Weekly Words of Wisdom – Sermon 2-21-21

Sermon 2-21-21      The Rev. Jen Van Zandt

Matthew 4:1-11 (Version: The Message)

“Next Jesus was taken into the wild by the Spirit for the Test. The Devil was ready to give it. Jesus prepared for the Test by fasting forty days and forty nights. That left him, of course, in a state of extreme hunger, which the Devil took advantage of in the first test: “Since you are God’s Son, speak the word that will turn these stones into loaves of bread.” 4 Jesus answered by quoting Deuteronomy: “It takes more than bread to stay alive. It takes a steady stream of words from God’s mouth.” 5-6 For the second test the Devil took him to the Holy City. He sat him on top of the Temple and said, “Since you are God’s Son, jump.” The Devil goaded him by quoting Psalm 91: “He has placed you in the care of angels. They will catch you so that you won’t so much as stub your toe on a stone.” 7 Jesus countered with another citation from Deuteronomy: “Don’t you dare test the Lord your God.” 8-9 For the third test, the Devil took him to the peak of a huge mountain. He gestured expansively, pointing out all the earth’s kingdoms, how glorious they all were. Then he said, “They’re yours—lock, stock, and barrel. Just go down on your knees and worship me, and they’re yours.” 10 Jesus’ refusal was curt: “Beat it, Satan!” He backed his rebuke with a third quotation from Deuteronomy: “Worship the Lord your God, and only him. Serve him with absolute single-heartedness.” 11 The Test was over. The Devil left. And in his place, angels! Angels came and took care of Jesus’ needs.”

“Love of the Most Difficult Kind”

There’s an old expression that says by the time we wake up Satan has already read the paper and had breakfast. This is a reaffirmation of Matthew’s narrative, because Jesus, in the previous chapter, the story right before this one, has just been baptized.  He’s ready to commence his vocation.  He’s anointed and empowered by God to carry out God’s purposes.  He’s ready.  He’s willing. He’s able to begin God’s word of fulfilling all righteousness. While on retreat, (while He’s preparing and prepping heart and soul for His calling), the Devil is alsoready and willing to carry out hismission: to see whether Jesus, in his vulnerable state of starvation, will still remain faithful to His calling, to carrying out God’s will.

In all three temptations, (and they get increasingly grandiose), Jesus does not use his stature, his role or his birthright or even his lineage to battle Satan.  But we do.  The minute that we’re challenged or threatened or feel our agenda is at risk of not getting accomplished, what we want – the way we want it, we pull rank.  We claim our ‘years of expertise’, our education, our pedigree, our perceived wealth or stature.  

I read a cute quip the other day about the Queen, who in her younger years was having a bit of a squabble with the Queen Mother.  Exasperated the Queen Mum finally said to Queen Elizabeth, “Who do you think you are?”  And Elizabeth replied, “The Queen, Mummy,I’m the Queen!”  While we certainly don’t carry that pedigree, we too are very keen on elevating ourselves above the other all too quickly and all too often. 

Imagine if we rework this narrative and Satan tempts Jesus to turn the stone into bread and Jesus replies, “I’m not going to do that, after all I’m Jesus the Christ!” Would that have stopped the debate?  No.  It would have only fueled the power struggle.  Jesus outsmarts Satan instead with scripture in Deuteronomy, which of course, is irrefutable.  “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” or in The Message, which is what we read this morning, “It takes a steady stream of words from God’s mouth.”  Here’s my question for all of us in this first week of Lent:  What steady stream of words and thoughts are coming from our mouths?

In the second example, Satan steps up his game by quoting a portion of Psalm 91, claiming that God’s angels will catch Jesus if He just leaps from the pinnacle of the Temple.  You know as mere mortals, when we get pushed, goaded to prove our power, our worthiness, our brilliance, we find ourselves behaving not like tekna theou(children of God). No, we just act like brats. So here’s my second question: Think about the last time that you flexed your muscle to prove your value, your worth that you were right?  Be honest in this time of Lent, it was probably within last 24 hours.  

Satan’s not making progress with Jesus but we’re already in Satan’s grip (not that we ever want to admit that). But now the devil is going to tempt Jesus too, with power and wealth and control just in exchange for worshiping Satan. For Jesus this actually is a no-brainer.  In Peterson’s version, Jesus’ retort is like the tallest, strongest kid on the playground, seeing the bully and sending him away empty-handed.  “Beat it Satan!”  Jesus has got this well in hand.  He knows how to resist Satan, especially when Satan is resisting God’s purposes.  

So here’s my last question: In this first week of Lent, how are we, in thought, word and deed resisting God’s purposes?  How are our egos being sidetracked from living out our baptisms? It’s a hard question and it’s a tall order, I know.  But, again, Peterson’s language gives us a rich insight into how Jesus beats back the bully; beats back Satan.  He says, “Worship the Lord God and serve Him.”  And in Peterson’s language, “With absolute

single heartedness, serve the Lord with absolute single-heartedness.”  If we did nothing else this Lent, even just this day, if we served God with absolute single-heartedness, the angels would be delighted to attend to us as well.  May it be so.  Amen

Weekly Words of Wisdom 2-17-21 – Sermon Ash

Sermon 2-17-21      Rev Jen Van Zandt

Ash Wednesday Meditation 

Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth; break forth, O mountains, into singing!  For the Lord has comforted his people, and will have compassion on his suffering ones.  But Zion said, “The Lord has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me.”  Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb?  Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.  See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands;”  Isaiah 46:13-16  

A year ago, this night, more than 60 of us pinned these little “cranes of hope” on a cross that was here on the Chancel, pinning our hopes on Jesus, as we started our Lenten journey.  And then we crammed ourselves in small circles up here in the Chancel and down on the floor.  WOW! Little did we know how much HOPE, (which was our theme last year), would be a theme that we would wrestle with all Lent…all year…and still are.  Tonight, we have a different format, a different service, a different focus, driven in great part because of where we, the country and the whole world still

find ourselves.  It feels, and has felt like, a terrifying, and often boring waiting game… and it still is.  

One of the Elders gave a great devotional at our February Session meeting, inviting us to see the good that has come out of last year and what might be possible as a result.  I want to bounce this point off of us as we commence Lent tonight.   If we look at the past year, no one can say that we were always our best selves.  Our nerves, our energy, our resources and our patience were all put to the test on a daily and sometimes hourly basis.  So, this is the perfect time for us to step back and take stock of all the ways in which we did not, and do not,love our neighbors as ourselves, and love God with all of our heart and our soul and our mind. This, in part at least, is because, quite frankly we were going out of our minds, but now is really the time to be honest.

I was talking with someone on Zoom a few weeks ago and I said, “How are you guys doing?  How are you hanging in?  And she said, “Great. We’re doing great.”  “Terrific!”  (As she made a gesture of strangling with her hands).  Jesus commands us to “Love God with all your heart, soul and mind” and then he also adds in “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  The first is because he’s trying to ‘school’ the scribes and Pharisees intent on tripping him up and fingering  him as a defiant, unfaithful Jew.  But the problem with Jesus’ commandments is that they’re linked, fully connected and they’re really, really, really hard.  In our secret little worlds where we want to think better of ourselves than we ought, everyone (except for truly evil people) can at least get halfof Jesus’ commandments right.  We all know people who are religiously faithful, but start to gossip the minute they leave the church or the temple. We also all know people who are good humanitarians or who have a heart for social justice, but have no deference, let alone love of God.  The challenge for us as believers is that these two commandments are inseparable.  Failure to honor and obey bothof these commandments makes us duplicitous and fake.  The writer of 1st John actually says this a little more plainly in chapter 4 verse 20.  The writer says, “Those who do not love brothers and sisters who they do see, cannot love God who they cannot see.”  

My friends, the invitation to Lent this year is simple. We need to stop being so stingy with our love; stingy in loving others; stingy in loving God and stingy even in loving ourselves.  Of course, you already may be with Israel who is at the opposite end of this spectrum.  Sometimes we think too wellof ourselves. Sometimes though we are so ridden with guilt that we can barely get out of bed in the morning.  Isaiah is writing about the deep lament that Israel is singing and crying about. That their sinfulness–their disobeying of God which put them into exile–is actually irrevocable. How many of us are either carrying guilt and shame from events that we did long, long ago, or carrying hostility of what happened or was done to us?  

This is the night that can begin a journey of healing, of discovery, of hope and of freedom.  All we have to do is give ourselves over fully, to the love and the forgiveness that we find in Christ Jesus.  I’m not saying that’s easy, but it is the only path to freedom.  It’s the only thing that holds us back from unconditional love that God freely gives to us.  Don’t trust it?  Don’t believe it? You should.  You know why?  Because your name, all of our names are etched in the palm of God’s hand.  

That’s why tonight, we are inviting you to impose ashes in your palm and not on your forehead; to look to see and to acknowledge all about you and me and where we need deep forgiveness, deep restoration and full freedom.  I pray that we all have the courage to take this step and really truly start our Lenten journey. Amen.

Weekly Words of Wisdom 2-10-21

Sermon 2-7-21           The Rev. Jen Van Zandt   

Matthew 15:10-20  

Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, “Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.”  Then the disciples approached and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?”  He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted.  Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind.  And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.”  But Peter said to him, “Explain this parable to us.”  Then he said, “Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?  But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles.  For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander.  These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”

Intent and Action of the Heart

I apologize that the bulletin that you received this week actually had the first part of Matthew 15, but as I started working on the sermon, I realized that the heart of the matter really is in this second section.  And so we have jumped into the middle of Matthew’s depiction of Jesus having a healthy debate with scribes and Pharisees—a debate about purity.  And they are trying to trip up Jesus and the disciples; trying to call them out because of not being “faithful Jews” by not washing their hands before they eat.  But… since we are all washing our hands about twenty times a day, I’m not really sure that reviewing that part of the text is helpful.  But looking at what comes out of our mouths in both words and actions isworth looking at.  

In this past year we have seen deplorable, unconscionable words and actions all over the place, including regular accounts of nasty confrontations and behaviors in supermarkets of all places.  Shouting matches.  People spitting and coughing on other patrons, security officers and even fist fights, especially when tensions were running high earlier in the year and supplies were at an all-time low.  Something has gotten buried, lost; certainly, a sense of civility over basic courtesy and even societal kindness.  

I went to the supermarket twice this week.  And actually, two separate supermarkets. One was to pick up prescriptions for my parents.  And yesterday I had to get some items for my Super Bowl party… of one. So when I went to the first store, as I was nearing the entrance, this tall man kept turning around and looking at me. I thought he was looking at the person behind me.  He said to me, “Didn’t I just see you in West Orange?”  And I said, “No.” And he said, “I could have sworn I saw you in West Orange!”  I said, “No, but everybody has a twin.  Maybe you saw my twin. My evil twin.”  We chuckled and went on separate ways.   

Then on the way out, a man in front of me was going down the same aisle in the parking lot that I was and I couldn’t stop looking at his shoes.  They were most unique, crazy-colored sneakers I had ever seen.  And then he caught me looking at his shoes and he had a strange look on his face and so I said, “Hey, I love those shoes!”  He said, “Oh, thanks.”  And then he got in his car.  (I was parked right next to him).  He rolled down the window and he said, “You know, I like your shoes, too.” He hadn’t seen them, he was just being nice.  I cracked up and said, “Yeh, they’re about twenty-five years old, but thanks.”  That’s the civility that I’m looking for and hoping, someday that we get back to.

But then yesterday, actually last night, I had to go to another supermarket close to me to get, again, to get some items.  And, because it was late, there were very few cashiers.    I had more than 20 items so I had to go to a cashier. The lines for the few cashiers open were all backing up into the aisles. But just then, another cashier showed up and opened up another lane. So the person in front of me, instead of going straight to the cashier that we were lined up for, went into newly opened line.  I waited.  I stretched my back. I said some prayers over the weather.  And then this well-heeled, young couple came and jumped into the newly opened lane.  There were already two people behind me in the aisle and I just said, “Excuse me.”  I said, “The line actually is behind me.”  He said, “Well, aren’t you special.  Who decided to make you the director of traffic at the supermarket?”  And I said nothing. I was so gob smacked I didn’t know what to say.  And then he got in line two behind me.  And now I’m waiting to give the lady who is cashing out some space to gather herself so that I’m not on top of her.  And he’s still barking at me—“Come on.  You’re still holding up the line.  You’re still standing there?  You still haven’t moved up!!”  And he kept at it, and at it, and at it.  

I moved to an open lane and unloaded my groceries.  I had an pleasant greeting with the cashier.  We never discussed it.  But driving home, I thought of all the things I wanted to say to him.  And not only was it him, it was his wife.  His wife was giggling at the way he was taunting me.  Maybe it was my old shoes or my old hat or my weight or my blue glasses or just because I wasn’t moving fast enough.  But, good Lord!  I thought of all the things I wanted to say and I actually said them out loud in the car, one by one.  You know how you do that?  When someone says something nasty to you and it’s not until you get into your car and drive away that you think of the right response?  I said all of the responses I could think of, out loud until I realized that somewhere deep inside this guy’s heart, he’s hurting–because hurt people hurt.  Wounded people wound.  Abused people abuse.  It took me awhile to shake it off when I got home.  But when I got back to the text, I realized that we all have to cleanse our hearts so that even the responses in our brains are not trading evil for evil, nastiness for nastiness, but to actually have compassion and mercy.

So, on a happier note, I don’t know whether or not you caught this.  On Friday when I was going through my news feed, I found that there was an article about one of our own restaurants here in Boonton, right on Main Street.  It’s called i2i.  It used to be the space of Vinnie’s Pizzeria, but now they have combined the space.  As it turns out, Mickey Chopra, who is the owner of i2i, was discovered by Dr. Oz.  Dr. Oz did a segment on his show, which aired on Friday about Mickey Chopra.  The name of the segment is called “Rescue Restaurants” or something like that.  And so Dr. Oz shows up at i2i and Mickey, the owner of the restaurant, was so surprised he got goose bumps!  The segment shows a dialogue between Mickey and Dr Oz and Mickey was making about $100 a day or less in restaurant purchases, but Mickey still kept at it.  He started sending meals to local hospital emergency workers.  He sent pizza pies to the Mountain Lakes Police Department.  And this caught on.  So then he got a call one day from a man who said, “Here’s $500 on my credit card.  Go buy meals for whoever needs them.”  Mickey too, has already been making donations to Loaves & Fishes! And so… if you haven’t seen this segment, go on Dr. Oz and look at it, because even our very own Marilyn Ward was on national television, for about 10 seconds.  But she was included in that segment because Loaves & Fishes was one of the many recipient of Mickey’s kindness and his actions.  Dr. Oz asked him, “So what got you through this, Mickey?”  And he immediately said, “My faith.”  The segment contuse with more surprises. He received a proclamation from Boonton’s Mayor and a warm congratulations from Anthony Bucco, our senator. DoorDash  is giving him a $10,000 grant.  He was bowled over with surprise after surprise. But the most important thing is that he kept saying, “God heard my prayers. God heard my prayers”.

Now not every restaurant owner is having that same experience or even that same experience of faith.  It’s not what we take in that defiles.  It’s what we speak, what we say, and what we do that defiles.  

So today, my friends, we have the opportunity to start over again and to cleanse our hearts of all those things; the hostilities we have for people who are not like us, the hostilities for all the things and all the disappointments that have gone awry this year.  But we have an opportunity to come to this table, because this table is not just bread and juice.  It’s not just a ritual.  It’s an active witness that we believe that God’s heart is at the table waiting to meet us and cleanse us.  It’s a place where we can confess our faith, repent our shortcomings and renew our vows to be faithful Christians. This table is a testament to God’s redemptive work in us, and all of creation, including the man and his wife at the supermarket.  The table is a gathering up of all God’s people: past and present and future; all who want to move towards a coming joy and a full reign of justice–a new heaven and a new earth. 

I learned recently that in Hong Kong even today when people meet each other, they don’t say, “How are you?”  What they say is, “Have you eaten?”  My friends, have you eaten?  Because if you haven’t, now is the time to start again and bring all those things into us that are love and patience and kindness, so we can bring those things to our neighbors and our foes.  May it be so. Amen.

Weekly Words of Wisdom 2-3-21

Sermon 1-31-21 The Rev Jen Van Zandt

Psalm 62  

For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation. 2 He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall never be shaken. 3 How long will you assail a person, will you batter your victim, all of you, as you would a leaning wall, a tottering fence? 4 Their only plan is to bring down a person of prominence. They take pleasure in falsehood; they bless with their mouths, but inwardly they curse. 5 For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from him. 6 He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be shaken. 7 On God rests my deliverance and my honor; my mighty rock, my refuge is in God. 8 Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us. 9 Those of low estate are but a breath, those of high estate are a delusion; in the balances they go up; they are together lighter than a breath. 10 Put no confidence in extortion, and set no vain hopes on robbery; if riches increase, do not set your heart on them.

“Alone”

Like all psalms that have a title, Psalm 62 has a title that caught my eye.  It’s called “A Song of Trust in God Alone”…  “A Song of Trust in God Alone”.  Depending on one’s mood, we

might either be drawn into one of those words, like “Trust” or “Song” or just move on.  I was drawn into the word Alone

Whether we live alone or with a spouse or children or grandchildren or our parents, we still really deal with everything alone; how we worry and think about the future; how we dwell about the past; what we feel about our vocations, finances, our kids, our health, our dreams, and our faith.  And while some of these things may be shared with another, ultimately what we do about that and how we think about them, is by ourselves. Alone. It’s a singular experience. But whether you are in agreement with your loved ones or at odds about anything—faith, children, politics, habits, routines, finances, thoughts, fears–we actually aren’talone, because we know God is with us in all of it.

Oh wait that’s not Psalm 62, that’s Psalm 139.  This psalm, Psalm 62 is actually a psalm proclaiming trust in God as rock and refuge, alone, as in: not relying on any other sourceor resource to endure and enjoy one’s life.  One description of this psalm says it’s “an individual recounting a personal experience of quietly enduring adversityas a lesson for others about trust and prayer and finding refuge in God.”  

Just imagine your faith, your speech and your actions are so in line with God that you model this for others; quietly enduring adversity,trusting prayer and finding refuge, not in worldly things, but in and solely in God.  This psalmist isn’t caught up, (as I was), in the thinking of “alone”(as in singular or sad or even isolated).  The psalmist is proclaiming aloneas a good thing, a sure thing.

James Luther Mays, who’s an expert on the Psalms, retitles this psalm  “My Soul Waits for God Alone.”  He actually counts the number of times the word “alone” is used in this psalm. Six verses:  “God alone”in verse 1;” He aloneis my rock”, verse 2; “For alonemy soul awaits in silence”, verse  5; “Healoneis my rock and my salvation”, verse 6 and so on.  But here’s the cool part.  The Hebrew word “yah-ach” is not the word for alone.  yah-ach” actually doesn’t translate as alone, but “surely”. The Hebrew dictionary defines “yah-ach” as an adverb which is “an emphatic belief of what’s about to follow, an expression of truth”.  You may recognize this adverb more commonly when it is used in the 23rdPsalm, “Surelygoodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life”. James L Mays states that these words are: “ an exhortation to the congregation to put their trust in God rather than in human beings and money”.  Walter Brueggemann states it even more harshly: “a violent intent to make life secure.”  We may not necessarily like that description “violent attempts to make life secure”, but all of us at least, have controlling and even subversive attempts to get what we want, because we think that’s what we need to give us a feeling of security and peace.  You may still rail at this, but if we’re honest with ourselves, there are plentyof examples where we choose for ourselves without thought or care for the other. Walter Brueggemann says this psalmist, thus, is “wrestling not only with forces of evil but with his or her own fears”.

Of all the disturbing headlines that we see day in and day out, you may have heard the story of a couple in Vancouver who chartered a private jet to fly into a separate territory in the Yukon to get the Covid vaccine and displace elderly indigenous peoples. They put themselves first, with all their assets, because they were living in such a deep place of fear.  Now maybe our actions are not that hostile or flagrant, but what lies in our hearts and our faith, it’s not only a lack of confidence in ourselves; it’s a lack of confidence in God.  Walter Brueggemann again, says “apart from God’s strength, the psalmist (and we) can really not be sure of anything except our own weakness.

I was at the supermarket yesterday like probably many of you, scampering with the anxiety that we’re about to have a big a snow storm.  Before COVID, we all looked forward to a snow storm! It was an excuse to maybe step away from work, and responsibilities, eat comfort food, binge watch movies. But we’ve been doing that now for almost a year.  COVID’s even ruined the snowstorm!  My friends, I’m going to invite you, when this storm comes, (whether it’s big or small) to not only turn over your fears, but to look outside, literally. Find a place in your home, in your basement, in a luxurious great room, your office, a breakfast nook and take some time with this psalm so that you are able to move from a place of aloneto a place of surely.

Nan Merrill rewrites the Psalm beautifully and I encourage you to close your eyes or focus on something that gives you joy and I’m going to read it, her translation of Psalm 62. 

“For you, alone, my soul waits in silence; from the Beloved comes my salvation enfolding me with strength and steadfast love, my faith shall remain firm.  How long will fear rule my life; holding me in its grip like a trembling child, a dark and lonely grave?  Fear keeps me from living fully, from sharing my gifts. It takes pleasure in imprisoning my soul. Fear pretends to comfort. So long has it dwelled in me, truly it is my enemy. For you ‘surely’ my soul waits in silence. My hope is from the Beloved.  Enfolding me with strength and steadfast love, my faith shall remain firm. In the silence rests my freedom and my guidance.  For you are the heart of my heart.  You speak to me in the silence.  Trust in love at all times. O people pour out your heart to the Beloved, Let silence be a refuge for you.  Being of low estate by itself, is but a sigh, being of high estate is misleading… Once you have spoken, twice have I heard. Our potential gifts belong to you, In you, O beloved, belongs our faithful love. For you render to us all that we offer to You – Fear begets fear, love begets love.  For you alone my soul awaits in silence.  From the Beloved comes life and love and Light.

May it be so. Amen

Weekly Words of Wisdom 1-27-21

Sermon 1-24-21       The Rev Jen Van Zandt  

Luke 5:1-11

Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. 3He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” 6When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; 10 and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” 11 When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.”

The Hazards of Fishing

Perhaps some of you are familiar with the show Deadliest Catch.  If not, it’s a genre of reality TV in which four to six commercial fishing boats, most of which are more than a hundred feet in length, fish for crab in the very dangerous Bering Sea.  It’s one of the most dangerous professions.  But when the fishing is good, it’s also one of the most lucrative.  

There are many interesting aspects to this show, and it reminds me of our text in the ebb and flow of emotions by the captain and crew as they set the first pots in the ‘string’. Some of the crew will cross themselves or kiss a crucifix or some other talisman;  some start to cheer like a kickoff at a football game; others light up a cigarette and raise their eyes or their hands to the sky in hopes of a big catch.  It’s quite another scene, however, when they return to their string with hopeful anticipation that their pots will be filled to the brim of the right kind and the right size crab. And when they’re not, and there’s pot after pot of nothing but water, the mood turns dark and dismal.  More cigarettes are lit by the captain and crew; complaints (often filled with expletives that are bleeped out) start to fly; and, if it goes on long enough, even brawls break out, especially when they’ve been out to sea for a while. They’re exhausted.  They’re away from their families.  They’re also probably worried that the empty pots further their inability to pay bills and debts.

The story in Luke seems far more docile than this.  So maybe this is the wrong comparison. You know… the more I think about it…Deadliest Catch is actually more of what our lives have felt like for the last 10 months. We’ve been enduring increasingly intense emotions, hopes and frustrations of awaiting vaccines, hoping it will lead to decreasing new cases and deaths, which eat away at us as they continue to rise and increase. We’re being forced to live in confined spaces without physical connection to friends and family.  We worry about our own health and safety and everyone is…‘in the same boat’. Also, we have to find ways to think about others who are less fortunate–who don’t truly know how they’re going to pay their bills.  We’re lighting cigarettes or other destructive habits to manage our stress and our boredom.  And even disagreements and arguments probably break out, because we’ve been living in confined spaces, sharing the same internet connection and seeking to find sanity while everyone is home from school and work.  Alright…you get the rest of this parallel.  We’re looking for sanity.  We’re looking for hope.  So what is there to garner from this story, because this story seems, again, so pleasant and so docile from what we’re living in now or from what happens on Deadliest Catch.  

So what’s the invitation?  What are the claims of this text?  Well, the first one is that Jesus is calling on Simon Peter, (and on us), to look beyond our own plight, our disappointments and even our fears to a future that will be different, but abundant again.  At a deeper level, Jesus is calling Simon Peter, (and us), to a place of obedience versus our complaining, our fear and our faithlessness.  Simon Peter states the nature of his disappointment and probably also frustration and fear.  I mean, after all, fishing is his livelihood. But when Jesus instantly commands Simon Peter to do it differently, Simon Peter obeys.  Beverly Roberts Gaventa, who is a scholar on Luke, says “Peter obeys even though it actually, seems ridiculous”.  This is also the same dynamic we explored in Advent with both Mary and Joseph, who didn’t debate with God, who didn’t resist, but submitted to God’s will.

The third claim of this text is also acknowledging our sinfulness.  Not everybody is comfortable with that.  Not everybody’s comfortable with that claim or even stepping up and actually doing it.  But without an honest confrontation and conversation with God, our relationship with God stays one dimensional and also very transactional.

The fourth and final point is the invitation by Jesus to actually actively participate in his ministry.  To choose and embrace and be part of God’s redemptive purposes.  So what does that look like?  I can hear you already saying from home, “Well, how can we do that? We can’t even leave the house.” Well, some of it may be obvious and some of it may be new because of where we find ourselves.  So here’s just a small list to get you started. As Amanda talked about, the Lenten devotional is underway.  It’s a great and a very low risk opportunity that you can do from your very homes to actively participate in God’s redemptive purposes.  This year’s theme is “Love Thy Neighbor”; something we all desperately need to keep exploring as Christians and as citizens of the world.  You may have had a chance to enjoy services, at least the Christmas Eve service that people continue to rave about.  That takes a lot of time and a lot of talent, and we need as many of you to step up and offer your gifts of technology, or music, or planning, or to consider being a lay reader, or even just giving new ideas to the very small group of people who continue to make worship possible each week.

Christian Ed has been struggling to figure out how to reach out to our youth and our children in a way that is not just one more Zoom meeting.  We’ve had some success, but not nearly enough to keep our kids, our youth and their families connected.  There are things that you can do to help Sandy–take the work and burden off of her in ways that are simple that you can do from your home, like helping her keep up with weekly documentation of sermons, the hymns and texts that we use. There are so many things. Even helping the deacons with correspondence for those who are sick or grieving or alone.

So, my friends, there is a lot that we can do while we are waiting to come back to the shore, to this wonderful place that we call our home. First, is to be open and honest with God and fall on your knees, all of our knees, and confess where we fail to be loving and kind.   There are ways in which we can actively think through how to bring more evangelism to our community and to our world.  And there are ways in which we can truly help the church and Jesus Christ “fish” for more people.  May it start today.  May it start here.  And may it start now.  Amen.

Weekly Words of Wisdom 1-20-21

Sermon 1-17-21     The Rev Jen Van Zandt                                                     

Psalm 139:1-10

“O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it. Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, 10 even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.”

Romans 8:31-39

“For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

What Then Shall We Say?

As we try to sort through the horrific events at the capitol last week, whilst being deeply preoccupied by threats and protests and violence at every state capital this Sunday (we’re obviously pre-recording this), we await with anxious hearts over a peaceful and safe transition of power.  We’re also awaiting with anxious hearts as to when the vaccine will be available; when our children and grandchildren can return safely to school; when we can go back to our offices, have larger family events; and, of course, gather again safely to worship.  As Paul writes, “What can we say about all these things?”  Just to be clear, I am intentionally taking this out of context, because I’ve been pondering this verse in light of all that we have endured, and are enduring, and will have to endure a while longer.  What do we say about all these things that continue to be unfathomable?  Rarely does a week go by when someone asks me, “Do you think this is actually part of God’s plan?”  

While there are certainly plenty of religious and political leaders who believe that the death and this destruction from Covid and abuse of power is seen as ‘righting wrongs’ and ‘teaching people a lesson’, that surely is not Presbyterian theology and certainly not mine.  It’s also not the Gospel, especially highlighted in these two particular texts.  Psalm 139 is the clearest example of the most intimate connection between the psalmist and God.  It’s also unique in other ways as well.

First, the psalmist actually doesn’t ask for anything, well until the very end. Most psalms, as you know, are pleas for God’s intervention to stop something, provide for something, or fix or reverse the psalmist’s plight or to eschew and actually destroy all enemies of self and God.  And that’s why they’re also beloved. They give voice to the things that we are thinking and feeling and even saying.  

So why Psalm 139 today when so many other psalms may be apparently a better fit?  Maybe at first glance.  Just hang in with me. Instead of jumping right into the petition or supplication which in layman’s terms means a prayer of “Please God help me heal or help someone else”, this psalmist is able to step away from the chaos of all that distracts and actually ponder out loud, at a deeper level: the joy, the relief, the miracle and the true mystery of God’s constant, unconditional, unending and comforting presence.  That’s not something that many of us are prone to, especially in the anxious life and times we are living now.

Verses one through six particularly lay out the multi-dimensional presence of God–a presence that’s not a hovering God, like a parent or a teacher, standing over us to see if we’re doing our homework or misbehaving. No, this presence is like a gentle but constant breeze that warms our faces, swirls in our hair and brings us fresh oxygen to breathe (without masks!).  This presence is not something we have to ask for.  It is already given.  It is part of the covenant that God made with Israel and us; that Yahweh would be our God and we would be God’s people.

In modern terms, the difference between hopingGod will do something and understanding God’s presence is a simple word and it’s laced all throughout this psalm.  KNOW.  This psalmist knowsand trusts and relies and celebrates this inexplicable mystery of this gift of God’s presence.  But knowing God’s presence is with us can make all the difference in how we act and react to news of any sort. Let me share a real-time example. 

As I was writing this sermon, I got a phone call.  I don’t usually ever answer my phone or even have it nearby to avoid any and all distractions, but I answered it because it’s the hospital where my father currently is and has been since Tuesday. The Dr. tells me that he’s in a surgical suite and they’re looking for internal bleeding. I’ll be told the outcome of that later today.  And when I immediately got off the phone, I started that rapid-fire prayer that begins with, “Please God, please God, please God…”

I noticed my stomach was clenched. I was rubbing my forehead. I was holding onto my phone with a death grip. Then I caught myself.  I took in a deep breath. I sat back in my chair, and remembered the very psalmist’s words. I drank in the presence of God, who knows completely more than I do, of what I’m fearing and what I need, because God looks beyond even those all too familiar human emotions.  God looks beyond all of that, deep into our hearts.  In that moment I felt surrounded by God and held by God in God’s grasp.  My friends, this does not mean that the test results will be what I want and need them to be, but what it does mean is that God’s presence will sustain me regardless.

In Romans 8, Paul fleshes this out even further and speaks even more aptly to the multiple world and national crises we are dealing with. “What then shall we say to these things? I am convinced that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Friends, these words are a gift to us in this day.  They will be a gift to us in the days and weeks and months ahead.   But, friends, we have to turn over our control.  We have to turn over our fear.  We have to turn over all things that get in the way of us actually sitting and noticing and allowing God’s presence to shower over us and give us the peace, the peace that passes all human understanding.  That is a gift that comes from God. Thanks be to God! Amen.

Weekly Words of Wisdom 1-13-21

Sermon 1-10-21  –   Rev Jen Van Zandt 

Matthew 3:13-17

“Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him.  John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”  But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”  Then he consented.  And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him.  And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Seeking and Following

            In the normal rhythm of the church calendar (and the usual rhythm of our church today), as we honor and celebrate the baptism of the Lord, we would also joyfully be ordaining and installing our new officers and sending them on a path to do the challenging and meaningful work of the church.  Being ordained and serving the church is truly a tremendous privilege.  Fourteen years ago to this day, I arrived here to begin the work of my call–a month before, I, too, would be ordained. In another few hours, I will also have the great privilege of preaching at the installation of the new pastor at the Morris Plains Presbyterian Church.   And, ironically, he comes from serving my home church in Caldwell.

            For those of you who have never had the privilege of being ordained or installed or even related to someone who has, you know it is a tremendous honor.  It calls for trust, discipline, faithfulness and courage to make hard decisions, to debate and discuss challenging situations with an open mind. It calls for patience and, above all, respect for one another in the call of Ordination.   When those characteristics and behaviors get lost, the mission and the ministry, the work of the church gets stalled and lost. The body becomes weak and spiritually adrift.

            I want to thank all the officers currently serving, those who have just finished terms, those who have yet to begin their service, and those who have actually taken additional terms–either now or in the past–to keep this church, this ship, healthy and strong.  It is because of you that this church has done, and continues to do, mighty acts in the name of Christ; for the homeless, the nameless, the grieving, and the sick. It is because of you that youth and children learn about the love of God and the power of the Holy Spirit to do amazing things even among the youngest and newest believers.  

            And while much of what we treasure and miss is being held at bay, it doesn’t mean that God’s spirit and God’s activity is being held at bay.  Even though we are not together, it’s just being manifested differently. As long as we continue to have strong, capable and faithful leaders, driven by the conviction of serving others in the name of Christ, this community of faith will continue to be a beacon of hope, a place for peace and renewal, a place where everyone has a seat at the table:  the Communion table, the table of Christmas dinners, the table of soup and chili cook-offs, the table in the library where officers gather as one voice to uphold the Gospel in their calling.  

            Our texts today reinforce and firmlyremind us what servant leadership is and whom we serve and for what purpose. The servant, Jesus, chosen by God, is to bring justice to all the nations; the servant is to bring justice and peace, not through force or aggression, but by example of mercy, equity and light.

            The events in Washington this week and all that continues to unfold couldn’t be further from God’s purposes, to put it mildly.  The work of doing justice is not just for the faint of heart in any setting.  Walter Brueggemann, who is an expert in the book of Isaiah and a well-known Old Testament scholar, says that the servant in Isaiah 42  “…is deeply conflicted; it is a high-risk matter, but the servant does not proceed with force or high-handed authority. God’s justice is brought gently, cheerfully, and caringly. The servant has respect for persons who are weak, fragile and in jeopardy”.

            My friends, what we witnessed this week was not only a failure of certain leadership, but a blatant disregard for all that we hold dear and sacred.  The call on our lives as servant leaders is not only for those who are public servants and elected officials or elected officers within God’s church.  It calls on all of us to fight for justice and uphold the Gospel.  It is our duty to uphold God’s purposes and to be the people, not of darkness, but of light; not of oppression, but freedom; not of tyranny, but transcendence.  The only way that is possible is if we have the courage to follow our servant leader and do the difficult work: to pay attention to God’s voice proclaiming who we are to follow, who we are to listen to, who we are to be led by, and who we can become fearless of.  

            I pray that peace reigns today and in the days and weeks to come.  But regardless of what happens next, know that we will be held together by our faithfulness, by our baptism, by our table and by a servant who has the sovereign power over not only the church, but all of creation and is about to do a new thing.  May it be so. Amen.

Weekly Words of Wisdom 1-6-21

Sermon 1-3-21      The Rev Jen Van Zandt 

Luke 2:40-45

The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.  Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover.  And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival.  When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it.  Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day’s journey.  Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends.  When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him.  After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.  And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.  When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, “Child, why have you treated us like this?  Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” He said to them, “Why were you searching for me?  Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”  But they did not understand what he said to them. Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them.  His mother treasured all these things in her heart.  And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years and in divine and human favor.”

Under God’s Care

In this unique and singular account of Jesus’ early years, we get a brief look at Jesus in all of his humanity as a teenager.  It is the only glimpse that we have of him between his birth and the beginning of his adult life as a future prophet, priest and king. People often ask me why we don’t know much about his life; or really anything at all before he begins his journey.  The fact is that besides knowing that he was a carpenter by trade, the answer, in short, is it really doesn’t matter all that much. I’ll come back to this later.

But here, Luke doesgive a helpful bridge at least between infancy and adulthood and there’s a bit of humor, I think, in seeing his humanity in his adolescence.  There’s also perhaps some comfort for us as parents, as well as the teenager in all of us, when we see and hear these classic struggles and dynamics between a parent and child; the parents going in one direction and the teen making his own different and separate choice.  And then the tension ensues.  I’m sure that was the case in my family, and it may have been in yours as well.

At first blush, this story pulls at one’s heartstrings with both compassion for the frantic parents, who have just realized their son is not among them and the poor child who has been forgotten or left behind in the chaos of the holiday caravan.  It has all the great makings of a movie.  Oh, wait a second… there wasa movie about this.  You know what I’m talking about.  Yes, my friends, this is the story of Home Alone.  

Although it’s not an exact replica, there are some striking similarities.  Catherine O’Hara, who plays the mother in Home Alone, shows us the utter hysteria and guilt that a parent feels when separation is realized.  And John Heard, who plays the father, typically, is downplaying the mother’s anxiety and trying to calm her down through logic.  

Where the plot separates between the story in Luke and Home Aloneis that unlike the adorable Macaulay Culkin, who plays the forgotten child, Jesus is a teenager or what we would call a ‘tween’ now.  And it’s unclear from Biblical historians whether Jesus was formally bar mitzvahed at this point or not.  But clearly, he is wise beyond his years and has chosen to be among the priests and the religious leaders.  While we can appreciate the dialogue between the frantic and angry parent and a snarky teen (which comes out clearly in this text), it also points to a far more important message.  Jesus, at the age of 12 is fullyaware who his father is… and it’s notJoseph.

Mary exclaims, “Son, your father and I have been looking for you anxiously.” And Jesus’ retort can be seen as snark coming from a teenager.  But, more deeply, he’s saying, “Why don’t you getthe fact that I mustbe in my Father’s house?” His parents are utterly confounded and Jesus is left feeling and being misunderstood.  Ultimately, Jesus complies and leaves with his parents and they return to their home while Mary, for a second time, is pondering these things in her heart.  I bet she pondered.  You know the real reason why we don’t hear about Jesus again until he’s thirty? It’s because she groundedhim for about twenty years!  

But seriously, this story, even though it’s not in the lectionary, must not be glossed over.  In this story, we have a crucial glimpse into Jesus’ full humanity as well as his remarkable wisdom and understanding of who God was to him and to the rest of humanity. Further it’s a helpful bridge between an infant king and what comes next literally–next week is his baptism as an adult.  Most importantly, this is a story that sets in motion God’s story and God’s activity.

In the story of the world, here is a story of the beginning of God’s redemption. Now, more than ever, as we wait with increasing fear and impatience to be set free from the prison of Covid and all that has been put on hold and cancelled and lost; as people around the world wait and pray and try to sustain one another as our lives continue to be forever changed and lost; this is a message of God ‘on the way’. This message of us being under and in God’s care,needs to be highlighted.

I happened to see Home Aloneon the television maybe three or four months ago and I decided to watch it all the way through. The part of the story that I forgot was the redemption in the plot.  Macaulay Culkin, who is terrified by his next-door neighbor who looks like an old creepy, dangerous man, ends up bumping into him when Macaulay Culkin goes off to church, seeking comfort, seeking peace.  And in the church is that very scary next-door neighbor. It takes a while for them to connect and they end up sitting together.  And in that moment, Macaulay Culkin sees the humanity, the brokenness, and the loneliness of this man, because he’s all alone for Christmas, just like Macaulay Culkin.  And, in that moment, we see the story of hope and redemption.  

You’ve all seen this movie, so it’s not a spoiler alert, but go back and watch it, because on a very snowy day, as Macaulay Culkin’s parents and family return home and embrace him; so, too, the next-door neighbor’s family comes from far away and surprises him to give him strength and courage.  My friends, God’s story of redemption starts now and we need this message now more than ever.  So go back to the text and look at it again for yourself and know that hope and help really is on the way.

Weekly Words of Wisdom 12-30-20

Sermon 12-27-20  –  Elder, Peter Lanigan                   

Matthew 2:1-12

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah[c] was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”  When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the starhad stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

And the Wise Men came a callin’

Will you pray with me? “May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my Redeemer.”

If my memory serves me correctly, and most times it does NOT, it seems like the Sunday after every major celebration in the Christian calendar at First Presbyterian Church, my phone rings and….well, it’s like I’m relaxing in the Bull Pen and now I need to warm up and get ready… I’m going to be out on the mound to do some MOP UP DUTY.  Now, some pitchers (guest ministers), might be upset to get this call.  You know, they’re thinking, “you’re wasting this good arm on a game whose outcome is no longer in doubt.”

Not ME…My belief is…(at least according to this sermon) they are all big games and they’re all big Sundays as well.  I know this Sunday might not the BIGGEST Sunday in all our Christian lives, but it is a Sunday none-the-less, and there are people who need the church, just like the church needs you, and me, and all of us.  I get it that just 48 hours ago we celebrated one of the top 2 Christian holidays – Christmas – and most of us are coming down from that “high”, but this year is different.  I worry about that because of some of the necessary and unnecessary restrictions in place. Some of us are having a hard time finding any cause for celebration; some of us were not even able to travel or visit with loved ones or be together with family or be together for Christmas Eve services.  It has certainly made it more difficult to feel joy, especially at time when a lot of us are used to feeling joy.

On that note, I really worry about the C and E-ers…you know, the Christians who come to church most only on Christmas and Easter.  No judgement – in my young adulthood, I too was one of them, but I can’t recall EVER missing Christmas Eve service and especially gathering with my family for a Christmas celebration at my mom and dad’s house.  Not so this year!  In fact 2020 will be the first time in my history and I’m sure in many of yours, where you were not able to be in the pews to take in the celebration of Jesus’ birth OR his resurrection.  Now, the scripture lesson read by Cat this morning (or whenever you are watching this), taken from Matthew 2 verses 1- 12 is a familiar story… It’s the story of the wisemen traveling to Bethlehem to see, take in, and pay homage to the newborn King…Jesus Christ. King Herod had previously heard the news and he sends these three priestly men…the wisemen…to gather information about this great occurrence.

In my earlier life, I dabbled in the field of acting.  When it came to a particular scene, we would often (the actors and director) break it down.  We would try and discover what the motivation was for saying or acting in a particular way.  I presume this is exactly what Rev Jen does, or any other minister or church leader does as well.  So… let’s break it down… for you and for ME.  

OKAY, so we have 4 people in this scripture along with Mary, Joseph and Jesus.  We have King Herod, we have 3 wisemen, and of course, Mary, Joseph and Jesus.  So lets look at King Herod.  King Herod is an interesting historical figure.  Let me give you the CRIB notes on his life; Herod was given his throne by the Roman Empire to be the King of Judea.  He is credited with many massive  building structures  and aqueduct systems, BUT, he was perceived as a tyrant and one who was always protecting himself by eliminating his real and imagined competition for his beloved throne. The three wisemen?  Well, they happen to have been traveling through Jerusalem, not by coincidence, but by understanding the calculations of the stars and believing that a new king was to be born.  They first went to Jerusalem and then onto Bethlehem to seek out this new king. 

So here’s the story: 

The wisemen are sent by King Herod on this journey to Bethlehem because of their ability to read the stars and because of their gift in interpreting dreams and understanding prophecy.  These men are obviously special.  Before today (albeit this week) I never gave too much thought to this story of the wisemen.  I always just thought that these characters, these wisemen, these Magi, were guys that happened to see a star in the sky; and this star was so bright and so different and so special, that they followed it and found the baby Jesus.  It’s one of those bible stories that ALL of US are familiar with.  We know that the wisemen brought gifts of Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh, but is that really the importance of this story?    

After delving a little deeper… I believe NOT. 

I’m going to put this in terms that every New Jerseyian or fan of MOB movies should understand.  The way I see it… Herod is a brat, sure.  He is King!  If he lived in this day and age, he might be the MOB BOSS.  He’s got 10 wives and many children and he’s pretty ruthless.  He’s so evil…in fact… it’s believed that he had one of his wives and 3 of his eldest sons killed, possibly out of jealousy or fear that they might try to seize power.  So the scripture goes on to say that King Herod sends the wisemen to Bethlehem to search out this new king and bring back word about him.  Yea, RIGHT!  Herod wants to pay his respects to the newborn King…I don’t believe it and neither do many bible scholars  (of whom I do not claim to be one).

Herod, the MOB Boss, sends his wise GUYS to do a little this …do a little that .. and scope out the cich…the situation… Yeah, Herod wants his thugs (in this case highly spiritually-in-tune individuals) to rat out Jesus’ location, so Herod can come in and get rid of this threat to his kingdom.  I am sure he wants to kill Jesus before he can fulfill his destiny.  If we were to continue reading in Matthew, in verses 12-18, we would find that the wisemen and Joseph are given a warning, presumably about Herod, in a dream, and so they alter their journey.

Unfortunately for Herod, he sends the wrong guys.  They turn out to be not so loyal to him, a sin in the MOB world.  After finding Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus, they are SO TAKEN with awe and speculation that this child is indeed the savior that was prophesied about, that after leaving Bethlehem they take a different road, a safer journey, back to their own country. Joseph, Mary and Jesus also fled to Egypt for their safety.

Herod the thug… the liar…the scoundrel, never gets to inflict his evil on Jesus.  And the wisemen?  Well, they are remembered as quiet heroes …and it’s one time the wise men came a callin’…BUT  they did not get their man… 

May it be so… Amen 

Weekly Words of Wisdom 12-23-20

Sermon 12-20-20             The Rev Jen Van Zandt

Luke 1:46-51 

And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God, my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.  Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.  His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.  He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.  He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

Difficult But, Not Impossible

With Christmas only five days away, I am sure we have a lot of the same thoughts and we share experiences knowing that this year will be like no other.  As we get closer and closer to Christmas, the remaining days of Advent get harder as we come to deal with the reality that we may not be able to be with friends or family or both.  Some of us may have to be completely isolated not only from one another but perhaps fully alone on this day   So many of our regular experiences and traditions, activities and events have all been cancelled, or, as I like to think, have been put on hold; the parties we either attended or hosted, had to be cancelled, the concerts that we love to go to (including just hearing the Messiah sung), and all the special traditions.  Maybe your tradition is going to the City to see the tree, or the office holiday party you looked forward to so you can give a gag gift to the person you don’t like working with, or maybe you’re not able to go into the country to chop down your own Christmas tree, or maybe you have to cancel Christmas luncheons, grab bags and Secret Santa.  All of these things have been curtailed or cancelled and, unfortunately right now, the list is endless.   All these things have been stripped away from us, at least for the time being.  I was joking with a friend this week that Covid has even ruined snow days! 

So, friends, in this time when we wait for Christmas to come and we expect and pray for miracles, not only in our lives but truly that this insidious disease is quickly eradicated, there are two gifts that are free—timeand being ‘with’ (each other, ourselves and God).  Now some of you might be ‘done’ being with your spouse, since it’s been nine months.   Or you’ve really had it with your kids or your grandkids with home/remote schooling, because you just can’t keep them taped to their chairs any longer.  And I’m sure a lot of us may not feel like this is particularly good news.  But let’s try to look at it through a different lens.  

If we look at this timeas an opportunity, it actually may be a gift!  Most of us who are not organized or like to put things off or…. like to overdo for Christmas…. by now are at a frantic pace of last-minute shopping, last minute baking, last minute wrapping.  Maybe you’re just starting to do your Christmas shopping.  My father didn’t start his Christmas shopping until Christmas Eve!    

Back to time.  Time gives us a place to ponder.  A place to ponder what life is like; what life will be like again.  Time gives us the ability to ponder what actually mattersto us.  Time gives us the gift to ponder the good things that have happened in our lives.  It gives us the gift to ponder how much we miss being together in a community of faith. It gives us the gift to ponder who else may need to hear good news as theystruggle in their livesdealing with Covid, infection fears, grief of loved ones lost as well as all the on-going, non-Covid illness and diagnoses.  It gives us a chance, an invitation to ponder all of these things that are truly gifts from God.

One of the folks that is a regular participant in our Wisdom Wednesdays is not working right now and so what he has decided to do is pick up the phone and call old friends that he has lost touch with.  And, by and large people are thrilledto hear from him! He said the responses are wonderful and surprising:  “Oh my goodness, it’s so nice to hear from you. Sorry we haven’t been in touch.” I did the same thing with a friend that literally I have not seen or talked to in a year and a half, for no particular reason, but we just lost touch. The reconnect was truly a gift and even more uplifting than I even though! That’s one simple gift that we can give one another.  

So let’s ponder even further.  Let’s look at Mary.  I read a commentary by a wonderful Lukan scholar out of Fuller Seminary, Joel Green who writes, “Mary, actually, really doesn’t need God’s intervention. She’s engaged.  She’s about to be married.  She’s about to start her new life.  Everything for her looks extremely hopeful.  But the rest of the world, especially Israel, [and all of us], we do need an intervention, once again”.  I think we are in dire need of an intervention; into the ways and habits and things we’re thinking about; the things that we are dwelling on and obsessing about; and especially the places where we’ve given up hope.  

A lot of us have pandemic fatigue at this point.  We really don’t want to keep wearing the masks. We really want to go back to our favorite restaurants.  We really want to be with our family across the miles or down the street. But friends, we can’t.  But…while we WAIT, In Advent (which means ‘waiting’) this is an opportunity for us to ponder even more what God’s intervention did and does for us in Jesus Christ.  In Jesus Christ, God gives us hope in a physical person that we can look at, that the disciples and many others, could see and touch.  Jesus may not be physically with us, but through his Spirit he is deeply embedded in our physical hearts.  This embeddedness of God’s intervention through the coming of Christ often gets lost because usually we are busy (read: frantically) baking cookies, writing out Christmas cards, getting last minute presents, shopping and making all the feast favorites and trying to get our house ready for company. I talked to somebody else a few weeks ago who said, “You know, I’m going to miss being with my whole family including my grandchildren; but you know what? maybe it is just time for us to be quiet.” 

Mary pondered what God offered her.  She didn’t run; she didn’t say no.  She became God’s partner in changing the world.  Once the angel had visited her and said, “Do not be afraid, Mary.  You will do something most supreme.”  Instead of her saying, “Let me go home and think about it.”  She immediately said, “Yes.  Let it be with me according to your word, Lord God.”  So the Magnificat not only is an expression of her faithfulness and privilege and joy, it can be an expression for all of us.  

How often does our soul really magnifythe Lord? I know it’s difficult these days, friends, but our souls can magnify God’s love for others if we let it.  Let our spirit rejoice in God, our Savior. 

Just imagine if we didn’t havea Savior.  Just imagine if we didn’t have a place that we know our loved ones go into eternity as will we, someday.  Just imagine if there wasn’t someone who could cleanse us from all the awful, thoughtless, mean things that we have done and said throughout our lives. Just imagine if Mary looked on her lowly state as a handicap to worshipping God and bearing God’s gift to the world and staing her blessings?

While I’m certainly not asking you to be Mary, I am asking us all to learn from her faithfulness; focusing NOT on the deficits and challenges but on the blessings. I know I haven’t been as grateful and thoughtful as I could be, because I’m distracted by many things. We all are.  What if we just paid attention to the mercy that God gives for those who need mercy, who need love, who need support?.  Maybe you and me are in need of that too. By the way, not only this congregation and this town, but  the whole worldneeds mercy.  We need to remember the God who show us the strength of His arm to protect us. We need to remember that God to continues to scatter the proud.  We need to remember that God will bring the powerful down from their thrones., to lift up the lowly, even the lowliness of our own hearts.  We need God to fill the hungry with good things.  

If you’ve ever driven by this church on a Wednesday or Saturday, the line is literally out the door into the street of people who need food from the Loaves & Fishes food pantry.  They also need the smiles and connection knowing that they are not alone. And that this won’t last.  

God helped his servant Israel and he wants to help and redeem all of God’s descendants through Abraham — that includes us.  I challenge each of us for the next five days to take at least one of these expressions in the Magnificat and keep saying it over, and over, and over again.  Because the more we focus on God’s text, and God’s love, and God’s grace, the more our worries and our anxieties get right-sized.  The more we focus on God’s mighty acts in Christ, the more we can trust that we will get through this.  It may not be easy, but it won’t be eternal.  

My friends, there is an invitation for us to truly be not only be aware of what God through Mary did, but to truly be in partnership with God, like Mary did so that we share the joy, the love, the peace and the hope. So I’m going to charge you all to find someone–not only the children and youth–but for all of us to find someone unexpected who needs a lift, who needs a phone call, a silly card, an email.  

I got the most hilarious Jackie Lawson card.  (The person who sent it I think sent it to a number of people.) But this one had to do with a hand bell rehearsal and it was mice practicing hand bells, but their notes were ‘off’ a little.  It really cracked me up.  I thought, you know what? sometimes we don’t need the heaviness and intensity—we already have enough of that.  We need humor.  We need to know that we are loved and cared for even as imperfect as we are.  And so, friends, take this time of quiet and ponder, ponder all these things in your heart. Amen.