Archive for January, 2007

Star Power

January 17, 2007

A Sermon by Louise Westfall
Fairmount Presbyterian Church
Cleveland Heights, Ohio
7 January 2007
Text: Matthew 2:1-12

The confirmation class of a church (certainly not in Cleveland) was being quizzed about their biblical knowledge. The teacher asked, “Where was Jesus born?” A kid in the back waved his hand, “I know, I know: Pittsburgh!” When the teacher gently corrected him with “No, it’s Bethlehem” he grumbled, “Well, I knew it was somewhere in Pennsylvania.”

While we Ohioans might never confuse the hometown of our savior with our rival city to the east, I wonder whether we too miss the place. Do we see that the God of highest heaven has come to earth, appeared in our town, and set the night on fire, ablaze with God’s grace and glory.

Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight.
I wish I may, I wish I might, have the wish I wish tonight.

I don’t know how the custom of wishing on a star developed but maybe it’s because since the very beginning, humans have used the night sky for navigation, to find their way in the darkness. It’s not surprising then that almost every culture and religion use physical light as a metaphor for spiritual enlightenment. A star…a single candle held aloft…a light bulb over the head….all suggest revelation, an epiphany, an “aha” moment when what was previously clouded or shrouded in darkness is brought to light. The biblical narrative of Jesus’ birth in the gospel of Matthew entwines these two themes. The wisemen, ancient Persian astrologers, interpreted the appearance of a particular star as a sign that pointed to the fulfillment of a wish they had long desired. And then the star literally guided them to that place where they knelt in humble worship and offered gifts before an infant who they understood to be a king— in fact, the king. We celebrate epiphany today as the revealing of God’s presence and power in a human being, Jesus of Nazareth.

But let me ask you: have you had an epiphany lately? Does Christ’s appearance on earth so long ago shed light on the complexities of contemporary life? I appreciate the brilliant physicist Stephen Hawking’s observation that within the next decade, science will be able to determine how the universe came into being. But science, he adds, will never be able to determine why it came into being. Can we yet look to a star for the answer? Bring to the reading of the familiar story your unfulfilled wishes, whatever hopes and fears you have today; whatever shadows obscure the light for you; the persistent questions or constraints in your own life that defy resolution. Hear God’s Word to you in the reading from the gospel according to Matthew, in the second chapter at the first verse. [MATTHEW 2:1-12]

One of my new year’s resolutions was to exercise every day. I strode out of my house on Wednesday morning batting a thousand for the two-day-old new year. My friend Carol and I headed up Scarborough at a lively pace. Before we had gone two blocks, we encountered a boy, maybe nine years old, not anyone we knew, standing on a corner. As we approached, he called out to us, “Did you see the moon this morning?!” What??! The question caught me completely off guard. “Did you see the moon this morning?” he asked again. “It was so big and bright and looked really cool.” And with that announcement, he turned back to his waiting. The thing is, I hadn’t seen the moon that morning. I got up, took the dog out, made coffee, flipped open the newspaper and waited for Carol to show up. I felt a quick and surprising pang of loss, for missing a view that would have blessed the day ~ and for my lack of mindfulness to divine grace right in front of me. Yet I also felt gratitude for the wise boy who called me out of myself and reminded me to look, to see, to be amazed and glad.

The wise men (and their kin, including children and little old ladies) can be our teachers. No one knows how many years they’d been pouring over star charts, scanning the night sky, trying to tease out meaning from the patterned movement of the universe. No one knows how many other astrologers seeing the same star scoffed at them for journeying far simply on the basis of their hope that the star’s prophecy would be fulfilled. How many started the journey, but failed to persevere? How many got discouraged by the length of the journey, the dull and dreary conditions of the trek? How many settled for lesser visions? How many were so set on their owngoals that they missed the full moon right in front of them?

The wise men remind us first of all that illumination is a gift coming to us; it is not something we somehow have to self-generate or cause to appear. It’s not something we can produce or manufacture. It is not something we must earn, or a reward bestowed upon us for good behavior. It’s really less about making resolutions than about receiving revelation. The light appears to us as a free gift from the One who is light.

But something IS required of us. We have to LOOK. We have to wake up. We have to search beyond our little lives and peer into the heart of the world. The places of pain and suffering. The night sky of shadows and longing. Look and see. See what God is doing. Find the places where God is at work. Discover the people and experiences where God is restoring and saving and making new. You and I can be mirrors reflecting that light, and together be a beacon which draws others to the light. Not because we see it all, but because we’re looking for it, scanning the far horizon as well as the faces of our near and dear. The light of the world has come, and we have only to open our eyes and receive its warmth and illumination. In the Buddhist tradition it’s called mindfulness, an intention to be fully aware. The Christian faith has prophets who warn us of the danger of falling asleep too soon. Arise, shine; for your light has come. O taste and see that the Lord is good!

So we begin this new year at the spiritual equivalent of the eye doctor’s: the Lord’s table, to eat and drink in the light, to have our vision checked and corrections made. At this table we are reminded that God has done for us what we could not do for ourselves. We are given light that will illumine the deepest night, that will reveal God’s grace at the heart of reality, even when it is obscured. We are called to become light-bearers, wise men and women in whose actions and by whose love others can find their way. I don’t think it’s coincidental that there were several wise men. Epiphanies seem to happen most often where there is communion; where there is a shared commitment to journey together toward the place where wishes are fulfilled, dreams become reality, where the Word becomes flesh. As the people of God known as Fairmount Presbyterian Church, let us look for the star, set our course by it, and move forward together.

As the ushers bring an offering of stars to you, I invite you to take one from the plates, and let its word illumine your life in 2007. Consider what God may be calling you to do or to become through the light of this star. Put your star in a place where you will see it daily. You might want to come back to the question a few weeks or even months from now. Try jotting down some reflections about how you see your life or faith affected by this exercise. Some of you have told me about your experiences in doing this last year, and I’d love to hear those stories and the places in your lives you’ve found transformed. Your insights can become a witness to the light of Christ for the rest of us. Friends, in the biblical story, the wise men were guided to return home “another way ;” they weren’t the same at the journey’s end that they were at its beginning. This is an enterprise of faith. You and I can only imagine the ways we’ll be changed because we tried to walk in the light of the Lord, in the power of the star of Bethlehem.

Friends, go out from here to where God is calling us. Go out with courage, perhaps not knowing exactly where to go, but confident that God’s hand is leading us and God’s love supporting us, through Jesus Christ the light of the World.

The Rev. Louise F. Westfall, D.Min., Pastor


Dressing for Success in 2007

January 10, 2007

Fairmount Presbyterian Church
Text: Colossians: 3:12-17
December 31, 2006

Don’t you just love the end of the year? Today is the day we indulge ourselves in looking at the past and weighing it and also looking toward the future and deciding what we want it to hold for us. It allows us the opportunity to stop and assess our lives and to plan for what should be different in the New Year. Are we on track for where we want to be in our lives? Are there things that need improvement or are we comfortable with where and what we are? What do we think about our weight?… Our physical condition?…. Our financial health?…. Our career path?…

What about our friendships and family relationships? Have we built on the positive and tried to change relationships that were damaged in the past? Have we done well on working on the character traits we vowed to change at the beginning of last year such as harboring grudges or our short tempers? What about the commitments we have made to our church and community? Did we follow through on those? Should we have given more of our time and talents than we did? And what about our relationship with God? Obviously some of these resolutions we made about this last year are easier to measure than others and some are easier to own up to in terms of our shortcomings.

But the beauty of December 31st is we all get to come to the end of the year and say…. NEXT YEAR THINGS WILL BE DIFFERENT. I WILL WORK APON WHERE I AM NOW AND BUILD FROM HERE. NEXT YEAR WILL BE BETTER. We do not need to be tied down by our shortcomings but can begin a New Year resolved that things will be better. And no one knows it better than the Christian. We who come to church every Sunday and confess our sins knowing that in doing so, we are given the opportunity to change ourselves with God’s help and be forgiven by God for what ever we have done.

December 31st is all about wrapping things up and moving on. The New York Times Magazine this morning has wonderful articles on influential people who died this past year. I got sucked into reading a few of them this morning before I realized that I had better get going to church or I would be late for this mornings worship service. We here at Fairmount lost wonderful people as well. It is important to recognize that as we move into the New Year. And it is also time to evaluate how things went in this world this past year. In the Wednesday’s Plain Dealer, Dick Feagler’s editorial was about how happy he is to see the end of 2006. He listed the ills he saw in this year from the Brown’s awful record to the ongoing war and crisis in the Middle East. Yes, there is plenty to be disgusted about in the year 2006 but there was also much that was good. The challenge is as we assess the past is that we are able to take with us the good, while shedding the bad.

Another theme in the media this week has been asking what the big news story was in all topics. One morning I was tuned into NPR while driving and the topic was “what was THE political story of 2006?” Was it the political scandals? Was it the November election and the democratic sweep? Was it international politics or national politics? The same question was raised in yesterday’s Plain Dealer when they asked what the big news story in religion was? Listed were the new religious leaders who will hopefully take their denominations and religions into this new millennium by strengthening them and teaching them to keep their faith while respecting other religions in this increasingly small diverse planet. Also listed was the inevitable argument about sexuality and faith and the topic of politics and religion.

As I read the article, what surprised me was that the religious news story that I feel was the most important faith based news did not make the list at all. The story I list as the most important has nothing to do with leadership, sex, or politics but it taught me a huge lesson in living theology and our Biblical understanding of God’s commandment to forgive and the connection between grace and forgiveness. You all remember. It happened in the aftermath of one of the saddest days of 2006. This past October a man entered the West Nickel Mines Schoolhouse and gunned down five Amish school girls. What a nightmare. He did not know the girls and had no particular reason to gun down that group of children. But even in that gruesome story there was beauty. The response of the Amish was a lesson in true forgiveness. Donald Craybill, a professor of Antibaptist Religion at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania described that the blood was barely dry on the floor when the parents of the girls sent words of forgiveness to the family of the one who had slain their children. If you remember the story, not only did they send words but they also followed it up with action. Of the 75 people who were in attendance at the funeral of the killer, half of them were Amish. The gesture even went further than a graveside presence when the Amish also set up a fund for the assassin’s family. The Amish take Jesus’ call to turn the other cheek, to love your enemies, and the forgiveness clause in the Lord’s Prayer as a way of life. This is what they practice. And to me it was a lesson to take with us into 2007, a lesson to try and adapt to our own faith practice and life.

The scripture passage from this morning’s lectionary reading lists qualities necessary for living in this new Christian Community formed by Paul and the early Christian leaders. In the list, forgiveness is a virtue all Christians should wear. Paul tells the Colossians that as Christians they are God’s chosen people. And just as the Jews are described as chosen, they too are set aside by God and must live by different virtues. Paul described these new virtues as articles of clothing. They must strip off the old and put on a new person who clothes him or her self in Christian virtues. Paul describes 5 of these. The Christian must wear compassion and kindness, must wear humility and meekness, must wear patience, must wear forgiveness and above all other virtues, as a Christian you must clothe yourself in love.

Exegetical discussions on this passage state that Paul was speaking from the reality that groups of people in close community inevitably have clashes, complaints, and grievances with each other. Paul sees the solution to this to be to bear with one another and to forgive one another. Bearing is fully accepting people for what they are, fully accepting them in spite of their weaknesses and faults, and allowing that they all have a certain worth. Paul believes that forgiveness comes because we know we have been forgiven and this knowledge releases a generosity in us which is required to forgive others.

And what if we decided to try on some of these spiritual articles of clothing in the New Year? What if we say that in our dress for success world, we want to be clothed in Compassion and kindness, in humility and weakness, in patience, and in forgiveness and love? I personally think the hardest article of clothing for us to put on is the one of forgiveness. Do we really want to wear it? Perhaps we can take those other nice virtues and leave the forgiveness one in the dressing room and not even try it on. Miroslav Volf, professor at Yale University discussed the importance of these virtues in an article called “Letting Go” which appeared in the Christian Century Magazine two weeks ago. He said that many Jews have argued that we must not forget evil. And he is right about that. If we forget, we fun the risk that evil will happen again. But Mr. Volf says that it is important to forgive as when we forgive those who have wronged us, we make God’s miracle of forgiveness our own.

But forgiveness is a two way street. That is pretty clearly spelled out to us in the Lord’s Prayer. Forgive, as we have been forgiven. And as Mr. Volf described, “Do we not long to be accepted as we are, warts and all? Could not the world of perfect love be such a world in which we are loved notwithstanding all our imperfections? We do long to be accepted unconditionally? But we also want others to see past our warts and to concentrate on what is beautiful about who we are. I hope that both these longings will be satisfied. At the transition from the world as it is to the world to come, all of our imperfections will be known, and we will be loved nonetheless – and therefore forgiven, reconciled, transformed. And then in the world of perfect love we will shine in all our beauty, our warts completely cured.”

So, today as you spend a little time assessing your past year and then making the inevitable resolutions about what 2007 will look like, think of shedding personality traits that are not positive as if they were articles of clothing. They are not right, so let’s take them off. Then put on the virtues that Paul describes as appropriate for those who are God’s chosen. Let’s try and dress for success by being kind, by having a proper sense of self worth, by being gentle, by bearing with each other, and forgiving each other, and above all, let’s clothe ourselves in love. Happy New Year! Amen.

The Rev. Martha M. Shiverick, M.D.V., M.S.

All We Want for Christmas

January 9, 2007

A Sermon by Louise Westfall
Fairmount Presbyterian Church
Cleveland Heights, Ohio
Christmas Eve 2006

Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright…..

The silence of this night provides a dramatic counterpoint to the cranked-up volume of the rest of our lives, the surround-sound that accompanies our lives 24/7. The noise of commerce, the roar of transportation, the jangle of electronic gadgetry, even the fierce wild beating of our anxious hearts fade into the background, and we rest in the gentle grace of Christmas carol, music of harp and bell and stately organ, familiar texts of promise and hope spoken with hushed reverence. Tonight all human words recede, to make room for the Word, God’s Word, made flesh among us.

It is the Word, my friends, that makes this silent, holy night so special, so magical, so different from the constant thrum of ordinary days. But how quickly we let it die on our lips, extinguished as quickly as our candles, tucking it safely away until another whole year of ordinary days pass away. Our expectations for Christmas are so high: we pray for peace, we want a Word that will bring us light and life, but somehow come up short. Conventional wisdom reminds us that the “real meaning of Christmas” lies not in the decorations, the wonderfully wrapped packages, the parties and the presents, but in the intangibles: giving and love and family and home. We know this, yet too often commodify these spiritual values as things to be created and consumed rather than to be received with thankful hearts for their Divine Creator. Not just at Christmas but all year long we put our money on the window-dressing and miss the real deal. It’s not insignificant that the Association of American Linguists’ choice for “word of the year” is “truthiness”—the belief that truth is defined by what we feel is true, what we want to be true. Truthiness—for all its clever bravado on the humor circuit– is an ultimately unsatisfying substitute for Truth, a disappointing runner-up in the quest for authenticity, a foundation upon which to build a purposive and joyful life.

On this silent night, when we are especially attentive to hearing the Word, let us listen for it. We have to listen hard, because it is spoken softly, in the tender, tiny cries of a baby born to rule the universe. What’s up with that?

Best-selling author and Presbyterian pastor Fred Buechner tells about a Christmas pageant, a typical Sunday School re-enactment of the Nativity. The manger was down in front of the chancel steps where it always is, a baby doll wrapped in a blanket as the little Lord Jesus. Mary was there in a blue shawl seated next to Joseph. The wisemen bore gifts, the shepherds wore bathrobes, and the littlest children looked adorable in sheep’s clothing. The narrators narrated and the congregation sang carols and everything went like clockwork until it came time for the arrival of the angels of the heavenly host, more children robed in white. At the right moment they were supposed to gather around the manger saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, good will to all,” and that is just what they did except there were so many of them that there was a fair amount of crowding and jockeying for position, with the result that one particular angel, a girl about nine years old who was smaller than most of them, ended up so far out on the fringes of things that not even by craning her neck and standing on tiptoe could she see what was going on. “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, good will to all,” they all sang on cue, and then in the momentary pause that followed, the small girl electrified the entire church by crying out in a voice shrill with irritation and frustration and enormous sadness at having her view blocked, “Let Jesus show!” [Frederick Buechner, “Bidding Farewell” article in the Christian Century, April 4, 2006, p. 28]

Friends, how well we hide Jesus, from one another, from the world, from ourselves. So many competing voices that drown out the Word. So much truthiness masquerading as truth. So much fool’s gold that fills our pockets, leaving little room for the pure stuff. Let Jesus show! Let the mystery and miracle of God’s gift of love be revealed tomorrow and next week, in the way we work as well as our worship, in the cold complexities of daily decision-making the same as in the warmth and clarity of candlelight. Let Jesus show! –in the recognition that we are beloved children of God—every one of us, and by the way we treat those beloved children. This baby is God’s Word that humanity is hallowed by the presence of the Divine. God-is-with-us. Not in some far-off heaven; not on Sundays in church; not for those odd moments when we want a little religion. But here. In the middle of our lives, the buying and selling, and trying and crying, and laughing and loving and failing and fearing and hoping against hope. In a world at war. In a city crippled by poverty. Let Jesus show.

Among the stories in Michael Lindvall’s wonderful book, The Good News from Northhaven is one about a time when Jesus showed himself clearly at the Presbyterian Church. One Thanksgiving weekend, they had a baptism, the grandson of a prominent elder. In this church whenever a baptism occurred, the minister would ask the congregation “Who stands with this child?” Then the grandparents and siblings and perhaps an assortment of relatives, would join the parents presenting their infant for baptism. After this particular baptism, one woman held back after the rest of the congregation had gone, to speak with the pastor. He noticed her “Salvation Army” style clothing and that she seemed very hesitant to speak. He asked pleasantly if she needed help. Fumbling for words, she blurted out, “Tina has had a baby and well, the baby ought to be baptized, shouldn’t it?”

The pastor suggested that Tina and her husband should make an appointment to see him to discuss the possibility of baptism, preferably after Christmas. The woman looked up at the man of God and said, “Tina has no husband. She’s a good girl, but she got involved with this older boy. And then she got pregnant. She’s only 18.” The minister mumbled awkwardly that he would bring the request before the Session. When the pastor presented the request to baptize Tina’s baby before the Session there was some questioning. Was she a member? No. How could they be sure that Tina would be faithful to the promises she was making in the baptism? How could they be sure about anybody’s promise? So, after some decent and orderly debate, the baptism was approved for the fourth Sunday of Advent. When the day came, the church was filled as it always is at Christmas. The time came for the baptism, and the elder stood and read off his script, “Tina Corey presents her son, James, for baptism.” Tina got up from where she was seated and came down to the front, holding two-month-old James in her arms. The scene was just as awkward as the pastor and the elders knew it would be. Tina seemed so young, so alone. As she stood there, they could not help but think of another young woman long ago. Another unwed mother, in similarly difficult circumstances.

The pastor came to the appointed part of the service when he asked, “And who stands with this child?” He looked out at the mother of Tina and nodded toward her. Tentatively she walked to the front toward her daughter and grandson. The minister’s eyes went back to his service book to proceed when he became aware of movement within the congregation. A couple of elders were standing up. Slowly the sixth-grade Sunday school teacher got to her feet. Next a new young couple in the church stood up. And then, before the pastor’s astonished eyes, the whole church was standing, moving forward, clustering around the baby and the Madonna, as if they were all family. [Michael Lindvall, The Good News from Northhaven, referenced by William Willimon in Pulpit Resource, Vol.34, no. 4, pp. 54-55]

On this silent night, listen for the one Word that births love, animates hope and connects us with our family. Friends, all we want for Christmas may be found in the gift lying in the manger. Unto us a child is born. The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth. Let it show, tonight and tomorrow, in all we say and do, in all we dream and dare.


The Rev. Louise F. Westfall, D.Min., Pastor

Great Expectations

January 9, 2007

A Sermon by Louise Westfall
Fairmount Presbyterian Church
Cleveland Heights, Ohio
17 December 2006
Text: Luke 3:7-18

Call it a Freudian slip, or a laughable irony, or even subconscious messaging. My colleagues delighted in pointing out to me last week’s bulletin notice: Next Sunday there will be a congregational meeting to vote on the pastor’s annual compensation. And right below that: Worship: Louise Westfall preaching, “Great Expectations.” Well. Never let it be said that the sermons from this pulpit aren’t relevant! This is a sermon about expectation, and how that dynamic can shape our lives, our values, and our choices. It will suggest that most of our expectations are actually set too low; little more, for example, than what we hope to get paid for the work we do.

The season of Advent invites us to raise our sights, to break free from captivity to the way things are, so that we may envision the way things might become. The great expectation of the gospel is God’s coming to earth; the transformation of this sweet and terrible old world into a place of peace, in which all people enjoy abundance and blessing.

Frankly it’s hard to imagine, let alone expect. We know how it is. Perhaps that’s why the Advent gospel lessons are so in your face. God has to get our attention. There is good news here, but it begins with bad news. Things have got to change. Much of the time we don’t even realize our true condition, so spiritually out of touch and out of tune we are. There will be champagne and chocolate, but first, for our health, comes the spinach and oat bran.

With all the clarity that we can muster, let us scan the far horizon. Across the wilderness of war, beyond the valley of the shadow of death, in the face of mountainous odds and in the middle of rough places, let us look hard, let us listen with full attention for the strident voice of one speaking a word from the Lord. [LUKE 3:7-18]

I’m underwhelmed by what Time magazine has christened “the new atheism.” Spokesmen such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris decry religion and its outlandish hopes and inexplicable beliefs, in favor of sheer rationality. What you can see. What you can measure. What you can create and control. While I deeply appreciate the importance of intellectual thought and the wellspring of knowledge flowing from scientific research, the mind has its limits. To make reason the bottom line, the sole foundation of reality in my view leaves one in a diminished state. It is to settle for less than who we are, to miss the essential part of our humanity which includes a transcendent soul, a spark of the Divine. Pascal, the philosopher- mathematician was right, “the heart has reasons, that reason knows nothing of.”

And yet I wonder if we have not, at some level, settled for a rational faith. One we can manage. One that we control. One that makes the unknowable reasonable, the incomprehensible a little less mystery and a little more sensible. I wonder if we’ve down-shifted our hopes and aspirations because we simply can’t imagine how the fantastic promises of Christian faith could possibly come true. Peace on earth, goodwill to all. The lion and the lamb, lying down together. A healed and restored universe, interdependent and whole. Oh really???!

It’s enough to make you think it’s the Christians who need a reality check. Rejoice? Rejoice? Have you read the newspaper? Have you watched the news? Do you have any idea what’s going on?!

Here’s the deal, friends. Christian faith is vitally interested in the news. But it hears that news and thinks about the way things are through another lens, the reflection of God’s intent to redeem the whole creation. Not just part of it; all of it. Not just the “right” people, or the ones who go along with the party line; all the people. For God so loved the world….

Announcing this good news is John the Baptist, but it doesn’t sound like good news at first. There he is, annoying and persistent, disrupting and disturbing our efforts to be comforted, calm, and in control. He does not announce the coming of a soothing deity or a “don’t worry-be happy” Jesus. He proclaims an ax-wielding, fire-kindling God, a powerful judge who will thresh the wheat from the chaff. One of the biblical commentaries I frequently use in study has a special section relating the text to children. For this Luke text, the preacher is urged not to place emphasis on John’s call to repentance… and I agree with that point FOR CHILDREN. But we are not children. We adults are not served by a watered-down spirituality that softens the hard edges of the gospel in an attempt to make us feel better. Friends, the One who is coming will judge our lives according to the standard of God’s Kingdom. Have we done justice? Have we loved kindness? Have we shown mercy? Have we loved well, even our enemies? Have we shared the abundance entrusted to us? Have we been honest in labor and compassionate in our treatment of others?

Advent calls us first to an honest assessment of our lives, individually, and as a church. Have we lived according to God’s way? It’s the spiritual version of “Are you ready for Christmas?” –and we know in our hearts we’re not. But did you notice the text calls John’s severe message the proclamation of “good” news? They were filled with expectation that he might be Messiah, the one coming to save them. No, he quickly responds, but I’m here to help you get ready. The judgment of God is not for our damnation; but for our salvation. If we think we’ve got it made, then what we have is all we’ll ever get….a paltry serving when God has spread a feast.

For joy and peace that will last not for one day or one season only, but for always, John invites us to prepare. It’s time to make changes; time to turn or return our lives toward God, to re-orient our living in preparation for the presence and rule of God on earth as it is in heaven.

What stuns me about those preparations is how….practical they are. Share what you have with the poor. Stop exploiting others by taking more than is just. End the violence which intimidates the weak and vulnerable and hurts everyone. Repentance is not so much theological affirmation as it is concrete behavior modification. We prepare for Christ’s coming by living as if Christ were here. For so Christ is!

That’s why the Church does what it does every day. Why we devote time and energy and our financial resources on programs that help people in need. It’s why our youth will spend this afternoon shopping for toys and gifts for children who might not otherwise receive any. They’re called “Jesus Gifts” by the way, because Jesus said when you give to the “least of these my brothers and sisters, you do so to me.” It’s why we publish a prayer list of persons who are ill or who have lost a loved one; why we take meals to members in times of recovery or challenge. The soft prayer shawls lovingly knit by a group of women in our church and given to house-bound or ill or grieving persons provide comfort and joy as a foretaste of the glory that is yet to come. Christ’s presence with earth’s residents is the motivation behind opening our church building to 12-step groups, Meals on Wheels, the Open Doors after-school program, and hospitality to homeless guests through the Interfaith Hospitality Network. A vision of God’s Kingdom on earth animates the efforts to establish Heights Youth Club as a safe and positive place for young people to go after school. And it is why, my friends, your church bothers to wrestle with issues such as predatory lending or the minimum wage. It’s not because we want to promote a particular political agenda—it’s because we want to prepare together for the coming rule of God in which everyone will live in peace and enjoy the fruits of labor, with a grateful, joyous heart.

A church I read about has inscribed on its doors: A vision without a task is but a dream, a task without a vision is drudgery, but a vision with a task is the hope of the world.
God has given us a vision beyond imagination: a world that is just and peaceful. God sent Jesus to show us how to bring that vision to reality; even now he calls us to participate in the tasks of transformation.

So don’t have yourselves a merry little Christmas! The promises of God are huge. Don’t settle for a little, when God offers so much. Let us set about doing the tasks to which we are called—our work and worship—guided by great expectations and the unshakeable conviction that God has come to us; God is here with us. God is not finished with the church. God is not finished with the world. God will bring to completion all that has begun. Joy to the world!


The Rev. Louise F. Westfall, D.Min., Pastor