The Gift of Giving

Benjamin Franklin once said that money has never made man happy, nor will it.

And maybe that’s true. But talk of money, when looked at from a certain vantage, can definitely contain some humor.

Here’s a few antidotes about cold, hard cash that just might make you smile.

A woman once wrote columnist Ann Landers a letter about her aunt and uncle. In it she describes her uncle as “the tightest man I’ve ever known. Every time he got paid he took $20 out of his paycheck and put it under his mattress.” Later in life, as his health declined, and the end was near the man asked his wife to promise him something. “What is it?” his wife wondered. “Promise me when I’m gone you’ll take the money under the mattress and put it in my casket. I want to take it all with me.”

When the man died his wife kept the promise. She collected all those $20s, went straight to the bank, and deposited them. She then wrote out a check, drove to church for the funeral, and made sure to place the check in her husband’s casket.

Then there’s the story of two women marooned on an island. While one paced back and forth, all worried and scared, the other sat sunning themselves. The worrier said to the woman busily getting a tan, “aren’t you afraid we’re about to die?” “No,” she replied, setting down her paperback. “I make $100,000 a week and tithe faithfully to my church. “My Pastor will find me.”

One more. A farmer went into the church office and asked to speak with one of the “head hogs at the trough.” The receptionist replied, “if you’re referring to one of our beloved ministers, please call them Reverend or Pastor. It’s not proper to call them a hog at the trough.” The farmer said, “well ok. I just sold some sows and am going to donate $50k to the capital campaign, so I was hoping to speak with one of them.”

“Oh, just a minute, sir,” the receptionist replied, sounding somewhat apologetic. “I think I see one of those little porkers walking in!”

Our Time
This weekend begins a six-week sermon series that kicks off our three-year capital campaign. And while there may be nothing overly ha-ha funny about fundraising per se, I’d suggest there is plenty of joy, plenty of lightness in the air here of late.

Why?

Perhaps it’s that our 2019 income was the highest it’s been in at least 11 years.

Or that we’ve been named the Best Place to Worship in Story County, two years running.

Or maybe it’s new spaces recently reimagined around here, like the outdoor patio and the Crossroads.

It could be our new ministries like Days for Girls, that empower women worldwide with better access to education.

Or is it the youth mission trips to Tanzania, to learn more of what God is doing on the other side of the globe.

Or maybe it’s the joy our pastoral intern Sonja has brought us these past few months. She’s in St. Paul right now as part of her seminary education, and will be back with us later this month.

Or the silly scriptural improv of Lenten pastor chats, coming to Wednesday services soon? We’ll try to stay off any scaffolding that may pop up here this year as best we’re able. No guarantees 😊

There is so.very.much to be excited about around here at Bethesda right now.

Because of that we’ve given this campaign a theme that describes the particular moment we find ourselves in.

For such a time as this.

For it is a new day,
a new chapter,
a new season –

Of our life, together.

In the community that first gathers at 1517 Northwestern, grows in our faith, then goes out to take part, in the sacred transformation of this world God so loves.

Backstories
Today’s text is from the second section of the Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6. As with any other sermon, or movie or book series for that matter, you can’t just pick up the sequel and expect to understand the back story from the first part.

Pastor Bryan made a Star Wars reference last week, so I’ll keep with that pattern here.

Star Wars the Empire Strikes Back is an amazing film; those AT-AT walkers are great. It’s one of my favorites of the entire Star Wars canon. But to fully grasp the film, you have to go back and also watch the original Star Wars: A New Hope, or you’ll be lost.

So let’s go back, to the first part of the Sermon on the Plain, and make sure we cover the important plot lines there.

Mountains
We begin with a scene change. Prior to arriving at the outdoor sanctuary for his message, Jesus had been in the mountains, praying. Getting away from others. Getting close to God.

Next, he gathers the disciples twelve, heads down the mountain and stands on a level place, among a great crowd.

Which is an excellent lesson from Christ we can model.

Have your mountaintop moments, for sure.
Spend the night in prayer, definitely.

But don’t stay in isolation. Come down that mountain, find the plains, get close to humanity. Because Christ’s lessons are best delivered where God’s people are on equal footing.

Blessings and Woes
The plains sermon begins with some blessings; a smaller subset of Matthew’s Beatitudes.

Jesus blesses the poor, the hungry, those who weep.

For the poor receive the kingdom of God,
The hungry are filled,
Those weeping now laugh.

Christ has words for others gathered there that day.
The rich, those with bellies full, those who already laugh.
His words for those groups are, well, something less than positive.

At first blush this section seems to create some winners and losers.

The poor, hungry, the crying, Jesus seems to be all about them.
Yet the rich, the full bellies and the laughers, not so much.

What is good news, for some, just might be heard as bad news, for others.

Isn’t Jesus a uniter of people? Why is he separating the audience into disparate groups? Wasn’t there enough division among people then? Isn’t there enough of that now?

We’ll come back to those questions in a bit.

Doings
Christ’s sermon then moves into our text for today.

These dozen verses represent a veritable how-to manual of Christianity 101. It’s a passage with all sorts of bite-sized nuggets of wisdom.

Love your enemies.
Do good to those who hate you.
Bless those who curse you.
Pray for those who abuse you.
Do not judge, do not condemn.
Do unto others, as you would have them do unto you.

Each of those could be a sermon in itself.

And nestled in with all those tidy actions we hear a lot about comes another call to action.

A call to give.
And to give in a particular kind of way.

Lend, expecting nothing in return, verse 35 implores. Ouch.

That doesn’t sound like a good investment plan.
You’re not going to hear that kind of advice from your financial advisor.

And who should we give to? If we give, expecting nothing in return, maybe it’s to people who can never repay the favor. At least when it comes to dollars and cents.

#Blessed
It’s here where we are called to give to the people Jesus blesses earlier in the sermon, the people of the Beatitudes.

We people of means, and I’d suggest most of us are, to some capacity –

We give to the poor, to meet basic human needs.
We give to the hungry, in search of their next meal.
We give to the sad, providing hope for a joyful tomorrow.

And we expect nothing, financially, in return.

The Sermon on the Plain begins in large brushstrokes, with Jesus proclaiming blessings to people that could really use it. It kind of reminds me of a politician on the campaign trail, busily making promises to everyone they meet. Hearing those promises makes you feel good, for a little while. But down the road, if they get elected, you might wonder, will the promise be kept?

There are reasons Congressional approval ratings are often in the teens and twenties, with high disapproval ratings the norm. Aka politicians don’t often deliver.

But Jesus? He doesn’t offer a blessing to those in need and then walk away.
He gets into the action of making those promised blessings reality. More specifically he gives *us* the divine imagination, and the means, to make those earthly blessings reality.

This is our call.

When we give, with no financial return expected, we receive blessings from another realm. It is in those moments we give as one who already shares in the riches of God’s kingdom.

Just as we all do.

Sum
For such a time as this, we give.

Some to outward mission, local, national, global.
Lifting up the poor, feeding the hungry.

Some to help us better see, and hear, the word of God in our worship.
(Screens, and speakers, an elevator, oh my)

And some to pay down debt, and pay up our endowment. Taken together they ensure the Word of God is proclaimed, and goes out from this congregation, in healing ways, for a long, long time to come.

Close
For our giving unites the earthly haves and have nots. Our giving widens the table. Our giving ensures each of us a seat. It takes us from a world of winners and losers and toward a kingdom where all needs are met.

For when poverty is no more, when each belly is filled, when all tears are dried the kingdom of God will be fully here. And we will laugh, and sing, and dance and dine, in the glory of the Father, and the Son, and the Spirit.

For it never was, and never will be money that brings us happiness. It will be the fulfillment of Christ’s blessings for all.

For when we give, without expectation of earthly return, our sacred reward is great. We will be, both in identity and action, children of the most high God.

For when you give here it will be given to you there. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, a cup running over, with all the best God has in store for you.

Now is the moment. For such a time, as this.  Amen.

Noisy Nights

The night was destined to be anything but silent. Oh there may have been some quiet spaces between a scene change or two. Perhaps the evening contained moments of hushed adoration, picturesque enough for a Christmas card. But those were the exceptions. Outliers, in a sacred story otherwise filled with noise.

Given the tale’s prequel, this non-silent night shouldn’t be too much of a surprise.

I mean, come on, angels! When they pop up it can’t help but create some buzz.

Winged divinity excitedly shared news of this most excellent development with two soon-to-be, unexpected parents. How did Mary and Joseph feel about what they’d heard?

Initially perplexed, afraid, unwilling.
Later joyous, blessed, determined.

Sure enough, were they, of this immaculate conception, they set about following the path laid out to them, from above.

Despite the challenges that might create.

Mary was so overwhelmed by it all she burst into song. Excitedly celebrating what this child, that grew within, would later do.

Her voice still echoes through the generations, even now. Especially now.

It’s Magnificat.

But what of Mary’s parents?
What of Joseph’s?
What of the neighbors?

How would they react upon hearing this same news?

Engaged pregnant young mothers tend to get people talking, don’t they? Especially when the fiancée isn’t the father. Especially when the young mother has never been with a man.

My guess? The volume in some of *those* conversations, with parents, and in-laws, and neighbors, and friends, created some decibels.

And if there was silence during these exchanges?
It certainly wasn’t of the peaceful variety.

Trip
As the newlyweds traveled, from their hometown for the census, drama couldn’t help but follow. Moving through the land of Caesar Augustus must have been surreal for this holy family. Caesar was known to many as the great king of peace. But his brand of peace came about by wars, at much human cost.

How would it be when the true king of peace arrived? When earthly rulers feel threatened they tend to speak in anything *but* hushed tones. Did Mary and Joseph know the cacophony of sounds, from world leaders, this baby would later bring?

As they drew closer to their destination birth pangs beset Mary. The two needed a place to stay. And soon. I like to think Joseph, ever the dutiful husband, pleaded for a room with whoever would listen.

Please, I beg of you, my wife is about to give birth! Don’t you have somewhere we could stay? Anywhere? Time is running out!

The pleas were heard, though accommodations were less than ideal. Any animals there, in that nativity set of unknown contents, would be up to their normal animally thing.

Neighhhhh
Bahhhhhh
Moooooo

And what of Mary? What sounds did she make birthing the divine? For you parents, think back to your own children’s birth days. Make sure to adjust *that* volume accordingly. How quiet were you?

Fields
The scene then changes to a rural field.

And there were shepherds, giving instructions.
And there were sheep, making sheepy sounds.

And there was an angel.
And there was fear.

Which couldn’t help but be followed by pointed fingers, shouts and screams.

Winged divinity, if anything, knows how to make an appearance.

The angel then calmed the shepherd’s fears,
Sharing good news, of great joy,
For all the people.

A savior, the Messiah, was born.

A celestial GPS then illuminated the path to where the baby would be found.

The starry skyline then filled with a heavenly host too numerous to count.

Each singing, at the top of their lungs –

Glory to God in the highest,
Peace on earth, to all.

This night was turning out to be anything but silent.

The angels then exit, stage up. Perhaps that quieted things down for a bit. Before long the shepherds got excitedly talking about all they’d seen and heard.

We’ve gotta get to Bethlehem, they said.
We’ve gotta see this thing that’s happened.
It kinda sounds like a pretty big deal.

So they went.
And they found.
Mary, and Joseph, and child.

Sing
If there was silence to be had, this seminal night, the time had finally come.

This must be the Silent Night moment.
This must be the scene the song asks us to enter.

A scene where –
All is calm, all is bright,
Shepherds quake, at the sight.

Holy infant, so tender and mild,
Sleep in heavenly peace,
Sleep, in heavenly peace.

The scene then closes.
The silence then lifts.
The shepherds then depart.

Share
The shepherds then shared what had been told them about this child.
And all who heard it were amazed at what they’d been told.

The shepherds glorified God,
The shepherds praised God,
For all they had seen,
For all they had heard.

And they were anything *but* quiet about it.

How do I know?

Because two millennia later,
We still tell this tale,
As if it were yesterday.

Close
As we make final preparations, in our hearts and in our homes, for the coming of a baby, wrapped in swaddling clothes, let us celebrate the peace Christ brings.

Let us make room for calm and quiet too often more the exception than the norm.

But let us remember this, as well. The world of two-thousand years ago was not wrapped up in a nice little red package with a shiny green bow on it.

It was fully human.
It was full of noise.

There were –
Unwed mothers,
Difficult circumstances,
Inconvenient truths,
Uncertain earthly peace,
Unstable earthly rulers.

It is in this context, of chaotic calamity, that Christ came.
A context perhaps not too different than our own.

It is amid life’s noise where we’re offered –
Peace, and quiet, and the hope of a silent night.
Despite what may swirl all around.

For Christ is with us, in our silent nights.
But more importantly in our really loud nights too.

Come soon, Jesus.
Grant us your peace.  Amen.

Seven Dreams

An Advent4 message on Matthew 1:18-25

Do you dream? Scientific studies suggest yes, you do. Everyone does. Every single night. Every time you sleep. For about two hours out of an eight-hour sleep cycle. If you think of the billions of people who have lived, throughout history, collectively they’ve had trillions and trillions of dreams.

Which is kind of tough to wrap your head around.

Many dreams are quickly forgotten, never making it to our conscious mind.
Some are remembered, for a time, perhaps shared with friends and family.
And precious few are written down and stay with us even longer.

What is it about dreams that make them memorable? That make them stick around long after they’ve originally been dreamed? Often it’s that they inspire something in the real world. Which makes them not just dream, but reality.

Today’s message highlights seven such dreams, and what they’ve inspired.

Sometimes dreams inspire song.  One hard day’s night in 1965 Paul McCartney found himself deep in slumber, composing a song while dreaming. When he awoke he quickly replicated the song on his piano and then wrote it down. It wasn’t a small musical fragment or just any tune, he composed the entire melody of a Beatle’s classic. All while deep in REM sleep.

Sir Paul was convinced he’d inadvertently copied the song, so he asked other musicians, for a month, whether they’d heard it before. When no else claimed it after a few weeks he figured the tune was his. These memorable chords were birthed, entirely, from dream.

Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away…

Dreams can inspire story. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote for a living to support his family. That is until his case of writer’s block in 1886. For days he went about racking his brain for a plot.

Nothing would come.

Then one night he dreamed up a scene where a character, being pursued for a crime, took powder and became someone else. Right in front of his pursuers.

The dream jarred Stevenson so much he screamed in the middle of the night, causing his wife to wake him. “Why did you wake me?” he asked his wife. “I was dreaming a fine boogeyman tale.

In an era before typewriters and laptops, Stevenson then put pen to paper. And in less than six days he’d handwritten 64,000 words, a minor miracle at the time.

The book went on to sell millions of copies worldwide. The story even inadvertently coined a phrase still used to describe dual personalities, swinging between good and evil. The book? The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

And more often than you might think, dreams inspire science.

Such was the case with Niels Bohr. Known for his ability to decipher complex physics problems, Bohr set his sights on understanding the structure of the atom. But none of his configurations would fit. He was stumped. Then one night he went to sleep and began dreaming about atoms. He saw the nucleus of the atom, with electrons spinning around it, much as planets spin around the sun.

When waking the next morning Bohr immediately felt the vision was right. But he knew, as a scientist, he needed to validate the theory. His efforts soon yielded evidence of the atom’s design. Other scientists then replicated his findings. And before you know it Bohr was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for the discovery.  These days Bohr is considered the father of quantum mechanics.

And it all stemmed from a leap, in creative thinking, that stemmed from dream.

Sometimes dreams inspire society, coming to us while we’re still wide awake.

Martin Luther King Jr. had been using the language of dreams in sermons for several years before his famous 1963 speech. Given from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC, in front of 250,000 civil rights supporters, King initially spoke from prepared remarks.

Towards the end of his speech, friend and gospel singer Mahalia Jackson cried out “Tell them about the dream, Martin!” So he did. In it, he imagines a world of different design, where all people are treated as equal.

The speech later led to a slew of new legislation, including the 1960s Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act, and Fair Housing Act. While we still haven’t arrived, in many ways, when it comes to issues of race in the US, the speech still stays with us. Still points us to a brighter future.

All because of the power of the language of dreams.

Dreams can inspire identity. Such was the case for Jacob, son of Isaac, brother to Esau. Jacob, after stealing his father’s blessing, and running from the brother he stole it from, a brother who was looking to kill him, had a dream. In this dream there was a ladder, set on earth. The ladder went straight up to heaven, with angels ascending and descending on it. In the dream God promised Jacob the land where he slept. And promised his offspring would be blessed.

Awakening from the dream Jacob’s fears had now been released. No longer scared, he now knew God’s plans. He then pursued God’s plans. Jacob found work, then married, having twelve children. Children who each became heads of their own family groups, later known as the twelve tribes of Israel.

Jacob dreamed, as inspired by God. A dream that helped birth a blessed people.

Dreams, sometimes, inspire trust. That definitely applies to Joseph, he of the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Genesis records all sorts of dreams Joseph was part of. As a young man, he dreamed he’d one day rule over his brothers and parents. As you might guess when he shared that great with family it went over like a lead balloon. Not liking Joseph’s interpretation one bit, his brothers dropped him in a pit, leaving him alone, with no way out.

After being found, and then enslaved, Joseph then rose through the palace ranks. Eventually, he gained the trust of Pharaoh himself by interpreting a troubling dream Pharaoh had. Those seven frail cows who ate the seven fat cows in the dream? That means seven good years, of harvest, followed by seven bad years, of famine. Plan wisely, Joseph suggested.

Pharaoh did. And all that came to pass. With trust now gained, Joseph was able to provide for his family, fulfilling that first dream over a decade after having it.

Every-so-often, when the planets align, and the divine descends down among us, dreams inspire hope. Our final dream story begins with another Joseph. One engaged to a girl named Mary.

This Joseph, by all accounts, was a stand-up guy. He followed the customs of the day. When he and Mary were betrothed they still lived apart. And before getting married, before moving in together, before doing anything overly interesting Joseph learned, suddenly, mysteriously, his fiancée was with child.

And Joseph was not the daddy.

Uh oh.

It’s a storyline good enough for a telenovela.

Oh the thoughts that must have raced through his brain.
Mary’s explanation couldn’t have provided much solace.

Not wanting to disgrace his beloved, but now not wanting to commit to her either, Joseph made plans to quietly part ways.

This couldn’t have been the way it was supposed to be.
At least not the way Joseph thought it was supposed to be.

He’d found someone he cared for.

They began to make plans.
Plans for their home.
Plans for their family.
Plans to celebrate.

Their life trajectory, as far as Joseph was concerned, had been all planned out.
And now *this*

Why me? Joseph must have wondered.

It is against this backdrop Joseph laid down his head to sleep.
It is under these circumstances when Joseph began to dream.

Dream
In it an angel came to him, calming his fears. The angel asked Joseph to take Mary as his wife. For the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.

She will bear a Son, the angel continued.
Name him Jesus. For he will save his people from themselves.

All will be as spoken,
through the prophet,
A virgin shall conceive,
And bear a son.

And they shall name him Emmanuel.
Which means God is with us.

The angel then departed.
Joseph then awoke.

Joseph then did, as the angel of the Lord, advised.

And a new path, one that Joseph had never planned for, became clear.
A new path, that didn’t impact just –

One woman, or
One man, or
One family.

But left a lasting mark on so many more.

And for the rest of *that* story?
Tune in, Christmas Eve 😊

Turn
Dreams have power. Power to take us from our current reality, as great or as awful as it may seem, and lead us to a place so much better.

Dreams inspire song, story, science, society, identity, even trust.

Facing moments of trouble, problems with seemingly no solution, divinely inspired dreams do something marvelous.

They inspire hope.

It is that hope that Joseph woke up with.
It is that hope that enabled him to press on.

Close
Do you dream? Yes, of course, you do. Every single night.

This year may your dreams be of so much more than just visions of sugarplums or even a white Christmas.

Lord, show us your dreams,
Reveal to us your Savior,
Awaken us from our slumber.

Refreshed,
Full of hope.

Not just for today. Or tomorrow. But forever.  Amen.

Awakenings

On June 27, 1880 a baby girl was born in rural Alabama. At first blush, there was nothing particularly special about this baby. As one of five children, she was raised alongside her siblings in the usual ways. I imagine her parents doted on their baby girl as most parents do; celebrating first smiles, first solid foods, first teeth, first steps, first birthday.

Then, at 19 months old, tragedy struck. The girl contracted an unknown illness. Perhaps it was scarlet fever, perhaps it was meningitis. Whatever it was the illness took a toll, leaving her both deaf and blind. This news, to her parents, must have been nothing less than devastating.

Without the use of two of her five senses, senses most of us take for granted, what kind of life would be left for this little girl? What firsts were even possible for a deaf and blind child, still under the age of two?

Would there be a first day of school, first graduation, first job?

Would her parents be able to celebrate her first drawing?

Or the time she first spelled her name?

The girl was now trapped in silence, trapped in darkness. Unable to communicate with the outside world. She was, in effect, a prisoner in her own body.

Prophet
Today we walk a bit farther down the Advent road, eagerly anticipating the birth of the Christ child in ten short days. In last week’s Matthew 3 text we heard John the Baptist being prophetic –
Crying out in the wilderness,
Preparing the way of the Lord,
Making Christ’s path straight.

John baptized, promising one would come, more powerful than he.
One who would baptize not just with water, but with the Holy Spirit, and fire.

The more powerful one showed up. John then baptized Jesus. If ever there was a mountaintop moment for a prophet, baptizing the Son of God must have been it.

Christ’s ministry then began.

Disciples were called, travel plans made.
Sermons were delivered, miracles performed.

So many sermons, so many miracles, Jesus had quite the career. Christ’s message was getting out to the people. Hearts and minds and families and towns and regions and countries were being transformed.

And in the midst of all this goodness John the Baptist, once again, shows up in the story.

But John had changed.

Prisoner
Gone was the self-assured prophet, confidently proclaiming the coming new kingdom. Gone was the Spirit of God, descending from the heavens, in the form of a dove. Gone was the voice from heaven, saying this is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.

Those events were now in the rear-view mirror. Distant moments in the past that kept getting farther and farther away.

Instead, John now found himself trapped, in prison. John was now blind to the world outside. Unable to hear what Christ had been up to, except through messengers.

In that moment, of imprisoned isolation, prophet John sent those messengers to ask Jesus two questions.

Are you the one who is to come?
Or should we wait for another?

Earlier, John knew those answers.
But now he had begun to wonder.
Doubt had begun to set in.

Prisons, whether literal or figurative, real or imagined, can put doubt into anyone’s heart. It’s easy to believe in God in the bright sunlight when all is joyful and free. But let the iron doors of difficulty slam shut, and doubt dwells dauntingly, in the darkness.

Light
Christ then answered the messengers, referencing his resume.

Tell John what you hear and see, he told the messengers. That –
the blind receive sight,
the lame now walk,
the sick are healed,
The dead are raised,
The poor given good news.

In short, yes, he confirmed.
I am the One.

The messengers then went, going to share this good news with the prophet.

Tell John all that you hear and see, Christ proclaimed.
Because John, at present, can’t hear or see it for himself.

Anne
The rest of the story, about the 19-month-old baby who could also no longer hear or see, is anything but sad. By the time the baby turned seven her parents knew they needed help, to truly connect with the daughter they so loved, but were so separated from. So they contacted a renowned school for the blind, who pointed them to a recent graduate, 20-year-old Anne Sullivan.

Anne began to work with the young girl for multiple hours per day, one on one, customizing a curriculum designed to match the girl’s interests. Anne taught the girl by spelling words into her hand, pairing the word with the object.

D-O-L-L, Anne would spell in the girl’s palm, then handing her a doll. Anne repeated this approach dozens of times, with dozens of words.

At first, it seemed no progress was being made.

Then one day the girl began to imitate the gestures, without understanding the meaning behind them. This helped Anne realize more might be possible with her student, still locked up from within.

The teacher kept trying, never giving up.

The big breakthrough came a month into their efforts. Teacher Anne spelled W-A-T-E-R in one hand, while pouring water on the other, when suddenly the student excitedly understood. The girl then grabbed any object she could find and asked teacher Anne to spell out, in her hand, what that object was.

Within six months of this intense, spirited education the girl’s written vocabulary had exploded from one word to 575.

Helen
Many of you likely know exactly who this girl is; we’re talking about the famed Helen Keller.

Helen, writing in her autobiography, The Story of My Life, recalled the moment she understood the meaning of that first word.

“I stood still,” Helen said, “my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten – a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that W-A-T-E-R meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. The living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, set it free!”

Helen described the day she first met her teacher, Anne Sullivan, March 5, 1887, as my soul’s birthday.

And what a birthday for her soul it was, for the day she met Helen everything changed. Because of Anne’s teachings Helen went on to accomplish much in her long and storied life. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Harvard, a first for a deaf and blind person. She wrote a dozen books, was a prized lecturer, helped found the ACLU, and was later inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.

Helen lived out her call in this world brilliantly. It all began the day she met Anne.

Turn
The theme for Advent this week is Joy. Yet today’s text, of John the Baptist, is a story of doubt, and distance from Jesus. The text suggests we’re not quite there yet in the joy department.

Perhaps we’re like John, far removed from the mountaintop moments of our faith. Far removed from when our role, in God’s creation, seemed clear.

Perhaps we’re like Helen, feeling completely disconnected from our surroundings. Unable to relate with others, in even the most basic of ways.

Perhaps we’ve lost the ability to hear, or see, what the Holy Spirit is up to.

In these moments let us look forward, to the inbreaking of Christ, in our world.

Presence
For it is then when Christ takes our hand. Blind and deaf to his presence as we sometimes may be.

Christ then writes L-O-V-E in our palm.

Again, again, and again.

Teaching us, patiently.
Never giving up.
Even when it seems no progress has been made.

And when we’re open,
to Christ’s teaching,
one day we’ll begin to imitate those same gestures –

First writing L-O-V-E on our own palm.
Later writing L-O-V-E on the hands, and hearts, of others.

Initially we’ll just imitate Christ’s L-O-V-E.
Without grasping the full meaning behind it.

But eventually a big breakthrough will come.

Christ will write those four letters, L-O-V-E, on one hand, while pairing it with symbols of our faith in the other.

First an angel, a trumpet, a manger.
Then water, a dove, and a flame.
Later wine, bread, a cross.

Excitedly we’ll begin to understand.
Excitedly we’ll ask Christ to share what else, in this world, his love is paired with.

And we’ll realize that list, of what Christ’s love is paired with, of creation, and people, is infinite.

For Christ’s love knows no bounds.

Close
As people of faith our soul’s birthday is celebrated in the waters of our baptism.

But our soul’s source stems from another birth. A birth celebrated each year on December 25.

Come soon, Jesus.
Bring us your joy.

Open our eyes to see.
Open our ears to hear.

Release us from the prisons,
That keep us from you.

Take our hand.
Teach us your love.

Give us your words,
When we have none.

Teach us to love ourselves.
Teach us to love others.

Sometimes we doubt as we wait.
But we know this world needs your love.

Desperately.

Right here.
Right now.

Amen.

Screen-Free Sundays

Shortly after moving to Iowa our family implemented a new rule: screen-free Sundays. The ideal was good, I think.  My wife and I hoped to help our two children learn and maintain healthy electronic device habits.

Everything in moderation. Or something like that.

Besides, we had science and best practices to draw from.  The American Academy of Pediatrics has this nifty approach to raising healthy kids using 5, 2, 1, 0.   Each day they recommend:

  • 5 fruits or veggies,
  • 2 or less hours of recreational screen time,
  • 1+ hour of physical activity, and
  • 0 sugary drinks

And Sunday is the sabbath, after all. It’s a holy day. A sacred day. A day of rest.

Maybe that means resting from our devices too. If there’s one day a week we should be able to find balance in life, well, in theory, Sunday should be it.

As you might imagine the transition, to screen-free Sundays, was not without hurdles. The kids, used to their devices, were less than enthused. Tho we stuck with this ideal, relying on the best information available to us, our hopes of being good parents, and the notion of sabbath to guide us through.

We’d done our homework.
Decision made.
Rule implemented.
And that, in theory, should be that.

After a month or two of strictly adhering to screen-free Sundays, the concept seemed to have stuck. Our two shorties were playing more outside, playing house inside, splashing in the hot tub.  Generally enjoying screen-free life, one day a week.

But then the NFL football season hit. And we wanted to watch our beloved Bears play. So we did.

Then our nine-year-old daughter expressed interest in having a family movie night. It turns out Sunday evening was the best fit for our weekly schedule. So we did.

The kids also never really stopped asking to watch screens on Sundays either.

When Graham started asking if he could play a Mario video game with pops, which seemed entirely reasonable to this particular video game enthusiast, I knew the little dude had my number.

The more our kids bugged us about Sunday screens the more Kathi and I had to ponder. Did it make sense to be so rigid with our strict Sunday sabbath rule?

As parents the American Pediatric Association was on our side, right?
As people of faith we have Sabbath ideals of rest on our side, right?
We should just stick with our rules, they must be good ones, right?

Over time we became less and less sure.

Synagogue
The Luke 13 narrative also has to do with which activities should, or should not, happen on a sacred day. While Jesus taught at Saturday synagogue, a crippled woman appeared before Christ. She was bent over; unable to stand straight.

Jesus then approached her.
He then spoke with her.
And laid healing hands on her.

Immediately she stood straight.
Immediately she began praising God.

She had, after all, just been healed. In the words of Christ, she had been set free from the bondage that held her.

And then everyone cheers because a beloved child of God has been made whole, right?

Not exactly.

Sabbath
Instead, the leader of the synagogue begins to trash talk Christ to the gathered crowd. Jesus had healed, on the sabbath. On the day of rest.

Jesus, in this leader’s eyes, had not kept the Sabbath day holy.
Jesus, in this leader’s eyes, had worked, healing the sick.
Jesus, in this leader’s eyes, should have healed some other day of the week.

A rule is a rule is a rule, after all, right?

The leader’s response makes sense, in a way. When we commit to preserving the positives of our faith we often set up rules. We then desire to obey the rules, to protect the faith. Which can sometimes make us resist new ideas. Particularly if the new idea represents a greater good.

Like reaching out to heal another.

Intent
Christ knew of that very human rule-based tendency, and Christ responded to it.
He then pointed out that each person gathered there gave their animals water to keep them well. And if caring for animals, on a day of rest, is ok, how much more important is caring for people needing to be made whole?

The story is a showdown between –
– tradition, and the intention behind it;
– traditions of the past, and freeing people for a better future;
– laws based on obedience, and a gospel grounded in love.

Remember the Sabbath, and keep it holy.

That includes worship. And rest. And caring for one another. Just as Christ cares so deeply for us.

Redux
Our family still does screen-free Sunday.  And our kids still play outside, play house inside, and splash in the hot tub.  It’s a nice, relaxing day.  But it looks a little different now than what we first had planned.

We watch Sunday football, together.
We watch Sunday night murder mysteries, together.
We play a bit of Sunday Mario, together.

We realized at some point, that screens weren’t our biggest sabbath day problem.
It was the isolation, from each other, that they caused.
We realized that, ultimately, is what we needed healing from.

Let me encourage you to remember the sabbath, and keep it holy.

Lord knows we need to worship.
Lord knows we need our rest.

But don’t honor the Sabbath strictly from a sense of obligation.
Or by merely following rules.

Keep the sabbath holy by being with each other, in Christian community.
Keep the sabbath holy by caring for each other, when needs arise.
Keep the sabbath holy by spending time, with beloved friends.

With beloved family.

For in keeping Sunday sacred we honor our creator.

A creator that desires nothing less, than for each of us, to be made whole. Amen.

ZOONAR GMBH/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO