Sermons

 


“High Places”

Rev. Pam Brokaw, Sunday, February 14, 2021

Transfiguration Sunday


Gospel of Mark 9:2-9

Treks to the mountains held an instrumental role in my childhood and our life as a young family.

I climbed Mt. Tamalpais in Marin County, California, when I was five-years old. My little brother was three and there was a terrifying moment when he started sliding down the side of Mt. Tam struggling in sharp and broken rock as my Dad quickly saved him. I had my first Twinkie that day…a delightful treat of baking and chemical goodness that Mom miraculously pulled out of her backpack.

That Twinkie was my first mountaintop experience. It was rare for us to be fed anything except healthy food.

While the trek up Mt. Tam is my first mountaintop memory, throughout my childhood and teen years we would drive to, hike and camp at a growing list of high places…Shasta, the Sierras, Badger Pass, Yosemite.

My mother told us stories about climbing Mt. St. Helena in the Napa Valley with her Dad, my maternal grandfather, when she was seven. When Dad was in the Army right after World War II stationed in Japan where he climbed Mt. Fujiyama making the traditional pilgrimage.

These traditions continued for my parents through their children. There was something that drew my parents to high places which they introduced us to every summer for many years.

These memories are so clear to me and they represent some of the best memories of my life. Even the time we drove for hours to a place in the Sierras called Deep Lake where I scratched up my Dad’s shiny new hammer by chipping away granite for my rock collection. He was angry with me but calmly took the never-used Craftsman tool out of my hand, asked what was wrong with me and informed me the hammer cost $26. It is my first memory of my father forgiving me. Perhaps that is why it is seared in my memory. That, and the fact that for a moment I wondered what was about to happen me.

The Gospel stories are replete with mountaintop experiences. They are reflective of the scriptural belief that God lived above the people in the sky. It made sense that people would climb mountains to be with God. Their desire was to be there with God. To seek the holy. Maybe this is something embedded deep inside our soul and DNA. Maybe we are born to seek the higher ground of our Creator.

Moses climbed Mount Sinai to receive the 10 Commandments from God. Jesus frequently went to the mountains to pray.

The Gospels tell us of the mountaintop experience of a most famous group of mountaineers…Jesus, his disciples Peter, James and John, along with Moses and Elijah of the Old Testament, and God. There is no camping gear or snacks or shiny tools. There is, however, revelation. In this high place God speaks and reveals to the disciples who Jesus is. He is God’s son, and they are to listen to him.

I’ve been reflecting on what I heard on top of Mt. Tam, looking up at Shasta, Half Dome, El Capitan, and multiple peaks in the Sierras. Why did our parents take us there? What were they seeking? What did they hear? Why do I, after all these years, continue to reflect on those moments with a sense of joy, gratitude, wonder and affection?

Over the years I have come back to these memories of high places. As an adult I came to love the hymn “Find the Quiet Center” which speaks to me about the power of the mountaintop and quiet space. The lyrics go like this:

“Come and find the quiet center in the crowded life we lead, find the room for hope to enter, find the frame where we are freed: clear the chaos and the clutter, clear our eyes, that we can see all the things that really matter, be at peace, and simply be.”

A pastor friend, commenting on this transfiguration story on the mountaintop, observes God reaches down through the clutter and says what is most important…to listen to God’s son.

While we focus on the transfiguring of Jesus on the mountaintop…how he turns a dazzling white…how Moses and Elijah disappear making it clear Jesus is to be the focus and about to do a new thing…we can’t grasp the meaning of the moment in this high place without thinking about what happens next at ground level, in the valleys and towns, cities and regular lives below as the disciples make their way home to ministry and the day to day. Because we must take this mountaintop experience into our daily lives, too.

We are to take the mountaintop with us. We must keep seeking that higher ground in our families, our churches, our communities, in ourselves.

The transfiguration of Jesus is another model for all of us and way to follow. In it, and in his words, we come to understand that the mountaintop moment is a beginning as well as a reminder who Jesus is and how we are changed as his disciples who seek him.

We mark that reminder this time of year in the Season of Lent that begins on Ash Wednesday, Feb. 17. Lent traditionally is a time to simplify our lives, to cut through the clutter and focus on who we are to God and one another.

Another way to think about Lent is as a mountaintop experience…a place we seek…a climb, a trek, a walk, a journey to our inner holy. No vehicle loaded with gear is necessary. No physical strength or ability to climb. Just a deep and sincere desire to leave behind the things that really don’t matter so much and be filled with the transforming grace of the Son of God.

Because mountaintops can happen anywhere when we seek them.

They give us rest and focus. They are places where we hear God, sometimes even during a chaotic meeting, gathering or within our own heads as we play unhappy tapes of old or from the present time repeatedly wondering how to be hopeful and encouraged.

I believe the transfiguring story and the Season of Lent point us to look up and see that hope and encouragement are near and in the words of Jesus the Christ. They are in the presence of the Holy Spirit within us. Because, of course, there are many ways and places we hear him…in our heads and hearts. And when we hear him, we are transformed even when we push against it and want to have it our way.

That’s the reason, I think, people go to such great links to find God…climbing mountains, faithfully going to church on Sunday, giving their lives to him. It’s because, despite a deep desire to be right about all the things going on below the mountaintop where the practice of faith meets the clutter of human reality, greed, self-focus, and hardheadedness, deep down we are drawn to what he has to say. Because what really matters is what God has to say with these words: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”

I still travel to the mountains for the day or a night or two. I think about the many times my parents took us there. I do believe they brought their children there to focus on the things that matter. Being a family together in a beautiful place. Leaving the television, bills, rigors and distraction of the workplace behind along with the cares of the world. It was a perfect place, God’s place, where our little family could be transformed from what folks used to call the rat race to something else.

When I was 16 or so, we stopped going camping. It became harder and harder for my parents to separate from the demands of the world around them and the challenges of relationship. And so, we stopped the annual camping trips leaving our focus to life in the lowlands, the everyday. I like to think the laser sacred focus of the high Sierras and gathering in Creation with family remained seared in their hearts and minds. I know it did for me and my brothers.

And I am reminded, especially during this journey season of Lent, how vital and life changing it is to find the high places every day.


 

 


“Messages of Hope”

Rev. Pam Brokaw, Sunday, February 7, 2021

Transfiguration Sunday


1 Corinthians 9: 16-23

In the Paul Newman film “Cool Hand Luke” the main character is imprisoned in a cruel jail run by ruthless people. They keep the peace with brutal and authoritarian ways. In one famous scene, the boss of the organization says to the beaten down hero who is a captive audience: “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”1 It’s a well-known line in movie history and it reminds me of a pivotal part of what the Apostle Paul is telling the Church of Corinth about ministry.

He’s talking about communication and connection. About being able to relate to one another. Paul takes time here to explain how important it is to meet people where they are. Without that, the words cannot stick…at least not in a constructive way.

We’re all more compelled to take in what someone has to say if the message is shared with respect and compassion and conveys the powerful ways of a God of just ways and deep and abiding love that is unconditional and with expectations.

Paul understands the importance of this. He has been called to bring the good news of Jesus Christ. These verses in First Corinthians almost give Paul a chameleon-like presence. He talks about how he takes on the qualities of the people he’s talking to so they can relate. He wants to convey he understands them. He is like them. He wants to be in conversation with them.

It’s not that Paul is not being true to himself or putting on a show. I believe he is giving up a bit of himself to get close enough to others to be heard.
Being a disciple to Paul is about connecting with folks so they can hear what he has to say and do something constructive with it. Otherwise, as a friend noted recently, one might as well be “howling at the moon.”

When I was in preaching class, we were taught that a good sermon is like a conversation. It’s not a one-sided kind of thing. It’s about a message that connects with the congregation with respect and a deep desire to reach deep into every heart and mind present. It’s about sharing the good news of how we are beloved children of God and God has expectations of us as well as blessings.

Paul’s calling, my calling, your calling from God is a message of hope that there is a good and honorable, descent and loving way to live our lives together. God is offering life to the world and so Paul is doing his best to convey God’s message in ways people can hear and take in, think about, and be inspired by.
Whenever I prepare a sermon, I try to think about how the message is going to connect with those hearing it. How will it be taken in by the people in the pews, I ask myself. The words may be interesting or woven with scholarly observation but that’s not anywhere near enough.

The message must inspire and touch a sacred nerve that gives people hope for transformation by the Holy Spirit. We all have that nerve. It’s called prevenient grace. It’s that spark of God in each one of us. We’re born with it. When we hear God’s truth that grace nerve feels something that is true and compelling.

We come to this place called church for many things. I believe, however, that ultimately, we seek a place of hope for something better than the ways of the world can provide on its own. As Paul said about his ministry, “I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.”2

Because when we come together connected by the word of God, the prospect for life changing transformation, healing and new life is more than possible.
Consider what Paul is saying about relating to people. One way to think about it is what it feels like to be sitting with someone at a party or gathering of some kind. Sometimes there can be that person who just seems to know everything and doesn’t really give anyone time to speak. You can’t wait to escape, right?

Paul understands God gave him an important mission and being successful is not about the freedom to monopolize the conversation. It’s about sharing the oxygen of the room so everyone can breathe in the Spirit. That’s what it means to give up a little of one’s freedom for the sake of the gospel.

Another way to say it is trying to walk in another person’s shoes. To listen. To understand. To find ways to relate to one another. I think that’s why there are so many different personalities in scripture. There are people we can relate to no matter what we are going through.

My friend and colleague Pastor Sandy Ward wrote recently about the relatability of God’s word as she encouraged her congregation to seek connection and healing through scripture and in connection with one another. What I heard her saying was that the power to mend brokenness is in unity grounded by the holy.

She said, “Be intentional about healing when brokenness overwhelms you. Enlist support to overcome what keeps you stuck. Give up what needs to be let go, and explore new pathways to a healthy body, mind, and spirit. Welcome those who seek you out and offer forgiveness and grace.”3

When I thought about gathering with you all today for worship, I felt the expectation that comes when I pick the scripture, the prayers, the music for worship. Preparing for church is like getting ready for a joyful gathering of friends and neighbors. It’s worship and a moment when we come together in the holy spirit of hope and gratitude. It’s time not to be wasted but to be revered as a moment of grace that grows grace and gets us thinking about our lives.

I think Paul is conveying this in these passages from First Corinthians. He wants to be with the people…all people. He wants to get close and share the good news in a way that can be gratefully heard. People will want to take it in with great gulps and almost levitate as God’s word lifts them to higher ground. With the closing prayer, they are moved and energized filled with sacred oxygen that blesses them throughout the week.

In this there is hope for no failure to communicate among disparate sides. In this, as Psalm 147 tells us, there is worship of the God who builds up and heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds and lifts the downtrodden.4

And the cool thing is this is our goal every week. To worship. To have the courage to open to others. To peel a bit of the veneer away and make room for holy message. To do it all for the sake of the gospel that we would all share in such blessings. Amen.


1 – Pearce, Donn and Pierson, Frank R., Nov. 1, 1967, Cool Hand Luke, Warner Brothers-Seven Arts.
2 – 1 Corinthians, The Bible, 9: 23.
3 – Ward, Rev. Sandy, Tumwater United Methodist Church Message, February 2021.
4 – Psalm 147, The Bible, 147:3 and 6.

 


“A New Season, An Ancient Season”

Rev. Pam Brokaw, Sunday, December 27, 2020

First Sunday After Christmas


Isaiah 61:10-62:3, New Revised Standard Version

10 I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,
my whole being shall exult in my God;
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
11 For as the earth brings forth its shoots,
and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,
so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise
to spring up before all the nations.

62 For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent,
and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest,
until her vindication shines out like the dawn,
and her salvation like a burning torch.
The nations shall see your vindication,
and all the kings your glory;
and you shall be called by a new name
that the mouth of the Lord will give.
You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord,
and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.

___________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Last week our Season of Advent concluded as Christmas arrived, and we celebrated the birth of the baby Jesus Christ. It has been a season of traditional preparation, but also, for safety sake, from a physical distance. For many it has felt like a time of exile like the Old Testament Prophet Isaiah talked about but with a present time twist. A painful twist of exile from family and friends. Exile from restaurants and movies. Exile from co-workers. From touch. From sharing meals in person.

And now, there is hope for a new season. Hang in there, we tell one another. A new season is coming.

Even as we say those words, the fatigue is there. We are weary. We yearn for things the way they used to be. We want an instantaneous New Year with the snap of our fingers heralding that moment when 2020 becomes 2021. We are ready but also running on empty and wondering how to soldier on until the new season is here.

But the season that is coming is really an ancient season. It’s a season the Prophet Isaiah spoke about as he encouraged the exiled Israelites to think of their return to Jerusalem like people joyfully preparing for a wedding celebration.

“As a bridegroom decks himself with garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels,” Isaiah states as he inspires the exiled people to think of their return to the impoverished and destroyed city of Jerusalem.[1] God will help you build something new.

Two days after Christmas Day, I wonder how we are all doing. How are you doing blessed people of the church? I can tell you my heart is full as I think about the blessings in the new season that is coming. I also, perhaps like many of you, have little in reserves. My tank is empty. And so, the idea of thinking about coming out of exile as like planning for a wedding makes me even more fatigued. There is so much to do. Aside from my own, I have helped plan two major weddings in recent years. Both were for my daughters. I look at photographs of those days and I remember how beautiful my girls were and are now.

I also recall those preparations did not always bring out the best in our planning efforts. There was stress. Things didn’t go well. Expectations were sometimes over the top.

When my eldest daughter was married the day of the big event was emotionally charged and full of expectation.

We had all assembled at a hotel and my husband Don and I were laying out our clothing. When we opened the box of Don’s rented tuxedo and other accessories, it was clear that the pants were for someone much shorter than he. Don is 6 feet 4. The cummerbund was grey velvet instead of a conversative black and the shoes had rounded tops and were shiny patent leather. They really looked like clown shoes in Don’s size 14 feet. When I called the rental place to get things fixed, I was told there was nothing they could do.

It was one of those rare times where I lost my composure. When the immediate and regrettable phone call was over…I think Don might have removed the phone from my hand at some point…dear friends figured out what to do. One whipped out a sewing kit and turned the pants from peddle pushers to acceptable high waters. Another took my youngest daughter out to buy her a dress. (My youngest daughter had arrived at the last minute after saying she wasn’t coming. In jeans, she needed something to wear and my friend bought her a dress. She did, however, insist on wearing her heavy Doc Martin boots under her new gown.)

In the end, the wedding was most amazing, and it happened despite all kinds of issues and a very frazzled mother of the bride. So, when I think about the new season ahead for all of us, I know we’ll need to be rested from the turmoil of 2020. Especially if we think about planning for the new season as if it is a wedding.

That’s why I am taking several weeks off to rest, repair and prepare for the new season ahead. It’s not an unusual thing for pastors to do after the rush of the Advent Season. But this feels different and so much more needed after such a tumultuous year. I am grateful to have this time away.

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven,” Ecclesiastes tells us. This rings so true for me.[2]

We all have our stories of 2020. In my family, we lost my Dad in March and youngest brother shortly afterwards. Memorial services have been delayed until we can gather to celebrate their lives and reflect on the magnitude of what has happened. We are down to two siblings, now, my brother Mark and me, and in the past months we have spoken more on the phone than before. We have drawn closer out of this.

The past year has made us think about the importance of things we took for granted. In 2020, we endeavored to find ways to celebrate the seasons of our lives and continue the traditions of family and faith. Like the exiled Israelites, we did our best to make a home in the new place we found ourselves. Now we ask ourselves and our Creator, “Are we really going back home? Is it safe to be hopeful for a change in circumstance?”

As Isaiah heralds the coming of the Messiah, he reminds us that God is about doing new things in the most desperate of situations and for the relief of suffering people.

Celebrating the birth of the baby Jesus, is not complete until we assume our roles in the breaking through of a new season. We are to be people of hope summoned to build the kingdom in our hearts, minds, families and communities. Psalm 126 speaks joyfully: “May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy. Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.”[3]

In what we have been through and what we continue to go through, there is solace and inspiration when we trust in the power of a living God who walks among us and is leading us to a new season of life.

From Old Testament to New Testament and the Now Testament. God is with us.

Katherine C. Calore says this about these passages in Isaiah: “The passage foreshadows its Christian proclamation when one considers that even before the birth of Christ, God’s word was made flesh in those laborers who rebuilt temple and city, in those worshipers who sang and prayed, in those prophets who proclaimed the living Word, and in those families, who lived and loved in trust that the word of God already dwelt among them.”[4]

Just as we approach Christmas with great expectations for the Son of God, Jesus arrives with expectations for all of us.

The coming days, weeks and months will require our trust in God and love for one another. We also must care about ourselves by reflecting on how each of us is doing. This has been a traumatic and fearful year that required us to keep on going, figuring out how to live in this hard season often taking little time to rest. Putting food on the table, keeping businesses going, coping with divisive words of divided people, have taken their toll.

How then, do we move forward into a new season as God’s bruised and weary people? There is inspiration in Isaiah’s words that encouraged the people to make their way back to Jerusalem as if making joyful preparations for a wedding and new life.

“I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,
My whole being shall exult in my God;
For he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
He has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
As a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
And as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.”[5]

God has placed in us the power of the Holy Spirit to take us into the coming new season of life.

And God has given us instructions to rest and to treat one another with love. There is divine preparation in this.

We are to joyfully prepare ourselves as participants in a celebration excited about the new season ahead. As people fully committed to a new relationship with one another and with God.

As the church inspired by the Advent celebrations of the baby of hope, peace, joy and love.

In all these things, we begin preparations for the coming new season. May it be so. May our whole being exult in our God.


[1] Isaiah 61:10, The Bible, New Revised Standard Version
[2] Ecclesiastes 3:1, The Bible, New Revised Standard Version.
[3] Psalm 126:5-6, The Bible, New Revised Standard Version.
[4] Katherine C. Calore, Feasting on the Word.
[5] Isaiah 61:10, The Bible, New Revised Standard Version

 


“Humble Altar”

Rev. Pam Brokaw, Christmas Eve, December 24, 2020

Luke 1: 26-38 and Luke 2: 6-7, 8-16

It is a story of humble people in extraordinary circumstances…of divine angels, Cosmic Creator, and brilliantly good purpose. And tonight, we celebrate the birth of the star of this story…the baby Jesus.

His bed a manger, a feeding trough for animals, the baby’s makeshift cradle personifies one of the names Jesus will be known by, “the bread of life.” In fact, he is born in Bethlehem, a name translated in Hebrew as “house of bread.”

Everything we will need, this humble bread of a baby, rests there in the night. Chaos may abound elsewhere, but here he is, the Son of God, in a humble bed of an altar bringing hope and promise for something new.

While the baby sleeps and dreams and grateful parents look on, we are reminded of our role in this story. We are to carry it into the world. To tell this story of a humble birth and sacrificial life and what it means to us and all.

Pastors have many Christmas Eve stories. One of my favorites is the church Christmas Play when we forgot to bring a doll to portray the baby Jesus. That night, a congregation member had given me a freshly baked loaf of bread as a gift. We wrapped the still warm loaf in a dish cloth and Mary carried him in and laid him in the manger.

At the end of the service, the animals, the shepherds, Mary (holding the baby) and Joseph were supposed to file out. But Jesus was accidently left behind. I have a sweet memory of the diligent shepherd who stayed behind kneeling in his bathrobe to keep watch on the baby. He wouldn’t take his eyes of the little loaf until the service concluded and he carefully handed it to me after the service.

I’ve told this story before, so forgive me if you have heard it, but I’ve often thought about that moment when the bread of life appeared in a humble setting.  God is like that. You just never know what God will use as a place of worship and then appear.

I feel that way about tonight. Last year, when we worshipped inside the warm and beautifully decorated Sanctuary, we had no idea a year later we would be outside in our cars on a numbing December night with battery operated candles, a DJ with a sound system and the service transmitting through and FM Station.

But here we are in a less than perfect setting and yet it is a beautiful, humble gathering around an altar built of what was available. As a makeshift nursery was so long ago. Anything to tell the story. To carry the dream into the world as people have done for more than 2,000 years.

And this is what we do tonight in this humble setting. We huddle together to worship the baby in the cold evening air and pray for the world. The church lawn still crunches from the heavy morning frost that looked like snow earlier today. The people come anyway to our humble altar.

We remember other Christmas Eve stories. When soldiers sang Silent Night in frozen fox holes in a foreign place. Of people today without homes, who huddle under tarps along highways and under bridges. Of sick people battling a virus and those tending them. Of families and friends who worry. Of estranged people yearning to reconcile. The baby comes for all.

Tonight, we remember the moment the baby arrived who would tend to all who suffer and encourage everyone to be their better selves…their humble, loving and hopeful selves.

If we are faithful to the deep and transformative message of this moment, we will remember tonight as a Christmas Eve we saw the baby. We’ll catch a glimpse of him in something or someone. In the candles we lit symbolizing the light of Christ. In the neighbor in the car next to us singing praises to the little bread of life.

Or perhaps, you will feel something different deep inside…a warmth that transcends the December chill and damp…a feeling of gratitude for a humble altar and the spectacular message it embodies and invites you to share.

Glory to God in the highest heaven,

And on earth peace among those whom he favors!

Merry Christmas Church!

 

 

 


“Witnesses to The Light”

Rev. Pam Brokaw, Sunday, December 13, 2020

Third Sunday in Advent

 Gospel of John 1: 6-8, 19-28

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.

19 This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20 He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.”[a] 21 And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” 22 Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 23 He said,

“I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’”

as the prophet Isaiah said.

24 Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. 25 They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah,[b] nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” 26 John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, 27 the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” 28 This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.

___________________________________________________________________________________________________________

In the bookcase of my home office, I have a small bottle of water from the Jordan River. It was given to me by congregation members who had traveled to the Holy Land. On the bottle are written the words: “This water is for religious purposes only. (Not for drinking.)”

I’ve had the bottle for several years. I’ve used it to baptize people. But looking at it today I can see some particles floating around in it and I suspect it is probably time to return its contents to the earth. The point is the bottle of water has a memory attached to it. It reminds me of John the Baptist baptizing people in the Jordan River more than 2000 years ago. John took action. He led by example. He is more than a story we read about or contemplate. Just as that bottle of water is not meant to sit on a shelf.

In my message last week in Oakville, I spoke of John the Baptist, the scrappy prophet whose divine mission was to announce the coming of the Messiah. According to the Gospel of Matthew, it’s John the Baptizer’s preordained job to let people know Jesus is coming and they must make ready.

“Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near,” John cries out in the wilderness as people gather to be baptized in the river.[1] The long-awaited Savior is coming but the people have a role to play, too. Preparing to meet Jesus means preparing themselves. They must turn toward God and make an honest accounting of themselves. They must repent expressing sincere regret for wrongdoing and harmful ways.

Today, we also prepare for the coming of the Messiah. We prepare to celebrate the birth of the baby, Jesus, who transforms the world through just and loving ways. We also prepare ourselves for his return. We do not know when that will be, but Scripture tells us we must be ready.

Today’s Scripture reading from the Gospel of John, further defines the role of John the Baptist which prepares the way for us, too. He is a witness to the light. We are to be witnesses as well.

The Gospel tells us: There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.[2]

This Gospel presents John as a first witness to the power of the Good News. He is a courageous, passionate witness who shakes things up. There will be many who will follow as witnesses to the light—something all believers are called to do. We do this in our own ways.

Some witnesses are like John, fierce and fiery. Some quietly model the healing ways of Christ. Others are tenacious witnesses to Christ’s just ways as they peacefully march and advocate. Others faithfully continue to be the church during harsh times. All endeavor to point to the light of Christ. There is not just one way to be a witness to the light.

Professor Karoline Lewis observes that “John the Witness reminds us of the importance of pointing to even the tiniest light and saying “Look, behold, the Lamb of God!” [3]

She goes on to question what witnessing to the light means this time of year, “In this season of Advent that is typically described as one of preparation, what does it mean to prepare? Maybe, preparation means simply adjusting our eyes to see light when there seems to be none. God calls us to be witnesses like John who point to Jesus and say “Look!” so that all might know God’s pastures of peace. Perhaps pointing and saying, “Look!” can be our preparing the way.”[4]

Sometimes, it seems like it’s impossible to be a witness. When we are suffering and down the light may seem so dim and almost impossible to comprehend. I’ve been there grieving and wondering how to put one foot in front of the other let alone point to light I cannot see or see “oh so dimly but need so desperately.” This is another reason we point to the light of Christ…we do this for others just as people did it for me and perhaps you as well.

We can get caught up in how we witness to the point that we don’t at all. And people need us to witness to the light. This is not just about us…you or me…it’s about others who need witnesses to the light who are unable to do so for themselves. When we joyfully point to the light of Christ it doesn’t matter where or how we do so.

The pandemic has darkened so much but Christ’s light burns all the while. Some people can’t bring themselves to gather safely outdoors, for example, in outdoor worship. “That’s not worship,” some say. “I just can’t do that.” But another way to think about outdoor worship or on-line worship or programs designed to help people that require masks and other safety procedures, is that these are ways to point to the light.

After nine long months of navigating through the pandemic darkness, we can all use some light. When our churches closed to indoor worship it was a hard stop, like taking a rough fall that takes time to get up from.

I remember when I was 10, I was riding my bike down at the school with my brother Mark. It’s important to note we did not wear safety helmets back then. We were zipping along the asphalt covered playground and I turned to say something to my brother. I looked away for only a moment and my head slammed into a tether ball pole. It was a hard and painful fall but fortunately I recovered after comfort from our Mother, some antiseptic and a promise on my part to be more careful. I still think about that moment, though, what it felt like to hit so hard, fall so hard and struggle to get up.

Our churches have been like that. When the pandemic hit last Spring, we were busily preparing for Easter Sunday. Announcements for membership classes were posted. A sermon series was under way. When we closed to indoor gatherings it was like slamming into a tether ball pole…and much worse. In many ways, we are still struggling to get up and wondering when things will return to normal.

But in the past months we have continued to be witnesses to the light. We’ve evangelized. We’ve shared the Good News. This is how we witness to the light.

In her Advent Devotional, Light of the World, Amy-Jill Levine quotes St. Francis and his understanding of evangelizing and witnessing. He said, “Preach the gospel at all times, and if necessary, use words.”[5]

And Levine says, “The best way of evangelizing is not to tell the potential convert, “Here’s what’s wrong with your tradition.” The best way to evangelize is to show that potential convert, “Here’s what’s right about my tradition. Here’s how it prompts toward action: here’s how it consoles.”

Last Sunday night, with the help of our Rochester United Methodist Church Trustees, we held a service outside as we lit up the church and outdoor Christmas Tree. Folks drove up in their cars to safely attend, honking and waving battery operated candles as we witnessed to the light.

That morning, we gathered outdoors at Oakville UMC for worship, lighting the Advent Candles of Hope and Peace and witnessing to the light. Next Sundays, we will worship outdoors at Drive-In Church on December 20 at Rochester at 11 a.m. We will witness to the light. Christmas Eve we will gather the same way at 6 p.m. for a candlelight service.

Just as John the Baptist was undaunted in his witnessing, we will continue to keep our eyes on what matters…the sacred light of Jesus. He has brought us this far…through nine months of scrambling to get up and worship and minister. But we are doing it. We are his witnesses. We keep getting up and pointing to the light.

Scripture tells us there are many ways to witness. As he preached in the wilderness, John the Baptist told the people that someone was coming and bringing the fire of the Holy Spirit. I see that fire in many places.

In the lights on our church. In the little candles people held in the darkness as the church lights lit up the night sky. In the vehicles and all of you in our parking lot on Sundays. In our new take-away dinner program first and third Sundays that is safely feeding people and providing fellowship until we can gather again in-person.

There is light in the prospect of our new program beginning early next year that will provide hurting people in our community with basic resources such as bedding and kitchen utensils, paper products and toiletries. In all of this, we are witnesses to the light.

This past year we have stumbled and been knocked down, but we never stopped witnessing. And you know how we become these witnesses? We are shaped and formed by those who came before…the people in our lives who provided examples to us.

I mentioned my mother earlier and how she held me in her arms after I took a bad fall. She showed me care and compassion. She would do this many times. Who is on your list? And if there is no-one, remember we have examples going back to ancient times…Mary, mother of Jesus and Elizabeth and Zachariah, parents of John the Baptist, John the preacher and first witness, and the light himself, Jesus the Christ. There are witnesses to the light here today. They cook for and feed people. They are preparing to stock the church with blankets and pots and pans, sheets and basic living needs to help people.  May Christ’s light burn within you and may we all find ways, each day, to be witnesses to his light. There are many, many ways. Amen.


[1] Matthew 3: 2, The Bible, New Revised Standard Version.
[2] John 1: 6-8, The Bible, New Revised Standard Version.
[3] Karoline Lewis, Commentary on John 1: 6-8, 19-28, Working Preacher, Dec. 11, 2011.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Amy-Jill Levine, Light of the World.

 

 


“Peace in the Wilderness”

Rev. Pam Brokaw, December 6, 2020

The Second Sunday In Advent

The Gospel reading the Second Sunday in Advent is a fiery message preached in the wilderness by a scrappy prophet whose divine mission is to announce the coming of the Prince of Peace. It’s John the Baptizer’s preordained job to let people know Jesus is coming and they must make ready.

“Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near,” John cries out in the wilderness as people gather to be baptized in the Jordan River.[1] The long-awaited Savior is coming but the people have a role to play, too. Preparing to meet Jesus means preparing themselves. They must turn toward God and make an honest accounting of themselves. They are to repent expressing sincere regret for wrongdoing and harmful ways.

Today, we also prepare for the coming of the Messiah. We prepare to celebrate the birth of the baby, Jesus, who will transform the world through just and loving ways. We also prepare ourselves for his return. We do not know when that will be, but Scripture tells us we must be ready.

John’s words ring true today: “I baptize you with[b] water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with[c] the Holy Spirit and fire.”[2]

Today, one way we prepare for the coming of the Messiah is by contemplating those moments in the wilderness. John had provocative words for a divided community of haves and have-nots, powerful and poor. He shook things up. It didn’t matter who you were, then or today, what matters is a commitment to lives that bear divine fruit born out of each person’s commitment to sacred transformation. There were some at the river that day who were not honest about their motives. John had a warning for them and us today.

The Advent Candles remind us that Advent, which means “coming,” is about preparing for the coming of the Savior. It is an affirmation that hope, peace, joy and love are fruit of transformed lives. When we light the candles each week, we affirm our faith in a Savior who is working in our lives and in the world for good. We also affirm our commitment to Christ’s ways by changing our own.

There is a blessed promise of peace in this.

This time of year, the word peace is something we find often in Scripture and on banners and cards, ornaments and in song lyrics. But how do we find it in our own lives? Honest repentance is a start.

This past week, members of both churches I pastor in Oakville and Rochester, lighted candles for the on-line service we create each week as part of the South Sound Co-Op of churches.[3] At Oakville United Methodist Church, members also decorated the old Oakville UMC Sanctuary built in 1889. They hung banners and set up the Advent Wreath and they hoisted the “Peace on Earth” banner at the entrance of the Sanctuary. These gentle, worshipful acts have been repeated for decades as a testament to faith and tradition and the ways of Christ.

We all stopped for a moment and admired the banner of blue cloth with white angels and the words: “Peace on Earth Goodwill to Men.” We had paused earlier as Jim White lifted the Peace banner high above the pews. We looked up in appreciation as the sun filtered through the stained-glass windows. It was a moment to breathe, give thanks and be grateful.

“Peace,” the sign reminded us. I like to think we all had a moment of peace in the Sanctuary hanging the greens, lighting candles, and knowing we had not given up on these promises of the season.

In 2 Peter 3: 8-15. we’re told that with the Lord, one day is like a thousand years and a thousand years is like one day.[4] We don’t know when the Lord will come again, but it’s vital that we live our best lives worthy of John’s message of how to be prepared by taking stock of our lives. We also have the gift of Christ’s loving examples of how to live while we’re waiting. Christ may return today or a thousand years from now. In the meantime, the Scripture says, we need to strive for peace without “spot or blemish.”

I have come to know that a state of peace is the dwelling place of hope, and joy, love and gratitude. All abide together in a place of wholeness God wants for us and gathers us to as he leads us still out of the wilderness of today.

We often think of peace as an absence of conflict…but it is a holy wholeness in which we become humble and thankful people who love God and one another despite differences and circumstances.

In our individual acts of repentance and commitment to Christ, we are lovingly bound to Christ and one another no matter the darkness. There is great peace in this that gives us strength come what may.

We will have wilderness times, as we have learned in the past year, but the peace of Christ, affirmed by lighting the Second Candle of Advent, burns as brightly as the fire in the eyes of John the Baptist. John knew someone was coming who baptizes us in the Holy Spirit and fire. We know that person was the Lord, Jesus Christ, whose return we prepare for even now.

While we wait for his return, Christ has given us a directive as he calls us to the peace of loving connection to God and one another. This is an act of repentance and sign of fruit.

A recent Upper Room Devotional reflects on the Second Sunday of Advent when we traditionally light the candle of peace. The devotional invites us to reflect on the words of the Prophet Isaiah 40: 1-11 who promises a divine road home.[5] For those of us weary of wandering, these are comforting words.

The prophet Isaiah is encouraging the exiled people of Jerusalem who have been without peace or a home for so long. Isaiah, who also predicted John’s ministry in the wilderness, speaks about journey and finding a way home. It is about how God always shows us the way and gently holds us as we make our way together.

Like a shepherd he pastures his flock: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them in his bosom…” Isaiah writes.[6]

We, too, are people on a journey, sometimes lost in a great wilderness of the world today…especially these past long months. Thankfully, the Advent Season, its traditions and Scripture of divine promise, help us find our way to the manger and what it means for all the earth: Peace.


[1] Matthew 3: 2, The Bible, New Standard Revised Version.
[2] Ibid, 3:11.
[3] https://youtu.be/eUC7i2a_qd0
[4] 2 Peter 3: 8-15, The Bible, New Revised Standard Version.
[5] Isaiah 40: 1-11, The Bible, New Revised Standard Version
[6] Ibid, 11.

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