolic of God trying to put the stones out of our reach. It is this truth of Easter that compels my (and many others) passion about choosing life over stone-throwing at our neighbors, and especially to speak out when those within the church are calling for the stone throwing, instead of choosing the better way of Jesus. I think of those who often receive our stones: our LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters; immigrants; minorities; the homeless; the poor; the sick and suffering; Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and atheists; women; prisoners both domestic and those at Gitmo; those who have faithfully made the very difficult decision to get a divorce, have an abortion, climb out of addictions, or undergo gender-realignment surgery; those who have been abused and hurt by the church and others; and those who do not deny the truths we learn from scientific inquiry. Proclaiming that God made a choice for us should include the proclamation that God has also chosen “them”, whoever our “them” might be. Not to change “them” into “us”, but in a way that honors their story and their dignity. To trade shaming them in God’s name or to use the Bible as a weapon against their God-made selves for a gentle open hand of invitation to experience love. Because none of us are innocent of cheering along at Jesus’ crucifixion. That calls for us to be gentle with one another. Even when we are at our worst, because of our worst selves, God chose to come as one of us on Christmas morning, allowed us to crucify him so he could rise back to life on Easter morning and show us the impotence of stone-throwing against the force of love. Jesus’ love is a kenotic love, a fancy Greek word that means “self-emptying.” It’s a love that puts “the other” before oneself. If you’d like to know more about what this “Easter” thing is that churchy people keep talking about; if you’d like to hear a message about God’s choice for you; if you’d like to experience a community that strives (however imperfectly) to mimic God’s kenotic way of unconditional love, I invite you to join my congregation, or ask a friend to join with their congregation, this coming Easter. Hear again or for the first time the story of Jesus raising himself to life from death, leaving behind an empty and open tomb. To hear the Good News story of God’s choice for us so that we may all roll away our own stones and experience God’s unconditional love for each of us. See Plymouth's Facebook page for more information on our Easter celebration and Magnificent Muffin breakfast.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

“Choices 4: Choosing the Manure Way” - Sermon for Lent 3, Feb. 28, 2016

“Choosing the Manure Way”
Sermon, Year C, Lent 3, February 28, 2016 
© Rev. David J. Huber
Focus Scripture: Luke 13:1-9

(there is no recording of this sermon, or of the worship service)

Jesus taught a lot in parables. Parables are short stories that offer one or more characters doing whatever, and that leads to a moral question or teaching. But they are fairly open-ended because they are designed not to make one specific, concrete point, but to provide something to think about. So parables can have multiple meanings. There can also be a temptation when reading parables, or thinking about them, to think that one character in the parable must be God (or perhaps representing Jesus), one character who represents the wrong position, one who represents the correct position… but they rarely work that way. God is not necessarily a character in the parables. 

But in this parable of the fig tree, we might ask the question of how does the parable read if we put God in different positions. What if God is the vineyard owner that wants to cut the tree down? That gives, maybe, a little different vision of God than we are used to thinking of. Then who is the one who wants to save the tree - perhaps Jesus? A faithful disciple? Someone willing to speak up against God doing an act of injustice?

Or what if God is the one who wants to save the tree? If that one is God, then perhaps that makes the vineyard owner the Roman Empire. Or could it be the scribes? Pharisees? You?

Or what if - and bear with me on this one, because it’s going to sound weird, but I think it’s legitimate - what if God is the manure? Te fertilizer? The catalyst and source of growth? What if the gardener who wants to save the tree is spreading God around the roots of the tree? 

That’s a powerful image, I think. The image that we grow if we have God spread around us at our roots, and if our roots are firmly grounded in God and covered with the the nutrient-rich fertilizer of God’s presence.

And if the manure is God, then could mean that the gardener is just a regular schlub like you and like me, which means that we, too, have the power to spread God around the roots of other people. 

Or, as is also the case in parables, maybe it’s just a story about a man who wants to take down a non-productive tree, and another man who says, “No - I know a better way.” 

It’s poetic, isn’t it?

Or to rephrase it in terms of our Lenten theme of “choices”, it could look like this:

“I choose to cut down this tree because it is non-productive.”

“No, I choose to resist your idea, and offer a choice of a better way. Let me fertilize it and give it some love.”

“Okay, I choose to be patient about the tree, and let you do that.”

That looks nice, doesn’t it? The man chooses to help the tree grow instead of cutting it down.

We are talking about choices this Lent.

Let’s build on last week. Last week was Jesus lamenting that Jerusalem is the place that stones the prophets and kills those who are sent to it. Jesus is on his journey to Jerusalem at this point. In fact, the passage we read last week occurs shortly after this one. So he is, in a sense, lamenting the lack of people in Jerusalem who want to help the trees grow. In last week’s sermon, we talked about whether to choose throw stones at that which gets in our way, irritates us, challenges us, forces us to change… or whether we choose not to throw the stone.

I left you with a mission to take a stone from the bowl of stones on our prayer station, and keep it with you for the week. Put it in your pocket or purse, some place where you would encounter it often, as a reminder not to throw it. A reminder to be more aware of how you are making choices. To remind you to ask the question as you are making a choice, “Is this a choice that moves me forward along Jesus’ path, the path to Jerusalem, or a way that leads me off the path?”

I said to bring your stone today and put it back in the bowl to see if we have as many stones today as we did last week, which would mean we were all faithful about not throwing it.

But as I went through this week with that stone in my pocket, I found myself being much more aware about how I make choices, in a good way, than I normally am. Even more so than I expected knowing that I would have the stone in my pocket. I don’t want to give up my stone, and I’m keeping it in my pocket. I’m going to carry it the rest of Lent because it made a difference in me. In unexpected ways. I’m actually quite surprised. I don’t know what your experience was - and I would like to hear what your experience was - but for me it has been a much more significant one than I thought it would be, in a very positive, faith-growing way. Especially so in my interactions with other people, of which I had many this week. Which perhaps is why the stone felt so present. Maybe if I hadn’t been around people this week it would not have been as powerful. Who knows? I‘d like to think the stone would have been as present a reminder to me, but that could just be pretending to be more faithful and self-aware than I really am.

This week I was at Northstar middle school on Tuesday as a judge for their National History Day projects that the 8th graders do. I met some great people, saw some that I knew, and experienced some truly creative and intelligent teenagers. There were many really impressive displays. I was there for the full day, and the stone was in my pocket, tempering my critiques and my interactions with the students, with my fellow judges, with the school staff. Then I was at Sojourners on Thursday night. Last night, Saturday night, we had a pizza party at the YMCA for some of the families who are served by the County’s Coordinated Services Team, which I’m the clergy representative for. 

The stone was a constant reminder not to throw it. But not just to keep from doing a negative, it also served to remind me to be more positive. To be more careful. To lift up, to be positive, to be gentle.

As a follower of Jesus, I want always to grow in my followership, grow in faith, grow in fidelity to following this path that Jesus sets before us. The path that our worship team has symbolically represented here in the sanctuary with this cloth and the prayer stations, leading up to the tomb and the cross.

That stone in my pocket helped me stay focused. And most importantly, it helped me grow.

And growth is a theme of this parable about the fig tree.

Jesus is pro-growth.

A fig tree gives no fruit, and it’s old enough that it should be producing. 

“Cut it down!” the owner says.

“You only get one chance, and you blew it!” he says.

“Prepare to meet the fate you deserve for not being like other trees your age, for not conforming to my expectations, for not meeting my needs, for not being a productive member of fig tree society!”

“Down with it!”

A stone throwing moment? Or was he fully justified to choose destruction of the tree because of its failure?


And then the gardener speaks up, to ask for leniency. “Give it another try. It just needs some tender love, some fertilizer, some injection of God around its roots. Let it go for a year, and see if it produces fruit. Choose life over death. Choose nurturing over destruction. Choose patient perseverance, even though it means breaking the rules about what is valuable and what isn’t, and even though it requires some sacrifice, instead of doing what’s logical, expedient, or normal.”


We are always faced with choices. 

And we are all fig trees that at times are not bearing fruit, or not bearing fruit that is as good as we are capable. Who, with some cultivation and loving fertilizer, can make even better fruit, if only someone chooses to believe in us. The gardeners in our life. And our neighbors are also broken fruit trees, who, with some cultivation and loving fertilizer, can make even better fruit if only we choose to believe in them, as God chooses to believe in us. 

For we, too, can be gardeners. Choose even to be the fertilizer, choose to help others grow as God chooses us. Choose to invite people into the garden that is Plymouth to be nurtured, fed, tended, and have God spread around their roots. To choose to let God work through us, and for us, so that we may produce better fruit of God’s imagining. To choose the way of life and growth for ourselves and others just as God has already made a choice for us.

“Let me put some manure around its roots, and let it go for another year. This is a better way.”

Let us pray: Tending, growing God, you work so hard tending to our roots to help us grow and bear good spirit fruit. You have made a choice for us. Help us to accept your choice, and to make a choice for others. Help us always, please, to make more faithful choices. Amen.

“Choices 3: To Throw or Not to Throw” - Sermon Feb 21, 2016, Year C Lent 2

“Choices 3: To Throw or Not to Throw”
Sermon, Year C, Lent 2, February 21, 2016
© Rev. David J. Huber
Focus Scripture: Luke 13:31-35

Jesus, in this passage, is on his way to Jerusalem. He made that choice in Chapter 9 of Luke’s Gospel and he will arrive in Jerusalem at Chapter 19 on Palm Sunday entry into that city. He is on his way to Jerusalem to fulfill his destiny. He knows that he must be killed. That death is part of the plan. He is marching and on his way to Jerusalem.

We’re talking about choices on Sundays during lent. How do we make choices? How do we react to the choices of others? How do we consider what is the best choice, the better choice, or the most faithful choice? How do we recover from a bad choice? We’re looking at “choices” because our faith is lived out in how we make choices. The way that we make them shows, I think, the state of our faith in many ways. Our faith is lived out in how we make choices.

So in the prelude to today’s gospel passage, going back a few chapters, is the choice that Jesus. He knows that he will be killed in Jerusalem, but he chooses to go anyway. Or, as I thought about it as wrote that previous sentence, What if we said it as “Jesus knows that he’s going to be killed in Jerusalem, and he goes.” It’s a different feel.

He chooses to go, and he doesn’t even let threat of Herod deter his mission. Though maybe he already knows that Herod is going to be part of fulfilling Jesus’ mission. As an act of a hero, of a friend, this act of Jesus here is pretty remarkable, going forth knowing that it will end in death.

But let me also say that as I thought about this, I have thought that maybe this a bad example to start our first Sunday talking about choices. It sets an awfully high bar. “FOllow the guy who marched to martyrdom!” I’m not saying that! You don’t have to choose to die like Jesus did. I’m not saying that your faith choices have to lead martyrdom. In fact, I hope they don’t. I don’t want any of us to have to be martyred.

But we are talking that Jesus knew his mission and chose to be faithful to it. And we can choose to be faithful to our mission, whatever it might be. Jesus was faithful to his, even though it maybe scared the pants off of him. I wonder if he had moments of fear. Moments of wondering, “Can I do this? Do I have the strength to do this? Do I really want to do it?” And I wonder how scared was Jesus on this journey.

I don’t know that any of us are being asked to go forth on a journey that leads to death, other than that we are born and that means that we are all marching to an end. On Ash Wednesday we remember our mortality with the words, “From dust you are made, and to dust you shall return.” But we do make choices. We are on a journey of making choices, or failing to make choices… and though we aren’t faced with choices that might lead to death, we are faced with choices that often require sacrifice of one form or another, whether it leads to death or not. Think of the soldier that dives on a grenade to save his friends. Or the firefighter that runs into a burning building to save someone, or the policeman that risks her life, or the one who gives up the potential for a more lucrative career to instead become a public school teacher or professor. Or the parent who chooses to eat the less desirable parts of a meal so that the children can have the better or less weird parts.

I thought, for many many years, I thought that my mom really did love chicken necks. Because that’s what she’d always grab first, and she’d say, “Oh, I like this.” It wasn’t until I was much older and we were less poor and could afford to have bigger spreads on the table that I realized she didn’t love chicken necks, she loved my sister and me, and let us have the better choice of food. Choices that require sacrifice. Often the faith choice often requires a sacrifice, a self-emptying (in the Bible called “kenosis”, the great Greek word for self-emptying: getting our ego out of the way, getting our needs out of the way for the sake of others). Coming to worship instead of going out to play, or giving up a meal at a restaurant and giving that money instead to the hungry or to a food pantry, or to live more simply so that our carbon footprint is smaller,or to say “I’ll give up my fear of inviting others so that the church may grow.” Some level of sacrifice. Giving of money, giving of time, giving of ourselves. To choose to follow Jesus is, in a sense, to choose to follow him to Jerusalem. To choose a path of sacrificial love.

We have that represented symbolically in how we have arranged our worship space. Each Sunday through Lent we will have a different station on the path that starts with Ash Wednesday in the back and comes up to this table in front with the cross and the tomb. Today’s station is a table with a bowl of stones, the stones that we throw at each other as Jesus talked about. It is part of the marching up to the tomb, to Good Friday, and then to Easter when the tomb is empty.

One of our big choices in life is more of the topic of today, that Jesus mentioned, “Jerusalem, you who like to stone those who are sent to you.” They have that choice to throw the stones. To throw the stone at the prophets that God has sent among us, or to throw the stones at whoever it is that irritates us, or an idea that irritates us, or a reality that irritates. Who are those that you would like to throw a stone at? What are the ideas? What are the realities that you would like to throw a stone at?

We are left with the question, Do we throw the stone, or do we instead go to Jerusalem?

What idea, person, situation, event… would you like to see line up in your slingshot as you think about your life? The people who challenge our way of life, the ideas that challenge that our comfortable ideas, those who speak out for whatever their cause might be. Things like racial justice, economic justice, or anything. Things that irritate us, disrupt our lives, turn our assumptions upside down, that knock us out of our comfort zones, that show us how wrong we have been. That’s a difficult realization to come to: to understand that one has been wrong about something for a long time and that one needs to change one’s mind.

The people who try to make us more generous, or that blow out the sides of the boxes that we keep trying to put God in to make God smaller and more tameable and domesticated. But God doesn’t like to be domesticated. If you could deliver a well-aimed stone, where would you launch it?

Or do we choose not to launch it?

Remembering instead the path of sacrificial love. The path that leaves the stones on the ground and approached our adversary, whoever or whatever, with empty open and inviting hands.

Leave the stones on the ground.

Throwing stones at each other only results in a re-arrangement of the stones. It might feel good while we’re doing it, but ultimately all it does is move stones around. No minds are changed, no ideas are stopped, no productive movement forward. The only effect on the universe is wasted energy, suffering, and a bunch of re-arranged stones. Congratulations.

People can irritate us. Ideas can irritate us and challenge us. They can even be worse than people. Ideas about race and gender are being talked about a lot lately. Politics. Religion. Theology. How we interpret history. How we are going to move into the future. These social ideas that we argue about and discuss in the public arena, but also that we discuss in the church. Ideas about the church, new ideas, and the people that are speaking them. People trying to lead the church - let’s say The Church, the universal worldwide Church of Jesus, not the fractured denominational representations we have now - into new directions as the world changes around it. The Church is going through a lot of change. Not just Plymouth, but Christianity and The Church in general. We have seen a lot of change even within the Catholic Church the past couple years with Pope Francis leading some change. We are trying to bring the Church into the 21st century. Or sometimes as we like to joke, to bring it into the 20th century, and then bring it into this one. The Church is definitely changing, and it has always changed. Often it’s a slow change, but it has always changed. Because it is made of people, and we are made to change. We change as we grow in wisdom and experience and faith. But also changes because generations die and new generations are born. The Church is, though, going through a very big change right now, like it did in the Reformation 500 years ago. There is some big movement within the church and within the world, and w2e might want to throw stones at the reasons for it, but that doesn’t get us anywhere. That doesn’t help anything.

Even in Jesus’ time there was a lot of change. His movement was a revolution, or reformation of sorts. That became a new thing. It had its struggles and challenges and literal throwing of stones. Many of the early Christians being stoned. But also the metaphorical stoning of the arguments and division and the followers of Jesus eventually separation from the Jewish tradition and leaving the synagogues (and/or being pushed out of them).

Jesus offered a new thing, and there were those in Jerusalem that demanded his death because his new message was too uncomfortable, too different, too radical , too upsetting, too sacrificial.

Think of Jerusalem not just as a city in Jesus’ time, but as any institution with a long history and many layers of mythology and tradition laid over it. One does not turn such an institution on a dime, and those that want to turn it are often seen as a threat. A threat to the faith, as a threat to the status quo, as a threat to the power holders, as a threat to what we think ought to be the order of things. But God so often is disordering the order of things to make things new, and more in line with God’s vision. And so we have Jesus lamenting that Jesus kills its prophets and stones those whom God sends to it.

However, even as some in Jerusalem were arranging for Jesus’ execution, there were those who made a choice for Jesus. There were those who made the choice to follow his Way. To tell his story. To re-tell his story to their neighbors and their family, and then outside of the walls of Jerusalem and into the whole Mediterranean and eventually all over the world. Those who chose to follow in Jesus’ way. They chose to write hymns, and to write letters and later Gospels, to tell the world about Jesus and to invite others to join them and to choose sacrificial love over profit, preferring it over self-preservation or the cultural ideas of what is proper and not proper, preferring love over ideas that limit other people's’ ability to live, to choose reconciliation over stoning, love over apathy, hope over hate, life over violence. We have definitely not done this perfectly. God knows that the church has failed in awful and terrible ways over the centuries to live by the ideals of its own message. The Church does not turn on a dime, either, and we do have an awfully large arsenal of stones at our disposal.

But the Church has also always had within it those who choose the ways of Jesus and who have made the Church, and made those who are the recipients of this tradition, story, and vision, who challenge us to remember who we are supposed to be. To call us prophetically to our better selves, reforming and renewing to serve our neighbors. To choose to make a difference in the lives of those who are not here.

We are faced with the choice that has always faced those who call themselves followers of Jesus, which is to choose to preach and live the Gospel by inviting others to experience it, and by modelling it to other. By showing people what it looks like (or should look like) to choose the way of love over what is expedient, easy, or comfortable. To model it for others by how we choose to live. Where we choose to put our energy or spend our time. How and where we spend our money, and what we choose to spend it on. How we choose to respond to new ideas and the change in the world. How we choose to respond to the new life that God calls us into like a mother hen gathering her brood under her wings.

Our Gospel lesson ended with “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” We could also say, “Blessed is the one who chooses the Way of the Lord.” Not that any of us will ever do it perfectly. We can’t. But we can try to be as faithful as possible.

So I offer you a mission today. Let’s call it a mission, that sounds much more grandiose than assignment or homework. Your mission for this week, even for all of Lent as we are talking about choices: consider your choices/. Consider them as you are in your daily routines. Be aware of the choices that you are making. Why you are making them, how you are choosing to respond. To a co-worker, a friend, a stranger. How you choose to respond to a crying person, a person in need, or someone who is irritating you. How you choose where to spend your money and where to spend your time. What you are spending it on. CONsidering your choices and be mindful of them.

And if you are aware before you make a choice, if you are aware that you are in a position to make a choice, ask yourself, “How can I best choose the path of sacrificial love? What might be the most faithful/loving choice in this situation?” Or even better, make that decision before you set out so that you are prepared and prime for it when the situations arise that you will choose the more loving way instead of throwing stones.

I know what you could also do. We have a bowl of stones on today’s station in the middle of the sanctuary. On your way out, grab a stone and put it in your pocket to remind you this week not to throw it. Leave it in your pocket. Bring it back next Sunday if you haven’t thrown it and let’s see if the bowl has as many stones in it next Sunday as it has today. Take it with you. Carry it with you to remind you not to throw stones. Choose the more loving way and see if it does end up with a lot less stone throwing and more open-handed invitations to growing in faith.

Let us pray: Generous God, loving God, God who calls us to the good life in you, gather us as your people under your wings, and give us your spirit that we may be more faithful in our choices. Amen.

“Choices 1: A Lenten Practice to Prepare for Easter Joy” - Ash Wednesday sermon Feb 10, 2016

“Choices 1: A Lenten Practice to Prepare for Easter Joy”
Sermon, Year C, Ash Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2016
Plymouth United Church of Christ, Eau Claire, WI
©2016 Rev. David J. Huber
Focus Scripture: Mt 6:1-6,16-21

We have arrived at another season of Lent, our yearly through the dark spaces and the shadows of life. The shadows in our own souls. We have come to another season of Lent here on this Ash Wednesday that starts our forty day journey that leads us into Easter.

Lent is a time of penance. Which is not the same as self-flagellation, or beating yourself up, or feeling that you are not worthy of God’s love. We’re not looking to make anyone feel bad here. But penance, which is simply to confess sin. To confess where we have missed the mark. And also to receive absolution. Because with God there is never a confession without there being absolution, without forgiveness. God never leaves us in a state of not being forgiven. There can be no confession without God’s absolution, without God’s forgiveness. Confession not to make us feel bad, but to remind us of God’s love and where we have missed the mark, and to get back on following God’s path. Following Jesus’ path.

Lent is this time to consider our sins. To consider also our dark places. Our nature of often choosing poorly, or not as well as we could have. And in penance, and then repentance, to change our course. The word sin means “to miss the mark”, it’s that you aren’t on the right track. So go back on the track to follow in Jesus’ way.

We do this not because God wants us to feel terrible about who are, or to wallow in fear, but because God wants us to be honest about who we are. To be honest about who we are, and to know that with God we can be honest, because God loves us. God wants us to be honest. Not to hold it over our heads, but to be honest because it makes us better disciples when we are honest about where we have missed the mark, and where we need to realign our path to be with God.

It helps our discipleship to be honest.

So Lent is also this time of course correction. “Am I following in Jesus’ path? No? Well, then, how am I not following in his path?” And we answer ourselves, “It is because I am doing this, or not doing that, or not doing the other thing as well as I should…” whatever those things might be for you. Then say, okay, I’ll repent, trust in God’s grace, and then try to get your footsteps back with Jesus.

Lent is a time of contemplation of our faith journey. But it is a contemplation that is always done with the empty tomb at the end of the track. At the end of the path, there is always an empty tomb. Easter always comes. Never will our forty day journey of Lent end without an Easter. Always, always ends with an Easter, God’s final word of life, new life, eternal life, through Jesus Christ. No matter our sins, no matter who we are, it always ends with Easter for everyone. For all of God’s people.

During our Lenten journey this year, we have re-arranged our worship space. We have a path leading up to the empty tomb of Easter. As Lent continues, we will add more to the path. TOnight we have a table at the beginning with ashes and a cross on it, and a couple footsteps on the path coming up to it. Each Sunday we will add another installation/prayer-station on the path leading up to the empty tomb. And on the table at the end, we have a tomb - though it has a rock laid over it for now. The rock will be rolled away on Easter morning.

In Lent, we are marching toward the joy of Easter morning. Lent is not a place for us to stay in, but a good place to go through to remind us of who we are. To remind us of our darker sides, and of the darker side of life. It is a period that we go through, but always with the promise of Easter. The promise of God’s love. So this Lenten time is a time to consider our own lives. The impermanence of our bodily existence. To consider the frailty of our flesh. To consider that we are made from dust and to dust we shall return. That is also part of the path for all of us. We are made of dust, and to dust we shall return. But also that the dust is God’s dust. It is God-stuff. It comes from God.

Lent is a symbolic journey into the shadows and valleys of life, and it is a time of honesty about the shadows and the valleys of life. The scars and the wounds that we build up over our years. The dashed hopes, the sense of failure, the hard days, the difficult days, the “I want to give up” days, the “I can’t take any more, God!” days. To contemplate also what has happened to us because of our poor choices, or happened to others because of our poor choices, or happened to us because of the choices that others have made. Or even just those random events that happen in the world that are completely out of our control that are no one’s fault at all. The random times and events beyond our control. Lent is the time to consider those as well, and what it means for our faith and who we are as God’s people.

I like to think of Lent not as a time to suffer, or to make us feel unworthy or that we’re terrible people,I don’t think that’s a good spiritual discipline, nor do I think it what God wants from us. But a time to remember that we are with God. Or perhaps much more so, that God is with us. That our own dark times end with the glorious light of Easter. That with God there is always hope for new life. Hope for renewal. Not that things have to go back to the way they were. We know that doesn’t happen. Whatever we are mourning, grieving, or missing in our lives are not going to come back. But that we can continue moving forward. That we can still go forward with hope, following the light of Jesus. The star that shines brightly before us that we are to follow.

I’m going to end with a blog post from a pastor, Anne Robertson, who serves a church in Massachusetts and talks about an experience of an Ash Wednesday that she had some years ago, that also touches on the common Lenten practice of giving something up, or taking on a spiritual practice. I came across this, and I thought it is worth reading and sharing because I think you will like to hear what she has to say.

Lent is a time when I used to respond to the call to give something up for 40 days. But as life got harder and loss piled upon loss, I began to resent being told that I had to give up something else for Lent.

So then I entered the phase of doing something positive for 40 days instead. While better than giving something up, I began to resent that certain days on an already busy calendar demanded yet more from me. I struggled to find an approach to Lent that truly prepared me for Easter.
And then came THE Ash Wednesday. I stood in front of a congregation, imposing the ashes as I always did. But this time was different. A woman came forward to receive the ashes, but she struggled. She had dementia and couldn't find the front. The congregation guided her and she stood before me. My mother. I looked into her eyes--the woman who still knew me but soon would begin to forget--and put ashes on her head saying, "Dust you are and to dust you shall return." She had to be guided back to her seat and the bowl of ashes in my hand became mixed with my tears. A gut-wrenching decade later I received the box of dust that had been my mother via the postal service.

That Ash Wednesday made me quit debating whether I should give something up or do something positive. Now Lent is my reminder that, as the Shirelles so wisely sang, "Mama said there'd be days like this." Well, Mama learned that from God. God said there'd be days like this--harsh days, desert days--and that one hard day often stretches into 40 days and 40 days can stretch into periods of years. When the number 40 crops up in the Bible, it is not meant literally. It is symbolic of a really hard time. Noah had it, Moses had it, the Israelites had it, Jesus had it. And in the harsh fires of those deserts, a new thing was born.

These days I don't give anything up and I don't add anything to my habits. Instead, I reflect on the truth that there are stretches of life that no amount of positive thinking will change. There are deep pits where we feel abandoned, alone, and hopeless. All of us. If you haven't been there yet, you will. And when you've lived with that reminder for 40 days, the power of the Easter message at the other end will literally throw you out of bed and into a place of joy like no other.

I've found the Lenten practice that actually prepares me for Easter. ( )

So on this ash Wednesday evening, the first day of our journey through Lent, may you all find your Lenten practice, and may you know and feel Jesus’ presence with you in this wilderness journey, so that you may be taken to a place of joy like no other on Easter morning. Amen.

“Don’t Do Something, Stand There And Be Silent. And Listen.” - Sermon from Feb 7, 2016, Transfiguration Sunday

“Don’t Do Something, Stand There And Be Silent. And Listen.”
Sermon, Year C, Epiphany 5 Transfiguration, February 7, 2016
Plymouth United Church of Christ, Eau Claire, WI
©2016 Rev. David J. Huber
Focus Scripture:  Luke 9:28-36, (37-43a)

Don’t just do something, stand there!

Stand there in quiet awe at the otherness of God. God who came as one of us in Jesus, but who also is also not one of us.

Peter feels that he must do something, anything. Anything other than nothing. He thinks, “Don’t just stand there, do something.” That sounds a lot like us, don’t you think? A lot like our culture, America in 2016? Do something! The Protestant Work Ethic, the fear of silence, fear of inactivity, rush rush rush, hurry hurry hurry, do do do, this should have been done yesterday, what are your action steps, what’s your agenda, what’s your plan, Idle Hands Do The Devil’s Work! some will say. But busy hands also have done a lot of the devil’s work.

Peter, in the presence here of this transformed Jesus, in the presence of God, has to do something. Feels a need to do something. Maybe driven by fear, or his work ethic, or just thinking he ought to respond, for some reason, because, wow, this is incredible and terrifying and uncomfortably real. I don’t know why he says what he says, but we can imagine why we might want to do something. He’s just seen his friend glowing, his clothes become shiny and dazzling. He’s seen Jesus turn into Moses and Elijah. Or maybe he didn’t turn into them, and instead they just appeared as if by magic, either way it’s got to be terrifying. It’s unusual. It’s not normal to have that kind of an experience. And as the three are talking, Jesus and Moses and Elijah, they are talking about Jesus’ departure which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Well, what does that mean? I can imagine Peter thinking, “What are they talking about? What is happening? I don’t know, and I’m afraid, I gotta do something - ‘Hey, Jesus, let’s make some houses. Let’s build some houses for you, Elijah, and Moses. That’s a lot more normal. If you are going to speak of strange things and speak of them with people who have been long dead, let’s at least do it in a house. A place that I am used to having conversations. Let’s at least pretend to some normalcy. Let’s make it more comfortable for me. Let’s build some houses.’”

But God will not be domesticated. There is no forcing God into the comfort of a home of our design. Peter says those words about building some houses, and then a fog rolls in and they are terrified.

And from the cloud, a voice saying, “Be quiet. Don’t speak. This is my Son, my chosen, right now you listen. Don’t just do something, stand here and listen to him.”

How often do we forgo the spiritual discipline of listening? Of being quiet in God’s presence? Of letting God speak? How often do we forgo that spiritual discipline of listening for the seemingly more productive act of speaking or doing something. Acting, which may be unfaithful because we have not listened first. Or less faithful than it could have been because we didn’t listen, didn’t just sit or stand in God’s presence and let God speak to us first.

Now, from Jesus, we are called into action. To do acts of love, to be alive and present in the world. But, how can we hear the still speaking God when we ourselves are speaking? Or when we’re making noise, or doing unneeded action? How can we hear our still-speaking God when we ourselves are too busy to listen, too busy that we fail to notice that God was speaking, and often speaking through those around us?

Be quiet, Peter!

How can we know how to act, how to live, if we don’t pause to listen to the words telling us how to live?

Be quiet, Peter!

“You will go down the mountain soon enough. You will have plenty of time to act. To do what I want you to do. But for now you are up here on the mountain, so let me be God. Don’t speak over me, don’t try to domesticate me, don’t try to reign me in, don’t try to turn this event into a memorial. Just stand there in awe, for you are in the presence of holiness! and listen! Your response is to be silent. Silent.”

In this story, God is the sole actor in this event. Other than Jesus and the disciples walking up the mountain and praying, God is the only one who acts in this story. This is God letting loose. I’ve said many times before that any time an angel or a divine presence appears in the Bible, it or something always says, “Be not afraid.” Well, that’s not entirely true. Because in this instance, as Jesus and his friends are on the mountaintop, there is no angel saying “Don’t be afraid.” No one is saying, “Don’t be afraid.” There is only the voice demanding that they be quiet. And they are terrified!

When God lets loose there really should be angels amassed before the divine glory saying, “Be not afraid! God is up to something, but don’t be afraid!” But not here, not on the mountain. They were terrified. They ow that they are on holy ground in a holy presence, and that ought to make one pause in awe and trembling, I would think. Because God is love we have nothing to fear from God; but God is also God: wild, free to do whatever God chooses, to make new things happen, to re-create the world, to re-create us, to transform lives. And God loves to break out of the boxes that we build in our vain attempts to force limits on God’s creative powers.

“Let me build you a house!” Maybe Peter thinks that if we build houses here for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, i we build a permanent place to live, God won’t ask us to go any higher up the mountain. Maybe we can stay safe at this point instead of moving farther up. But God says, “Be silent! Be silent, Peter!”

My friend Matt Schneider-Adams, who is the pastor over at our church in Prescott, wrote about this passage, what I think is a great line, “silence is a good strategy.” Silence is a good strategy. It’s good for us as a people who are entering Lent. To find moments of silence. To consider our faith journey. To listen for how God is speaking to us, for what God wants us to do, who God wants us to be. It’s also good for us as a church, as a congregation, to listen. What are the new things that God is doing in the world? What are the old things that ought to continue?

To listen, to hear God’s still-speaking voice about what God is doing, and where God asks us to follow along. There is no transformation without listening to God. I feel that in my own life. When I let my calendar rule my life, I get disconnected from God and find that I’m not being transformed, I’m just running around doing stuff. Stuff that needs to be done (maybe?), and good stuff, but without the listening it becomes something I do just to do it, and I lose the sense of why I am doing it, why it needs to be done. I forget that I do it because I am a disciple who wants to grow, and end up doing it because it’s on the calendar. That’s not a God-reason.

There is no transformation without listening to God first. And maybe there is no transformation without going up the mountain with fear and trembling to be on holy ground and be again grounded in holy ways. Silence is a good strategy. In the interim, which Matt also said. “Silence is (at least in the interim) a good strategy.” It is not the long term strategy, but in the interim, silence is a good strategy. Especially when in God’s presence, when on Holy Ground. Because Holy Ground is not safe ground. We are liable to be changed. we are liable to be transformed. Which is a wonderful thing, but it can be an unsafe feeling thing. Something that we long for, but which we also fear to go through. Holy Ground is not safe. It’s a place of mystery and power and otherness, and it’s a place where we are not in control. So don’t try to control it. Be silent. Don’t speak. Listen. Let God be God.

“This is my Son, my Chosen One, listen to him!”


“What Child is This?” - Sermon for Jan 3, 2016, Christmas 2 Year C

“What Child is This?”
Sermon, Year C, Christmas 2, January 3, 2016
Plymouth United Church of Christ, Eau Claire, WI
©2016 Rev. David J. Huber
Focus Scripture: Luke 2:22-40 - Jesus seen by Simeon and Anna in the temple

Next Sunday we will celebrate Epiphany. We, like the wise men, are marching toward Epiphany, which is actually this Wednesday, since it is always on January 6, twelve days after Christmas. But we will celebrate it next Sunday. So in the meantime, until we get to that day, we are still in the Christmas season and we continue reading through Jesus’ birth narrative from the Gospel of Luke. We are reading some more about what happened after Jesus’ birth. Today’s scripture lesson from Luke takes place forty days after Jesus is born. There is another passage in Luke between Jesus’ birth and today’s passage, in which Jesus is eight days old and taken to the temple by his parents for his circumcision. Now in today’s passage, forty days after Jesus’ birth, the family go back to the temple for Mary’s purification, a ritual required by Jewish law to take place forty days after a woman gives birth. It is also the day of Jesus’ dedication as the first born of Mary. It was standard to dedicate the first-born to God, whether it be a child, or the first born of the domesticated animals like cattle, sheep, goats, etc. The first born was considered to belong to God, and so Jesus is being taken for his dedication as well.

But mostly, I think, this passage is about Simeon and Anna, who show up in this text. They are there at the temple, and they come to see this new baby Jesus.

So hear now and listen for God is speaking to you through these words of Luke’s Gospel.

Luke 2:22-40: When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”

Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord's Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, ”Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed--and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.

At the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, we get angels showing up to Mary and Joseph saying to them that a messiah is to be born and who and what he will be, and that Mary will be the mother. Now we have two people, Simeon and Anna, seeing the baby and saying “this is who he is.” Simeon, the man who has waited patiently for the messiah. He has been waiting patiently for the Lord’s messiah, and the Holy Spirit is upon him and comes to him to compel him to go to the temple at the same time that Jesus’ family arrived. Simeon sees the baby jesus, and says those words we read, words which we call “The Song of Simeon”:

”Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”

He is saying this about Jesus while holding him in his arms. Then he continues and says these words that are sort of cryptic. They are not quite as direct or intelligible as his first words. He says,

“This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed--and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

In some way, these are good and comforting words. Jesus is going to be in some ways great. He will have an effect on people. He will be known, and will do things in his life that people remember and change the world. But it also ends with uncomfortable words, that warning about “a sword will pierce your own soul too.” This reminds of when the Wise Men show up, as we will read next Sunday, they bring gifts of frankincense and gold. These are nice and easy gifts. But they also bring a gift of the funeral balm, myrrh. There is with Jesus. the Good News of being the Prince of Peace, he is also swaddled in the reality of the terrible ending of his ministry and his time on earth.

And then there is Hannah. Hannah the Prophet. Not a lot of women get to have the title prophet. She is faithful in her daily worship at the temple. She has been a widow for a long, long time. Either she is 84 years old, or she’s been a widow for 84 years, the greek is unclear. Either way, she is quite old, well beyond the average age. And she has been faithful all that time, being in the temple, and she gets the title of prophet. Whether others thought of her as a prophet, or if only the writer of Luke has decided to call her a prophet, we don’t know. But however she got the title of prophet, that gives her words a special authority. Prophets are people designated by God to speak the word of God. She comes and she praises God and speaks about the child to all who were looking to the redemption of Israel. She becomes an evangelist here, telling the people around her who this baby is!

The writer of Luke doesn’t record her words, but I imagine they were very much like Simeon’s. She’s praising God and giving thanks for this baby. And then she probably says words to the effect of, “This is a special boy! A very special boy. He is the one! This is the one we have been waiting for.” Who is this child? He is the one!

In the Orthodox Church, Simeon and Anna are considered to be the last prophets of the Old Testament, even though they show up in the New Testament. But if we think of the time pre-Jesus, there is a long history of prophets being sent to the Jewish people to challenge the people to be more faithful, to repent, and to tell them how things need to change; but they also come to bring words of comfort. To say to the people that God is working something wonderful, there is a messiah to come, God will send a person to us to redeem and save and show us the way of life. And so Simeon and Anna here are in that tradition, except that instead of saying “One is coming who will be sent by God,” but to say, “He has come! This is the one we’ve been waiting for!”

Then “The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.”

And that is just the beginning of that story of Jesus’ life and ministry. And also just the beginning of the story of the Church: a story that continues with us, today.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

“Throwing Jesus Out of Our Temples” - Sermon Jan 31, 2016, Year C Epiphany 4

“Throwing Jesus Out of Our Temples”
Sermon, Year C, Epiphany 4, January 31, 2016
Plymouth United Church of Christ, Eau Claire, WI
©2016 Rev. David J. Huber
Focus Scripture: Luke 4:21-40

What. The. Heck.

This is such a crazy story, on the part of everyone involved. What is going on?

Remember, from last week’s reading - which was the first part of this story of Jesus in the synagogue - Jesus has returned to his hometown after going off to be baptized by John and then tempted in the wilderness. Then he comes home. Comes back to his hometown. He goes to the synagogue on the Sabbath. The one he grew up in, the one in which probably most of the people there knew who he was, and had known him since he was a small child.

He’s surely surrounded by people who had pinched his chubby cheeks, swatted his hand for taking one too many donuts or whatever snacks they had in ancient Palestine, taught him, hugged him when he was crying, celebrated at his bar mitzvah, and bought furniture from him. Or whatever he made as a carpenter.

He’s returned home, back with his own people, after going off to learn from, probably spend some time with - maybe years - John the Baptist. We don’t know about that. Jesus might have been with John for a decade, or maybe just a few days. Or somewhere in between. We don’t know how long Jesus had been away.

And maybe it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that he is home. None of the writers of the gospels seemed to care, because though they all mention that Jesus and John had a relationship beyond being cousins, none of them say what it was.

But, anyway, that’s a ramble.

Jesus has returned home. He goes to synagogue on the sabbath, they hand him a scroll to read (which was the part we read last week). It’s the prophet Isaiah. Jesus unrolls to the passages he wants to read, he has some verses in mind, and reads this:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.”

He rolls the scroll back up, hands to the scroll guy, and sits down, saying, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

That’s where we left it off last week, and where we started today’s reading.

If you were here, perhaps you remember that I said in the sermon that I hope we feel some movement of the spirit in hearing these words about coming to proclaim the good news to the poor, release to captives, and freedom for the oppressed. I also said that I hope the people gathered around Jesus who heard him also had a heart moment. A sense of a new spiritual/godly thing happening in their world, a touch of divine possibility, I hope they had some wash of hope, or thinking to themselves sitting around listening to Jesus read this, “Might this be the messiah? From our hometown? The messiah amongst us, one of our own?”

Well, it does seem that their hearts were touched, but it’s difficult to tell how their hearts were touched. There is some mixed response here. They seem at first to respond in a rather nice way. They speak gracious words of him, and remember who he is. Maybe they are thinking to themselves, “Isn’t this the kid with the cute cheeks and interesting questions and fondness for donuts? He’s so wonderful! He is so wise.”

Remember, the writer of Luke spends one sentence saying that the people said good things about him and were amazed at his gracious words, and also asked, “Isn’t this Mary and Joseph’s son?”

After they ask that, then things get weird.

Something in that moment sets Jesus off. It’s impossible to know Luke’s intent in recording the people’s question about, “Is this not Joseph’s son?” Was it asked in genuine pride that one of their own was so wise and special? “We know who this is! We know his father!” Or was it asked as an insult - “Hey, wait a minute - ain’t you just a carpenter’s son? Why would he be special, he’s just a carpenter’s son?” Or is this Luke’s way of saying that the people did not understand that Joseph was not Jesus’ father.

I think it was the former. I’d like to think, I hope so. That they did not mean insult by it, but a sense of “Woo hoo! He’s one of our own! Listen to him! This might put us on the map, what he is saying and what we have heard!” The way a community can get excited when one of their own makes it big. To say, “We helped raise him!” “I was her babysitter!” “I worked with his parents!”

Maybe the Rabbi here gets to recount a story, “I remember long ago when Jesus was a child, he came into my office for the first time, and he asked me questions that not only no adult had ever asked of me, but questions which even I had never thought to ask. I knew he was going to be someone special.”

Because good theology starts with good questions. Not about good answers, because we rarely know enough. As Paul said in the Corinthians passage that we see through a mirror dimly. We rarely know enough to offer solid, lock-tight answers in matters of faith. But good questions is the start of good theology. Always questioning.

Which questions also imply a community, because asking yourself questions is kinda strange. One needs the dialogue. Our faith is about community, and in that community we should be asking questions.

Like the question that this passage leaves me with at this point after the people ask, “Is this not Joseph’s son?”

Because what the heck happened?!

Jesus, who seems to have been polite and gracious, all of a sudden goes on an ugly rage and speaks back at the people.

He delivers this jeremiad (a word formed from the prophet Jeremiah’s name):

“Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’”

Where did that come from? They did not ask him to show them a miracle, or do a sign, or anything. He pre-emptively accuses them of doing so. They’ve asked nothing of him, accused him of nothing. And then he says, "Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet's hometown.”

Weird, because it seems they were accepting him just fine. But maybe they were accepting him in the wrong way.

Then Jesus goes on to insult them. He reminds them that in the time of the prophet Elijah, while there was a great famine for many years in Israel and people were dying, the only widow that God sent the prophet to was a foreign, non-Jewish woman, who was given the miraculous jars of food that never went empty for the ensuing years of the famine, and she was saved.

Then he brings up Elijah’s protege, Elisha, who in a time when Israel had many lepers and was at war, the only leper that God cured was Namaan, a warrior in opposing army, a Syrian.

Jesus insults them by reminding them that God has often not treated the chosen people, or the ones who thought they had God’s favor, that God’s favor has often gone to the outsider, to those who are different.

Now I’ve never actually read the book, “How to Win Friends and Influence People”, but I’d bet a pile of shekels that this technique is verboten. I doubt that this in there. This is not the way to win friends and influence people. But a challenge to remind us to remain faithful.

So of course the people now are in a rage, they throw him out of town, they even try to throw him off a cliff, but Jesus passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

He remains unscathed.

At some level there is a parallel here with Jesus’ time in the wilderness when the devil takes him up to the top of the spire and looks out saying “All this could be yours” and “If you throw yourself down, God will save you.” Now Jesus is again in a position of someone wanting him to plunge from a high place. Now, if this were anyone else, we could just say, “Well, he had a moment of being a jerk. We all do that once in a while.” But since it was Jesus doing this, it’s worth asking some questions. Worth going into.

Why did he go negative so quickly and so harshly? Why the insults? Why this bromide against the people that comes from nowhere? Was it just a bad day? Or was he making a point? And if he was making a point, what was it? What does it say about who God is and what God is doing?

This is what makes reading scripture so much fun! It raises questions! Interesting faith questions! We can explore. We may not ever get a real concrete answer, but we have the good questions that can come from it.

Perhaps Jesus was annoyed that after he read the scroll and said the words were fulfilled in their hearing. Perhaps they missed the message because they were so enchanted by him being one of their own that they didn’t really listen to him. Maybe it was that after he read the scroll about good news, release to prisoners, freedom for oppressed, and that this scripture was fulfilled in their hearing, maybe Jesus was annoyed that they didn’t ask him what they meant, but only oohed and ahhed over their hometown son. Maybe they weren’t taking him seriously? It appears that could be the case. Go off to learn great new things, to fulfill your destiny as the incarnation of God, come back to your hometown, make your grand divine pronouncement and get met with basically, “Oh, look, it’s Joseph’s son! I remember him running around in diapers!”

I could see where that would be frustrating. If you’ve gone off to college - or seminary - or gone off to the military, especially if you’ve seen combat, or gone off with the Peace Corps, or other life changing event, and come home, you are, to the people who knew you, still the person they knew as a child and watched grow up. It is difficult to take the person the way they want to be taken when one knows them so well. We come back changed, but the people don’t necessarily see it nor are as interested in it as much as they are interested that you are their son or daughter, or student, or friend, or whatever the relationship was. Yeah, you might be a doctor or a pastor or an accountant or lawyer or teacher now, but you’re also the kid we played video games with, teased about dating, caught chewing gum in class, listened to you talk endlessly about whatever your latest fascination was, cleaned up after you smeared peanut butter all over the TV… there is a sense that a prophet is not honored in his or her hometown. Because they know too much about you to take you too seriously.

I get that sometimes when I go my home church in Janesville, and see the elders who I respect greatly and helped raised me, they still remind me that, “Yeah, you might be a minister, but… I remember junior high and high school and some possible shenanigans I may or may not have done…” They have the full story.

And perhaps that’s the point. Or one of the points, anyway, that Luke is making by including this story so early in his gospel. A way to make Jesus stand out as not the person, not the messiah, that was expected. He is come back to his own people changed and offering a message that was not the one they were expecting to come from the messiah. He is coming out of the Jewish tradition, very much, yes. But not to keep things the same. To say that there is also an explosion of Jewish tradition out in to the gentile world as Jesus is thrown out of town and goes into the gentile, non-Jewish world. Luke is writing very much for gentiles who have come into the Jesus movement. People who were not Jewish before they heard about Jesus. And Luke is writing 40 or so years after Jesus’ resurrection when the church has moved into the gentile world.

No, he was offering topsy turvy message - a message that is, in fact, more in-line with the scriptural tradition of justice, compassion, and love, than the staid, comfortable-with-the-status-quo version that it had become. This is a reformation as well that the church needs to do every generation, because we do have a tendency to become complacent, to fall into the status quo, to become stuck. It is good to have a reformation every generation. Jesus has come to a people who had grown quite comfortable with pushing lepers outside the town, or ignoring the widows and the orphans, or setting up artificial ways to separate people based on income, ancestry, nationality, and so on; Jesus comes to change things up. To overthrow the status quo.

Change, unfortunately, can be scary. Especially to change a culture, or a synagogue, or a church. Change can be scary, but change is also a fact of life. It’s what God is constantly calling us to do: to keep changing our direction, to keep re-aiming our compass point to be in line with where Jesus wants us to go. Our default setting, it seems, is whatever is comfortable, which is not always - in fact, is rarely - where Jesus wants us to go. And what is comfortable is most often not of God’s realm: like apathy, accepting poverty and homelessness, ignoring the needs of others… change can be difficult.

We are going through change here at Plymouth. We have made some changes, and have changed. Our worship format has changed.We have changed how we are organized. We are more loosely structured now so we can be leaner, more quick to adapt, so that if someone wants to make something happen, you can do it. Not any hurdles in the way, or committees to deal with. If you see something that you want to have happen, if you have idea, then you can make it happen. We want your creativity. We want to be able to adapt and change.

We have, this past year, been renting and offering our building. As I look back to the last year, we had more people come through our doors in 2015 than have come through in years before then. Partly because of allowing other people to use our space. Hundreds of people who otherwise would never have been on this property have come through our doors. And some of them have come to worship with us, or joined in other activities of the church. By opening our doors, people have come in. We’ve added new members. We have been inviting more visitors. We are doing, I think, what Jesus wants us to do which is to go outside our walls and be faithful beyond this hour on Sunday morning. To outside our walls and be the living presence of God to other people in Eau Claire and the Chippewa Valley. Of being visibly Christian in our neighborhoods. To not be content with not just taking care of ourselves, but of those around us. To meet the needs of those around, as Jesus calls us to do. To reach out to our neighbors by doing good works in our community, and to do them as Jesus’ disciples.

The people in the synagogue that day that Jesus read from the scroll, they pushed Jesus out of the synagogue and into the world because they didn’t like his call to change, or his call things were going to change. But maybe what they should have done if they were appalled at or were afraid of his message, would have been to keep him there. Keep him inside the walls safe and domesticated. That’s what comfortable churches do. Those churches are also dying, but they’re comfortable. Keeping Jesus enclosed, safely domesticated in the church. Keeping God safely domesticated in their doctrine or belief. But we are not a dying church. We don’t want to be that kind of church. We are not a church that keeps Jesus inside, but lets him go out into the world, as we follow. I like to think that we come here for this hour on Sunday morning to have worship time together to be refreshed, renewed, rejuvenated, but then I think of this message that after our hour of worship, that we then push Jesus out the doors. Not to get rid of him, but to push Jesus out on Sunday morning to say, “Hey, we had a great hour of worship together. But, now it is time to push you outside, with us following, so that you can show us where you need us to serve and with the strength of your Holy Spirit we will go there!” And with the strength of the Holy Spirit we can go wherever Jesus is leading us.


"What Star Do You Follow?" - Sermon from Jan 10, 2016, Appearance of the Wise Men to Jesus

“What Star Do You Follow?”
Sermon, Epiphany Year C, January 10, 2016
Plymouth United Church of Christ, Eau Claire, WI
©2016 Rev. David J. Huber
Focus Scripture: Matthew 2:1-12 (The Wise Men appear to Jesus)

Only in Matthew’s Gospel do we have a record of the Wise Men, or Magi, or Kings, or whatever you want to call them. I think Wise Men is probably the best way to refer to them, even though we sing “We Three Kings” and so on. And we don’t know how many of them there were. We like to say there were three, and that is likely only because they brought three gifts and somewhere along the line someone decided that no man would show up without a gift, so there must have been only three of them. But it could have been two, could have a dozen.

Only Matthew records them, Luke gives us the shepherds coming to see Jesus, Mark and John have no record of Jesus’ birth at all, and Matthew gives us the wise men. Unfortunately the shepherds don’t get a special Sunday, but the wise men do. Maybe because the shepherds were Jewish and part of the Jewish narrative, and not outsiders like the wise men were, being foreigners from far in the east. The wise men get today as their day, the day we call Epiphany.

They had followed a star from the east. They saw a star. The star could have been a divine being, or a real star in the sky, a comet, a conjunction of planets… who knows. No one does. But whatever it was, they saw it, and they followed it from in the east. Far outside of Israel. The men were certainly not Jewish. And probably not even in the Roman Empire, perhaps as far east as Afghanistan, India, or China.

They were from far in the east, which is to say that they were gentiles. They were not Jewish. And yet they saw. And having seen, they went. They saw some kind of a sign that leads them to a little country way to their west. This star they saw.

We have no idea what it was. We don’t even know who the wise men were, or what happened to them, or even what compelled them to go. But they went. There was something that drove them to go. They had an epiphany. We call today Epiphany. Actually, January 6 was Epiphany. It’s always twelve days after Christmas. But we celebrate it today. They had an epiphany, which could be an appearance of divine manifestation. It can also be a sudden realization of a truth. Something that we had not known before. It could be a discovery, an insight into something, an understanding. Like seeing how the pieces of a puzzle fit together. That moment when mulling over a problem that a solution pops into your head is a kind of epiphany. Or the first time that you realize that one plus one always equals two - that there is consistency there. Many of us probably had an epiphany about our mother’s warning that burners on the stove are hot and painful is actually true. Or the moment that a person you love first does something that annoys you or causes you pain and you realize that you still love them.

An epiphany is simply that “Oh, I get it!” moment. Understanding something. You’ve probably had many epiphanies over the course of your life that may have been a religious one, and others may be epiphanies of some kind of other understanding, seeing something in a new way for the first time.

What have been those moments for you? What have been your epiphanies?

For the wise men, it was the star. They observed it at its rising and they knew that something had changed. Something new happened in the world, and so they followed it. They followed that sar to wherever it was going to lead them. They didn’t know exactly where it was going to be. They only knew that it was leading them west. They followed that star.

That offers a question to me: what is the star that I follow? What are the stars that I follow? We all wear many hats in our lives, as children and parents, in our careers, hobbies, our faith, our relations.

For the wise men the star was Jesus. Not by name, of course. They would not have known what his name was yet> But they knew it as a sign that the king of the Jews had been born. So they followed it. They knew it meant something, and that it was important, so they followed it to find this king. And while they were looking for this king, there was another king: King Herod. One would think that when you have a king, you should follow the star of his authority, but the wise men decide not to follow Herod’s star once they realize that he wasn’t to be trusted. They disobey his orders, they refuse to follow his star, to instead follow the star to Jesus.

What is the star that we follow?

If someone were to look at your life, not knowing who you are, and look at all the things you have done in your life, the decisions you have made, and tried to deduce what has been driving you through your life, what might they come up with? Would they come up with the star that you think you’ve been following? Or might it be something else?

There are many stars to follow. I’d like to think that Jesus is the primary one, though we have many others. Some of which are healthy and helpful for us, and are worth following, and some which are not healthy or helpful to ourselves or to the world.

What are the stars, or what is the star, that you follow? Jesus? Family? Career? Faith? Church? Money? Comfort? Fear? Anxiety? Possessions? Peace?

Lots of stars to follow. And hopefully Jesus is high on the list of the ones that we follow, in one form of another. Even if not specifically by name, saying “I am guided by Jesus”, but perhaps even that it is the star of what Jesus called us to do. So maybe it’s the star of compassion that compels you. Or the star of mercy. The star of generosity. The star of loving your neighbor. Of Joy. Peace. These are all ways of following the star of Jesus.

As a church, as well, what star do we follow? As the people of Plymouth, what is our star? What star do we follow? What are our goals? What are we journeying toward?

I try to design our worship, when Lynn and I get together to plan worship and the music, we strive to design it (with varying levels of success, I’m sure) so that the words and music point to our incarnate God in Jesus as our star. Jesus is the star that we follow. But not just in a theoretical way of beliefs about Jesus, or the things we say about Jesus, but practical things about our lives as followers of Jesus. We try to make those words happen in the liturgy of our worship. So like today’s prayer of confession: by protecting the weak and distressed; by helping the poor and needy; by upholding the oppressed and defenseless. Or as we will say in the prayer of dedication: offering our gifts in gratitude, reverence, and thanksgiving. Or our benediction: by shining Christ’s light to the world, and do that by the way that we love those around us.

We have other stars as well can follow in our lives. New Year's’ resolutions are a kind of star. They are, if you make them, something that guides you to a specific goal. What is your star?

I hope that at least the big star would be Jesus, and maybe a number of smaller stars, like generosity, love, kindness. Learning to live with a neighbor you don’t like. Or dealing with a co-worker that you don’t get along well with. So these smaller stars, as well, that are guiding us are good and helpful. But hopefully always with Jesus there, his path of peace, respect, love, and compassion will always be there. He is the star that the church follows. We here at Plymouth are part of a tradition that says that Jesus is the only head of the church. You are not here to follow me, or our conference ministry, or our president of the United Church of Christ. We are here to follow Jesus, because he is the sole head of the church. We follow Jesus. We put Jesus in front.

But we also, as Plymouth, for a couple years have been following the star of wanting increased participation in worship and in the life of this fellowship. We made that choice a few years ago, that we have something very special with the fellowship that we share at Plymouth. So it’s not increasing numbers for the sake of increasing numbers, but because we have something special that is worth being shared. That others should experience. We transform lives, bring people to new life. There is a spiritual yearning out there. So we have that star before us, to increase the number of people who come here to be transformed. Part of that is the star of invitation. The star of doors that are open to those who come (which we are really good at) but also being out and inviting people, bringing people with us into this fellowship so their lives may be transformed by the good news of God’s love.

There is the star of increasing the footprint of our ministry in Eau Claire, with the ministry we do on the street. The ministry that our quilters do. Our giving to the food pantry. Our participation in ecumenical endeavors and interfaith endeavors. The columns I write in the newspaper, our website, our facebook page. The organizations that I am involved with. The things that we’re doing outside of our walls, that also is a star before us, that should continue to guide us through 2016. These are the stars that Plymouth follows, always with Jesus at the front. Jesus is the guiding star, as he was for the wise men, with the smaller stars of invitation and expanding our family. Which can be done! We have done that in the last year. The star of our ministry of loving our neighbors as Jesus asked us to do.

So at the beginning of 2016, a new year, a Sunday of the Epiphany is a good time to think of what star or stars we will follow this year. Which will be follow as individuals, which will we follow as Plymouth church? A good time to think about the stars that are before us, and which ones we will follow.

That is the question that is left before us this Epiphany Sunday, as I read the story of the wise men this year. That is where my heart is sitting. Sitting on this question that I think the wise men have set before us, as their gift to us. As they gave gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the baby Jesus, they also leave a gift to us: to ask the question, What star will you follow?

I leave you with that question: which star will you follow?


“Saving the Good Wine Until Now” - Sermon from Jan 17, 2016 - Wedding at Cana

“Saving the Good Wine Until Now”
Sermon, Epiphany 2, Year C, January 17, 2016
Plymouth United Church of Christ, Eau Claire, WI 
©2016 Rev. David J. Huber
Focus Scripture:  John 2:1-11

This is Jesus’ first miracle, his first sign. At least in John’s Gospel, this is Jesus’ first public act of announcing who he is. Jesus transforms into wine. A very domestic and ordinary event, a wedding, is taking place. A wedding, like happens all the time, and probably Jesus has been to many of them. It is curious that it is here in this very domestic and human event that Jesus chooses to declare who he is .Though he is not transforming the water into wine to be showy, or to say “hey, look at me! I’m here!” He does it simply because his friends have run out of wine. The celebration needs to have more wine, so Jesus helps his friends out. 

Turn water into wine. And not just any wine. Good wine. Really good wine! The best wine, better than the wine that had been served already. 

That’s what Jesus is there for and who he is. He helps his friends. In this case, friends in need at a wedding, as he changes water into wine.

But in this story, I don’t think the water into the wine is the only transformation that occurs. It’s pretty impressive, and certainly outside anyone’s experience. But he also transforms a party and celebration that was in danger of failing. He turns a party disaster into a party saving. He has saved the party from disintegrating, which is a kind of transformation, to change the mood of the event and make people happy. 

Another transformation is of his heart. As I read the text, I think that he transforms his heart. First he rebukes his mom. “I don’t care.” But he goes ahead and does it anyway. This is his first public act, and he doesn’t want to do it. He says, “My time has not come.” He is rude to his mom about it. But he does it. It reminds me of another time when Jesus asks the question about Who is more faithful: the one who say “yes” but doesn’t, or the one who says “no” and does?

Jesus says, “I don’t want to do it.” But then he does. His heart is transformed there for whatever reason. I think it was his love for his friends, or perhaps even his love for his mother, driven by compassion or honor. His heart is transformed and he helps his friends, exceeding even what his friend needs and the design specifications his mom requested. He makes not just wine, but really good wine.

I think it is fitting that his first public act, his first sign, is a transformation. I think that’s what Jesus is about: transformation. He transforms people; transforms lives. Transforming from a sense of self-doubt, unworth, being on the outside, feeling unloved, to say “You are loved. You are people of God.” Changing, transforming hearts and lives.

Last Sunday we read of the wise men following the star to Jesus. The wise men who came from way in the east. These foreign men who would not have been of the Jewish faith or the Jewish heritage. Far removed. They saw the sign, the star, whatever that was, and the followed it to Jesus. In the sermon last week I asked the questions, “What star do YOU follow? What star do WE follow?” Do we follow the star of Jesus, or the star of something else?

I hope that your star is Jesus. That you are always moving toward Jesus, following in his ways. that star, to follow his ways, Following that star of Jesus that we may be transformed into more whole people and communities of justice. 

We follow Jesus because Jesus is the man who transforms. He transformed water into wine. And Jesus, the one who can transform ordinary people into his disciples back then, and also now in 2016. Jesus is still transforming ordinary people - that’s us! - into disciples, into followers. Jesus, the one who can transform the grieving into the comforted; the poor in spirit into sharers in God’s realm; the meek into earth-inheritors; the oppressed into the free. 

If he can change his own heart, then I think he can change ours. He is all about compassion. His friends at the wedding have a need and Jesus has compassion, love, whatever, and helps. Jesus has that radical grace that compels him to turn water into wine because his friends are in need. And like I said, not just into any wine, but into really good wine. Superior wine. And he can make us into really good disciples as well. We ordinary human beings transformed into people of mercy, compassion, love, hope. That’s what we do when we gather as a church on Sundays when we come together to worship, or when we gather for other reasons. Part of what we are doing is training each other to be disciples. We are showing each other what the life of discipleship looks like. We teach one another how to be more faithful and better followers of Jesus. 

Jesus also can transform our hopelessness, our grieving, our self-doubts, our sense of guilt or shame or whatever it is that spiritually plagues us. Jesus can transform that into forgiveness, wholeness, hope, by reminding us that we’re loved. By showing us that we are loved. And by urging us to love others. Wherever we are on our journey, whatever we have done or not done, whatever others have done to us, we are all God’s people. We are all God’s beloved people, never left alone, never abandoned, God always present with us. That is also what we do when we gather as the church: to remind one another that we are loved. To share a hug of comfort to the grieving or in joy at a reunion. To pray for one another. To visit the sick. To make a phone call when someone is hurting. To encourage someone to be more faithful, or to share a talent that we see in them, or to take a leadership that we see them capable of doing. To support one another. To remind us that we are God’s people. 

The business of the church is transformation which is done through worship, hearing the word in scripture and sermons and the prayers of the liturgy, through study, but also transformation by practicing being a disciple. By doing acts of mercy, acts of love, by showing compassion, by being what Jesus would have us be. 

Jesus transformed the water into wine at the wedding feast was a way of saying, “With me your cup will always be full.” Think of Psalm 23, “My cup overflows.” Jesus turning water into wine here, this early in the Gospel of John, is also the author setting up what will happen at the end of the Gospel. Another meal that involved wine, which was the last supper that Jesus had with his friends. Jesus took the bread and transformed it, not literally but symbolically, into his body, into himself, saying “As you are nourished by this bread, it is also you being nourished by me, my presence, my word.” Even the ordinary bread of life is transformed into the capital letter Bread of Life, which is a term used for Jesus. Jesus also transforms the wine into the sign of the new covenant of forgiveness, the covenant of new life and assurance of God’s unstoppable love. He transforms water into wine at this wedding at Cana, and then years later at a meal with his disciples he transforms wine into the remembrance that we are loved, that we have a covenant with God for new life that is not a life of judgment and condemnation, but a rebirth into new life as an expansion into God’s realm. 

That is the transformative power of Jesus’ way. We follow in his way by being who Jesus asks us to be. But I think it is also by accepting what Jesus has done and does for us, by accepting the forgiveness, love, and mercy, and Jesus’ gift of new life. I think we can too often hesitate to accept it for ourselves even as we accept in and for others. Accept what Jesus has done for you. Accept that power of transformation to take whatever spiritually plagues you and let it go. It’s okay. You don’t have to be some special person to let go of the guilt, shame, self-doubt, whatever it is. You don’t have to hold on to it. You don’t need to make others hold on to theirs, either. 

We here in the church point to the star that is Jesus. As the wise men followed their star to Jesus, hopefully are following the star of Jesus. Hopefully you are following Jesus. We symbolize that on Sundays when we light the Christ candle. It is a sign, a reminder, that Jesus is here and is present in this gathering of his people. Then at the end of worship the acolyte carries the flame out, to say “Worship is done, now follow the light of Jesus out the door of the church and into the community, into the Chippewa Valley, to be God’s people outside these walls as much as you are inside them. Go be Jesus’ disciples into a broken world to transform people’s lives.”

We all have that power to transform through the power of the Holy Spirit. We can be people who transform other people’s lives as well as our own.

I give you a task this week. Find some time this week, by spending your week being mindful and aware, looking for an opportunity, looking for a moment (especially if it’s a moment where you would rather not, because there is some benefit sometimes to that extra level of sacrifice, like Jesus saying, “No, I don’t want to do it mom… okay, I will.”), where you can let the Holy Spirit help you get out of yourself and transform someone’s water into wine. To transform someone’s watery day into the wine of a better day, because that’s what we’re called to do. What Jesus does for us, we can do for others. And we can accept it for us as well. We can do that because we follow the one who has saved the good wine until now.