How The Dishwasher Taught Me To Pray – Sermon on Ephesians 3.14-21

Ephesians 3.14-21

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

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I loved my college roommates. Some of us knew each other from high school, and others were grafted in along the way, but nevertheless, when we lived together it felt like a little family. We tried our best to communicate needs within the domicile, we kept it quiet when someone had a midterm the next morning, and we quickly learned to share common appliances for the betterment of the entire living situation.

Between us we would come to earn Bachelor degrees in Philosophy, Religion, Biology, Communications, and History. I always kind of imagined that we would be a awesome group Jeopardy team with the wealth of knowledge spread between us. Living together in college was great, but it wasn’t always easy.

There was the time we discovered mice in the house. We did our best to keep the kitchen clean, and spread mouse traps throughout the house, but during the cold winter months they came back like clockwork.

There was the time a huge snow storm came through, trapping all of our cars, and we ran out of heating oil to keep the house warm.

There was the time that we all contracted swine flu at different intervals. As one person became sicker and sicker, those of us who were well shared the responsibility of caretaker, until we started displaying our own symptoms.

Part of the beauty of living with other people was the sharing of life experiences. We celebrated each others successes, and grew to really rely on one another. Part of the challenge of living with other people was learning how to change our habits and needs based upon the habits and needs of other people.

Ephesians 3.14-21 is a prayer. Paul is writing to this new faith community in the hopes that his prayers will be answered by the Lord of hosts. He prays for the congregation because he knows that he cannot give them what they need in order to grow, but through prayer the church will learn to fully rely upon God.

The beginning of the prayer establishes the main focus: Paul prays for the church to be strengthened in its inner being, from the inside out, by the power of God. He hopes that the individuals that make of the community will see the vital importance of letting Christ into their lives and then change accordingly.

If Christ dwells in the hearts of the people, if they are rooted and grounded in love, then they may have the power to comprehend what is the breadth and length and height and depth of Christ’s love that surpasses all knowledge.

During college, I was the only person from the house that went to church. While my roommates enjoyed the comfort of their beds on Sunday mornings, I was making my way out the door to worship the Lord. I learned to accept their priorities, and on some level they learned to accept mine.

For instance: I made them pray with me whenever we ate dinner that I had prepared. I felt that if I was willing to go through all of the steps necessary to make a dinner for all of us, then they could bow their heads with me in prayer. So once a week, we would sit in our living room, eating on paper plates with plastic silverware, and they would listen to me pray.

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It is difficult for many of us to hear about God’s unending love, particularly a group of college-age men who just wanted to eat. It may seem so obvious to us that it no longer strikes at the core of our being. We hear “God is love,” and “love is patient, love is kind,” and “Love you neighbor as yourself,” and “God’s love knows no bounds” and instead of that love becoming clearer, it just floats around in the air.

Faithful love is even harder to grasp for those of us who do come to church because we hear about all these beautiful and wonderful things, we look around at a church filled with people who appear to have their lives figured out, when in reality we are all struggling with a myriad of secrets, private disappointments, lost hopes, and frustrations.

It’s hard to hear about love, when we don’t feel love in our lives.

Paul’s prayer for the church in Ephesus is all about letting Christ in to change lives: I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love.

Letting Christ into our hearts is like moving in with a new roommate. At first, we spend a lot of joyful time getting to know one another, discovering common likes and interests. We do a great job putting all the dishes away and keeping the house clean, but then we have to start making compromises, whether we want to or not.

I learned about this type of faithful living the right way through my wife Lindsey. When we were dating, and I was getting ready to ask her to marry me, I dreamed about what it would be like to live together. I imagined the way we would set up our living room, where we would put the record player, and even where we would dance to all of our old jazz 33s.

After the wedding, while we were still giddy from the honeymoon, we decided to tackle the challenge of combining all of our possessions in the kitchen. We debated the value of keeping our plates in one cabinet versus putting the coffee cups near the coffee pot. We worried about the safety of keeping our knives in a drawer or right on the counter top. And we experimented with the location of the microwave in relation to the toaster and whether or not we would blow the fuse if they were both on at the same time.

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The real challenge came to the precipice over the dishwasher. I was of the opinion that it did not matter where dishes and cups were placed in the dishwasher, so long as we could fit as many things as possible. Lindsey was not of the same opinion. For the first few weeks, whenever I put a plate away, she would come behind me and rearrange the dishwasher. It got to a point that I started purposely putting items wherever I wanted because I didn’t think it mattered, but sweet Lindsey would watch me live out my frustration, and then when I left the room, she would bring order to the dishwasher.

I don’t know how long this continued, but I do know when it stopped. Lindsey was working late one night, and the dishwasher was almost full. I saw my opportunity to prove that the dishwasher works fine no matter where the dishes are placed. So with a mischievous grin on my face I rearranged the order into chaos, I started the dishwasher. I couldn’t wait to see her face when she got home, I imagined the apology she would offer me regarding her wrong interpretation of dishwasher etiquette, it was going to be something beautiful.

But when the dishwasher cycle finished, I knew I was in trouble.

How could this have happened? Whenever Lindsey ran the dishwasher, everything came out all nice and clean and ready to use. But this time, there was still food on a few of the dishes, and some of the utensils looked worse than when I put them in!

I was wrong, and I learned to change. Now I will freely admit that sometimes I still place something in the wrong place, but after my passive-aggressive experiment, I have learned to alter my focus because Lindsey was right.

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The incident with the dishwasher taught me that prayer is about change. When I forced my roommates to pray in college, was I doing it because I was concerned about them, or was I doing it because I thought I was better than them? Did I earnestly pray to the Lord during that time, or did I just want them to hear the sound of my voice?

The beauty of prayer comes to fruition when we let Christ in to change us, and when we are willing to give up some of our space for the Lord. The dishwasher taught me that if prayer is only about myself, that if I am only concerned with my thoughts and actions, then I am neglecting to let God in to make some important changes.

Faithful living is about giving up those habits and behaviors that are no longer fruitful, reprioritizing and reorganizing our lives, so that God can make us clean.

In a few moments we are going to end our service not here in the sanctuary, but outside on the front lawn. We are going to gather in a group and we are going to pray.

First we will pray for God to give us the strength to give up some room, and let Christ in. That instead of focusing on just our needs and wants that we will begin to comprehend the love of Christ and the fullness of God.

Then we will face the sanctuary and we are going to pray for our church. So many of us, myself included, get caught up in such a tunnel-visioned view of prayer that we neglect to pray, like Paul did, for the community of faith.

And finally we will turn to face the community around us and pray once more. Prayer is not just about you and me, and it is not just about the church, prayer is about communing with the Lord about the very fabric of life.

If we want our lives to change, if we want our church to change, if we want to let God’s love reign, then we have to be willing to give up some space. We have to learn to rearrange the dishwashers of our lives so that everything can be made clean.

Amen.

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Stranger In A Strange Land – Sermon on Ezekiel 17.22-24

Ezekiel 17.22-24

Thus says the Lord God: I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of a cedar; I will set it out. I will break off a tender one from the topmost of its young twigs; I myself will plant it on a high and lofty mountain. On the mountain height of Israel I will plant it, in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit, and become a noble cedar. Under it every kind of bird will live; in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind. All the trees of the field shall know that I am the Lord. I bring low the high tree, I make high the low tree; I dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish. I the Lord have spoken; I will accomplish it.

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During my first year of college I felt like a stranger in a strange land. I grew up in a family that believed in sitting together for dinner every night. I was raised in a church that took the baptismal vows seriously and helped me pursue my vision of ministry. I had friends that supported my belief systems, and wanted me to be happy. I was strongly rooted in my home, and when I left I felt like I was wandering around without a map.

In the beginning, college was completely unlike home. Instead of eating with my family, I was lucky to eat a meal in the dining hall with anyone. Instead of a supportive church, I tried out a number of campus ministries that made it clear that if I wasn’t converting my heathen classmates I had no business being a part of their group. Instead of friends that loved me, I had surface level connections that were based on a system of consumerism more than genuine friendship.

The things I had grown to love (the comforts, the familiarity, and the rhythms) were gone and I felt like a stranger in a strange land.

Imagine, if you can, the prophet Ezekiel sitting by the river among the exiles. They had been taken from their homeland, uprooted, and planted in a new place. Families were separated, homes were lost, and they no longer knew how to worship their Lord. But the Lord continued to call prophets to proclaim the truth, even in the midst of the unknown.

Ezekiel, a prophet to the exiles, declared what the Lord had said. The Lord will take a branch from the full top of a cedar tree and will set it apart. Then the Lord will break off one of the most tender pieces of the young twigs and plant in on a high and grand mountain. The Lord will plant this piece so that it would produce boughs and bear fruit and become a noble tree unlike any other. Under it, in the protection of its shade, every kind of bird will live and find comfort.

All the rest of the trees will know what the Lord has done. Because the Lord brings low the high tree, and makes the low tree grow. The Lord dries up the green tree, and helps the dry tree flourish. The Lord has spoken, and he will do it.

The message is beautiful and hopeful. The poetic language of God’s creation helps us to imagine a mighty cedar giving life and shade to all who are in need. We can almost smell the scent of the cedar wafting through the air as we hear the words. We are reminded of God’s great power in upsetting normal expectations.

But when we remember who the words were for, when we remember the exiles in captivity, the passage becomes all the more powerful.

The remaining faithful had been carried off into captivity in Babylon. Their suffering was great and their questions were many. “Why has the Lord abandoned us?” “When will we return to the great city of Jerusalem?” “Where is the Lord in the midst of our suffering?”

The foundations of their religion were laid waste by a rampaging army. Those who survived would have witnessed the destruction of the temple, they would have smelled the burnt scrolls in the air, they would have heard the screams of fear and suffering.

The new home of Babylon brought subjection, and powerlessness. The people were small in number, weak in strength, and limited in faith.

They were strangers in a strange land.

Yet, in all of the great stories from scripture, a small people, of little account and worth, are the ones chosen by God to do something incredible. Though insignificant by the world’s standards, they were extraordinary in the eyes of God.

In the midst of the unknown, while their fear was real and palpable, Ezekiel shared this tender message from the Lord. I, the Lord your God, am the one who turns things upside down. I will have the final say about what it going on in your lives. You see the powers around you and you believe they have prevailed, but I will make things new, I will plant the seed that gives shade to the tired, strength to the weak, and life to the dead.

Today we are celebrating our graduates, those who have mastered their present set of educational expectations and are moving on to new horizons.

We have graduates from high school that will be entering the new area of the university. We have graduates with Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees that will be entering the new area of the so-called “working world.”

In a few minutes they will stand before the congregation and we will pray for God’s blessing on them in all that they do. But before we send them off, we need to help open their eyes to the truth.

Soon, and very soon, you will feel like strangers in a strange land. No matter how confident you feel taking the next steps in your life, there will be things that happen that shake the very foundation of what you know and believe. You will encounter new and strange ideas. You will miss your friends, and your family, and hopefully your church.

Moments will come that you will ask the same kinds of questions that the exiles did in Babylon: “Why has the Lord abandoned me?” “When will things get back to normal?” “Where is God in the midst of all this?

So, this message from the Lord through Ezekiel is meant for you as much as it was meant for them. God’s message of love and presence and growth is directed to you in a time of new beginnings and uncertainty. Whether you are about to start at a new school or a new job, let these words be comforting and full of life.

The Lord God almighty took a sprig, a tiny and powerless little thing, and planted him in a place called Bethlehem. He grew up as the son of a carpenter and was ignored by most people until he started to give shade to all the birds of the air, when he started inviting the multitudes into the kingdom of God. Through his words and actions Jesus Christ gave hope to the hopeless, strength to the weak, and life to the dead. Through him the people began to know and experience the love of God and the world was turned upside down.

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Doesn’t all of this sound familiar? The Lord will plant a new tree… just like the sower who goes into the field… just like a tiny mustard seed become the greatest of all the plants. The Lord will make high the low tree and make low the high tree… just like the first shall be last and the last shall be first… just like the poor being welcomed into the kingdom of God and the religious elite were left scratching their heads.

This kind of inversion has been part of God’s great cosmic plan all along and we are still being swept up in it. The Lord calls on the strangers in a strange land to give hope for the world. The Lord uses the weak and least of these to show how the great tree of life in Jesus Christ gives shade and comfort to all of God’s children.

To those who are about to embark on something new: take heart and know that the Lord is with you. Even when you feel lost and alone, you are not. We, the gathered people, are praying for you and will continue to so long as we have life. But more importantly the Lord has faith in you to do incredible things, to help continually turn the world upside down.

To those who remain: look upon these graduates with hope. Because just as the Lord planted Jesus Christ to be a source of hope, the Lord is about to do the same thing with all of them. He will scatter them like seeds in the earth, he will nurture them through the power of his Spirit, and they will stretch out their arms to the world and will be a source of light in the darkness. Wherever they are planted, they will bear fruit for the world.

During my first year of college I felt like a stranger in a strange land. I wanted to cry out to the Lord like one of the lost exiles in Babylon. I felt abandoned, I felt alone, and I felt afraid. Weeks passed and nothing changed, my relationships started to suffer, and I started putting in the minimal amount of effort necessary in my classes. But it was also when I really learned how to pray.

I didn’t read about it in some book about faith, but I read about it in the book of faith. I looked for the times that Jesus prayed. It helped put things in perspective about what I was going through. It didn’t change my circumstances, but it changed me.

Because true prayer is not about asking God to fix something. True prayer is the gutsy willingness to let God be God in your life. So I gave it over, I prayed less like myself and more like Jesus, I prayed for God’s will to be done in my life instead of for my life to get better. But it did.

When we really pray, its not important what we say, but that we let God have time to speak. Prayer is far more about listening than it is about speaking. Prayer is not listing what we want, but a risk of being exposed to what God wants.

Prayer really changes things, and sometimes what prayer changes is us.

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So, whether we are about to embark on a new experience in a new place or we are still spreading our roots here in Staunton; whether we are confident in our faith, or filled to the brim with doubt; whether we feel surrounded by discipled witnesses, or feel completely alone. We are all strangers in a strange land.

As Christians we are called to see the world through the resurrection which means we will never feel comfortable where we are. We love our enemies and turn the other cheek. We offer a tenth of our income and pray for the weak. We listen for the Lord and lift up the meek. Being Christian is about living in the tension between what the world explains and what the Lord proclaims.

But with prayer, by taking time to be holy, we start to see the world turned upside down, we experience the beauty of God’s kingdom, and we find rest in the shade of God’s great cedar tree: Jesus Christ. So let us pray:

O Lord, let your will be done, nothing more, nothing less, nothing else.

O Lord, let your will be done, nothing more, nothing less, nothing else.

O Lord, let your will be done, nothing more, nothing less, nothing else.

Amen.

The Advent of Samuel – Sermon on 1 Samuel 3.1-10

1 Samuel 3.1-10

Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread. At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. Then the Lord called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!” and ran to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he went and lay down. The Lord called again, “Samuel!” Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place. Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

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Today we continue with our Advent Sermon Series on “New Beginnings.” These few weeks of Advent are integral to the life of our church in the sense that we are preparing our hearts, minds, and souls, for the coming of God in Christ on Christmas day. Last week we looked at Abram and his call to go to a new and strange land, a call for a new beginning. Today we continue by looking at the Advent of Samuel.

Chapel time is the best. Every week our little preschoolers gather here in the sanctuary to a hear a story from the bible and how it can relate to their lives right now.

The first week I had them gather in the choir loft with the lights turned off. We talked about the beginning of creation and how God spoke the world into existence. I then encouraged the kids to scream, “Let there be light!” as loud as possible, and only when the volume was sufficiently over the top, I cut the lights on in the whole room. Another week we made chicken noodle soup together and talked about Esau selling his birthright to Jacob for a cup of stew. Another week, I had the kids do push-ups and sit-ups in the center aisle to build up their strength for a wrestling match. One by one they came forward and wrestled with me, just like Jacob wrestled with God on the banks of the Jabbok river.

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On the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, I gathered with the children in the basement in preparation for their Thanksgiving feast. Chapel time that week was going to be all about communion. The kids made their way into the yellow room, and I sat down with them on the floor next to a table with the bread and the cup.

“Good morning my friends! Over the last few weeks you have been learning about the first Thanksgiving with the pilgrims and the Native Americans, about how they shared their food and ate with one another. We remember that great meal this week as many of us will sit around a table with our families and friends to share what we were thankful for. But a long time ago, way before the pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, there was another very special meal.”

“Jesus had been with his friends for a few years and this was going to be his last night with them. I’m pretty sure that they spent time that night talking about what they were thankful for, especially for Jesus. And when they were done talking, Jesus took a loaf of bread and gave to his friends to eat, and then he took a cup and shared it with his friends to drink. He said that he was giving himself for them, so that they would always know how loved they were.

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At the moment I couldn’t believe how well the kids were paying attention. Usually someone gets distracted, and therefore distracts the rest of the kids, but that morning they were all listening and hanging on every word.

I then asked the children to pray with me over the bread and the cup and I shared communion with them. I tried very carefully to limit the amount of times I called the cup Jesus’ blood, but of course I let it slip and one of the kids shouted: “Are we really drinking blood!?” “Well, yeah, but its also grape juice” “Oh man I love grape juice!” One by one they came forward with their hands outstretched to take a piece of the bread and then dip it in the cup and then received it. For every child that came forward I looked at them in their eyes and whispered, “God loves you.”

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After we finished the kids made their way to the red room to begin their feast when I discovered that Debbie, our Preschool Director, was crying. Worried that I had done something wrong I went forward to comfort her and was shocked when she shared why she was so upset: “Taylor, that was beautiful. You have no idea how precious it was so see those children line up for communion. This might be as close as some of them will ever get to understanding that God loves them.

This might be as close as some of them will ever get to understanding that God loves them.

Years from now I can imagine one of our Preschool students entering college. Though fully endowed with the knowledge of scripture and the willingness of this church to be there for him, he never enters our doors after he leaves the Preschool. High School is tough for him as wrestles with understanding his identity. Try as he might his grades are never good enough, his friends are never close enough, and no matter what he does he feels empty. Without having a true sense of direction, he applies to college and leaves home without looking back with the hope that this new beginning will be better than high school.

Sadly, it is not. College life is filled with even more people, and he feels less and less important. He falls through the cracks of campus life and spends most of his time alone in his dorm room. He still has the bible that we gave him so long ago, but it remains unopened on his shelf. One night, however, one of his roommates invites him to a campus ministry service. Reluctantly he attends, and is underwhelmed by the service.

The music is okay, and the message is all about spreading the Word of the Lord, whatever that means. He sits and listens attentively but he knows that he will never come back. But before the service ends, the pastor brings out the bread and wine and starts talking about communion. Immediately the boy is brought back to that morning sitting on the floor of the yellow room listening to a young bearded pastor talking about communion. While his mind is flooded with memories from the past he makes his way up to the make-shift altar and stretches out his hands to receive the body and blood of Christ while the pastor whispers, “God loves you.

I can imagine that even after that incredible service the knowledge of God’s love didn’t stick. The boy meets his wife in college, gets married, graduates, and moves to a new city for work. Yet, even after his family grows through the arrival of a few children, even while he is secure in his work, he still feels like something is missing.

He tries different things to find fulfillment in his life: he joins a civic organization, he volunteers at a local soup kitchen, he even helps a boy scout troop. But nothing seems to fill the void he feels in his life.

One day, however, a neighbor invites him to the community Methodist church. He laughs while responding about how he went to Preschool at a United Methodist Church but the neighbor insists that he comes to worship.

The man sits with his family in church, stands when he’s supposed to, sings when he supposed to, he even prays when he’s supposed to. He listens attentively to the announcements and the sermon, but most of it feels lifeless and repetitive. The pastor then moves to the table and invites the congregation to partake in this beautiful and precious meal that Christ has offered us without price. She says: “This table is the one true place where we can find fulfillment because in the bread and wine we see what Jesus gave for us on the cross, we see his truest and deepest act of grace. We are living in a time when the word of the Lord is rare, but at this table you can find what you’re missing, because here you discover the glory of God.

With tears in his eyes, the man walks forward. He remembers that day so long ago sitting on the cold floor in the basement of our preschool, he remembers that night in college when he walked up toward the altar. The emotional wave is almost overwhelming and as he stretches out his hands the pastor whispers, “God loves you” and for the first time, he believes it.

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People have heard the call of God in many different ways. Samuel heard it while he was sleeping in the temple and it took him three times to recognize that God was the one calling his name.

The word of the Lord was rare in those days, and it took an incredible act of faith to recognize that God was planning to do something incredible. Samuel did not identify his call when he first heard it, it had to be repeated and it had to be interpreted for him by the old priest Eli. 

Only when Samuel was able to respond with: “Speak, for your servant is listening” would he embark on a new beginning to be a prophet of the Lord. Part of the incredible beauty in this nighttime calling is the fact that God does not give up on Samuel. Though he clearly misses the location of his communication, God continues to call to him in an intimate and loving way.

One of the hardest things in the world to accept is that God loves us. In our heart of hearts we know, more than anyone around us, what we have done wrong and how we have fallen short of God’s glory. We see the mirrored reflection of our brokenness and we see someone unworthy of God’s love. Sometimes it takes more than a simple affirmation, it takes more than just a preacher babbling from a pulpit, it takes more than a bumper sticker or a billboard to remind us that God loves us. We need to hear it over and over and over again because it is true and remarkable.

I believe we are living in a time, just like Samuel, when the word of God is rare. We attempt to fill the emptiness in our lives with superficial commodities, we assume that money, power, and importance can make us feel whole. We foolishly hope that we can root our identity in a culture that ignores the outcast, in a country that neglects to embrace the democracy that we so worship, in a socioeconomic system that punishes the poor while rewarding the wealthy.

Now, more than ever, do we need to recapture that spirit of wonder and joy that a young man felt in the fuzzy hours of the morning when he heard his name being called in the temple. We need to discover the truest new beginning that comes when we remember that our identity is rooted in God. We need to let our discipleship be a living witness to others so that they can feel God’s love through people like us.

It was during another time when the word of God was rare, a time when governments oppressed the people they claimed to fight for, when a poverty stricken couple was forced to travel to a strange town for a census decreed by the emperor. In Bethlehem, when visions of God’s glory were not widespread, Mary and Joseph huddled together for warmth, believing the world had abandoned them to an awful fate. In the depth of their loneliness and fear, God came in the flesh to remind them that they were loved.

This table, where we gather, might be the closest you ever come to knowing that God loves you. When you feast on the great gift that was first given on Christmas, you are just like that child from our preschool, just like that questioning college student, just like that empty parent, and just like Mary and Joseph in the manger. This is where God makes all things new.

So if you remembering anything from today let it be this: God loves you. God loves you. God loves you.

Amen.