Sermon 1/28/2018 “The Word sets us free”

Preacher: Jo J. Belser
Location: Church of the Resurrection
Text: Mark 1:21-28
Day: 4Epiphany 2018 (Year B)

“The Word sets us free”

In each issue, the evangelical magazine, Christianity Today, shares a reader’s conversion story, testimony about how Jesus changed that person’s life. These stories make very compelling reading. For example, here’s a condensed version of Francine Rivers’ close encounter with Jesus:

I was addicted to romance novels, Francine said, then God asked me to start writing them, for his glory. Francine grew up in a Christian family and assumed that made her a Christian. She began writing in her grief over a miscarriage, but soon writing had taken over her life. She and her husband met Jesus, though, by reading scripture, and they soon found themselves “in God’s transformative program.” God took away her writing, for a while, until she understood that she had relied on writing for her identity and sustenance, hollow things compared to God. Then, God gave her a new writing mission.

After reading stories such as these, I understood that, to evangelicals at least, conversion begins with an experience that changes a person’s world view. And then, after this “Big Bang” of faith in Jesus, there is an ongoing unfolding of a new way of life in Christ.

We Episcopalians, on the other hand, often experience a more gradual unfolding of our faith, a process that nudges us into more Jesus-like living. There is nothing wrong with coming to Jesus in this way, if we understand that choosing Jesus is more than just “becoming good people.” Christianity is far more than doing good works. But, I’ve noticed, we Episcopalians are very uncomfortable with a spiritual “Big Bang.”

Like the man in the synagogue in today’s gospel lesson, we acknowledge that we know who Jesus of Nazareth was and is: The Holy One of God. And then we often tell Jesus we are afraid that doing what he asks of us will destroy the comfort of our status quo or the benefits of whatever questionable “good gig” we are engaged in.

We don’t know what “good gig” the demon-infected man in the synagogue was afraid Jesus would destroy. In fact, all we know about the man is that he was in the synagogue and he had an unclean spirit—a demon—within him. We don’t know whether he was sitting in the Chief Seats, reserved for religious leaders, or if he was a more ordinary person sitting on the floor.

We know that the evil spirit in this man was afraid Jesus would destroy “us,” presumably the demon AND the man. Notice how the spirit spoke for the person in whom he resided, a person who didn’t (or couldn’t) cry out to Jesus, “Save me. Heal me. Help me.”

This was Jesus’ first recorded miracle, so the people in the synagogue didn’t yet know about Jesus’ healing capabilities. But they recognized his authority as a teacher. They recognized the Word of God that spoke through him. God’s Word is self-validating, and the people, including the evil spirit, knew God’s Word had been spoken.

We don’t know what Jesus said that day, just that he spoke the Word of God, the Word that pierces hearts and makes unclean spirits cry out in fear. Maybe Jesus spoke as he had when calling disciples: “The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.”

And what WAS the gospel then, before Christ Jesus died on the cross and defeated death, so that we all might have life? I had a lot of fun this week, guessing. What about this passage from Zechariah 2?

The Lord says, ‘Shout and rejoice, O beautiful Jerusalem, for I am coming to live among you. Many nations will join themselves to the Lord on that day, and they, too, will be my people. I will live among you…

Or this jewel from Isaiah 61?

The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion—to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.

But we can only guess what Jesus taught on that day. What we know is that then the demon spoke up.

There was a seminary professor, now deceased, who advised preachers to pay no attention to the man with the demon. This professor thought the important message is Jesus’ great authority. This professor was worried his students would lose credibility by their congregation’s modern-day unbelief in demons.

And truly, this professor had a point. “Today we know this man was mentally ill,” people tell me all the time. Well, I didn’t believe in demons, either, until I met someone who was possessed by evil. The most recent time was two years ago at the Mount Vernon Psychiatric Center, where psychiatry wasn’t doing very well in helping the person.

But I digress. My goal isn’t to convince you that evil can invade and enslave us. Evil can; that’s a fact that no amount of denial can wish away.

Unclean spirits use many tools to find a host:

  • Substance abuse and addictions that promise to fill up emptiness;
  • Greed and lust for power that promise false purpose in life;
  • Gossip to assure that we aren’t the only ones who lack perfection; and
  • Certainty that only we know the mind of God, to cure our inferiority complex.

However, an encounter with Christ Jesus and with the Word of God can break through the toughest enthrallment. Jesus confronted the demon, silenced it, and commanded it to leave the man.

Elsewhere in scripture, Jesus says we must be careful at such times. If we leave ourselves empty, other evils, worse evils, can enter in. What Jesus did was free the man so that he could choose for himself his future path: Follow Jesus or become a dry drunk, spiritually speaking. We don’t know which the man chose.

The Good News here is that Christ Jesus can and does free us from whatever holds us captive, if we immerse ourselves in his Word. Repent, and believe in the gospel.

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Sermon 1/21/2018 “Follower, or hired hand?”

Preacher: Jo J. Belser
Location: Church of the Resurrection
Text: Mark 1:14-21 / Psalm 61:6-7
Day: 3Epiphany 2018 (Year B)

“Follower, or hired hand?”

Before I begin, I want to be sure you know that the Alexandria City Council unanimously approved our redevelopment project yesterday. Quite a few of you were there for all 4.5 hours of its deliberations, and I thank you for that. Our Bishop, by the way, sends his joy and gratitude for our vision and our pursuit of making that vision a reality. He asked me to share his pride in Church of the Resurrection and what we have accomplished, so far, together. I wanted you to know this, because after the service we are going to celebrate, but right now I want to talk about something very different: the anxiety that can go along with a project such as ours.

– – – – – – – – – –

I was all set to let our lessons lead me into leaving our fishing nets today to follow Jesus. And that’s certainly the place we want to end up: following Christ Jesus.

But as I began to live into this week, with its endless coughs and ills and meetings and preparation for yesterday’s City Council hearing and our Vestry Conference, I began to notice that our individual and collective anxiety level had risen dramatically. Or maybe it was just MY anxiety level that had risen beyond measure.

I don’t know why. There never was doubt, much, that City Council would nix our affordable housing project yesterday. After all, it had already appropriated the nine million dollars needed for our project by raising our City’s tax rate to a near record high. And if our project was tagged out, wouldn’t God give us another mission to do? Isn’t Christ Jesus always walking near, as he did in today’s gospel lesson, inviting us to follow him?

Yes, yes. I know of all the maneuvering by our neighbors and others. Yes, I know about the money worries, given the two-million-dollar reduction in low income housing tax credit funding this application cycle. But, these things are in God’s hands, aren’t they? This is God’s project, isn’t it, not ours? So why worry?

As I pondered these questions this week, I soon realized that THESE are the things that hired hands worry about. You know, the people who James and John left in their boat with their father, to tend their worries, while THEY left all behind and followed Jesus.

Hired hands worry about things; that’s their function. Hired hands are like renters, those who borrow God to deal with the calamities of life. On the other hand, owners—those who rely on God, those who have put their whole trust in God, have faith rather than fear or its low-level manifestation: anxiety.

Now, I’m aware that I am speaking, by and large, to a whole room full of “owners.” You’ve already left the boat, so to speak, and have long been following Jesus.  See, owners come to church each Sunday, even if they needed a visit to a chiropractor to get here. Owners tell others about following Jesus. Owners share the hire hands’ burdens when their anxieties about life become overwhelming.

And the hired hands ARE highly anxious. Anxiety has reached record highs worldwide, especially in the US, especially among those born after 1980. In our country, 18 percent of us have an anxiety disorder, and 8 in 100 of all people in our country suffer from crippling anxiety—we are the most anxious people in the world! Curiously, the people in Nigeria, for example, are almost three times less likely to suffer from anxiety, even though their standard of living is six times worse than ours.

These data have led to speculation about the cause of our anxiety epidemic. There are two theories, not mutually exclusive.

The first theory is that our increase in the time spent online is alienating and isolating us from each other in ways that count. Healthy face-to-face relationships share our anxiety burden. This theory could explain why our young suffer the most from anxiety.

The second theory is that our culture has shifted away from having goals that are wholly internal to us—related to our own development and based on finding meaning. Instead, we have chosen goals focused on material rewards and focused on other people’s judgments. This is a theory of Jean Twenge, a psychologist at San Diego State University, who thinks this shift could cause us to feel out of control, producing anxiety.

There are spiritual consequences to such a change in thinking. If we know there is a power greater than ourselves (God!) who made us and knows us and loves us and is in control, and we place our trust in this power, we are bound to be psychologically healthier than if everything is up to us and we are judged on the things we have, what we earn, and the image we project.

When we rest secure in God, we are complete in the knowledge that everything is not all up to us. The Good News is that God is in control. We just have to do our part. I’m sure, that when Peter, Andrew, James, and John stepped out of their boats that first time, they didn’t know all they were in for. They learned to heal people, while making the Pharisees very upset. They walked on water, and sometimes they sank. They learned that even fierce storms and eventually death itself were nothing to fear, if they were following the right person.

Along the way, I’ll bet they learned about anxiety, and that the opposite of anxiety is faith. And I’ll bet they learned that community helps. The “cure” for anxiety is giving over the fear to God, giving over the situation to God. Isn’t that what our Psalm today speaks of? Our Psalm declares:

For God alone my soul in silence waits,
truly, my hope is in him.
He alone is my rock and my salvation.
my stronghold, so that I shall not be shaken.

Where will following Jesus lead us this year? I don’t know, exactly. I’m beginning to get a glimmer, since City Council approved our affordable housing mission yesterday. All I know for sure, though, is that I don’t want to be a hired hand, and I don’t want to let my anxiety about where we might be headed get in the way of making the only trip in life that truly counts: the one in which we follow Christ Jesus.

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Sermon 1/14/2018 “Are your ears tingling yet?”

Preacher: Jo J. Belser
Location: Church of the Resurrection
Text: 1 Samuel 3:1-20
Day: 2Epiphany 2018 (Year B)

“Are your ears tingling yet?”

In our first lesson today, the Lord said to Samuel, “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle.”

Have you ever heard of God accomplishing something that made both of your ears tingle? What would God have to do to make your ears tingle?

And how would God accomplish ear-tingling things?

I have a theory, so listen up!

When I was a teen-ager, Saturday morning was chore day. And my siblings and I always wanted to sleep in. That’s when my father would turn on his stereo system, the one he’d wired with speakers throughout the house, and crank this Imperials song up at full volume:

Did you ever hear God, speaking to you,
saying “I got a job to do,
and I’ll sure be needing you,
if it ever gets done?”

And, apparently, God had a dirty job for Samuel to do: God wanted the boy to tell his mentor that he was to become judge in Eli’s place. Why did God want to oust Eli? Not because he was old, although he was. Not because he was blind, although he was. And not because Eli’s sons, both priests themselves, were evil—although they were. God was replacing Eli with the boy Samuel because Eli knew his sons were committing grievous wrongs in the Temple and Eli hadn’t done anything about the situation.

Something of the sort happened to the boy Samuel in our first lesson today. Like me and my siblings, Samuel also was living in a place of privilege: The Lord’s House. In my case, our house was literally attached to the church. There was a door on the back wall of the altar that led into our living room. In Samuel’s case, his barren mother had promised to give her first-born to the Temple if God would give her a child. That child, Samuel, was now 11 or so, we reckon, and he was servant to Eli, the High Priest and next-to-last Judge of Israel. Eli slept next to the Ark of the Covenant in the Temple, whereas Samuel slept next door.I would bolt awake, sit upright in bed, each and every week, with groans and rolling eyeballs, to the realization that the Powers That Be—at least in my household—wanted something from me. And there was that not-so-subtle reminder, somehow, that I owed my very existence, not just room and board and clothes and everything else—to the one who had given me life.

So, God spoke to Samuel. God called to Samuel. God had a job for Samuel to do. The reality is, God is always calling us to do things that should make people’s ears tingle. God apparently had called Eli to deal with his evil sons. But Eli let God’s word “fall to the ground.” Now God was calling Samuel. God spoke directly to him in a voice Samuel knew and trusted, a voice so much like Eli’s voice that Samuel got up and ran to Eli over and over again to see what his mentor wanted.

This child was willing. No groans. No eye rolls. Samuel just went to Eli, who finally recognized what was happening and told Samuel what to do. “When God calls again,” Eli said, “say, ‘Speak, for your servant is listening.’”

Listening to what God wants, when God speaks, is step one of three in the three-step process of becoming the hands, voice, and heart of God in our community and in our world. Step one is listening. And here are a few hints in addition to Eli’s instruction about how to listen for what God is calling you to do: Slow down. Sit down. Lie down. Turn down the volume. Turn off whatever’s on. Then say, “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.”

Step two is deciding. Is this a God-task, or my own idea? Will this task help someone? Will it promote the dignity of others? If we decide it is a God-task, we take the final step: we act.

Notice that deciding whether we are qualified to carry out God’s task isn’t part of the decision process. “God doesn’t call the fit; instead, God makes fit those he calls.” This saying was a great comfort to me during seminary, because the reality is that no one is fit to do what God wants them to do. And if we were somehow already “fit” to do God’s will, we would get confused and think that WE were the ones able to do whatever miraculous task God gives us to do. Ut uh: God calls the un-fit and makes them able to do his work so that we will know, so that all will know, this is something God achieved, not us.

“You want me to clean the toilet, Lord? In the middle of the night? Sure thing; I don’t know why you need it done now, but I’ll get right on it.”

“You want us to build affordable housing, Lord? Don’t you know any developers? Property lawyers? Low-income housing tax credit experts? Younger people? Richer people? What’s that? We have everyone, and everything, needed to do what you are asking us to do? And you’ll keep us together? Well, OK, we’ll give it a shot.”

Throughout, we continue to ask: “Am I still doing your will, Lord, or have I veered off your path onto my own way? Is everything provided to do the task? Do I get more energy, overall, than I give by doing it? Does this task, as hard as it is, give me life satisfaction, if not joy?

So, like Samuel, we get up out of our comfort and we do this hard thing God is asking us to do. And, in the end, whatever comes of our actions to do God’s will, remember this scripture lesson today:

The Lord has acted, and we are but his servants.
Let him do what seems good to him, and
let both ears of everyone who hears of it tingle.

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Sermon 1/7/2018 “Using your superpowers for others”

Preacher: Jo J. Belser
Location: Church of the Resurrection
Text: Mark 1:4-11
Day: 1Epiphany 2018 (Year B)

“Using your superpowers for others”

I know from our Alexandria Lenten series two years ago that many of you are not Harry Potter fans. In fact, most of you have never read J.K. Rowling’s epic stories about a young boy’s coming to terms with life, which is to say, his discovery of who he is and his need to choose between good and evil.

You may not have been enthralled with Harry Potter, but a whole generation of now-adults were, and they will forever view the world through the lens of this tale.

I was reminded of this aspect of our culture this week, when a much younger friend posted online that he was “deciding how to use his superpowers this year.” We might say he was making his New Year’s resolutions, but in our post-Potter age, that’s not how he sees things. He knows that he has been given gifts (which is to say, he’s been given talents and abilities) that he can use, or not, for good or for evil, to help other people, or merely to perpetuate his own life and well-being at the expense of others.

My friend, by the way, is an administrative law judge in D.C. who funded his move here by winning on Jeopardy multiple times. In other words, he has considerable superpowers to use, or not, for himself or for others.

What superpowers do you have? How will you use them this year? Have you decided yet? How will you use your superpowers in this life? If you don’t yet know, you better get thinking and deciding (or always hold on to the handrail)!

Giotto di Bondone, Baptism of Christ fresco, c. 1305 (Cappella Scrovegni, Padua, Italy, via Wikipedia, public domain

I imagine that a young man from backwater Palestine, a young man named Jesus, might have been asking himself these kinds of existential questions when he sought out John at the River Jordan. WE know that Jesus had the ultimate superpower, that he bore the very essence of God. But did Jesus know this about himself, yet, on this day at this river?

A careful reading of Mark’s gospel suggests that “No,” Jesus became aware of his super-self as his life progressed, as he continually said “yes” to God. I won’t argue this point with you; the alternative could also be true. BUT, there’s no little-boy-Jesus in Mark’s gospel, or any authorized gospel, for that matter, resurrecting dead birds or animating clay figures. THOSE are made-up stories about what life as a boy-God-child might be like. You know, the made-for-TV version of adolescent Jesus, before television existed.

I think J.K. Rowling understood what Jesus’ early life might have been like: like OUR lives, a dawning awareness that we have gifts, a dawning awareness that we can use our gifts for ourselves alone or for others, and the realization that we must make a choice between good and evil, that EVIL IS NOT A MYTH, and that refusing to speak evil’s name somehow gives evil more power.

Jesus never flinched when confronting evil. But his confrontation began, somehow, according to Mark and the other gospel writers, when he arrived at the Jordan River. He came by choice. Like the rest of Jerusalem and Judea, including the spiritually hungry and the merely curious, Jesus came to hear what John the Baptizer had to say. And when John preached repentance and baptism for forgiveness of sins, of course Jesus the Christ chose to participate.

I wish I had a nickel for every word ever written about WHY Jesus, our sinless savior, needed to participate in a repentance ritual. “He was metaphysically washing away the sins of the whole world,” my favorite explanation says. This is a great theoretical answer, and we could discuss for hours on end why, then, if Jesus’ baptism cleansed the whole world of sin, did he have to die on the cross? <long_pause> What we need is A REAL answer, not a theoretical one, for why Jesus chose to be baptized.

Here’s a real answer: Had Jesus not stepped into the water, he would have been saying, “Look at ME, I’m sinless. I don’t need to be baptized. But YOU do.” Instead, he stepped in, let himself be dunked down under, knowing that HE didn’t need repentance waters, but that WE DO. In other words, Jesus led the way for us, showed us the way. He chose living for us, not living for himself. He said “yes” to God, “yes” to good, “yes” to others, and “no” to self. Is there any wonder the heavens literally “split open,” as Mark’s gospel says, and thundered divine approval? Jesus was becoming aware of his identity as Christ, Jesus was using his considerable superpowers in the very way he was sent to do: to show us the way, and ultimately to create that way for us to follow.

We don’t know whether Jesus knew, at that moment, that he would be required to make the ultimate sacrifice, to give his very life for all of mankind. I think not. I think our “yes” choices for good, our choices for God and for others lead us to bigger and bigger chances to use our superpowers in this way. In other words, today’s steps of faith become training for tomorrow’s bigger and bigger leaps of faith.

What’s true for people who are faithful to Christ Jesus is also true for organizations. I’m thinking here of our own Church of the Resurrection. There was a time, when dedicating this building, that our beloved rector Jim Green declared if we ever ran out of money we would jettison the building in favor of helping others. Do you think that having THIS PRIORITY implanted in our very DNA is affecting our priorities now? We haven’t run out of money—far from it, but this priority, implanted deep within our culture, is definitely a factor in our decision-making processes today.

There was a time, for years and years in our history, when we gave away any money with which we were fortunate enough to end the year. The idea was that God would provide for us and, if not, we shouldn’t continue to exist.

Thanks be to God and to you, we are going to end 2017 with a surplus without having to draw on any of the almost $28,000 from savings that we had programed for operations. Are we going to give this money away? You betcha: it’s going to buy food to feed our hungry neighbors through our food pantry. And this will help us manage the uncertainties of our budget for next year, because we were going to feed people first, as a priority.

I wonder what this act will become a training leap for, in our future? Can you hear the heavens opening? Can you hear the voice calling US “beloved?”

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Sermon 1/5/2018 “A time capsule life”

Preacher: Jo J. Belser
Location: Church of the Resurrection
Text: John 11:21-27
Day: Karl Boughan’s Memorial Service

“A time capsule life”

You are in a time capsule today, a literal time capsule.

You know what a time capsule is, don’t you? A time capsule is something we collect now and leave for people in the future to discover and use. A time capsule is usually intended to give future people (such as archaeologists, anthropologists, or historians) a glimpse into who we are and what motivates us to act the way we do. A time capsule is our intentional witness to the future, if and when we decide to create and leave this kind of witness. Not a legacy, but a witness.

If you were going to create a time capsule, what things and what information would you include? Undoubtedly you would include a photo or video of your family, those you love, and others who are important to you. You might include a recording of the music you love. You might tell what you did to earn a living, and what touched your soul when you got to play instead of work. You might include your conclusions about the purpose of “life, the universe, and everything,” or just why you thought you existed.

Karl Boughan is one of the things (most dear!) we place in our Church of the Resurrection time capsule today. Karl was one of the very best things about Resurrection. He came here, originally, when he was “four days dead,” like Lazarus in today’s gospel lesson. This might sound backwards to you. You might ask me to explain, pointing out that Karl didn’t die until last week. And I will tell you what Karl would tell you, if he could speak for himself today, that when he came here he was “lost,” that he was in that “lost decade” you might have read of in the biography of Karl’s life. He was “four days dead.”

And yet, Jesus loved Karl, just like he loved his friend Lazarus so long ago, just like he loves each of you, and me today: beyond measure. So, Jesus poked Will—a longtime member here, and pointed out to Will that it was cold, and Karl didn’t own a coat. So, Will gave his coat to Karl. Not an extra coat from his closet, but the coat off his back, literally; Will took off his coat and handed it to Karl. Karl was touched, and Karl returned. He didn’t dwell on this part of his story, but he made no secret of it, either. He wanted everyone to know that Christ Jesus calls sinners, not he pure, to repentance, just like he calls dead people, not the living, into life.

This dead Karl I speak of happened a long time ago, you understand. In recent years Karl was vibrantly alive, paying forward all that he had been given: his musical gifts, his love of learning, his awareness that not everyone who appears to be alive really is alive (but can be), that a little help can go a long way in providing hope, his rock-solid belief in Christ Jesus and his deep conviction of life eternal. And, over time, Karl’s belief in a far-away, all-powerful but unknowable God changed into a living relationship with Jesus Christ. He was wise and, for the most part, gentle. He spent a lot of time helping others. Karl wasn’t quite sure how and when it all happened, but something had happened to him over time, and his became a living, daily relationship with Christ Jesus. Not that we Episcopalians talk about such things much; it’s one of our failings. But we sing about them, and every hymn today is one that Karl loved deeply.

Do you believe that you will never die? (I do!) Like Lazarus’ angry sister Martha, who deeply grieved her brother’s loss, Karl believed that Jesus is the Christ and that, through him, he would never die. Karl had already received, had already experienced new life in Christ, you see, right here in this time capsule. Before the surgery to repair the damage to his neck from his fall, the most unimaginable outcome to Karl was not death, but the possibility that he might not be able to sing when all was said and done. And yet, shortly before he died, when he could speak at last, Karl merely expressed gratitude for all that had been done for him.

I pray that God has or will give you the kind of faith that Martha had so long ago, the kind of faith that Karl had. “Yes Lord, I believe that I will never die.” And, I will add, I believe that Karl is singing now, even more gloriously than he ever did here in his earthly life. Which isn’t to say that we are not grieving Karl’s loss. But we know, deep in our hearts, that we can’t really keep Karl in a time capsule. All we can do is rejoice that he found life in this life, before he died, rejoice that we were privileged to know him, and that he found life everlasting.

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Sermon 12/25/2017 “No room in my inn”

Preacher: Jo J. Belser
Location: Church of the Resurrection
Text: Luke 2:1-20
Day: Christmas Day II

“No room in my inn”

Amid the fun of our 4Advent and Christmas celebration yesterday, for a brief moment I got to embody the innkeeper. You know, that forever nameless person in Bethlehem all those years ago who will be forever known for saying “No” to God.

Think about it. Literally forever, ever since God made humans—well, ever since we got ourselves thrown out of that perfect world God had made, out of Eden into THIS place—we humans have been crying to our creator to “Come down, come back, walk with us again, restore harmony in creation, be with us, help us, fix this MESS you made” because (as we heard in our lessons a couple weeks ago) “Yes, we have sinned, but that’s all YOUR fault, God, you left us alone for too long, come back put things right, make US right.”

And then, when God FINALLY acted, finally did what we had pleaded and pleaded, demanded and demanded, God to do and came back to us here in this world, God came to MY DOOR, knocked on MY DOOR and asked if he could come in—and I told him “NO.” I said, “No, sorry, there’s no room here. I’m all filled up. NO place for you here, I’m too busy. Can’t you see I’ve got a full house here? Can’t you see I’m busy making money? Can’t you see how ridiculous you look, God, disguised as you are as a baby not yet even born to a teenaged girl and her perplexed fiancée? And they had some Alt-Fact tale about a virgin birth, of all things; she must think I was born yesterday! AND a supposed visit by an angel, even. THAT takes the cake! Bethlehem is too full of people (and donkeys, donkeys everywhere) for angels to be among us.

At any rate, I’m the one who told God, “No, you can’t be born here. You can’t come in. No room in the inn.” You know about me, I bet, if not my name, you know that about my life.

But I’m not completely heartless. I let them rent space in the barn (for only slightly above the going room rate; I could see they didn’t have much money, or even food). With all the donkeys in town I could have gotten a pretty drachma for that space, let me tell you!

I don’t know why history has been so hard on me. I was just providing for my family. I was just stating the obvious: There was no room inside for this family to come in, unless I shared MY bed. HA; as if!

Why are you looking at me that way? Haven’t YOU ever said “No” to God when he came knocking on YOUR door? I’ll bet he wasn’t so cleverly disguised at YOUR door. At MINE, the Messiah, the creator of all that is, was hidden inside a pregnant teenager, a pregnant homeless unwed child.

I’ve told MY story thousands upon thousands of times in the millennia since I turned away the Christ Child. And other people have shared about the disguises the Messiah has used on THEM: a prisoner, a street person, an addict, you name the unlikely appearance. I’ve heard that he’s taken in YOUR day to disguising himself as politicians. You’ll see what I mean!

God himself, when he came to MY door, just didn’t look like the supreme ruler of the universe. God forgive me—literally—I turned him away. Sent him to the barn! Well, I sent his mother and her fiancé to the barn, along with the donkey she rode in on.

Something called to me, though, gnawed at me all night long. I kept watch. Maybe the bright star shining down over my barn kept me awake. We didn’t have street lights, you know, so this star was something special. I’d seen this star for a while, but now the thing seemed to have stopped right overhead. I expected the animals to be upset by the star, but they seemed to all be drawn to the barn, as if there were something supernatural going on in there. It was supernaturally calm; I was amazed, and a bit afraid.

Then I saw shepherds appear. I thought they were going to have the nerve to ask to stay in the inn. I wouldn’t have let them, even if there had been room. Shepherds smell of, well, sheep. And they’re not such great people, shepherds. You’d have to be desperate for cash and food to take a job like that, just one step above swineherding. But the shepherds went straight into the barn as if they were on a mission. And I swear I heard joyous singing, the likes of which you’ve never heard. It was as if there were a whole heavenly host of angels singing, right there over my barn.

All right, I SAW a whole host of angels. Don’t tell anyone; they will think I’ve got dementia and put me away. When I asked the shepherds what had brought them to my barn, they told me. They told me all about this family, all about this child, all about this barn, all about ME (about me saying “no” to God). So they came to see for themselves and to worship the child.

Then the most amazing thing happened. These smelly shepherds told ME, “Fear not, this child loves you.” This child had just been born, but the shepherds said, “This child says he has plenty of room for YOU in his eternal kingdom. He says he will prepare a mansion for each of us there.”

So (and I’ll bet you didn’t know THIS) I have followed this child, from Bethlehem to Egypt to Nazareth to Jerusalem to Capernaum to Gethsemane and beyond. All so that I can tell you this today, “this baby that is born today will return again. And, at this coming, everyone will recognize him. May he find in us a mansion prepared for him to dwell in, rather than a sign that reads, ‘No room in THIS inn.’”

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Sermon 12/24/2017 “Gifting the Christ Child”

Preacher: Jo J. Belser
Location: Church of the Resurrection
Text: Luke 1:26-38 and Luke 2:1-20
Day: 4Advent/Christmas Eve

“Gifting the Christ Child”

See/hear this sermon on YouTube

Today, you’ve seen and heard the gospel lessons for both 4Advent and Christmas Day, except for these bits, which you will recognize as my very own paraphrase:

While Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem, Mary gave birth to her firstborn son. Because they had no clothes for the baby, they wrapped him in rags. And because this family was homeless, they slept in a barn and put the baby to sleep where the animals were fed. We don’t know what they did for food, but we can imagine. And somehow, in THIS setting, the glory of the Lord shone all around them, showering them with such love and grace that later, when this baby had accomplished the purpose for which he had been born, his mother consoled herself with these memories of his birth:

Shepherds came with a story of having been told about the child by angels. The shepherds worshiped this child in the manger and then they told everyone they knew about him. And all who heard the shepherds’ story were amazed. The shepherds glorified and praised God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. But did they clothe the baby? Did they feed the baby? And when the King began killing infants, did they and the others who worshiped this child shelter him and the other children and help them escape?

They must have. True worship always seems to lead to helping others in the name of the one we worship. What gifts will you bring to this child in the manger? Where will OUR worship of this child lead us this year? Who will we tell of what God has done for us?

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