Psalm 80:1-2, 8-19 ; Hebrews 11:29-12:2

But if we stop, if we accept the person we are when we fall, the journey ends. That failure becomes our destination. To love the journey is to accept no such end. I have found, through painful experience, that the most important step a person can take is always the next one. ~Brandon Sanderson, Science Fiction and Fantasy Author, his book, Oathbringer.


The metaphor of life as a race is one of the most enduring and powerful in the New Testament. It’s something most of us can understand; running is a basic human activity- although one I do not find pleasant. If you see me running in the neighborhood, you should probably start running the same direction, as I’m probably being chased.


The fun thing with metaphors is that we can play with them and learn new insights through their careful application. Although our New Testament authors often compared the trials and travails of life as a marathon, holding up perseverance as the value to be celebrated, I think this is only partly true.


I believe that scripture readings like todays from the Book of Hebrews, our history, and many of our own life experiences tell us that life is closer to a relay race. This metaphor has power because it speaks to many things we know; we do not live in isolation, we are connected, as a relay runner is, to our families, our friends, our communities, our churches, and other groups. We train together, learning from each other how to do the weird and strange and wonderful work of being alive.


The metaphor of the relay race also reminds us that our lives are connected not just to those immediately present with us in body, but also those who came before us, and those who come after us. There are generations who came before us, who paved the way for the work we do now. Perhaps we call them the ancestors who dreamed about us, the communion of the saints who join us every month at the communion table, or perhaps even in, the words of Isaac Newton, who said, “if I have seen further [than others], it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”


This is a lesson that we forget at our own peril; the work that we are called to- the work of loving our neighbors, the work of building a just world, the work of faith, is work that started before we were born, and will continue long after we are gone. Part of our job is to, like a relay runner, receive the baton, run, and then pass it on to the next runner, the next generation.


In a world that threatens to overwhelm me consistently with the myriad problems we face, this perspective helps keep things in well, perspective. It reminds me that the work was going on before, that there is still work to do, and that it will continue after I am gone. It is not my job to save the world singlehandedly. It is my responsibility to recognize the work that has already happened, to take on the work when and as I can, and when the time comes, to pass it on to those next in line.


That sense of connection, that connection to the past and by extension, to something larger than ourselves is at the heart of our scripture readings today, especially our second one, which will be the focus of our time together.


Hebrews 11 is one of the finest chapters in the New Testament; Hebrews, as I mentioned, is more readable to us than many of the other writings in the New Testament. That’s partly because it is not a letter, like Paul’s letter to the Corinthians or the Romans, but a sermon, and given its writing style and word choice, Paul was probably not the author.


The rest of the sermon uses some imagery for Jesus that we see nowhere else in the New Testament, especially that of Jesus as the new high priest of the temple.


This section is something like a hall of fame: a list of heroes of the faith that everyone should know; in case any of those names are not familiar: Rahab sheltered Hebrew spies as they scouted the town of Jericho and is counted among Jesus’ ancestors in the Gospel of Matthew; Gideon, Barak and Jephthah were military leaders whose stories you can find in the book of Judges. I will note here Barak’s inclusion comes at the expense of Deborah, the judge he served and a rare female ruler in the Ancient Near East.


Samson was the last judge, and we should at least remember him for his hair. Samuel was the prophet who heralded David, a figure of great faith and horrible flaws; indeed, these heroes did not represent perfection, but rather courage and faithfulness. They acted with confidence- literally with faith.


For our author, these people were the ones who held the baton in the relay race and ready to pass it to us. He reminds us that they never really got to see the full measure of their work. For our author this is because the fulfillment of the Hebrew people is Jesus and they did not get to see Jesus.


I have a slightly more ecumenical view of things; the Jewish religion as practiced now is not the Christian faith without Jesus, but its own tradition that we share a common ancestor with. But the point remains, no matter your view of Jewish Christian relationships; the work of faith; of loving our neighbors, of seeking a world full of justice is never really done and fully completed.

The history of our nation and its struggle for civil and human rights tells a similar story. Some beloved figures were deeply flawed, perhaps irreparably so, either in their racism or sexism or view of the indigenous, yet they did play a part in these stories. They did run the race, and at least attempted to pass the baton.


Yet, our scripture reading reminds us of a fundamental truth about this relay race; once the baton is passed, it is ours to run. “Let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.”


Our history, our ancestors, the communion of the saints, the giants whose shoulders we stand on, are to be like comforting blanket, not a set of shackles. They inform us, they inspire us, they do not inhibit us. We are to look forward toward Jesus, not backward.


The United Church of Christ Constitution tells us that it is up to each generation to make the gospel its own. We are to look to Jesus, to inspire us to that work of faith. This reminds us that the end goal of faith is not the air conditioning in the sanctuary, even though it is the subject of many of our prayers. The end goal of faith is not the size of our bank accounts, the number of Instagram followers we have, or even the size of the church we worship at.


The goal of our faith is Jesus, and communion with him, and through that, with all of creation. Keeping our eye on the prize, seeing that end in light of our own experiences, our own ways of being in the world keeps the gospel fresh, and transforms our churches from graveyards to empty tombs.


The flip side of this, of course, is that at some time the time will come for us to pass the batons. It will be time for us to slow down, to manage the transfer of power and knowledge and leadership, so that those behind us might finish their own legs of the race.


When it is time to pass the baton, the work will not be done. Far from it. But it is not our job to finish the work of faith; we are not the saviors of the world- Jesus is. But it is our job to take on the work; loving our neighbors, making the world more just and free, and drawing closer to God. And it is also our job to pass it on. Pass it on to our descendants, that they might have their own vision of the gospel, and meet Jesus in their own ways.


Amen.


Ecclesiastes 1:2,12-14; 2:18-23, Luke 12:13-21


I want everyone to pause for a second, and think back. For some this is going to be thinking very far back, for others, not so much. But I would like for us to think back to middle school, about the time you were 11, 12, or 13 years old.


What was the big fashion trend? What did everyone not just want to wear, but have to wear?

For me, 13 years old in 1999, it was Jnco Jeans; which had these ridiculously wide legs at the bottom that, because I was a little bit short for a 30 inseam, always ended getting busted up from my shoes walking on them. Those were the coolest and most important thing I could have had when I was that age. Luckily, fashion moved forward, relentlessly, ceaselessly.


If our middle school fashion disasters seems a little bit frivolous of a topic for church, perhaps they are, but they remind us one of one of the fundamental truths of life; almost everything in life is fleeting. Many of the things we think are important in the moment are not, and perhaps one of the great activities that we pursue during it is “what is important?”


“No one on his deathbed ever said, ‘I wish I had spent more time on my business.’”

That was advice from Labor lawyer and arbitrator Arnold M. Zack to his friend, Massachusetts Senator Paul Tsongas, back in 1983. Tsongas relayed that advice in his autobiography, explaining his decision not to run for re-election in 1984 while facing a cancer diagnosis.

I think it echoes the core questions of our readings: What are we to do with our lives? What is important? What matters?


Although I cannot tell you the answers to those questions- indeed, I believe anyone who tries to answer those questions for you is probably trying to sell you something- I can try to point us toward answers that have typically been fruitful, and represent the best of our traditions.


Our first reading is from the book of Ecclesiastes: Most well-known for people of a certain generation is the wonderful poem in Ecclesiastes 3: there is a time and purpose for all things under heaven. A time to be born, a time to die, etc.,


Although it claims to be written by Solomon, based on language clues, it was probably written after the Babylonian exile and return to Jerusalem. The author, who we usually call “The Teacher”, whoever they are, seems to be old and wealthy, and writes about what is good and meaningful in life.


The most prominent word in Ecclesiastes is probably vanity, and we should talk about it a little bit before we go too deep. The word translated in our Bibles as Vanity is the Hebrew Hebel, which means something like mist, something that cannot be grasped, and fades away. It is a representation of how ephemeral, how fleeting life, and almost everything we experience really is.


That’s why there is a time for all things under heaven- because things shift and fade. Children grow up and old. Neighborhoods change. Cities Change. Generation follows generation.

If this feels familiar, it should; it’s a running theme throughout the Old and New Testaments. The prophet Isaiah proclaims, “All flesh is grass; their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers; the flower fades.


Jesus’ brother- depending on what you believe, either his full brother, half-brother, cousin, or brother from another mother- James- wrote about this in his letter:

James 4: 13- 14- Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there, doing business and making money.” Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.”


There’s that mist- that hebel- that vanity- once again.

But back to the teacher.


The teacher seems to be especially salty- aggravated or frustrated, by this ephemerality. He seems to almost lust after permanence, as many of us do. He has seen his toil. Why should I do all this work, if those who will enjoy it haven’t labored for it?


This is one of the many things that vexes our author- all of life, the work and toil that we put ourselves through is as hebel, is a mist, is ephemeral and fleeting. Buildings decay, crops are sown and reaped and eaten and the cycle begins again.


Even the pursuit of wisdom itself is fleeting! How much do future generations ignore the lessons of the past, doomed to repeat it until experienced? How much of what we learned in school is now outdated by new advances in science and art?


What are we to make of this ephemerality? What remains, what matters?

This question seems to remain eternal.


I believe it’s a major reason that the idea of eternity is so present within our gospel stories.

Perhaps the greatest of the parables, the story of the good Samaritan, was asked in response to the question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”


The question that Jesus chooses to answer in this reading- not the question that he is asked, but that he chooses to answer is related to that one.


Jesus decides to answer the question: What is eternal?


Jesus is asked to settle an inheritance dispute- and Jesus wants no part in it. I want us to parse carefully the man’s request, and Jesus’ response.


Let us note that the man’s request is for Jesus to do something to someone else. “Force my brother to do what is right.”


It is not to make him happy with his situation, it’s not for healing, it’s not for reconciliation with his brother. It’s not to become the better person. In my experience, we can rarely, if ever, force anyone else to become a better person. We can remind them of their responsibilities, their covenants that they’ve made with God and each other, we can even reduce harm, but changing attitudes comes from within. I speak of course on this from the level of the individual; the expectations we might have of a government are different.


And I think Jesus here has a line that should give us pause when we see Christians align Jesus with the power of the government or the courts: “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?”


Jesus doesn’t want to do this for our material, civic, and criminal disputes. The apostle Paul tells Christians to avoid the courts to settle disputes if at all possible.


I believe that this is because the things that are adjudicated in civil courts are not the things that Jesus thinks are important.


“One’s Life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Not that our material conditions don’t matter at all; Jesus is very concerned about the poor. But the excess?


He then tells a parable: in some ways it echoes and turns upside down the story of Joseph in Egypt- Joseph of the amazing technicolor dreamcoat who becomes the second most powerful man in Egypt by saving up grain in years of plenty, while then having enough grain in years of famine.


This man has good land that has worked it well. He cannot store his excess properly. So he decides to build bigger barns. He lives well but does not consider giving more of his money to the poor. He does not consider paying his staff more in wages or hiring more workers. He does not consider letting some of his fields lie fallow so that the land may rest. All he wants is more, more, more, and for nothing reason other than having a bigger barn.


Because he says to his soul “Soul, it’s fine. You have no need to grow, to change, to connect with God or to love. For many years we will do nothing to help others, but only serve ourselves in the raw pursuit of pleasure.”


But life comes at us all fast; Tonight, God says to this man, your very life your soul- in Greek the psyche, like psychology- is being demanded of you. And what will you have to say for yourself?

That you decided to build a bigger barn? That you refused to help those who needed it most? That you devoted your life to pleasure?


Through this story, Jesus asks us “What matters in your soul” or perhaps even more so, “What is your soul made of?” For Jesus also tells us in the Gospel of Matthew that where our treasure is, our heart is as well.


These are questions we ought to contemplate now, while we can. Not on our deathbeds, not while we are in crisis, but now.


Because life comes at us fast, and when it does, it is best if we know the contents of our souls. And if we don’t like what we see when we peer inside, by the grace of God, we can change it. By conscious thought which turns to action which turns to habit which turns to a new truth.

Thank God for this. Because no one has ever said on their deathbed that they wished they spent more time on their business.


I will remind you that I cannot answer for you the earlier questions I posed: “what are we to do with our lives? What matters? What is important?”


I regularly try to point us to some answers that seem to be good that we have found; but those should not dictate your answers, but rather inform them. For in the end, each one of us has to answer to and for our souls to God.


Attempting to answer these questions should not be a source of anxiety, but of comfort and joy. Realigning ourselves to God and to each other is a good thing. Although we’ll never be fully in alignment, thankfully, the good news is that God is a more merciful judge than any of us is or could hope to be. For God knows the scope of our lives and the challenges we’ve faced. God knows our perils and pitfalls even more than we do. For God knows and loves us as a good parent loves their child, like a mother hen brooding over her chicks, as a potter loves his art.


Thanks be to God, and Amen.



Luke 2: 1-20; John 1:1-5, 9-14

When I look back on my life, I tend to think of it as a book. This may be because when I was a kid I was a voracious reader, and still do a fair bit of it now.


I find it useful to divide my life into chapters, often delineated by big events as reflect; my childhood, can be neatly divided into two- before the death of my parents, when I lived in Miami, and after, when I moved up to North Carolina to live with my sister Nee Nee and her husband Carl.


As an adult, there’d be a new one for when I stepped into a church for the first time as an adult, and it might contain some reflections on all the things that the church has given me over the years; a chance to meet my wife Shannon primary among them- we met at an after church service class in Dallas, but also employment, spiritual meaning and belonging.


Given those examples, what are some chapters in your own lives?


I think this framework of chapters useful as we approach the Christmas stories, because they represent new chapters in so many ways. Within the context of the Bible itself, they’re some of the first stories in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, and the beginning of John’s Gospel is the accompanying text for today’s reading. They also represent a beginning, a New Testament, a new story, three quarters of the way through the Bible.


But they also represent new chapters in the lives of the characters in the stories.

For anyone who has had children, pre child and post child Mary and Joseph led very different lives. After the magi give the holy family their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, they go home by another road. The shepherds start praising God after they visit the holy family.

God of course, becomes incarnate, becomes flesh and bone in Jesus- literally a new way of being in the world.


One of the reasons I like Christmas in July isn’t just the fun of singing our Christmas Carols again while we’re sweating, but the ability to approach these beautiful stories at the center of our faith in new ways. There’s no Christmas music for 3 months beforehand or worrying about if there’s going to be room in the family budget for gifts, or Uncle Tony is going to get a little too drunk this year on mulled wine. I consider it a blessing for us to be able to encounter these stories without worrying about the ham in the oven at home.


This story has so much richness and depth in it; it has so much to teach us; today, we’ll consider what it has to teach us about how God moves in the world, and about how we might think about our own lives and the new chapters in them.


To begin, I actually love that we pair these two radically different “nativity” stories- from Luke and John- with each other.


One is intimate, the other cosmic, one very rooted in time and place, with characters having their own little interactions, the other at the birth of time and space itself. This reminds us about the character of God; there’s a meme, presumably made by atheists going around on social media that has a picture of the zoomed out galaxy, with text something like, “Christians, do you really believe that the creator of billions of galaxies and trillions of planets wants to be special friends with you?” My favorite Christian reply to this is simply, “yes.” God is both big enough to be the light that shines throughout the universe, and still fit in a manger.


This is useful for us to remember as well as we consider our own lives. Each of us is indeed very, very small in the cosmic scheme of things smaller than we can comprehend, yet vitally important, in more ways, than we can imagine.


But now into the nativity story itself; this beautiful story, which ends with the angels singing, begins with the most mundane of introductions; details about a census. I think this gives us a special insight into how God works in our own lives; what becomes miraculous often does not start out that way. My first experience of communion at the age of 25, which I have talked about before meeting Jesus in the bread and cup, began with looking up a worship service time on a website. Every new job begins with filling out an application and paperwork. Marriage takes getting a license, and pregnancy and birth prenatal care visits to doctors and parenting classes.

The nativity reminds us that God works through the normal as much as the spectacular, the easily seen as the mystical.


This should make us pause and reflect: how has God worked through the normal, and the mundane in our own lives?


What, looking back, seemed annoying or onerous in the moment, as surely traveling cross country with a pregnant fiancé must have been for Mary and Joseph, yet in hindsight was the beginning of something beautiful and holy?


The next informative, and I believe transformative section is the story of the shepherds. For the Jewish people, Shepherds would have been simultaneously a very average job and a symbol of God’s care for the people. The Old Testament is full of imagery describing God as divine shepherd, guiding the people toward green pastures and still waters through dangerous times.

This is yet another reminder of the complex interrelation between the normal and the sacred. But the story of the shepherds is useful to us for another reason.


The shepherds, for their part, are not the main characters, the protagonists in the story of Jesus’ life, or in the gospels. Their mention is relatively brief, only a paragraph or so. Yet it is profound and beautiful. They spend their time with Jesus, Mary, and Joseph telling them how wonderful their child will be and praising God. They don’t give unwanted parenting advice. They don’t harangue them over giving birth in unsanitary conditions. Theirs is a relationship that is brief, supportive, and holy. We know that all who heard them were astounded and amazed at the words of these shepherds, men who were not used to public speaking.


It reminds us that sometimes the best thing we can do for each other, however briefly we interact with each other- whether it’s in church on Sundays, at the football game, or at work or in school, is to support each other, knowing that our encounters will echo beyond the short time that we spend together.


How many of us remember the kindness of strangers, a quick compliment or a little bit of help when we needed it most?


Maya Angelou is often attributed with saying, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”


No matter what chapter we’re in in the story of our lives- somewhere near the beginning like our readings were today in the gospels of Luke and John, or maybe ¾ of the way through, where the Gospels appear in the Bible, there is much to take from our Bible readings. These are foundational stories about God as transcendent light in the universe, and God as teeny tiny baby with wittle toes. They tell us about the sacred and the mundane, and how sometimes the best part we can play to support and uplift each other, no matter how brief, or how long, our time is with one another.

Amen.